This is Drunk Grub, a new feature where Eater roams the streets of New Orleans talking to the men and women cooking the food in the city's bars. Because we like to eat and we like to drink, and these fine folks make it easier to do both. For the inaugural edition, we went to Whiskey Blue, the bar in the W Hotel.
Sam Skydell, GM of Whiskey Blue, and Darin Grohs, executive chef at Zoë. Click to enlarge. [Photo: Nikki Mayeux]
Whiskey Blue is the cocktail bar on the bottom floor of the W Hotel on Poydras Street. Run by a group that operates hotel bars all over the place?including other Whiskey Blues in cities like Atlanta, New York and Santiago, Chile?New Orleans' version has a distinct lounge vibe not found in many other settings in town. While the bar has been in operation since the W Hotel opened a decade ago, the food offerings are new, starting in June after conversations between GM Sam Skydell and Darin Grohs, the executive chef from the W's restaurant, Zoë. We recently sat down with Sam and Darin to talk about developing the bar's food menu, the logistics of sharing a kitchen with the second floor restaurant and the difficulty of catering to both hotel guests and locals.
Give me the background on the food here at Whiskey Blue.
Sam Skydell: It rolled out this past year, actually. We just recently got it off the ground. We started working on the idea a while ago, but it was just a matter of working out the logistics because we don't have a kitchen. But we wanted to incorporate, because we are in the W Hotel, other aspects of the hotel. So it made perfect sense to have a collaboration with Zoë, the hotel's restaurant. After a bit, Darin came up with a fantastic menu that really focuses on Zoë's food, but it makes it easier. They're items that are easier to eat in a bar setting but still have the same quality and the same kind of flavor as Zoë.
Darin Grohs: As far as the food goes, we focused on making it eat-able. It's something a lot of people don't think about. You have edible food, but then you have eat-able food. If your food is beautiful and it tastes wonderful, that's edible. But in a bar setting, look at what you have, you have small tables. It has to be eat-able in the bar. You want finger food, you want fast food. You don't want to have to use a knife and fork, you don't want a big, old burger. You want something that fits in your hand. So we were really looking at the eat-ability of the food along with the edibility and the quality of the food.
So it's a lot of stuff that Zoë does anyway, or variations on that?
DG: A lot of the items, they're actually on the Zoë menu, crossing over with what we're introducing in the new year?we're introducing a lot of items that are not on the Zoë menu. And because of the Zoë kitchen, we can actually produce, for anybody down here?if they're like, "Well, I saw this on the menu," that's not a problem. It's out of the same kitchen, so as long as Sam and his team down here are okay with it, I can produce it in the kitchen.
Have you had any complications with the shared kitchen or the fact that it's all coming from upstairs?
DG: On a regular basis, not so much. But I think that on a busy night, yeah. I think that the more complicated one was during Essence, we were so ungodly busy down here. Whiskey and Living Room [the other hotel bar] were so busy, and everyone wanted to eat. So it was like, okay. I became a food runner and expediter, because it was important for Sam and his team to be on the floor taking care of the guests. I mean, you couldn't even walk through the Living Room at times. So, yes there are complications, but for the most part, in the back house of a hotel you can just about get anywhere. It's like catacombs.
To what extent did you try to pair food items with the cocktail menu, or vice versa?
SS: Well, we have such a large selection of cocktails and wine and spirits. I've seen a lot of places where they put a huge focus on pairing a drink with a food item or something like that, but in all honesty we just want the guests to be happy. If you like eating redfish tacos and drinking an apple-tini, if that works for you, go for it. We don't make our cocktails to pair with the food, the food's not made to pair with the cocktails. They're both made so that people will enjoy them. So they do match pretty well, but really our main focus is for people to enjoy themselves and not feel tethered.
DG: And also, it's similar to food and wine pairing. Cocktails are just another alcoholic beverage. And with the food and wine pairing, you can basically pair any food with any wine as long as the two of them are balanced. And that's what I tried to do with all the food upstairs. I know that with Whiskey and with the recipes that we have downstairs, the items are balanced.They're not too sweet, not too sour. The food coming out of Zoë, it's not too salty, it's not too spicy, it's not too much of anything. It's just a nice balance. So you're going to have a big "pow" of spice, but you're going to have a nice cream maybe or something else to kind of smooth it down.
The one that was the rocking hit at Tales of the Toddy, which was only the second off-site we did, was the crab mac and cheese. That's got the crab, the big crab flavor, and you've got the silky smooth of the cheese sauce, with macaroni. And it's got a lot going on, but it was good for the guests.
So how often do you change menus?
