Photos by Asia Morris.
Not only does Chianina Steakhouse boast a high-quality steak menu rooted in Italian tradition and a swanky establishment fit for hungry royalty, it also caters to the self-described cocktail connoisseur or a Monday night drinker just wanting something not too sweet and made with vodka, a surprisingly common request for a bar that could easily whip out ten different takes on an Old Fashioned or a truly creative, Italian-inspired beverage.
Kevin Chisam, Chianina’s head bartender, started working at Michael’s on Naples eight years ago as a student in need of a night-job. Starting out as a busboy, he eventually discovered, to the agreement of his boss, that he was better suited for a position behind the bar. After graduation, Chisam continued bartending and is now creatively running Chianina’s cocktail program, a refreshing and occasionally comical take on the trendiest of beverages, with Long Beach, as usual, catching the tail end of what’s “hot” and what’s not, nationwide.
Chisam sources the bar’s fresh herbs from Farm Lot 59, a local plot in Signal Hill whose owner also raises chickens and sends the resulting organic eggs for them to use in the Agra Grappa, a frothy grappa-based cocktail. Fresh juices, homemade cordials, bitters and syrups are all a part of the sustainable program, which also focuses on the small, local businesses with the most interesting startup stories.
Chisam explained thoughtfully, “We’re trying to support the guys who you don’t know about. We want to carry the more eclectic brands, we want to explain to our guests what they’re drinking, not let them choose based off their own knowledge because most people… they don’t really follow this. We’re on top of it. We’re trying to carry the best.”
Perhaps one of the more interesting brands Chianina carries is Bowen’s Whiskey, a small batch, 100 percent corn American whiskey heralding from Bakersfield, of all places, aged in fire ravaged red oak barrels, of which are fashioned from the trees chopped down after a naturally-occurring forest fire. Chisam divulged various details about the product’s background that could only come from a truly passionate cocktail craftsman.
In line with their effort to support smaller businesses, something the program aims to do differently is carry only a small selection of vodkas. St. George Spirits, for example, a distillery in Alameda, CA, makes an all-purpose vodka that has quite a unique flavor, Chisam says, and is great for mixing cocktails.
“What's fun is sometimes you do get a guest who recognizes that their bartender might know a little something,” he smiled. Chisam says he especially enjoys coming across a person who wants him to show them something new or different, it gives him an opportunity to share his knowledge. At the same time however, it’s not his job to change the mind of a customer who knows exactly what they want. Certain requests, of course, are sometimes comically difficult to navigate.
“Sometimes, they want a sweet cocktail with fruit in it, but most of the time, everyone's so conscious about how much sugar they're drinking they want something that's not too sweet and not too strong. We were going to put a drink on our menu called ‘Vodka-Something Not Too Sweet’ because that is such a common request,” said Chisam with a short laugh.
On Chianina’s cocktail menu is an item described as “A Little Surprise,” the solution to the potentially awkward situation of the bar-goer who has no idea what they want or what they even like. With this approach and a few basic questions directed toward the guest, Chisam gets the freedom to get a little creative and the puzzled patron gets to discover something new.
The Celery Gimlet, a fresh take on the classic cocktail, uses St. George All Purpose Vodka, fresh lime juice and a celery cordial the team makes in-house by macerating celery stalks and seeds, fennel seeds and a few other fresh ingredients. For the finishing touch, Chisam places a Hickory Smoke salt around one side of the glass.
“We dilute the sweetener in the cocktail with the cordial. This one small change to a classic cocktail, by breaking down just one ingredient completely, let’s us completely reinvent it.”
Another Chianina specialty is the Agra Grappa cocktail, which uses a sour variation of grappa, limoncello made from the recipe of the Italian general manager’s mother and egg whites, often leftover from the kitchen, used with the restaurant’s full-animal philosophy in mind.
An inventive take on an Old Fashioned, Chisam wanted to use mezcal in a cocktail and created the Mezcal Old Fashioned, using agave nectar instead of the standard sugar cube, homemade grapefruit bitters, Ancho Reyes Poblano Chile Liqueur and lastly Vida Mezcal, garnished with a grapefruit peel.
He said while whiffing the drink, “It’s strong, it’s boozy, it’s got a great texture to it, it’s got a great nose. There’s a fun spice to it.”
Café Squallo, meaning “coffee shark” in Italian, is a heavier, stronger cocktail Chisam created for “that scotch drinker after dinner who wants something to sip on.” Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters muddled into a paste with a sugar cube, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition scotch, Tuaca Vanilla Liqueur, the finished product then garnished with an espresso bean shaved on top make for a delightfully weighty and aromatic mixture.
As far as the cocktail trends soon to breach Southern California, Chisam predicts tequila, especially mezcal, will be garnering more attention than usual.
“Being in Southern California, I feel like tequila is what’s coming next. People know so little about tequila and mezcal, but we live in a desert. These are agave plants.”
“I'm still learning how to do this,” he continued. “It's one of those things where big restaurant cities, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, lead the way and Long Beach is usually a year or two behind all that. So all the cool cocktail trends make their way here and we finally get it at the end. It's been fun trying to catch up and be a little bit more trend setting.”