Category Archives: On the move

Bolting Bolsa: Stalwart bartender Kyle Hilla departs for parts north

Bolsa
Seven-year itch? The longtime face of Bolsa’s bar program is headed to NorthPark.

Bartenders are a mobile bunch, so it’s rare that a name becomes as synonymous as a place as Kyle Hilla’s did at Bolsa.

Friday was Hilla’s last day at the Oak Cliff restaurant, marking the end of a seven-year run that saw him rise from server to bartender to manager of Bolsa’s vaunted bar program, among the pioneering establishments of DFW’s craft-cocktail scene.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Hilla said at the end of his busy final night, after the place had pretty much emptied out.

The talented barman is on his way to NorthPark Center, where he’ll be heading up the bar at The Theodore, the new venture from the owners of Bolsa, nearby Bolsa Mercado, Chicken Scratch and The Foundry. In his stead, the gifted Spencer Shelton will be assuming Bolsa’s bar reins.

Like many a bartender, Hilla didn’t set out to pour drinks. Instead, he tired of a retail manager position (“To this day, I’m still the youngest store manager in Dollar General history,” he said) and aimed to head back to school. In the meantime, he figured, he’d be a server. That eventually brought him to Bolsa, where then-bar-managers Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Dub Davis kept prodding the Boy Wonder to get behind the bar. He resisted – until the night Campbell asked him to help make drinks at an art gallery special event.

“I had the time of my life,” he said. Two days later, he was walking the aisles of a Kroger store with now-wife Jessica and realized he’d been transformed. “Everything I saw in the store, I was like, `Hmm, what can I make a cocktail with?’ “

Hilla embraced the jigger and shaker, and in the ensuing years, as the cocktail scene began to grow, both Davis and Campbell (and Jason Kosmas, who had left New York’s Employees Only to raise a family in Texas) departed for other projects. In 2010, Hilla took over the bar.

He further streamlined the program, making his cheerful, quip-smart presence a Bolsa mainstay, along with attentive service and creative mixology. “People before me laid an amazing foundation,” he said. “I just focused it.”

Campbell and Kosmas had created one of the bar’s best-known features, the weekly cocktail challenge on Wednesdays in which two bartenders would face off, creating cocktails based on a pair of customer-chosen ingredients and let the night’s sales dictate a winner. Those ingredients occasionally verged on the ridiculous, stretching bartenders’ talents and imaginations to extremes – for instance, banana ketchup. “Think about that, buddy,” he nodded with a wry smile. (He made a Bloody Mary.) “There was a time when I hated Wednesdays.”

Others included oysters, black garlic or Pop Rocks. “Pop Rocks were terrible,” he said.

Eventually, Hilla rescheduled the challenges to just the first Wednesday of each month, and his final match – against bartender Marcos Hernandez – took place on September 3. Hilla drew saffron and tangerines, Hernandez got plums and blood orange. It was Hernandez who late last year conceived a drink that paired the bitter Italian liqueur Cynar’s artichoke flavor notes with the smokiness of toasted mesquite chips. But it was Hilla who eventually named it, calling it the Imenta.

“When we first came out with it,” Hernandez said, “it was the Oaky Smoky Arthichoke-y.”

“And that’s why we started requiring drug tests at work,” Hilla cracked.

In his seven years at Bolsa, Hilla has gotten to know a few people. “I know 99 percent of the people who come in here,” he said as the minutes ticked down on Friday night’s last shift, and he hopes some of his regulars follow him to The Theodore, set to open late next month at NorthPark. He told one pair of retiree regulars, “Y’all just need to become mall walkers. I’ll tell you what – I’ll invent a drink called the Mall Walker just for you.”

Moving on and up is the next logical step for Hilla, but it’s hard to see familiar traditions end. Bolsa was among my first cocktail finds when I moved to Dallas five years ago, so for my last Hilla-made drink there, I asked for something bitter/sweet to commemorate the moment. He produced a blend of bourbon and Cynar goodness and made clear that in spite of the change, he and Jessica won’t be forgetting Oak Cliff anytime soon.

