Wink & Nod Gears up for Spring

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Thriving in a mode of endless reinvention is a demanding proposition. In an industry where failure is more likely than success, most bars and restaurants would be more than happy to find something that works – an approach, a style, a signature dish – and stick with it. Wink & Nod turns that conventional thinking on its head. With a rotating kitchen and what is now the third iteration of its cocktail program, change is the only constant at the South End speakeasy, which celebrated its first anniversary last month. And while April has thus far brought us little more than gray skies and sleet showers, Wink & Nod is debuting a spring cocktail menu that moves away from what beverage director Mike Boughton calls “hard-hitting cocktails and slow-sippers for the colder weather” and toward a selection of lighter, more refreshing libations.

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At a bar known for brown liquor and complexity, that notion may seem like a departure. Not so, says Mike, who explains that Wink & Nod’s approach to cocktails hasn’t changed, even if the complexion of some of the drinks has. “For the warmer weather, we really want to focus on lighter cocktails that go down easy but still taste great, still have good depth.”

Mike was kind enough to walk me through some of the new offerings this past week. Like spring itself, the new drink list is a work in progress – ingredients and portions are still being finalized, and some cocktails don’t even have names yet, like this blend of strawberry-infused vodka with Thai basil, fresh lemon, and a sichuan peppercorn tincture.

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(Note: Many of the cocktails shown here are sized for sampling. Don't worry, you'll get the full-size versions.)

Moniker or no, this dry, refreshing drink has a peppery finish and a mild, very natural fruitiness that seems perfect for a summer evening.

The Picador has a name and a story. Made with Don Julio Reposado tequila, Royal Combier (a fancy triple sec), and freshly squeezed lime juice, this precursor to the margarita may have its roots in Prohibition, according to bartender Jace. “The Picador was introduced to people who would have to sail out of American waters in order to drink,” he says. “They threw these lavish boat parties. This is kind of an ode to that, since spring and summer were perfect seasons to sail.”

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For such a simple drink, it’s full-flavored and satisfying. “It’s really just a basic cocktail recipe, but all the right flavors are in there,” Mike notes.

The Peugot is anything but simple. A “riff on a sidecar,” as bartender Dave describes it, this mix of cognac, mandarin orange liqueur, lemon, and agave is a complex reimagining of the vintage cocktail. A cardamom tincture contributes a distinct spiciness, while lemon oil on the top boosts the citrus components. Cognac may seem like more of a cold-weather spirit, but the fruit flavors and sweetness balance it out.

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The new cocktails are ideal for whiling away a summer evening, but they’re designed with more than just the season in mind. With what it calls a “culinary incubator program,” Wink & Nod turns over its kitchen to a different restaurant group every six months. Chefs Philip Kruta and Jeremy Kean of Whisk ran the show for the first six months, and Joshua Lewin and Kate Holowchik of Bread & Salt recently completed their own engagement. Setting up shop this month is Akinto, the concept of chef Patrick Enage. Bringing the flavors of Southeast Asia to the South End, Akinto’s menu blends styles and dishes from Thailand, India, and the Philippines, to name just a few.

Spicy pork wontons are plump and tasty, and a trio of sauces – anise BBQ, toasted sesame-rice wine, and peanut paste – allow for three very different tasting experiences.

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Prawns with squid ink lo mein are a treat for the eyes as well as the palate. Served in a red curry broth and topped with scallions and slices of green mango, it’s a seafood dish with a host of vibrant flavors.

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Swordfish belly is just as heavenly as its better-known porky brethren. With a Kabayaki glaze, salted duck egg vinaigrette, and Taiwan lettuce, it’s melt-in-your mouth tender.

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Given that the flavors in Akinto’s menu are quite literally all over the map, designing cocktails to pair with the dishes can be tricky. “When I first looked at Akinto’s menu, my idea for the cocktail menu was much different,” Mike admits. “I wanted to go a little heavier on the spices in the cocktails, incorporate some curry and coconut milk to reflect the food. But these are very heavily spiced dishes at it is, so I wanted to find something that would complement that instead of just add to it.” Citrus seems to be the solution, since the acid “doesn’t negate the spice, but complements it,” he says.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Real McCoy. Made with Cutty Sark Prohibition scotch, Ramazzotti (a citrusy amaro), orange juice, and a house orgeat, it’s a lightly smoky, spicy drink with a fruit-forward aroma. A solid cocktail on its own, it truly comes alive when paired with the braised ox tail. This absurdly tender serving of beef comes with black bean-water spinach, jasmine rice, and chili oil for dipping. The spices in the dish and the flavors in the drink, in combination, exceed the sum of their parts.

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Rethinking the cocktail list to coincide with these periodic menu overhauls is a challenge, but it’s one the staff seems to relish. “It’s like we’re a new restaurant,” Mike says. “It gives us the opportunity to take a different approach to our cocktails, and really try to make them fit with the food, create a new experience…every six months.”

Chances are, they’d keep updating the drink list anyway, as evidenced by a couple of other new features. A Moscow Mule made with house ginger beer will be something of a rotating special, each time featuring a different base spirit. Like grappa, of all things. I clearly recall the first time I had grappa; I decided, without delay, that it would be the last. But the tea-infused version in the Grappa Mule is gentler than the typical grappa, and its floral, woody flavor makes for a surprisingly easy-drinking cocktail.

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There’s also a weekly punch that will feature varying recipes. First up is the “Bing! There Goes My Cherry” punch (“I didn’t name that,” one of the bartenders muttered), made with Papa’s Pilar rums, a cherry-cranberry tea infusion, and lemon. Mike puts it best: “Goes down pretty easily, packs quite a punch, literally.”

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Not all of the cocktails are changing. The Cure, one of the most popular items, will remain. An Old Fashioned made with applewood-smoked Bulleit bourbon, honey syrup, angostura bitters, and orange oil, this smoky drink first appeared on the fall/winter menu and quickly became a staple.

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Another favorite is the Indian Summer, which combines Nolet’s Silver gin, fresh grapefruit, St. Germain, and the house ginger beer.

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It’s a vibrant drink that goes well with the new menu, though but Mike foresees one minor issue. “We might have to change the name. Nobody wants to think about Indian summer in the beginning of spring.”

I think everyone in this city would agree.

Address: 3 Appleton Street, Boston

Website:http://winkandnod.com/

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