To make the umami oil used in the Naked Maja cocktail at the new Duello bar in downtown L.A., heaps of sun-dried tomatoes are macerated and poured into avocado oil before being vacuum-packed and left to meld and leech for five days. All that work for just five drops on top of the cocktail, necessary for what bar director Iain McPherson calls “mouthfeel.”
McPherson, known best for opening the award-winning Panda & Sons cocktail bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, is on a mission to make Duello, the bar inside chef Jessica Largey’s new Simone restaurant in the Arts District downtown, more than just a waiting area for your dinner table. And to do so, he looked to the Arts District’s rich history and perpetual reinvention.
“I easily spent over 100 hours researching the history of the area,” said McPherson, referring to the area, which in another era, was home to hundreds of acres of leafy French Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc vines. . “For a new world country, what I found is that the Arts District had a very concentrated history over a very small space of time.”
Inspired by his surroundings, McPherson composed a bar program that exclusively deals in the history of the Arts District’s metamorphosis from vineyards to citrus fields to the epicenter of local burgeoning artists to one of today’s most important culinary epicenters. The restaurant is located less than a mile from Church & State, Bestia and Factory Kitchen.
As an homage to the Arts District as California’s first wine region, patrons can sip a wine-influenced cocktail called the Botta Secreta, made with a peach aperitif, rosé vermouth, and orange and grapefruit oleo enlivened with a peaty breath of whiskey. A salted citrus, gin, and Sauvignon Blanc drink receives a jolt of pineapple and lemon to move the menu into the region’s citrus-growing chapter. A section of the menu detailing the influx of local artists is distilled into tipples such as the vodka, hemp, Manzanilla sherry and umami oil drink inspired by Francisco Goya. And a complex Mamacita Mole cocktail composed of blanco tequila, mole grenadine, and lime oleo saccharum brings the libations to the present.
The bar, designed by Deirdre Doherty, is outfitted with white marble, dark burgundy, brown leather and accents of gold metal. And painted tile in tones of ocean help create an elegant Art Deco-inspired watering hole.
Though Duello can stand alone, its cocktails are meant to work alongside Largey’s dishes, which is just one of the reasons why the full dinner menu is offered in both spaces. Focusing predominantly on California produce, Simone’s menu may feature dry-farmed tomatoes sitting plump atop red lentil and nasturtium-accented hummus one day, or a bowl of pole beans resting on a pool of startlingly purple tomatillo water as fine as a sheet of newly formed ice the next.
Where food and cocktails collide, the California Calling, a concoction of reposado tequila, coconut oil and fino sherry, sips strongly alongside Largey’s plate of seasonal pickled offerings such as passionfruit and chile turnips or crisp green bites of celtuce. The Lost and Found’s beet vinegar, bramble and mandarin accented golden rum is not only a modern tiki tipple but also an elevator for the earthiness of Largey’s dish of maitake mushroom with brown butter and shallot-miso.
“There’s always been change happening in this area,” said McPherson. “To me, we’re still maintaining the spirit of the Arts District — just now it’s with cocktails and the culinary side of things.”