Monday, July 20, 2009

Adam Bernbach has paid his dues. The new bar manager at Proof restaurant in Chinatown first learned the importance of tasting while working at a coffee importer on Van Ness Street near Tenleytown testing and roasting the beans. He has worked at Bar Pilar and P.S. 7, designing acclaimed drink menus. He even took a few years off to study tasting, spirits and cocktails.

“I wasn’t even behind a bar,” Mr. Bernbach said. “I had to read for a while, and I started mixing drinks again when I felt comfortable.”

So when he slides a paring knife from the inside of a suit jacket and pulls a long stirring spoon from below the bar, customers know he is not about to make just your average mixed drink.

And when the iced cocktail slides across the engraved steel bar two minutes later, it’s all the proof you need that Adam Bernbach is the right man for the job. He’s knows the basics, and he’s thought long and hard about what it means to have a drink.

“We taste with all five senses,” Mr. Bernbach said. “What we see around the bar, even the clinking of the glasses, affects our experience. Every interaction while eating, drinking and talking - it all has to fit with the restaurant’s identity.”

Proof managers said Mr. Bernbach was brought on to manage the service of spirits and beers and coordinate those drinks with Chef Haidar Karoum’s menu centered on Mediterranean and Asian influences. But Mr. Bernbach sits back and hesitates if asked when the new list of drinks and pairings will come out.

One doesn’t rush things like that.

“I very strongly want it to fit. It would be unfortunate if it didn’t fit,” he said firmly. “I’ve had the benefit of eating here a lot since it opened, but I just need a period of time when I can be immersed in it and figure out the menus.”

After learning to taste in that coffeehouse, Mr. Bernbach started as a barback at Visions, a bar his coffee-roaster boss opened. When he wasn’t washing glasses and stocking shelves there, he was still roasting coffee.

“I was at a place where I needed to earn a lot of money at a young age,” he said. “And I just started playing around with stuff, then got into spirits, scotch, gins.”

That knowledge is essential for positions like his new one at Proof.

“It’s very exciting,” Mr. Bernbach said. “Learning’s fun. Every day you wake up and learn something else - it’s a very steep learning curve.”

Proof’s owner said he’s a natural fit for the position.

“He’s very familiar with many people on our staff, and I would have hired him even if he wasn’t a world-class bartender,” Mark Kuller said. “He raises our game in that regard.”

General manager and Maitre D’ Michael James said the addition of Mr. Bernbach lets wine director Sebastian Zutant devote his full attention to wines. Mr. Kuller agreed.

“Sebastian knows his cocktails, but now he can focus on what he’s really good at,” he said. “And Adam is good with wines, but he can really work with the cocktails and beers. It seems like an ideal fit.”

Mr. Bernbach’s expertise shines through behind the bar. Mr. Bernbach strides slowly behind it, selecting the components for a Hong Kong Cocktail, an early 20th century D.C. concoction unearthed by his friend Derek Brown. Each of his movements is practiced: the pours of scotch, vermouths and liqueur; the steady stir with the long cocktail spoon between his second and middle finger, jolting the ice and spirits into each other; flicking the lighter and flaming the orange zest before swirling and dropping it in the drink.

Adam Bernbach says making a drink “to the taste of the guest” is what’s most important. He studied and mixed for years to be able to satisfy it, and the final proof is in the first sip.

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