COOK’s Open Stove night is characterized by intense clashes between chefs — or so I thought up until the latest installment, something completely different for this monthly series. While past Open Stoves have pitted country against country, brother against brother and farmer against guy from Conshohocken, the common thread was that all the participants were cutting-board jockeys from the back of the house. For October’s Open Stove, COOK made a beeline to the bar, tapping George Costa of Pub & Kitchen (left) and Al Sotack of Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. (right) to orchestrate a cocktail mix-off for the ages.
Two of Philly’s absolute best bartenders, they’re not just professional contemporaries — they’re good friends, despite their first encounter being Sotack subtly criticizing Costa’s Manhattan-making abilities at Southwark. After years building a killer reputation at that excellent Queen Village bar/restaurant, Costa moved across town to P&K, where he earned “Best Bartender” honors from COOK’s partner Philly Mag. Sotack, meanwhile, is the head bartender of Center City’s revered Franklin, the most prominent craft cocktail bar in Philly, as well as beverage manager of Fairmount’s popular Lemon Hill.
Banking on the fact that close buds often make the best mortal enemies, COOK created a unique format for Open Stove VII. The lovely and talented Laura Frangiosa of Fare Is Fair Food, a COOK regular, prepared a killer four-course meal. The bartenders, previously informed of only the first and fourth dishes, were tasked with coming up with original spirits creations for each course, with soups and entrees saddled with secret cruel booby traps ingredients.
The liquor haul these two brought to the table, as you can see above, was serious, and the barkeeps declared from the start that the night would be more collaborative than competitive — no mezcal-hoarding or rye-hiding. ”We’re less interested in who’s going to win than in how we’re going to have a good time,” Sotack intimated to the woefully sober crowd before mixing began. His kumbaya comment elicited some mild hisses from bloodthirsty/regular-thirsty spectators hoping to witness cocktailian pugilism in the COOK Arena. But everyone in attendance soon realized that the only thing better than one top-tier bartender is front of you is two.
The second Frangiosa dropped her starter — perfect arancini (above, left), stuffed with peas, chives and Sottocenere cheese over a tomato/saffron sauce — Costa and Sotack got to work, turning the closest guest seats into “the front row of SeaWorld” thanks to the occasional squirt of flying fruit juice. (It’s good for you!) Sotack, looking for something a little sweet to offset the dish, put together a variation on his “Riddles in the Dark,” a drink that appeared in the very cool Beta Cocktails book — rye, Pedro Ximenez sherry, Ramazzotti amaro, Carpano Antica vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and Moroccan bitters. George went down a more complementary gin road, combining it with brandy, Aperol, Cynar (with the artichoke!), wormwood bitters and lemon.
Frangiosa brought a considerably amount of heat with the second course, a spicy local butternut squash soup (above, right) Thai-d up with additions like coconut milk, red curry and star anise. This marked the introduction of the first secret ingredient — whole lemongrass in its stalk, a flavor agent that also happened to appear in the soup. Costa and Sotack teamed up to hack the stuff apart like machete-wielding madmen in the rainforest and put it over heat in a move toward a lemongrass simple syrup. Sotack matched gourd with gourd, drizzling a pumpkin syrup into a drink that featured the lemongrass, plus Appleton rum, Four Roses bourbon, two kinds of bitters and a prominent touch of peat-first Laphroaig scotch. Costa actually used the lemongrass as a garnish for his drink: tequila, Domaine De Canton, pumpkin syrup, lime and ginger bitters. The citrus was the thing here, slicing through the heat of the soup without blunting its more delicate flavors.
For the third course of the evening, everyone brought it — the bartenders, the kitchen and especially the sadistic minds who selected the surprise drink component. Frangiosa (above) put out a tremendous beef-lover’s plate of pasture-raised strip steak with Stilton bread pudding — “stuffing!”, she enthusiastically proclaimed. Everyone hearts stuffing but we only really ever eat it on Turkey Day — what gives? Our chef decided to buck the trend. The secret booze, meanwhile, bucked standards of good judgment — ’twas Colt 45, the Lando Calrissian-approved standby of American boozehounds young and old. I don’t claim you can have a better time with Colt 45 than without it…but why take chances?
Sotack took a chance with his combination, cross-breeding a buck (a Caribbean ginger beer/citrus drink style) and a shandy (beer plus citrus soda). He threw together ginger syrup, lemon, orange, Cynar, the bittered vermouth Punt e Mes and Laird’s applejack, topped the entire shebang off with Colt 45. Costa put Champagne, bourbon, Benedictine, Ramazzotti, Cynar (always with the Cynar!) and Fee’s celery bitters together, and decided to top that off with Forty Fizive, too.
Above is Philly Mag food editor/Open Stove capo Jason Sheehan pouring excess Colt 45 into flutes for everyone. It works every time.
Dessert was a true crowdpleaser: Frangiosa’s take on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a rich peanut butter shortbread crust filled with peanut butter cream and chocolate pudding. Amazing. Costa kept the beer theme going, leaning on Southern Tier’s tasty Mokah coffee stout in a flip also armed with rum, applejack, Madeira, Aztec bitters and egg. Sotack went slightly simpler, taking chest hair-inducing 126-proof rum and introducing it to orange juice, Peychaud’s and strawberry basil bitters. By this point in the eight-drinks-in evening, the subtleties of each spirits selection were lost on my drunk ass some members of the gallery, but it was all experiential enough to select a winner between these two reluctant competitors.
By the absolute thinnest of margins, Sotack ended up taking the W, a victory I can assure you he was more excited about than the image above indicates. Costa was infinitely classy in slight defeat, as they weren’t even really trying to outdo each other, anyway. We’ve talked in the past about how Open Stove features more bro-hugs per capita than all other COOK programming combined. Though we didn’t capture the tender embrace between these bar-spoon brothers in arms in photograph, rest assured that it was sweeter than Rock & Rye and much less nauseating.
Photos: Yoni Nimrod