Jackie Pember has been training her whole career for a coveted spot behind the well-appointed bar at Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge.
The new South O.C. restaurant is already attracting a healthy buzz — not only for its cuisine, which artfully combines elements of New England, New York and the West Coast, but for its thoughtfully-made cocktails, which Pember perfected in the weeks before the restaurant’s recent opening.
Pember brings tropical influences, a respect for tradition and a dash of whimsical creativity to her drinks. The Florida native, who moved to Southern California about 11 years ago, has worked behind the bar at the Royal Hawaiian, a Laguna Beach stalwart that serves some of the best traditional rum-based cocktails in O.C.
“I got a lot of experience and a lot of ideas from working there,” Pember said, as she paused for an interview between mixing drinks at a recent media event. “I just fell in love with the different spirits and cordials and liqueurs and bitters.”
Pember often talks shop and dreams up new cocktails with her boyfriend, who’s also a busy local bartender. She believes that a well-made restaurant cocktail list should be designed to complement the food menu.
“That’s a big part of my philosophy: to pair a bourbon-based cocktail with a burger, for example,” she said. “I like to match flavors. We have some light gin-based drinks that are designed to go with our appetizers. I approach all my cocktails from a food-based perspective.”
Pember said she was inspired by the restaurant’s executive chef, Paige Riordan, 29, a former choreographer who founded a dance company in New York called Scarlet Fever.
“We want the bar to be as creative and fun as the kitchen is,” Pember said. “Paige is an amazing chef; she’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with. So it’s fun to put our brains together and come up with ideas.”
Pember collaborated with respected local consultant Steve C. Gostin on the bar program, but the cocktails are her creations. They include the Scarlet Martini ($18), the restaurant’s signature drink, which looks as good as it tastes. Pember mixes Ketel One Vodka, hibiscus, jasmine, lime and pomegranate and serves the deep crimson concoction straight up in a large coupe.
She acknowledges tradition even as she pushes boundaries, and she’s not averse to using down-home brands as well as trendy labels. Her Chef’s Old Spirit ($14) is a hybrid — part Old Fashioned, part Bee’s Knees, made with Maker’s Mark (the Chevy Bel Air of bourbons), orange bitters and honey syrup.
All of Pember’s cocktails are distinguished by their beauty. Whether they’re served in a bucket glass, a coupe or a classic martini stem, their garnishes, ice and rim preparations always display her sense of aesthetic subtlety, balance, and meticulous attention to detail.
Pember plans to change the cocktail menu regularly.
“We’ll have seasonal cocktails,” she said. “I’m really excited about this next menu because it will be completely different than what we have right now.”
The night I visited, Pember was experimenting with a new twist on a Paloma, using mescal instead of tequila, and she planned to feature a special cocktail for Valentine’s Day. She also intends to feature some local distilleries in her line-up of spirits.
Scarlet Kitchen’s cocktails will flirt with the high end of the local price point average. Pember says most of them will be in the $14 to $16 range. But there’s also a daily Happy Hour from 4 to 6 p.m. that features $7 well drinks and $6 house wines and draft beers.
“We don’t want to cater to just one kind of customer,” Pember said. “My goal is to have a bar menu where there’s something for everybody.”
IF YOU GO
What: Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge
Where: 30865 Gateway Place, Rancho Mission Viejo
When: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday to Saturday
Information: (949) 503-3086, scarletkl.com