Chef Vijay Sadhu's cocktail-centric restaurant and bar Pepper Smash (7200 Bishop Road) soft-opened Monday in the same Shops at Legacy spot where his upscale-Indian venture Sutra closed in March after being open for less than a year.
The bar program is the brainchild of Keith LaBonte, the mad scientist mixologist behind Uptown's Four Lounge, a pint-sized bar that does steady business whipping up smoked Old Fashioneds and Cap'n Crunch martinis.
But this is Plano, and the bar alone at Pepper Smash -- beautifully constructed from some sort of speckled granite with inlaid shards of sea glass -- seats 20. The clientele is a bit different, too -- mostly well-to-do couples in their 40s and 50s rather than the trendier young professionals of Uptown.
The interior is all honey-colored wood, with one wall featuring illuminated cutouts displaying various models of cocktail shakers, and light fixtures suspended over the bar that resemble giant honey dippers. Glass beehive jars on the bar hold various infusions; along with the dark wooden archway through which you enter, the whole thing resembles a giant beehive buzzing with activity and conversation. The "bar chefs" as they're called here are certainly busy bees, clad in all black. Their immersion-blending bowls overflow with clouds of liquid nitrogen as they drizzle brightly colored alcoholic syrups over cones of snowy shaved ice or ignite wood chips to smoke glass jars filled with bourbon.
The friendly woman seated next to me at the bar said all the liquid nitrogen reminded her of being a kid on her family's farm, when they would artificially inseminate the cows with pipettes of um, cow juice. Tres romantique.
I ordered the namesake Pepper Smash cocktail, which the comic book-style menu touts -- along with a roasted cherry tomato martini -- as the world's first "cooked to order" cocktails. Caramelized onions, red bell peppers, basil and the slightest suggestion of jalapeño are combined with Tito's and lime juice for a sweet and slightly vegetal result, with a bit of a kick from the vodka. I expected something resembling a bloody mary, but it looks more like a mojito -- bits of basil and red pepper suspended in a mostly clear elixir, the glass rimmed with spiced salt. It's kind of like having your salad course and beverage in one.
This wouldn't be Cougartown without some over-the-top pink drinks, and LaBonte doesn't disappoint: a Sunkist cotton candy martini (with real cotton candy made in a machine behind the bar), plus a version with pineapple and strawberries that's frozen with liquid nitrogen.
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If that's all a bit much for you, home in on the farmers market cocktails section of the menu, where the drinks are a bit simpler, with fresh herbs and fruits. There's a house-made lemonade with Effen vodka, local honey and fresh rosemary, and a tasty-sounding tarragon-cucumber Greyhound, plus a Moscow Mule variation with Maker's Mark and fresh mint.
The food menu seems like it may succeed where Sutra failed -- it's New American with Spanish and Mediterranean influences, a little something for everyone, with small plates like serrano ham croquettes and maple-bourbon glazed pork belly ranging from $6 to $12 and entrees topping out at $22 for rack of lamb.
The cocktail menu is ambitious, and LaBonte has proven he can pull it off at Four Lounge, but will his vision successfully translate to this high-volume space at the Shops at Legacy? They're certainly well-equipped for success, with plenty of high-tech equipment (including an EverPure filtration system on display behind the bar to ensure the quality of their water and ice), a seasoned chef and a location with heavy foot traffic.
If they can find enough motivated, competent bartenders to execute the complicated drinks and convince patrons to branch out from their usual Bud Lights and dirty martinis, LaBonte and chef Vijay may find themselves with a smash hit on their hands.