DG: What I'm trying to get down to is at least every other month. That's almost where we're at?I think it was about three months ago that we changed it. I don't want to necessarily change it every month because that just puts too many herky-jerks in it. But every couple of months, new items go on the menu upstairs, so I want to put new items on the menu downstairs. I want to keep it fresh constantly.
What are y'all's favorite menu items?
DG: I get to be biased, because I get to take the stuff off that I don't like. Honestly, the item actually that we all kind of agreed on, that I love on the menu right now is that crab mac and cheese. It's fun. Plus, for where we are right now, we're going into the "cold season," so you get that wonderful warm comfort food feel. And it's macaroni and cheese, straight up. I did it the first time with penne pasta, and somebody said, "Oh, it always drives me crazy when..." And you know, that's a good point. So, we went to elbow macaroni. Because it's not about the pasta, it's about the four-cheese cheese sauce and the crab and just the flavor combination that makes the dish.
And when y'all aren't here, where are you eating?
SS: So I'm from New York originally, but I've been living in New Orleans for six and a half years now. I've already gone to all the big restaurants, the big chefs. And they're great, but I like eating light food. And also, I'm busy here. I go places that are easy. For lunch, there's some great sandwich places on Magazine that are quick with really good food, like Stein's Deli or St James. Things that still have that New Orleans culinary background but are easy. I did the same thing for bars, too. When I'm not here, you know, I've pretty much been all over the map, but I like to go places that have character. Some nights I'll go to a nice lounge, and then some nights I'll go to a bar like Snake and Jake's, where there's stray animals in there, you know. So I don't like to set myself on one specific standard, because in New Orleans there's so much. But I guess it's the New Yorker in me, I like things that are quick and are easy.
And also, my staff, I know it's the same thing. They all go out in the CBD, and the CBD has become a little family. I know all my employees know everyone at every single bar within a four block radius. And they all, when they get off work, they go to the same bars.
DG: For me, I am still trying out some of the restaurants in town, I've only been here a year. So I am still trying out some of the different areas. Not that I have a favorite, because I really don't. I actually end up liking, more than anything, the places that locals go. When I'm living in an area, I like to enjoy the local food. And I think it has to do with the fact that I have been in so many areas in the course of my life, that I've had enough of a mix of food that I like to taste where it comes from.
I like to go and eat at one of the soul food places over in the 9th Ward. I'll go and have barbecue from The Joint in the 9th Ward. It's pretty amazing, actually. Put a little sauce on it, it's pretty rocking barbecue over there. Or I might be over in the West Bank, because I live over there and there's some areas over there that are actually pretty fun. There's places that are out of the way.
So you've only been doing this since June. What's been the reaction to the food here? Have you found people to be excited about it?
SS:Yeah, I find that. When we first started off, it was brand new to people. It wasn't like we'd only been open for a year or something like that. Whiskey Blue had been open for 10 years and we'd never served food before. So when we had regulars who had been coming in here since 2002, they were like, "Wait, you have a food menu now? What is this?" But it's really picked up.
And a great thing I personally find about the food menu is that basically it's something that both locals and tourists can appreciate equally. It still has that New Orleans flavor, it has the color and the texture, the seasonings. But also, for locals, locals don't like eating at Galatoire's or all these other things that are really big, rich, heavy meals. So we appeal to locals, because our food is small, you can actually try a few different things, you don't just have to order one and you're stuck with that and afterward you want to go into a food coma.
But lots of people here love those places. That's why they've been around so long.
SS: Yes! Don't get me wrong, that's great. But I think that the way Darin designed the menu, for the environment we're in and for what we're trying to do, we are in a hotel but we like locals coming in here.
And do you actually get a decent number of locals in here?
SS: Yeah, but you know, it's a real seasonal thing. It changes.
DG: It changes like in a week. As we go on, I think we'll get more and more. But for the regular people?either the regular guests in the hotel or the regular people that may come into the bar itself?to get the food in addition [to the drinks] is just a little lagniappe.
SS: Definitely, that was biggest thing when I first thought, "Oh, it'd be really great if we had food in here," when I first came on. My whole thing, the way I thought of it, was like, you know, you're not a restaurant. You're a bar. But it's added value for the customers that just makes their experience that much more enjoyable. And it just kind of adds more options.
Anything else to add?
DG: The only thing that I would add is something somebody else actually put very well to me. They were staying at the hotel and they saw the menu and they couldn't wait to actually try it, because it brings so many of the flavors that people expect from New Orleans in a different way. It's got the red drum fish, but it's not in your face, it's in a taco. We've got the crab in the macaroni and cheese. We've got crawfish in quesadillas. We have different things in different formats, so it's not your standard New Orleans food, yet it is at the same time.
· Whiskey Blue [Official Site]