“We just closed on a house here,” he said. “I’ll always be a part of this community.”

Follow the bouncing bartender: Nine craft-cocktail moves you should know about

Hops and Hominy, Cafe du Nord
Unfortunately for Dallas, Meddlesome Moth’s Loiselle has taken her talents to ‘Frisco. Um, the one in California. Shown here at San Fransciso’s Hops and Hominy, she’s now at Cafe du Nord.

We all know that the people who make your cocktails can be right up there with your doctor, your shrink, your spiritual leader and your favorite podcast host when it comes to simple week-to-week survival. Sometimes they’re kind of all of those things rolled into one, except that they can also knock out a good drink – which might make them the most important people of all.

So when the best of them move on to new places, you want to know. Here’s a roundup of some of Dallas’ craft-cocktail peeps who’ve found new digs.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Don’t start freakin’ if you haven’t seen Eakin: He’s over at soon-to-open Rapscallion.

If you haven’t seen Eddie Eakin mixing things up at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier lately, it’s for good reason: The buff barman has been busy readying beverage operations at soon-to-open Rapscallion, the new Lower Greenville venture from the folks behind Boulevardier.

With Eakin at the helm and one wall pretty much entirely devoted to bar space and storage, you know it’s going to be serious.

In Eakin’s absence, former Meddlesome Moth mixmaster Austin Millspaugh has stepped in to fill the void. The man who once incorporated foie gras into a cocktail is now overseeing Boulevardier’s bar program and is already in full tinker mode; if your tastes lean toward bitter, try his smoked Negroni with Fernet, thyme and Green Chartreuse. His ambitious alchemy should be interesting to watch as the year goes on.

Boulevardier, Dallas
Millspaugh: Your new master of ceremonies at Boulevardier.

Oak, in the Design District, is another place to put on your radar: The high-end restaurant has gotten double-barrel-serious about its cocktail program by bringing on both Michael Reith and James Slater, who between them produced three of my favorite cocktails of 2014.

One night, Reith was working his last night at the venerable Windmill Lounge in T-shirt and jeans, and the next he was pouring fancydranks in Oak’s signature white button-down shirt, black pants and tie. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s going to be a chance to shine again.”

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
Done with the utensils: After gigs at Knife and Spoon, Slater is now at Oak.

Slater, formerly of Spoon, is likewise happy about the move; the dynamic duo have already put their formidable imprint on Oak’s cocktail menu with classic variations that include a killer Negroni and an Old Fashioned made with Old Tom gin. Though the two are different in style, their philosophies are simpatico, and the Panamanian-born Slater aims to inspire patrons to consider them as much of an accompaniment to dinner as wine.

“We’re going to change the bar program,” Slater says. “We’re like Batman and Robin.”

Oak
Reith: Taking things up a notch at Oak.

Meanwhile, it’s been six weeks since the much decorated Daniel Guillen left La Duni, for … well, for what no one was exactly sure – but after more than nine years with the operation, whose cocktail operations had become synonymous with his name, it was time to make a change.

It turns out there was a beast waiting to explode: The proudly Peruvian-born bartender has been unleashing his passions for Central and South American drink culture at places like Proof + Pantry and pop-up events – like next week’s cocktail dinner with Chef David Anthony Temple at Twenty Seven.

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, here at Proof + Pantry, is loosing Latin libations on Dallas after his long stint at La Duni.

“Most bartenders focus on classic American cocktails, maybe a few from Europe,” Guillen says. “In my case, that doesn’t make sense. I would be one of many. So I thought, what can I bring to the table?” Look for more of the same while he and cocktail guru Sean Conner, he of the metroplex’s northern hinterlands, work on an upcoming project set to launch this fall.

At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly is putting his own spin on things after joining the meat-forward establishment a couple months ago. “He’s the shit,” a departing and obviously happy patron says one evening. “He educates you and he makes you a badass drink.”

