Cooking Behind The Bar: New Culinary Cocktails Welcome Winter @ Harlan Social in Stamford

Lou Gorfain

“Lately, when I come in to the bar,” Chris Messina admits, “I put on an apron.”   That’s because Harlan Social’s General Manager and Sommelier has been playing with all manner of culinary ingredients to raise the bar on his winter cocktail menu.   

Whether Messina is rendering a slab of bacon for a bourbon infusion …. or reducing a cider that imbues the room with the crisp aroma of Mom's Apple Pie …  he brings the artisanal crafts he mastered in the kitchens of Jean George and Tribeca Grill to the bar at Harlan Social in Harbor Point.  

Consider, for example, his "Beets by Harlan," a crimson confection of rum, bourbon, ginger beer and – wait for it-- beet juice.  So what’s a workaday winter root veggie doing in a sexy nightime cocktail?  

"I love beet color," Chris confesses.  "That was my starting point. I wanted that visual in a bottle on my bar."   After mixing the ingredients in his head one night, it took the kitchen alum three weeks of thought, experimentation, and frequent consultation with Executive Chef Michael Sobelman, before he was satisfied with the precise proportions.  “That’s why we use jiggers here,” he emphasized. "A half ounce of beet juice, you have a cocktail. Three quarters of an ounce you’ve got vegetable juice."    

The result is not just delicious; it's packed with unexpected flavor bursts.    The toasty barrel spices of the Kentucky bourbon and the high-octane kick from the Barbadian rum, Velvet Falurnum,  play off the earthiness of the beet juice.  Topped with the bubbly tang of ginger beer, the drink tasted both exotic and familiar.  And yes, even nutritious!

Messina garnishes the cocktail  with a red and white spiraled slice of something or other. “It’s a candy-cane beet I shaved on the mandolin,” he explained.  “Pickled so the stripes don’t run.”     

The Pine Needle, Chris’ reinterpretation of a gin and tonic, is darkened for winter and intentionally designed to evoke its holidays.   To achieve a super-piney aroma and taste,  he pours St. Georges Terroir, a forest-driven aromatic gin from Northern California that expresses the fragrance of a Christmas Tree.  Chris then lightens its intensity with fresh -squeezed lemon and elderflower.  Thier citrus and floral notes nicely balance a sage syrup  he makes from scratch.  Served in a rocks glass,  he adorns the drink  with a deep green Sage leaf,  floating on top.  “A touch of Thanksgiving,” Chris points out. 

Like a gin and tonic, the drink has length, with a bright and clean finish that encourages slow sipping.   It’s also meant as a conversation starter. 

 “Let’s say a customer’s ‘go-to’ is a Gin and Tonic,”  Messina says with a sly smile. “I’ll suggest he try the Pine Needle.”     Chris claims it’s a chance to introduce patrons to his new drink menu and move them out of their comfort zones.   

The Louisville Hack is another “play” in both taste and words on a classic American drink the Side Car  (‘Hack’ is railroad slang for a caboose).  Chris substitutes Michter’s whisky from Louisville for the standard brandy, and instead of lemon uses a mandarin puree in which he blends orange pulp with sugar.  Cointreau completes the sweetness.  As a result, the Hack drinks easy, a laugh at length.   A  culinary surpise also sets this version apart from its predecessor: three bright homemade jello cubes, which Chris sweetens with agave.   Cool, clean, and light, the gelatin garnish seems to defy gravity, as fun to eat as the Hack is to drink.   Conceived in the kitchen, served at the bar.

Fun ranks as one of Chris’ favorite ingredients.   To wit:  the whimsically named “Pig Winkle,” an ode to bacon, bourbon, and maple syrup.  “Winkle” is not only fun to say, but becomes Messena’s salute to Pappy Winkle, considered to be the best bourbon in the world.  (A bottle just sold on E-Bay for $300.  It was empty.)

A Pig Winkle takes a few days to make.  After rendering a pound and a half of Applewood smoked bacon, Chris submerges the meat into Buffalo Trace Bourbon for the infusion.  On the fourth day he removes the bacon and freezes the mix to solidify everything except the alcohol, which is then meticulously filtered.

Drizzle in maple syrup, shake with ice, add a sprig of rosemary, and then a dash of  bitters to round it all out and you’ve got a smoky, bacony, full bodied drink that Chris calls “Breakfast in a Glass.”    The cocktail is not only delectable but as level as a pool table.  The finish lingers smoothly, though your brain and taste buds beg you to take another bite.  Make that “sip.”  

From the first time I sipped a Pisco Sour in a Chilean farm house on a cold winter evening,  this powerful South American brandy has been a favorite.  So I was excited to try Harlan's pisco centric  "Peruvian Transfusion".  Chris introduced the drink as a play on an old "country club" favorite:  vodka mixed with ginger ale. It sounded delicious: imported pisco instead of vodka, ginger beer rather than soda, concord grapes to compliment the distilled grapes in the brandy, and a touch of lime juice to lighten the load.  However, the drink didn't seem to carry the complexity or balance of the other cocktails I sampled.  But then again, I would never order a vodka and ginger ale, though I’ve been known to drink at country clubs.  

However, the star of the show may be the Lumberjack, a mix of 12 year old Real McCoy rum and a clear apple cider that Chris reduces down with spices into a rich, warm syrup.  This sensory banquet starts with a mouthwatering nose: the home-for-the-holiday fragrance of grated cinnamon stick and spiced apple. On the palate, the aged rum creates bourbon-like characteristics of spiced vanilla, and the back is warm and comforting.  Sweet and savory, and very culinary (almost a course in itself), the Lumberjack makes a perfect pairing with Harlan's Grilled Berkshire Pork Chop.  

When it gets colder, Messina will morph the Lumberjack into a hot toddy.  As he envisioned it, Chris smiled, as if he couldn’t wait for winter. 

We wondered what the mixologist drinks at home as he creates these complex flavor combinations in his imagination.  "Maybe a Vodka," Chris Messina said, with a devilish smile. "I like to keep it simple."   

Harlan Social 

121 Towne Street (kiddy-corner from Fairway)         203-883-8000               

Monday - Friday:

Lunch 11:30 - 4:00pm & Dinner: 5:30 - 11:00pm

Saturday - Sunday:

Brunch 11:00 - 4:00pm & Dinner: 5:30 - 11:00pm

Harlan Social Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato