A neighborhood spot can be a lot of different things, to a lot of different people — from a dive, to a casual sports bar, to an intimate dining room. If it were up to me, the Sycamore model would be the template for them all.
The Newton Center bistro has been lauded for its seasonal French-inspired, locally sourced and reasonably priced menu, but the bar program here uses the same concept of presenting high-end ingredients in an approachable manner. It's a vast step up from the typical idea of a neighborhood spot in the suburbs — or anywhere in the city for that matter.
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“I get a lot of ideas from the guys in the kitchen; there's so much talent in there, a solid pedigree,” bar manager Scott Shoer says. “Sometimes thoughts and ideas can get stale, so when I see them doing peaches and different kinds of herbs together on a plate I think, 'That could be really delicious in a cocktail.'”
That spirit of inventiveness also means that Shoer rotates his cocktail menu as different fruits come in and out of season. He jumped at the chance to use strawberries from Wards Berry Farm in Sharon for a recent tequila infusion, for example. They ended up in a simple but evocative cocktail finished off with strawberry syrup and fresh lime juice. The strawberry tequila is sippable on its own but it retains heat — mixed with the decadent, dessert-like syrup (which you sort of want to drizzle on ice cream), it balances out perfectly.
There's a symbiotic relationship there that he relishes, he says. Likewise, he adds, between the space and his guests, for whom he thinks the feel of the bar is customizable to their given moods.
“I like to say I host a party every night," he says. "That party can be loud and boisterous or just out for dinner as a couple and going home early.” It's about making people comfortable, he explains. Putting his guests at ease also mean talking them through some of the spirits and ingredients on his menu, but it's a process he enjoys, as do his guests.
“We're in the suburbs, if there are things people don't understand, or they want to try something new, I feel like the gatekeeper to that," he says. "I like to able to introduce them to things they might be nervous about. I'm certainly not trying to push it on them.”
So, if someone wants a tequila sunrise, then that's exactly what they're getting. Even better, though, he says, is when a guest says they like a tequila sunrise, but would like to try something new. That's information he can work with.
Let's say you're a big fan of down, brown and bitter, as is the case with this particular cocktail columnist. In that case, Shoer might mix you the single most bartenderly cocktail you've ever had, made with Whistle Pig rye, Antica Formula (an extraordinary sweet red vermouth), Maraschino, Fernet-Vallet (an even more assertive, aromatic Mexican amaro than the better known Fernet Branca) and Amargo-Vallet, which is essentially a potable version of Angosturra bitters.
This thing will blow your socks off. You won't find most of those ingredients put together so expertly at most bars anywhere, never mind the 'burbs.
But you needn't be in search of the bitter truth, as it were, to find something you'll like at this bar. The Grey Lady is made with Berkshire Mountain gin, tarragon-infused Cocchi Americano and rhubarb syrup, for a breezily botanical, lightly sweet sip. And if you're not sure if what an ingredient is, don't be afraid to ask.
“I like it when people say, 'How do you feel about this?'; 'What do you think is similar?'; 'I don't really care for this'; 'I'm not sure what this means,'” says Shoer. “It opens up a dialogue, so people are not afraid to ask questions, which is refreshing. You can break down a lot of walls that way.”
Now if only there were a place like this in my neighborhood. Or better yet, in everyone's.