The trend in cocktails these days is pretty simple – keep it classic. Mixologist Ravin Buzzell generally holds true to this credo. But then again, he has found ways to turn classic up a notch at YNK, the uber cool cocktail lounge he created inside the Irvine Marriott Hotel.
When you walk into YNK, which stands for “You Never Know,” it feels like a secret. The sliding doors to the cozy speakeasy are slightly ajar, giving you a peek inside what looks like a very private party, and you instantly want in.
The whole farm-to-table thing, and the fresh ingredients, it's definitely a huge factor in what we're doing now as far as bartending, and culinary.
“And that’s the kind of vibe we like, because people are like, it’s ominous, and they don’t know what’s going on,” Buzzell says. “They’re very timid when they first walk in.”
But they needn’t fear. Buzzell’s cocktails are accessible in that he uses the best ingredients he can find locally, an approach he shares with Chef Harutaka Kishi, executive chef of Summit Series, a community of global thought leaders from across a range of disciplines from art to technology.
“I do some traveling with Marriott, opening hotels and such. So, they paired us up with this Summit event to try and see what kind of collaboration we could “wow” the world with, Buzzell says.
The joint effort inspired Buzzell to create “The Bitter End,” a coffee-based sip packed with a punch of Barcardi 8-year-old Rum, Amaro Montenegro and cardamom syrup, topped with an orange infused cream and finished with a colorful, edible rice paper design. The cold brew coffee at the center of the drink was sourced from COHN, an Anaheim, California roaster. The cocktail follows Chef Haru’s flavor lead: an Eton Mess.
“It’s a very classic dish using seasonal market fruits,” Kishi says. “We have amazing Gaviota strawberries from Tamai Farm, which is one of my favorite farms and these amazing persimmons. So just very simple – strawberries, persimmon, a really nice whipped cream and then topping it with meringues, a bit of chocolate, and some gold leaf.”
Buzzell’s goal was not to copy the chef’s flavors but rather compliment them, choosing bitterness and a little citrus to go with the natural sweetness of the simple dessert. Cocktail and dessert showcase local California purveyors in their own way.
The collaboration gave Buzzell the opportunity to interact with some of Chef Haru’s favorite local farmers like Tamai Family Farms and Penryn Orchard at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, sparking inspiration for new cocktails to add to his arsenal of classics.
I don't like anything pre-made, down to the simple syrup.
“I was really inspired by the persimmons, and the flavor, and the fact that there were different varieties,” Buzzell says. “And the pointers that Chef gave me with the citrus that it can pair with, I’m thinking about doing like a persimmon shrub.”
But working with farm-fresh ingredients isn’t at all foreign to Buzzell, who regularly clips fresh herbs from a garden wall at YNK to add to his drinks.
“The whole farm-to-table thing, and the fresh ingredients, it’s definitely a huge factor in what we’re doing now as far as bartending, and culinary,” Buzzell says. “Because for a while there, bartending went into just straight high-volume and pre-made stuff, just so it was quick, so you could get it out, crank out drinks, high-volume. And it was all about the numbers, and not so much about the actual cocktails. So now, especially now that I’ve been doing the type of bartending that I’m doing here, with getting to use the fresh ingredients, and making all my own syrups. I don’t like anything pre-made, down to the simple syrup.”
Maybe more than anything else, Buzzell finds inspiration for YNK and its cocktails from his travels and his upbringing in Singapore.
“Last time I was there was 2012, but just the food and drink, like everywhere I went, you could get amazing food at any time of the day or night,” Buzzell says. “And it’s such a mix of everything, every Asian culture. That’s what inspires me, and then by tasting these different ingredients, like cardamom… I make a Cardamom Old Fashioned, because I grew up eating cardamom. My mom’s Indian. It was in curries. I used to hate it, because you’d bite into that cardamom seed, and it would ruin the flavor for everything, because it’s just too much. And now I love it, because I’m using it in cocktails. And my number one selling cocktail is my Cardamom Old Fashioned.”
His spin on the Old Fashioned is a constant on his leather-bound, hand-drawn menus that he changes every few months along with the bar’s theme. He’s taken guests on spirit-filled journeys to New Orleans, Rio and Venice, seeking to create the kind of uniquely local experience he likes when he travels.
“The first thing I do is look for a local bar,” Buzzell says. “And if I’m going ask anybody where I should go, it’s the bartender, because they’re the ones that know… I would look for something like [YNK], or just something random that not everybody’s going to. I don’t like the packed scene. I like the monuments and stuff like that, but it’s the food and drink. That’s what makes travel for me.”