Reilly’s variation on the Old Fashioned, which he calls the Hubris, features whiskey with a hops-based syrup, because, “If I had to envision something that men here would want to drink – guys on the prowl, out celebrating, maybe going from beer to cocktails – what better way than to use hops as the sweetener?”

Blind Butcher
The Beard and the Butcher: Reilly, now pouring on Lower Greenville.

It’s one way that the bearded bar man is easing his way in at a place that has carved out a niche on busy Lower Greenville. “The formula here is working,” says Reilly, formerly of Bowl & Barrel and The People’s Last Stand. “I don’t want to stomp on that.”

Barter’s closing in January dispersed a number of souls to the winds – and one of them was the understated Creighten Brown, who has resurfaced at Tate’s in Uptown. (Juli Naida, as noted in 2014’s end-of-year post, has joined Mate Hartai’s team at Remedy.)

Tate's Uptown
Mr. Brown is back Uptown, at Tate’s.

The talented tipple maker – whose Black Monk was also among my favorite cocktails last year – went from bar-back to bartender at Barter and is already hyped to be among Robbie Call’s team at Tate’s, along with Pro Contreras and Ryan Sanders. “The whole gang, man,” he says. “Good times, good times.”

Finally, Dallas recently bid farewell to two budding talents – Lauren Loiselle, who headed the bar program at Meddlesome Moth, and bartender Damon Bird of LARK at the Park. Both also figured prominently in my 2014 list but found themselves drawn to the Bay Area (and who can blame them?). “Two of our real good friends live in San Francisco,” Bird told me before they left. “We talked about it a long time and just decided to give it a go.”

Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
The Bird has flown: Formerly at LARK, he’s now settling in at San Francisco’s Mikkeller Bar.

Leaving Dallas was bittersweet, but both are excited about their new opportunities: Loiselle has joined the bar team at Café Du Nord, the new venture from the owners of Trick Dog. The team knows what it’s doing: Trick Dog is among four finalists for Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be awarded next month. “I’m super stoked,” she says.

Bird, meanwhile, has nested at Mikkeller Bar, a beer-centric spot near Union Square featuring the best of brews from around the world. While he misses the craft-cocktail world, you can tell the easygoing drink-slinger has found his people. “This was my choice place,” he says.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified Tate’s Ryan Sanders as Ryan Frederick.

Stir-crazy: Dallas drink crafters lately on the move

 

Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek
She’s over here: Lauren Festa, now at The Mansion.

Bar peeps are on the move again.

If you’ve been looking for Lauren Festa, who until recently was working mushroom and elderflower wonders at FT33, she’s now overseeing the bar program at The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek. It’s a much-heralded place in Dallas bar lore, having been presided over by some of the city’s most respected mixerati – names like Michael Martensen, Lucky Campbell and Rocco Milano. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often,” Festa said just before leaving FT33 – and spied not long ago, the hospitality-minded bartender seemed content to have ditched the chain mail of her former Design District home for the proper vest of her dark, new Uptown den. She was expecting to roll out her new cocktail menu by last week.

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
From Knife to Spoon: Bartender James Slater

Another new lineup of libations is up and running at Spoon Bar & Kitchen, where James Slater is the new bar program manager. When chef John Tesar opened Knife in the Palomar Hotel space where Central 214 used to be, Slater was among the bartenders who made the jump. The understated Panamanian is an able bar man and now has a chance to make his mark at Tesar’s acclaimed seafood restaurant in North Dallas.

After a nice stint with Rocco Milano at Barter, Stephen Halpin has joined the crew at Parliament, the craft-cocktail pearl that itinerant barman Eddie “Lucky” Campbell has spent the last year or so forming in Uptown’s State and Allen area. Formerly of Whiskey Cake, the Irish-born Halpin has proven himself an adept mixologist and should find a worthy challenge in Parliament’s extensive tome of tipples when the bar opens this week.

Parliament
He’s a member of Parliament now: Bartender Stephen Halpin.

Joining Halpin at Parliament is Will Croxville, fresh from Libertine Bar and a stretch last year with the celebrated Bar Smyth. Croxville has the distinction of preparing to adjust his schedule around the nearly simultaneous openings of two highly anticipated Dallas bars: He’ll also be doing time at Proof + Pantry, Michael Martensen’s long-awaited spot in the Arts District, which officially opens Wednesday.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the absence of another bearded chap at Barter; Brad Bowden, a veteran of The People’s Last Stand, says that’s because he’s lying in wait for his new gig at Midnight Rambler at the Joule Hotel. The coming speakeasy-style bar is the venture of Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, whose Cuffs and Buttons cocktail consulting firm has put its stamp on many a bar program throughout the Dallas area.

Midnight Rambler
Ramblin’ Man: Brad Bowden, formerly of Barter, is on his way downtown.

In other news, Chase Streitz, the former bar manager at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, has been spotted behind the bar at The Standard Pour (where Cody Sharp, former sous chef at the excellent Casa Rubia in Trinity Groves, has taken over the kitchen). And finally, when we last saw Matt Perry, he was making the most of the tiny bar space at Belly & Trumpet, Apheleia Restaurant Group’s restaurant in Uptown; after the briefest of cameos at Oak – one of Apheleia’s two Design District restaurants – he’s now behind the better-than-average bar at Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane.

Your barman true: Libertine’s steady steward makes bittersweet decision

Libertine Bar
Libertine’s lead barman in his laboratory — but not for much longer. (Photo by Jason Raney)

I’m sitting with another right now and all I can think about is you. Your curves: finer. Your colors: brighter. Tucked into every pocket of a memory, some drop of precious time holding echoes of so many bright moments. Warmth and comfort lined with intrigue and amazement, there is no inch of you that has not sat silent vigil to the chaotic magic of a serendipitous night. Some light up a room when they walk into it, but you, you are the room. You have seen me in the most revealing moments of the triumph of gravity over a single stubborn object more times than I would wish. You have also watched me stand many times my height with steel in my gaze and lead in my feet. I have watched over you as you gave warmth to many in a dim cold haze and I have seen you let the wind wildly shake tail over every curve and dimension. The days you cracked, tore and buckled – but never fell – charged me with the same will. You showed me the pain of compassion in the witness of true loss. Truly there is no light I have not seen you in but always in the most intimate of proximity. Soon that will become distance; familiarity, perspective; and responsibility, pride. I can’t say goodbye because you will be the object of my many thousand-yard gazes. Hopefully tomorrow we will have the perspective to see how much we were for each other yesterday.

Your barman true, Máté Hartai

You’ll have to forgive Máté Hartai if he’s got some strong feelings about the Libertine, the Lower Greenville institution whose bar program he’s headed for the last several years. In that time, disguised as merely a popular neighborhood bar, the Libertine has instead been the Trojan Horse in our midst: Under Hartai’s stewardship, both its beer and cocktail selections have emerged as among the most daring and erudite in DFW, and yet its subtle bearing, modest location and reluctance to promote itself as much more than a community servant conspired to curb it off the star-bar radar.

Cellared beers, morel-mushroom-infused rye, beer- and cocktail-paired dinners – Hartai had them all underway before they were trendy around these parts.

But the moment has come, Hartai says, to – well, he can’t even say the words. Not to move on – no, to move in a different direction. The Cold Standard, the nascent ice enterprise he’s been nurturing for several years is demanding more and more of his attention, as are other projects he’s got in the works, so…

“It’s time to let the Libertine go,” says the Hungarian-born Hartai, who joined the Libertine as a bar-back in 2009. “I’ve trained that baby to where it can run on its own.”

