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Kirk Estopinal on Branching Out at Bellocq

This is Half Year In. It's like One Year In, only half-ier.

Bellocq.pngInside Bellocq at the Hotel Modern. [Photo: Nikki Mayeux]

A little over three years ago, three guys revolutionized cocktails in New Orleans. In opening Cure, Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, along with partner Matthew Kohnke, really introduced the contemporary craft cocktail movement to New Orleans. Last year, they signed on with hotelier Klaus Ortlieb, who was rebranding the Hotel le Cirque into the Hotel Modern, to open Bellocq. With this project, they've moved past the combination of classic and original cocktails that are the basis of Cure's menu and begun investigating pre-Prohibition drinks like the cobbler. Eater recently caught up with Estopinal to talk about how it's going so far and what they've got planned moving forward.

How's it going?

It's going well. We're seeing growth over time, since we opened to now. Lee Circle is a really weird location.

Yeah, what's it like being there?

The location is a little cool. Historically, it's amazing. But I don't know, it has some mental blocks. It doesn't have any real problems. [But] people have mental blocks about how to get there, where to park. And it's proving that people can get there?but they're getting there, they're parking and they're having a good time. We're seeing growth every month, which is exactly what we're looking for.

I think a lot of people were kind of skeptical at first. Between the hotel, Bellocq and the restaurant there, Tamarind, it's pretty ambitious for a spot that hasn't been a destination for a while.

It's like remediating a property.

How often are you and Neal actually there? Like how do you two split the time between Bellocq and Cure?

I spend most of my time at Bellocq, Neal spends most of his time at Cure. We basically have an even split of time at each place, but in exact polar opposites. So basically, where I am, Neal is not. Where Neal is, I am not. We cross paths and chat, once in a while. We see each other basically every day for a half hour or so, at least.

When people talk about Cure and, now, Bellocq, we tend to talk about you and Neal. But you have a third partner, Matthew Kohnke. His role is mostly in the design and building out, right?

Yeah, he's basically like a silent partner, but he's in charge of our aesthetics. He's like the wife that's my business partner that I trust with stuff that I don't trust myself with. Neal's the same, I think?I have an eye for aesthetic things, but it's coming to the conclusion that it's acceptable or getting to the idea that rearranging things is good is very hard for me. Matt is amazing in that way, he has very firm ideas that are grounded in reality and design.

What's the relationship like with the hotel?

The hotel is very accommodating to what we do. They brought us in for a reason. No one ever really comes in to tell us what to do. We're basically in a partnership with the hotel and as far as we know, and as long as we keep growing, they're going to let us do our thing. I mean, they know that we can operate a successful place. I think they trust us. But there are the corporate infrastructure things that are a whole new world for me. Everything goes up a ladder and down a ladder, and there are some things, with aesthetics especially, that are harder to control. But as far as programming, drinks, pricing: it's ours. Nobody's going to tell us what to do. It's fantastic in that way.

Speaking of drinks, talk to me about "pre-Prohibition" drinks.

It's just drinks on crushed ice! It's cocktails on crushed ice, and a lot of them are low alcohol.

Why did you go that route?

We were just interested in it. We were drinking a lot of vermouth and Madeira, especially. When this project came along, it wasn't the first idea exactly, but it was the natural idea. It made sense because we cared about it, and it's a lot easier to get up and go do something that you care about.

So that's how that works.

I've seen people operate businesses where it's like, "This is going to make X amount of money." And in the end they end up hating their business, marginalizing what they're worth in that business. It makes sense to me to want to do it. When we have ten bars we'll just say, "Oh that's cool, let's do a chocolate cocktail bar!"

So when you're the cocktail magnates of New Orleans.

I mean, I don't think we could open up too many more. I'd say we have about two more good ones us, maybe three.

That in itself is pretty ambitious.

Yeah absolutely. Everybody that works with us, Nick [Detrich] and Turk [Deitrich] especially, they're our partners as well. They have great ideas for bars, and we'll probably see ideas from them in the next couple of years.

How often have you changed the menu so far?

We've changed it three times so far, so once every two months? Realistically we'll probably only change the menu three or four times per year.

That seems like a more reasonable number than every two months.

We haven't really changed it?well, recently we [actually] changed the menu, but before that it was more an issue of formatting. We had a very ambitious cocktail list, it was like 37 different fortified wines and Madeiras and sherries just listed, and every one of those had a spec recipe as a cobbler. It was a little overwhelming. A lot of people couldn't get their heads around it. I believe that people are smart and they can get their heads around it, but it was taking a lot of explaining.

Well it was brand new to people.

When you're trying to offer someone a new experience, the worst thing you can do is make them feel dumb. Some people are not comfortable asking a lot of questions. And in that way it's really hard to give them a great idea of what you do and what they might like if they can't really explain it. Because people are out of sorts there. It was taking a lot of guesswork. It was taking two drinks to get to a point where you really knew what someone's taste profiles were like. And if you're introducing someone to both a new form of drink and a spirit category at the same time, it's kind of alien.

So you streamlined it a bit, then?

We narrowed it down to the ones people really liked. We added a couple sections of juleps and smashes. Our whole programming is all around the little Scotsman nugget ice, so it's perfect for that.

Of all of those, do you have an absolutely favorite that y'all have carried? Not as a business person, but just as someone who likes drinks.

The Mary Rocket Punch that we do, it's a clarified milk punch, I think is the best thing we have. I actually said it yesterday to Neal, that it was the best thing we have. And I really like the Swedish Punch, which is a Batavia Arrack punch. Both of those are like compounded things, that we build from base ingredients and then bottle and let rest. They're just really well integrated, cool, tasty things that are easy to present to people. I think the texture of the milk punch is amazingly New Orleans.

Any big plans for Tales of the Cocktail?

Well, me and Neal are the ambassadors of Tales of the Cocktail. I'm going to buy a big Admiral's hat and wear it around all week. No no no. [Laughs] I plan on being really busy. For Cure, it's steadily been our biggest week of the year. I'm kind of expecting that for Bellocq as well.

Cure is a destination during Tales, and for cocktail people, period. You think Bellocq gets that as well?

It's on the radar. I'll tell you that right now. At this point, our industry is small. There are people at the top of their game, and there are people just under there. I feel like we're just under there. We're not signing giant, million dollar deals with liquor companies, but that's not my business, I would never do that, I hate that idea. We do have a lot of cache, though. I think we'll do well. But Tales?it's the busiest week of the year. We've got two bars, we're going to be stretched thin. And still trying to find a great time and hang out with all of our friends from all over the world who are coming here, it's a great experience. I'm excited about it and distressed about it.

What about going forward beyond the summer?

Well, we're going to start doing a little more events. I've really been thinking about doing a soul night, like a soul dance party. Something that we would never do at Cure. Maybe a weekly event or a monthly event that's very DJ driven, but fun and dance-y, non-electro. I think that'd be fun. And you'll probably see some more music programming.

That was part of the original plan, wasn't it?

That was a thing with the hotel. All the original marketing said that we're going to do this stuff. That kind of became a non-issue over time. It was a good idea but it didn't have the time to get its legs. We're going to try to give it its legs now. It makes sense to have more local artists, people that people here know. And we're going to set up the patio for Saints games, with a giant projector. I think it'll be great.

Any parting thoughts?

Six months in, we're doing well. Hopefully a year from now it's even better, even busier.

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