The Hall Global Eatery, chef Amar Santana’s gargantuan new restaurant in South Coast Plaza, is as ambitious as any dining concept Orange County has ever seen. The massive 8,000-square-foot space will include influences from around the world, combining Santana’s Caribbean roots with his love of Mediterranean food and his newfound passion for Asian cuisine.
How do you provide wine and cocktails that will complement a restaurant that will serve crudo, babaganoush, shawarma, tagine, hummus, raw seafood, Korean delicacies, baked French breakfast pastries and to-go sandwiches?
That was the gargantuan task that Michael Rooney had to tackle.
“This [project] forced me to spread my wings a bit,” said Rooney, who started with Santana six years ago and has worked behind the bar at his two other restaurants, Broadway and Vaca.
The biggest problem Rooney faced was the sheer size of Santana’s project.
“There weren’t any parameters, really,” said Rooney as he mixed cocktails for a crowd of food journalists who had been invited to try the restaurant’s food and drinks earlier this month. (It’ll officially open Jan. 2.)
Rooney had to make a few mid-course corrections as Santana’s cuisine concepts morphed.
“Amar was on this Korean cooking show, and he came back with all these new recipes,” he said. “I knew then that crudo was going to be an important element of the menu. So dealing with delicate and nuanced Japanese-style cocktails was the way I initially designed the program, along with all the Japanese spirits.”
He stocked the bar with more than 30 Japanese and Taiwanese whiskeys — a nod to South Coast Plaza’s popularity among Asian shoppers as much as Santana’s cuisine.
But as the Hall’s menu developed, Rooney realized he would have to expand the cocktail and wine offerings as well.
“As time went on and I started tasting more of the food and started realizing that we were going more and more into northern Africa and the Mediterranean with the fare, I wiped out about half the cocktail menu and rebuilt it because I needed things with bolder flavors that would stand up to that kind of cuisine,“ he said.
The current cocktail menu is divided fairly evenly down the middle in terms of its taste profiles, Rooney believes.
“About half of the cocktails we offer are light and a bit more delicate in flavor — more refined. The other half is meant to just punch you in the face with flavor.”
On the wine list, Rooney is exploring the world of Mediterranean wine — sometimes obscure grape varieties and unfamiliar producers whose wine is meant to pair well with food from southern Europe and northern Africa, as well as the crudo side of the menu.
“We were choosing a lot of white wines, particularly Mediterranean white wines, including a few varietals that people might not have encountered or understood before — wines from Campania, Sicily, Greece, northern Africa,” he said. “Morocco has a lot of beautiful wines.”
His wine list will feature a celebrated Moroccan Syrah from the widely respected Rhone producer, Alain Gaillot.
Rooney enjoys the autonomy he is granted from Santana and his team as he fine-tunes the wine and spirits program at a restaurant that places a premium on creativity and quality. (He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t cut corners, and it shows in his exquisitely prepared cocktails.)
“It’s been almost six full years since I’ve had full control of the Broadway program,” he said. “I’ve been in charge of the Vaca program from the start. At this point, the fact that I‘m here means they don’t have to worry about me. I get carte blanche on pretty much anything I want to do.”
Working with Santana and his business partner, veteran restaurateur Ahmed Labbate, also gives Rooney confidence.
“I get the benefit of the knowledge of people who have been working in the industry for a long time,” he said. “They understand that we are making an investment in quality products and creative approaches. It’s a wonderful place to be.”