The light from the wall of windows had slipped into a golden color, accented by the flickering candles surrounding Saffron's bar. Bar manager Nikola Govich's hand was reaching for a phantom tool. "I don't have my muscle memory yet," he smiled when caught by a watchful eye, before digging a zester out of the fruit bowl. The set up inside the Sameh and Saed Wadi's elegant restaurant is a bit different than his last home bar, Eat Street Social. It might take a few more shifts before the ice pick learns where it's supposed to live.
This is Govich's first week running the cocktail program here after taking over from his old friend (and former employee) Robb Jones. Jones has launched for Merchant, the Gavin Kaysen restaurant in the North Loop.
The first taste of the new cocktail menu is a balance of easy drinking and more challenging cocktails that will likely please any spirit connoisseur.
The Charmer is an alluring autumnal mix of cognac, pear liqueur honey and a finishing spray of black walnut. It's tart and fruity with a toasty warmth accompanied by the Nocino perfume.
Govich grew up in Oklahoma, land of wide open spaces and Tex Mex food. In his twenties, he moved to New York City to attend film school. He was bartending in a dive bar to make ends meet. "Meanwhile, the craft cocktail scene is beginning all around me and I had no idea," he said.
He explained that finishing school also marked the end of his involvement with film. Instead, he moved to the land of 10, 000 frozen lakes with his wife whose family is based here. (They now have two children).
Govich took a job at Bradstreet Crafthouse, where he learned about the movement that was reviving and elevating classic drinks. "Working there changed the way that I thought about bartending, that this could be a real career."
When it was time to move on from Bradstreet, he led the bar at Meritage. Amongst the absinthe dispenser and the voluminous wine selection, Govich fast earned a reputation for his expertly mixed beverages and easy hospitality. While running that program, he hired one Robb Jones. The two became fast friends.
Jones would eventually leave to work at Saffron, while Govich joined the team at the newly opened Eat Street Social, two and a half years ago. Eat Street Social is a bartenders bar, entirely designed by Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz. It's built for several be-vested talents who are encouraged to innovate and have an arsenal of tools always close at hand (or tucked inside sushi coolers.)
Compared to Eat Street Social's massive collection of vials, concoctions and bitters, the modest assortment at Saffron would seem paltry. Where drinking at ESS is like a attending an alcoholic rock opera, Saffron is more like an intimate acoustic set, with a soothing bartender to guest ratio and seductive scents wafting from the open kitchen.
"It's important that the beverages are as good as the food. - Sameh Wadi
This award-winning restaurant has a reputation beyond the food from the James Beard Award nominated chef and co-owner Sameh Wadi. In the seven years that the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant has been operating in Minneapolis' warehouse district, the bar program has always been at the forefront of cocktail trends. Sameh explained, "It's important that the beverages are as good as the food. Anything that goes into our guests mouths, I'm responsible for. We don't want to tire anyone's palate. There has to be harmony with the food. We take [the bar program] very seriously."
A cocktail that begs for a food pairing is the Dharma Bum. The ingredients begin by reading like a straightforward fall tipple including Laird's Applejack, Benedictine, cherry and lemon, until you get to the Arak.
"That's my favorite drink," raved Sameh. Arak is an anise flavored spirit that is more prevalent in the Middle East than the Midwest. The distinctive aroma, a little reminiscent of Uzo, conjures memories for Sameh that include boisterous family gatherings and holidays.
"I didn't want to beat anyone up with the Arak." - Nikola Govich
It's that downbeat of unexpected spice in the glass that draws the lips back to the crisp apple, mellow sweet grenadine, all lightened with the bright top crispness of the lemon juice.
"I didn't want to beat anyone up with the Arak, but I knew I wanted to use it in a cocktail," explained Govich. Rather than being aggressive, it's a subtle little come on of savory flavor.
The Civil Disobedient is punchier, darker and a bit more like an end of the evening embrace. Burnt caramel notes swirl with the Knob Creek bourbon, Carpano Antica, Zucca Amaro and Orinoco bitters (the Enya of bitters). It's a powerhouse drink of dark mystery threaded around the orange twist. This is a cocktail for a Manhattan drinker's graduation.
The cocktail menu at Saffron has evolved into this new era, but continues to list a few old favorites including the Black Betty Old Fashioned and the classic Saffron Rose (their house take on a French 75 with rosewater.)
It will likely continue to change with the seasons, or with the inspiration of the new bar manager. "Robb and I were playing around yesterday and made up a new drink: white wine with gin in it." He joked, "It's amazing - it tastes like nothing, smells like gin. We're calling it 'mixology.'" If anyone could do that and pique the public interest, it would be this guy.