Interview: restaurateur Reza Esmaili (Long Bar)

Restaurateur San Francisco

Reza Esmaili appreciates Averna's "burnt orange maple complexities" in cocktails.


JL: Clearly you put a lot of time and energy into the USBG. What is it that inspires you about the organization and your commitment?

RE: Providing a basic understanding about not just cocktails and spirits but tools and technique and service. For me, in the early years, I also wanted it to become a training ground for all the upcoming talent. Certainly now the world of cocktails and bartending has much more interest from the masses than it did 10 years ago, when we were doing it. It’s great that through the support of trade, media, consumers, there’s that mainstream buzz regarding this world, but at the same time, I think that there are some basics that must be tended to in order for people to move on and become successful and to further cultivate the trade. It’s important to start out as a great bar back and learn your way from the ground up. One of the things I really want to deter is, “I want to be a mixologist, or god forbid, a master mixologist. Now I put guava, and basil and gin in a glass and put it in a coupe. I have moustache. Now I’m a mixologist.” That’s not at all what it’s about. What it’s about is the fundamental building blocks of service, product knowledge, a general interest in doing what’s right for your host venue, as far as the business, what’s right for the guest, and also your peers in the community. It’s important to a lot of us who are at the same point in our careers that those same principles are passed on to young, interested talents that need this. I’m a process driven person. I think process is just – if not more important than – the product. So I want to make sure they go through the process while still tending to the product. That is a priority for me.

It took me four years to open up this restaurant and bar. I’ve been pursuing it for this long. Along the way, when I attempted and was unable to open up my own place, I learned something. It was a process of struggle and success, struggle and success, but ultimately leading to more success than struggle, but the process for me to get here was just as important as me getting here. I not only attach worth to this, but I’ve watched others attempt and hopefully succeed, or perhaps attempt and fail. So that’s important to me.

JL: What are some other places where you enjoy drinking in San Francisco, and what do you enjoy about them?

RE: Again, I’m an experience driven person. I love the focus and detail it takes to produce one particular cocktail of one particular style. If that person or that bar has spent time creating their own bitters or tinctures, that’s a great specialty, but I’m just as much interested in the experience with that barman, and whoever’s sitting at that bar around us can share it with one another. And coupling that great drink with good food, great wine and a great experience. Though I respect and admire a lot of my peers who are cocktail focused, recipe and ingredient focused, I gravitate toward places that are experience driven, just as much as they are recipe and ingredient driven.

JL: If you were going to tell somebody from out of town, you’re going to go to three establishments during the course of your stay, that have the total package, what would those be?

RE: As far as a place to eat, drink, have fun and also where there’s a specific attention to detail, I’d suggest they go sit in front of Carlos Yturria at Absinthe, who’s a very gracious, hospitable human being and provides an extraordinary experience for somebody who’s visiting from out of town, or one of his bartender peers and colleagues. He embodies some of the same principles that are important to me: product knowledge, technique and a general intent on pleasing guests…He’s also a great teacher, just like he’s a great barman.

Also for an overall integrity and depth of the program, certainly Alembic and Bourbon & Branch are powerhouses of talent, great product and attention to detail.

If they want to have a rip roaring time with good cocktails and great cans of beer and shots of Tennessee whiskey, you go see Scott Baird and Josh Harris at 15 Romolo. You go see Duggan [McDonnell] at Cantina. You get drunk, and have a great time, and you’ll remember some of it the next day.

JL: What’s a great simple cocktail that you suggest people make at home, and what would that recipe be?

RE: Something I really like, whether to sip or sip fast, I love the smoky, oily, almost briny complexity of Smith & Cross Jamaican pot still rum. And I like it with Averna Amaro because it adds that burnt orange maple spice that I love so much. And then to lengthen some of those flavors, Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur which adds kind of a pungent component to those two really unique almost volatile ingredients. I think that the maraschino brings it altogether and makes it really well balanced…smoky, oily, citrus spice, pungent, aromatic cocktail.

JL: What are the proportions?

RE: If it’s going on the rocks, neat, which is how I would suggest it being served, it’s half Averna, a quarter maraschino, and then adjust the Smith & Cross to taste, anywhere from 1 to 1½, possibly 2. If you want it rich, after dinner style, scale back the Smith & Cross a little.

JL: If you were going to drink only one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?

RE: How big a glass?

JL: It’s up to you.

RE: Chartreuse, possibly with a chill. If it’s one ingredient, certainly chartreuse, and if it’s a day and it’s warm, stirred with a little twist of lemon. If it’s late and I’m sipping, straight Chartreuse VEP Green.

JL: How did the Long Bar opportunity come about?

