by Amy Zavatto
I am grateful for happy accidents. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trapped in traffic or waiting for an elevator. “There’s a reason for this snafu!” I think, optimistically. So when I found myself watching the whiz-bang mixology talents of Xavier Herit, head bartender at Restaurant Daniel, during a mission to retrieve my eyeglasses (forgotten at the restaurant several days earlier), I couldn’t believe my luck.
I first noticed the besuited Frenchman intently eyeing a shaker wielded by one of his trainees. “Add a little more purée,” he said. “Good.” Soon after, he presented me with his stunning Blanc Cosmopolitan—a heady mix of elderflower liqueur, white cranberry juice, vodka, and lime, with an orchid frozen in the center of a perfectly round ice cube.
“It is my most seductive drink, for its taste and its visual allure,” he said. “I love seeing a lady’s delight and smile when I pour the drink over the orchid ice ball.”
I had never thought of Daniel as a place for cocktails. But Herit’s alchemy has converted me. His drinks are at once classic and exotic, a mix of textures and flavors that tickle one’s palate and pique one’s curiosity—the same qualities that inspired him back when he was learning the tippling trade at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
“I learned that cocktails did not have to be entirely liquid,” Herit says. “We made what we called ‘3-D cocktails,’ with three densities and textures: solid, liquid, foam. We did versions of this in piña coladas; we made whisky sours with a base of griotte cherry gelée on the bottom and lemon foam on top, with the whisky sour in between. These were truly original ‘concept cocktails.’”
Herit’s magic is at its highest level of “Ta-da!” in his Strawberry & Pearls, in which he uses a technique he’s dubbed “spherification.” Using a mix of acids, sugars, alcohol (in this case, Cointreau), and one gigantic syringe, he turns liquid into solid—in this case, a tiny pile of strawberry- flavored red balls that mimic smooth, round pearls of caviar with liquid centers. He serves them (with a caviar spoon, of course) alongside a strawberry margarita. “I love it as much for the taste as for the texture and presentation,” he says. “It’s a very sensual experience to roll the pearls around on your tongue and then press them just enough to make them burst gently in your mouth. I leave the rest up to your imagination.” Oh my.
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.