TAMPA — St. Petersburg native Somer Perez has been at the center of the cocktail revolution that has swept New York City in recent years. After working her way up from bar back to bartender at the Beacon Restaurant there, Perez became the beverage director at the trendy Hotel on Rivington at the age of 25, and at the Royalton the following year.
Now, at 29, she's spreading the word as a consultant to restaurants seeking to join the cocktail movement, from Perilla in Greenwich Village (owned by Top Chef Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle) to Datz in South Tampa (2616 S MacDill Ave.), where she recently helped the gastropub in its first foray into cocktails, developing a menu of specialty drinks.
The cocktail craze has only recently gained a foothold around Tampa Bay (though Bern's Steak House was using many of the same techniques well before it was cool). From Ciro's in South Tampa (2109 Bayshore Blvd.), with its kitschy speakeasy vibe, to the more laid-back Mandarin Hide in downtown St. Petersburg (231 Central Ave.), it's all about the ingredients.
"Consumers are much more savvy,'' says Perez, who graduated from Gibbs High in St. Petersburg before moving to New York in 1999. "Cocktails are now seen as part of the dining experience, especially with the whole farm-to-table thing.''
It's an approach that has bartenders foraging for ingredients at green markets and cocktail connoisseurs inquiring whether a bar's Appletini is made with fresh puree.
It can get a little fussy, but Perez prefers a simpler approach — updated classics emphasizing high-quality, fresh ingredients that take only a couple of minutes to prepare (which is still longer than the standard prepared-mix cocktail at a run-of-the- mill bar).
So at Datz the margarita is rechristened the Marti Margarita (after José Martí, who plotted the Cuban revolution in Tampa) and is made with fresh lime juice, some spicy ingredients and rimmed with alder smoked sea salt.
And an Old-Fashioned uses Luxardo cherries (soaked in brandy, imported from Italy) and a few dashes of cherry bitters by Fee Brothers and is garnished with a candied bacon skewer.
None of this comes cheap — Datz's specialty cocktails go for $12 to $15 each — but you can apply Perez's approach at home for less.
Take, for example, the Cosmo, which has gone from classic to cliche thanks to Sex and the City. What to do? First, forget ready-made mixes. At Datz, Perez combined Hangar One vodka, house-made simple syrup, Orangela liqueur (instead of Cointreau) and a splash of cranberry juice (mostly for color). Shake, pour over ice and serve.
Her main advice for the home mixologist is to relax and enjoy the experience. "It's not brain surgery,'' she says. "Stock up on the things you like rather than things you think you 'have to have.' "
And experiment. If a drink calls for, say, a squeeze of lime, try a slice of tangerine instead. "Sometimes it's one ingredient that makes the difference,'' she said.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8312.