RE: I’ve been having fun and collaborating with colleagues for the last several years while pursuing my own restaurant and bar venue again, and this opportunity presented itself in a quick-fire method, which is the proper term these days, I guess. The venue opened up for me first, and the opportunity to buy in as an owner. First, I want to rehabilitate the business of the restaurant in the daytime, and nighttime is when I’m updating the products and the staff and our approach and the guest experience. It’s a very interesting dynamic for me. That’s why, right now, we don’t have a cocktail list, because that’s something that will happen a little further down when some of the larger points of modification are in place. I feel like I can do a great cocktail program and special events with very little lead time, based on my experience and personal interests. Here I have a much larger responsibility to the neighborhood that I happen to live in. I really want to make this restaurant and bar an amenity to them first, a point of rest and relaxation and sustenance for them as well, just as much as I want to make this a really cool cocktail bar with unique spirits and liqueurs and great ice and really cool glassware.

JL: You’re going to keep the name?

RE: Yeah, I love the name. Obviously it’s a reference to the Raffles Hotel bar, where the Singapore Sling was conceived. I know for a fact that not one Singapore Sling has been served in this cocktail bar ever since it opened two years ago.

JL:I imagine that’s going to change?

RE: That will certainly change.

JL: What’s your approach at Long Bar?

RE: I want to make our bar fun, I want to make it approachable. I want to make eating and drinking just as much sport as it has become a responsibility of consciousness. Although there will be an extraordinary selection of spirits and liqueurs, and good choice of glassware, presentable ice, I also want to make our list fun, light and approachable, and neighborhood friendly. There are a lot of post collegiates, and people who barely drink, but when they do, they want their gimlets or spiced rum. My responsibility is to have the best possible selection for them, but some of the ways I want to take the pomp and pretension out of the cocktail program here is by having fun stuff, not too kitschy, per se, but approachable stuff that’s kind of a throwback, a blender drinks section, Vodkas and Sodas menu. There will be a Kids Swim section, where there will be tasty, fun, well balanced non-alcoholic drinks, because not everybody can have a cocktail before or after work, or in different circumstances. Also, a lot of food friendly stuff. Also, I want to represent different categories of spirits, and then most importantly, how they apply…a bright, fresh and tangy gin drink; a complex, pungent, smoky, rich one; and then something frothy, refreshing, long and almost flamboyant. A section of the menu will just be by descriptor: delicate, bright, aromatic, refreshing. Tangy, citrusy, zingy. Rich, robust, smoky and smoldering. Creamy, frothy and indulgent. And then have different spirits represented in those sections. So a little bit more user friendly cocktail list. A lot of times people are thrown off by seeing really cool, exotic, esoteric brands, and or vintage cocktail names and recipes on the list. “I’ll just go back into my comfort zone.” I want them to feel comfortable in our zone, but it’s going to take a little bit of trust and faith in order for them to want to come there. Some of the ways I intend on doing that is by having some of these cool, fun, approachable components to our cocktail program.

JL: What’s a blender drink or a large format drink you plan to offer at Long Bar?

RE: I plan to do a tableside cocktail that comes in a large decanter, with glasses and ice. People can pour themselves and we’ll tend to the dilution and freshening up of the cocktail. Sometimes you want one cocktail, but not necessarily two, so there will be a decanter that can serve three. It can be like a split, like you get in wine, but it’s three or four servings.

Obviously punch, being a derivative of the Indian word ponche, comes from Iran and the number panche, meaning five, because the punch essentially had five ingredients. So I’m going to emphasize or expose people to the fact that punch is derivative of an Iranian style of large format beverage, whether alcoholic or non alcoholic.

JL: Is that where your mint vinegar syrup will come into play?

RE: My mint vinegar syrup will certainly have a large component of that section or couple of cocktails represented.

I want to serve long, frothy, refreshing drinks. I blended a 7 Leguas margarita the other day and it was amazing, and the guest really loved it, because it was appropriate for the setting. It was a really hot Saturday, and he wanted something cool. I said, “Well, let me lengthen that for you and add some viscosity and mouth feel to it. Let’s get some ice chips and froth.” He said, “Let’s go for it.” So he had this big, fun, extravagant tequila drink, and it was fantastic. I want to do more of that kind of stuff. Call it a soda fountain for adults if you like.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

[…] Reza Esmaili was another interesting one. He’s President of the Northern California Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, and I met with him in San Francisco. Not only is he a bartender, he’s an owner/operator. He’s just taken over a place called Long Bar, and it was interesting hear him lay out what’s important [for that venture]. He has the ability to put together a great cocktail program [at Long Bar], but that wasn’t the priority to start. He’s been working behind the bar and on many other levels, so he’s got a historical perspective on the cocktail scene. There’s more context in his approach, and a personal history [that I found interesting]. […]


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