Frank Cisneros of Prime Meats Talks Punch, Beer Panic, and Steak-and-Martini Dinners

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Frank Cisneros
Prime Meats just earned itself a pretty enviable review. But the kitchen staff aren't the only ones psyched about it. Benefits are being reaped behind the bar, too, according to bartender Frank Cisneros. After all, he says, a restaurant is a team effort.

Tell me about pairing food and cocktails. Does it work?

Having been a sommelier, I've always been interested in food and beverage pairings, but I can tell you that cocktails have always been a challenge. Maybe not all of my colleagues agree, but I find the sheer proof of spirit a challenge. Even once you've diluted it and added all the other ingredients, you are still going to have a higher amount of alcohol than you would with almost any wine.

So, when you do pair a cocktail with food, do you pick a drink to go with the meal or tailor a new drink to the dish?

If you were to do dessert, for instance, we just recently brought out a cocktail list -- not necessarily of dessert cocktails, but cocktails that go well with our dessert list. So, they tend to be richer or sweeter. One puts port wine in perspective ... and would be a good match for the chocolate cake. Crème brûlée and sparkling wine work well. For the main courses, everything at Prime Meats is pretty much steak and meat heavy. Typically if you're having a burger or steak, an Old Fashioned or Manhattan is going to be your go-to. If you're having something like fish -- we have a couple of really great fish dishes -- then something like the Aviation, which is light, tart, and aromatic.

What about a classic steak-and-martini dinner? Is that popular?

Not really. I think steaks -- especially our dry-aged steaks -- lend themselves better to brown spirits. Most people are eating steaks with wine, but if not, they are going to go more on the Manhattan route. We use really good vermouth and rye whiskey for it. The whiskey's oaky vanilla notes pair well with the steak and the spicy notes in rye pair well with chimichurri sauce, if you're having that. And more and more, we'll do a bartender's choice thing where it's possible to open up a dialogue about what flavor profile you're going for and make something up on the spot for you.

How did you get started behind the bar?

That's a long and funny story. It starts when I'm around 19 or 20 and living in rural Washington State. I just kind of always had an affinity for old-timey things. I was vintage shopping and I came across an original copy of [William] Boothby [author of 1908's The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them]. I had no idea what I had on my hands when I found it. I just picked it up based on its age and the novelty that it had old cocktails in it. So I went home and started making every drink I could. It took me about a year to get through the book. When I finally turned 21 and moved to Portland, I remember being totally shocked the first time I saw a Tom Collins or whiskey sour come out of a gun. Every bar I went to, they'd be like, "What are you talking about 'superfine sugar' and 'shaking with fresh lemon juice?' Sounds ridiculous."

Do you still collect vintage cocktail books?

Yeah, I don't have as many as I would like, but I have a copy of Charles Baker [author of The Gentleman's Companion]. I was a European history major, which I think was a part of it. Wine and then cocktails have always spoken to me historically.

Who's more fun: wine drinkers or cocktail drinkers?

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