Tuesday, May 27, will be Hartai’s final day at the Libertine (his final day behind the bar will be Sunday the 25th), and fittingly his stint will end with one of the bar’s signature dinners – this one a Utah-themed event featuring both of his passions, beer and spirits.(Click the link above, then the box to the right.) It’s also his birthday, and Hartai is letting it all out, planning to unveil some of his rarest cellar keepsakes.

“It’s the bridging of two things I’m passionate about,” he says. “The beer is going to be out of this world.”

Hartai, whose family came to the U.S. when he was a middle-schooler – “just young enough to lose my accent,” he says – is among the most knowledgeable of bartenders, quirky and wonkish, with a nerdy, scientific approach to his work. When Bar Smyth, the Knox-Henderson speakeasy to which Hartai was briefly attached, was invited to compete against other bars at a national cocktail-industry convention last year, it was he who devised the ingenious backpack keg with which he waded through the crowds with his Texas-stamped helmet, pouring cocktail shots.

In an industry where mobility is a constant, Hartai was a mark of steadiness and community involvement, even as he shunned social media — he had to be goaded into joining Facebook — and self-promotion.  Within bartending circles, his grasp of the craft is well known.

“Everybody on this side knows what Máté has been doing,” said Eddie Eakin, bar manager at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier. “He’s intelligent, he’s cutting edge. Definitely among the upper crust in Dallas.”

Yet some still scoff when Eakin directs them to the Libertine for cocktails, deceived by the bar’s unassuming presence. By excelling in all areas – including its solid kitchen – it couldn’t be pegged as making its “thing” any single one of them.

“It’s one of the most well-rounded bars in the city,” says bar manager Ryan Sumner of Driftwood. “If you open up a neighborhood bar – that’s what it should be.”

Libertine Bar
Hartai’s budding ice enterprise, The Cold Standard, demands more attention. (Kara Edwards photo)

As the Dallas cocktail scene exponentially matured behind names like Michael Martensen, Brian McCullough and Charlie Papaceno, Hartai always viewed the Libertine, with its homey, den-like atmosphere, as a place to feel comfortable enough to take those first few steps into a much deeper pool of alcohol knowledge. Co-owners Simon McDonald and Michael Smith trusted his oddball seasonal menu inspirations, with experiments like the cocktails named after Smiths song titles; you wouldn’t know what you got until you actually ordered the drink.

Libertine’s classic cocktail menu has stayed the course since Hartai instituted it, but that’s since been supplemented by bar favorites and other rotating theme menus like “By Friends, For All,” a tribute lineup with cocktails designed by fellow craft-cocktail bartenders like Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan. “The Brave, The Bold” featured Hartai creations named the Coburn, the Bronson, the McQueen and the Brynner with ingredients like pulled-pork-infused tequila and five-spice rum. “All it is, is a liquid kitchen to me,” he says.

He’s loved his job, he says – and why shouldn’t he? He gets to throw a party every day. But in moving on, Hartai will leave behind a consummate bar – not a great beer bar, not a great cocktail bar, but a great all-around hangout. He’s eager to see the Libertine continue to develop without him, supported by a training program he willfully built over time. “There’s a lot of talent in that house,” he says.

Co-owner McDonald wishes Hartai the best, knowing that he helped build the bar into what it is today. “He’s a really smart guy who just worked his way into knowing everything about everything,” McDonald said. “But he’s so humble about it.”

No matter where he lands, Hartai says, it won’t be for long. “I like being behind the bar too much,” he says. “It’s like when you cut down Obi-Wan: I’m going from being the old man in the robe to being the blue glowie.”

The May 27 dinner begins at 7 p.m. and seating is limited. The price is $60 a person – more than worth the opportunity to wish Hartai a happy birthday and see the Jedi in his temple one last time.

“It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been working for,” he says. “It’s gonna be a magical night for me.”

LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Avenue. 214-824-7900.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Hartai and Sean Conner, formerly of Plano’s Whiskey Cake, beat a punch-cooler drum roll at last summer’s Tales of The Cocktail festival in New Orleans.