Adam Gorski strides into the La Belle Vie lounge clutching a large hacksaw, which raises a question: Why is the newly minted Creative Lead of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant’s bar program armed like an extra in The Great Escape? “I’m working on my day off,” he says. Two dimples make a brief appearance. It seems that the behind-the-bar mats are a little bit larger than ideal. It’s just one of the subtle changes that Gorski and the staff are making as the bar inside the renowned restaurant moves into a new era. The food is as flawless as ever and now the cocktail list is striving to incorporate some of the long-time customers’ favorites with new and seasonally-influenced flavors.
For the time being, he sets aside the heavy armament and sets about mixing a crush of raspberries, Pimm’s (the herbal English liqueur), Letherbee’s gin, lemon juice, and black pepper simple syrup into a drink he’s calling Jonny Law. “[This is] named for Jon Lawson of Eat Street Social,” Gorski said. “He was making a variation on a Pimm’s Cup one day and threatened to name it after me.” The logical next step is to make a Pimm’s Cup variation of his own and name it after his friend and former coworker.
Gorski lands at La Belle Vie after a string of turns at some of the best cocktail-proving grounds in the Twin Cities, but his goal had never been to become a bartender. While growing up in Plymouth, his first job in the hospitality industry was working as a server at The Original Pancake House. “And I spent about a minute at a Caribou,” he said. As graduation approached and his parents began to wonder ever-more-loudly about his college ambitions, Gorski decided to follow a chef friend’s path and enrolled in culinary school.
While studying he began working at Sea Salt Eatery when it first opened. “That was like a family,” he said. “I spent four seasons there.” In the off season (aka most of the year) he would find other work to piece together. When an opportunity to try his luck in California came up, he packed a bag and headed for the coast.
In Oakland he found himself working in the kitchen of the nicest restaurant he’d ever been a part of: hyper farm-to-table with gorgeous produce rolling in from area growers daily. But the restaurant didn’t last, and as his student loan payments came due, he knew it was time to head back home.
He was working at Red Stag when he heard that Bradstreet Crafthouse, inside the 601 Graves Hotel, was looking to hire some new bar staff. “Luckily, Toby liked to hire really green bartenders.” The lure out of the kitchen and into the well came from the pay differences; while many line cooks make in the $10 an hour range, bartenders have the opportunity to rake in tips on a good night. Being inside a high rolling hotel didn’t hurt that prospect.
When Bradstreet burst onto the scene, no one else in town was serving cocktails with spherical ice cubes and dozens of possible bitters. The bar would eventually unleash the likes of Robb Jones (head bar man at Saffron and World Street Kitchen), Shawn Jones (head bartender at Coup d’Etat), Birk Stefan Grudem (co-owner of Hola Arepa), and countless others who are now shaping the way that Twin Citians drink. “For a long time, it was all about refining the classics, but I think now we’re really starting to think outside the box. Like at Eat Street Social where they’ll stir a citrus drink. That’s like the first rule you learn, never stir, you shake with citrus, but now we’re breaking those rules. Like what Pip [Hanson] is doing at Marvel and the upstairs bar with low proof drinks and mixing in vinegar.”
This leads to his second cocktail of the afternoon, a twist on an El Presidente that he makes with 3 Star rum, Dolin Blanc vermouth, triple sec, Bittercube blackstrap bitters, and huckleberry syrup. The huckleberry lends a ghostly shade of blue to the drink, served in a martini glass with a twist of lemon.
As much as Gorski loved the bartending life, he missed being on the line. He had been splitting time between Bradstreet and Clancey’s Meats. “That was like the best two years,” he said. He would close down the bar, sleep a couple of hours, and head into the market.
Wanting to give the kitchen one more try, he returned to the line at Red Stag, where there was a new chef. He also signed up for bartending shifts to pick up a little cash. It only took one shift for him to discover the difference of time management from a space like Bradstreet Crafthouse, where it’s all about educating the clients and making what a bartender wants to make, to actually serving customers who would rather just have a drink right now, please. “I got destroyed at that bar! They didn’t have any jiggers. I don’t know how to count!” he said, referring to the technique of tracking the amount of a booze pour by counting off seconds. “That was real bartending.”
He’d heard about the new Eat Street Social that had just opened, a bar built by bartenders promising an innovative drink program. By chance he asked if they were looking for a bartender. Someone had left that very day, which is what led him to meeting and befriending Jon Lawson, for whom our first drink was named.
“I love the vintage cocktail books where they’re like garnished with an entire salad. I love something really tall and pretty,” he said, sliding the drink across the bar. The Jonny Law ($12) looks like it would be sweeter than it is. Served in a tall Collins glass, it’s bright, tart, and light with a bit of an herbal backnote from the Pimm’s. The black pepper syrup nearly disappears, leaving only a pleasant savory note behind. “It’s not so much a flavor as a reaction. I like dry cocktails.” It’s exactly the summer sipper I’d love to have in my hand on every lazy afternoon.
Some of the cocktails will evolve as the season progresses. The La Belle Royale ($11), a play on a Kir Royale, the champagne cocktail, will take advantage of what is in at the farmers market. Right now it’s made with a rhubarb syrup, but soon the strawberries will make their debut. “Bartending is like Mr. Potato Head,” he said. “Building so many flavors and knowing what you want to take away, how to create your ideal outcome.”
Gorski first became aware that La Belle Vie was looking for a new bar lead (after long time bar manager and the godfather of the local craft cocktail movement in Minneapolis, Johnny Michaels, parted ways with the institution) from Robb Jones. Unbeknownst to Gorski, several folks had mentioned his name for the position.
How does it feel walking into such a high profile job? “It’s intimidating. This building is intimidating,” he said. “But we’re welcoming people into our home. We want you to feel comfortable. When you’re making a drink for someone, they’re putting a lot of trust in you.” And if your guest orders something of the Cosmopolitan sort? “I would absolutely make a Cosmopolitan. That can be a great drink, use some good vodka and that nice acidity from the cranberries. Of course I will make anything a guest requests.”
However, it doesn’t hurt to explore new creations, like the El Jefe, which Gorski describes as a divisive drink. It’s on the receiving end of a lot of the Minnesota indictment of, “That’s different.” Where each ingredient makes a play for your attention in the Johnny Law, the El Jefe($13) is one powerful, smooth pool of liquid washing over your palate. The rum has the mouthfeel of liquid ivory: cool, powerful, and luxurious. The huckleberry’s starring role is a play on color as the drink washes away leaving little fruit flavors behind: this is no berry punch. It’s a sipper with a confident boldness balanced by the thread of citrus balance from the Triple Sec. It’s a drink that makes you feel like the world is your oyster. Which is exactly what it feels like when you’re bellied up to this bar at the La Belle Vie Lounge.