Nikki Sunseri, a Los Angeles native and the beverage director for Warner Ebbink and Brandon Boudet’s Eat Heavy Restaurant Group, oversees the cocktail programs at Dominick’s and Little Dom’s. She focuses on classic cocktails at Dominick’s, and at Little Dom’s, she brings a more culinary perspective to the glass. Sunseri previously worked as a pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck at Malibu’s bygone Granita and as Jonna Jensen’s sous chef at Josie. She now crafts her own infusions, tinctures and bitters. On December 14, we met in the Little Dom’s deli, and Sunseri shared insights about her spirited approach.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
I grew up in an Italian family, so I was allowed to drink my whole life. It wasn’t a weird faux pas to give your children alcohol. My first spirit memory, though, is my grandfather giving me grappa. That felt, to me, very, very familiar…He had a bar in his house, I sat up on a bar stool and he gave me a little smidge of grappa.
Do you remember liking it?
I do, actually. I remember really liking alcohol, but not in a way that it gave me a fix, but in a way that had a flavor to it, even as a child, all the way back. I don’t know how bad that sounds, but I remember liking it. Then, cocktails, we all started out with sweet stuff when we were 21 and allowed to go out. In L.A., or when you grow up in cities, you get fake IDs very early. I remember going to the Rainbow Room when I was 16 and Jerry Cantrell was sitting at the bar, and I remember drinking Cosmos and being really stoked. Meeting him at the bar was kind of awesome.
You previously worked as a pastry chef?
Yes, I did. I went to the Pasadena Le Cordon Bleu and Wolfgang [Puck] hired me at Granita fresh out of school, which was great because I actually got to work with him when he was still cooking, which was awesome. Then I was a line cook for him in Malibu. Josie LeBalch, who ran Saddle Peak Lodge, and Jonna Jensen, who did Chinois and all those pastry programs, I started apprenticing under her and became a sous pastry chef at Josie when I was 18 or 19 years old. That all started rolling really, really fast for me. It was the right place at the right time, I guess, and I think I was pretty good at it.
At what point did you know that you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?
Just like anything in my life, it kind of fell into my lap. I was like, “I can do this.” I came to Little Dom’s after another period of going back to school and learning some more business type classes. I ended up coming to Little Dom’s and AGM’ing over here. They didn’t have a full liquor license yet, so when they got it, they put it on me. I was fortunate enough to have David Kupchinsky working for me at the time. He ended up teaching me a lot. I had been drinking for a long time. I actually thought I had a pretty good palate for what I thought a good spirit was. He showed me and molded that a little bit more. I learned that I could do it. Actually, a lot of the rules of cocktails apply to pastry, so it was a really smooth transition. It’s a lot of chemistry and a lot of temperatures and how fruits work, and emulsions, and all your juices and balancing sugars and flavors, it’s all very similar to pastries, so I loved it.
So this was your first bar job?
I had cocktailed and bartended at some not notable nightclubs – and I had done fast bartending – but this was something I identified with more and really liked. I didn’t like that style or working in those kinds of environments, because I felt they weren’t serving something of quality, and from my background, I was used to serving something of quality. It didn’t make me feel good to give that to people. Now I’m doing something that makes me feel good, giving it to people.
What does a cocktail have to be for you to serve it at Little Dom’s, and how is it different, if it is, from what you’re doing at Dominick’s?
What I’m trying to do at Dominick’s, and what we’re doing with the menu over there, we’re revamping the restaurant all over again. I try to do more classics over at Dominick’s. Old school Italian. I try to put on really simple cocktails. Some people think it’s funny that I put a Negroni on the menu, but I think it’s good to remind people when they go out to dinner that they can just get a Negroni. They can just get an Old Fashioned. They can get these really simple drinks that have been around for a long time for a very good reason, because they’re delicious. I put more classic drinks on the menu there and I get to play more over here. The Los Feliz-Silver Lake-Downtown community is a little more receptive towards new flavors and all different kinds of spirits. In West Hollywood, they tend to lean more towards mint, ginger, citrus and white spirits. I have a little bit more fun over here, but Dominick’s is a challenge, which I like as well.
What’s your top selling cocktail here, versus there, and why do you think that’s the case?
The top selling cocktails are the same at both locations, but the top selling cocktails here match almost all the other cocktails on the list. We have a Moscow Mule and a Penicillin, classic, old cocktails. We all like them. We all drink way too many of them in the evening. They sell the most at both restaurants.
What’s your approach when naming cocktails?
It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I try to be a little cheeky. I think it’s fun to order something that makes you blush a little bit when you say it. I try not to be too serious about it. We kind of ask around a little bit. If I’m going to name a cocktail, I sit with all my bartenders and we start throwing things out. Sometimes something sticks and we just end up keeping it. I try not to do any crazy elaborate name with anything. I want to be self-explanatory.
What’s the most recent cocktail that you developed, and what was your inspiration?