California’s flavor can be measured in many different ways: freshness, cultural history, even diverse microclimates. But rarely can you find someone who can survey the land through booze goggles and craft an entire cocktail menu of deliciousness. Ben Carpenter, beverage director at the Balboa Bay Resort, created an entire lineup of drinks at A&O Kitchen+Bar with 100 percent California-distilled spirits, liqueurs, bitters and amari. Everything else is made in-house from fresh and local ingredients.
“No one else is doing it,” Carpenter notes. “We’re a destination resort, and when people travel, they often ask for whatever is local. . . . People want to taste what’s made here.”
Some of the menu is inspired by Carpenter’s travels, including the Last Train Home, which has San Diego’s Malahat Black Tea Rum, Amaro Angeleno and Bitter Queens eucalyptus bitters. “I like the clean feel of this drink, and it brings sweeping memories for me, memories of road trips with the family,” says Carpenter.
As I know executive chef Rachel Haggstrom is a certified snack master, I chose a few small plates for the table: spicy and plump garam masala chicken wings with a cooling raita dipping sauce ($13); jalapeño-and-Oaxacan-cheese-filled empanadas accompanied by an actually hot house-made hot sauce ($13); and my fave, the beef tartare with a 62-degree egg and dipping fries ($16). The last was a satisfying plate of melt-in-your-mouth Angus filet with a schmear of roasted garlic aioli.
Seasonality is also a thing, and fall is definitely here—especially with Sonnet 73, a Shakespearean ode to getting old. “This is sort of a typical fall cocktail, with all the obvious cinnamon, allspice, figgy things,” Carpenter says. The two figs that garnish the drink very much resemble a pair of drunken eyes staring back at you, and on the nose, I get hints of brûléed banana, some clove and nutmeg, possibly from the bourbon. Overall, it has a harmonious fall-evening vibe to it.
With a name like Hotel California, the next drink could either be heaven or it could be hell, but as soon as I saw the rosy hue of Jardesca Red Aperitiva floating on top, I forgave the Eagles reference. If you’re an amaro fan like I am, this is your drink. It’s balanced with two types of rum and a nice hit from St. George’s Bruto Americano.
If you’re a cocktail geek, definitely try the Ellis Island, a clear drink that looks like a gin and Squirt, yet drinks like an Italian spice cabinet. “I grew up with my mom in her Italian kitchen, with all those smells and flavors, and I wanted to make something that reminded me of that,” Carpenter explains. Heirloom tomatoes and fennel seeds are sous-vide for three hours to make the cordial, then St. George’s Green Chile Vodka and Eau de Vie are used to help with that herbaceousness. Although it tastes like Naples, it couldn’t be more Californian.
A&O Kitchen+Bar at the Balboa Bay Beach Club, 1221 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 630-4285; www.balboabayresort.com/dining/ .