Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Good Lion's Summer Sensations

(photo credit: Lure Digital)

When the owner of an establishment insists the current seasonal menu is the best they've ever done, it's nearly impossible for one's marketing malarkey meter not to register bright red. Of course the latest is always best.

Turns out if Brandon Ristaino of The Good Lion makes such claims, you better listen--and drink--up. I had the great fortune to sit down with Brandon and his wife and business partner Misty this week to taste some of the 11 new drinks on the GL's warm weather 2024 menu that also celebrates their ten years alongside the Granada on State Street. And while I didn't sip all 11--my constitution is not that mighty, dear reader--I had some healthy swigs of five of them and the brilliance and range of what the bar is cranking out easily sums up their successes of the past decade. We cannot begin to express how lucky we are to have The Good Lion and the ever-growing hospitality empire Brandon and Misty are building, now from Ventura to San Luis Obispo. Plus they've been working on three new projects all opening within seven months (one that's right now off the record I'm ridiculously excited about--sorry, won't tell). "You go from a CPA meeting to a mezcal tasting to meeting with a city council member...," Brandon describes. "It gets tough on your body--you can get loopy after four hour in a row."

There's nothing loopy at all about the 10th anniversary special menu. First, it's visually delightful, offering a map of Santa Barbara as the cocktails are named after/inspired by many of our streets. (A lot of these trifolds are going home with patrons, no doubt.) Brandon runs a lot, the two love to urban hike, and if you stare at an Olive or Nopal Street sign long enough, in their business you're bound to get boozy ideas. Some might take a bit more imagination--Islay Street might be pronounced IS-lā in town thanks to the Spanish/Mexican influence, but to a mixologist, it's hard not to think of Scotland and the home of peaty single malt whisky, EYE-luh. 

That's how Ristaino and team got to the Islay St. Penicillin, famed for its Islay whiskey float that brings the delight of smoke to the relatively familiar cocktail. The basics of the drink--usually blended scotch, ginger, lemon, honey, and that float--get rethunk and expanded at GL, to the point when you read the list of ingredients on the menu--Bajan aged rum, pineapple, ginger, mole, apricot, añejo tequila, cognac, lemon, the Islay whisky float--it's easy to panic the result will be an over-complicated muddle. That simply doesn't happen at Good Lion, though. Somehow cocktails deepen and find new dimensions, in the way a cushion cut diamond draws the light, and your eye, into its brilliance. Such richness--Ristaino suggests the añejo adds a caramel note, almost liked a baked good. And what better with the fruit, the cognac. And then the whiff of smoke.

Or take Good Lion's advanced course version of the Boulevardier, the Bananapamu Street Boulevardier. The core cocktail is basically a Negroni with whisky standing in for the gin. Three ingredients, no muss, no fuss. Here's the list for the GL take: bourbon, house bitter blend, banana, macadamia, cacao, Italian vermouths, Demerara rum. What could appear to be too much instead of 1+1ing multiplies, finds ways to make each delicious delight exponential. Overtones and undertones. All the possible poles of flavor, like sour-sweet, boozy-fruity, balanced like a Wallenda* out for a wired walk. Ristaino calls it a more tropical take, which seems Santa Barbara appropriate (May Gray/June Gloom issues aside).

* You're allowed to date yourself when discussing cocktails.

There's something for every drinker here, as the list runs from aperitif to digestif, more or less, from a Garden Street Gimlet, fittingly an herbaceous blast of green that Ristaino compares to "a brunch in an English garden," to a Mission Street (Espresso) Martini I didn't try, but which offers coconut oil vodka, pineapple rum, and Cynar (artichoke, sure!) with the cold brew. Clever cross-marketers that they are, the list points to sister properties--the State Street Spritz (cachaca, gentian, and passionfruit among the ingredients dancing with the Prosecco) nods to Shaker Mill; the Helena Avenue Fix (Fassionola, vegan yogurt--Ristaino prefers to keep his bars dairy-free or all sorts of obvious reasons--whipped like a Ramos fizz) nods to Test Pilot; the Oak Street Margarita (there's even sherry in it) nods to Ventura's soon-to-open Jaguar Moon

Things can get nerdy, if no less downable. The Olive Street Martini has both an olive oil washed vodka and a gin, so edges into Vesper land, but then heads into terra incognita with a tomato essence that kicks off with a tomato oleo. Along with the French vermouth, there's a hit of balsamic vinegar. Think of it as a dirty martini that rolled in the classiest "trash." Ristaino's aide-de-camp Jonathan Jarrett was particularly excited when he might get his hands on pineapple tomatillo to garnish the drink. 

Simply put, the inventiveness never ends, but it also never chases fancy just to be different. The first measure of any of these drink is always pleasure. "We always want to be your local neighborhood bar," Misty says. And Brandon adds, "We want to provide a singular cocktail experience, and never have people be burned out by the cost or the lack of variety." 

And to think for this summer every drink gets to celebrate Santa Barbara too.

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