Where does a pirate drink artisanal cocktails? R Bar. Really.
Aaron Barnhart learned the hard way that the artisanal cocktails on offer at R Bar on Monday nights are meant for sipping, not for pounding. Barnhart is the Koreatown bar's new piano man, and during a break between sets, bartender Naomi Schimek offered him one of her specialties: a mix of habanero-infused vodka and muddled fresh pineapple and mango that she calls the Prop. 8. Maybe Barnhart just really needed a drink, or maybe he was misled by the sweeter fragrances coming off the glass, but he downed the whole thing in one gulp and spent the next 10 minutes panting from the heat, with a look suggesting that Satan himself was back there jostling the cocktail shaker.
As surprised as Barnhart must have been by the not-kidding spiciness of the drink, it's even more of a surprise to find seriously adept and inventive cocktail craftsmanship along this stretch of 8th Street, where the most creative drink decisions usually involve choosing what style of paper bag to wrap your 40 oz. of Miller High Life in. But Schimek, a bartending vet of 14 years (she also works at Bar 107), is the Svengali of a cocktail gourmand’s mecca on Monday nights at R Bar.
Her concoctions bring a new intensity to the term “locavore” -- the hibiscus syrup is steeped in-house, kumquats are gathered from an office park’s grove close to her home, and a forthcoming batch of mulberry brandy is made from the bounty of a tree in her backyard.
“My mom was an herbalist, and when I make people drinks I really like the sense that the ingredients came from your own seeds,” she said. “I’ve always rented, and I’ve just been lucky that I’ve found houses with these amazing trees.”
Though organic, locally sourced drink ingredients have graced the higher end of the L.A. bar scene for some time now, there’s a charmingly ramshackle and handmade vibe to Schimek’s on-the-fly Monday operation. She brings in her homegrown herbs -- basil, cilantro, thyme -- in a repurposed tortilla bag and speaks rapturously about the “giant Rasta guy” at the Hollywood Farmers Market who supplies her more exotic garnishes.
Still, the drinks can hang with anything on offer at Varnish or Copa d’Oro in terms of their ambition. Her coconut milk mojito will slake any summer thirst, and the Wanderlust shimmers with champagne, hibiscus syrup and a lavender sprig. And, if nursed slowly, the Prop. 8 leaves a satisfying feeling of spent energy on your tongue. If you need a chaser, there’s the homemade ginger drink that feels rejuvenating enough to blunt the worst of any impending hangovers.
There’s a menu every Monday, but Schimek’s mixology philosophy is ever evolving. She’s been experimenting with Latin-inspired cocktails with Jamaica flower and cilantro lately, which could set the stage for a most rewarding taco truck run nearby, and a Simon and Garfunkel-themed drink with four herbs you can probably surmise yourself.
But her motivations aren't so much about being creatively baroque or sternly moralist in sourcing your ingredients. It’s about how easy and exciting it is to do this at home.
“I grew up in a log cabin in Vermont,” Schimek said. “I love making things with my hands, and you can taste it in the drink.”
R Bar, 3331 W. 8th St., L.A. (213) 387-7227. Note: You need a password to gain entrance to R Bar, but you can call to get it before you go.
-- August Brown
Photos: From left to right: habaneros; vodka; lavender. Photo credits: Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times; Deborah Yao / AP; David Silverman / Getty Images