Settle Up is a column that critiques cocktail bars with the same gravitas that food critics apply to restaurants, exploring Dallas' cocktail concepts, menus, execution and service and steering discerning imbibers toward all the booze that’s fit to drink.
A few weeks ago, Thrillist published a controversial story declaring the American cocktail revolution over. Bartenders can no longer be innovative, the writer argued, because everything that can be done to a drink has been done. And craft beverages have nowhere else to go; they’ve become pervasive, taking over bars from glitzy coastal cities to remote hellholes like Omaha, Nebraska. (That’s the Thrillist writer’s description, not ours.)
Putting the condescending tone of that argument aside, there is a point to be made about the effects of craft cocktail oversaturation in a community. In Dallas, you can get thousands of cocktails made with ingredients you can’t pronounce. This leaves many of us feeling desensitized. We’ve given up on being impressed or surprised, and we often resort to ordering a glass of Pinot Noir or a pony of Miller High Life at even the fanciest of cocktail bars.
But that isn’t the way it has to be. Instead of abandoning the category altogether, we can seek out bars with palate-cleansing drinks: well made, no-nonsense classics that remind you why you loved cocktails to begin with. One place to find those is Sassetta, a modern Italian restaurant in the Design District.
Sassetta — which opened in May in a complex owned by Headington Companies, the developer behind the Joule — is a restaurant at its core. Yet the designers took time to carve out a tiny, elegant bar area, the likes of which are hard to find in Dallas. Everything is either marble, crystal or gold, from the shelves holding up bottles of Campari to the long-stemmed bar spoons and mixing glasses. The bartenders wear old-school white coats and could be mistaken for pharmacists or soda jerks if they weren’t pouring so much Prosecco.
In Italy, herbal alcohols are used to whet your appetite (aperitivos such as Aperol) or help settle your stomach (digestivos such as Fernet Branca). The cocktail list at Sassetta includes plenty of these bittering agents, available in six easy-to-stomach drinks. And most of them only have three ingredients. The simplicity is refreshing. Their order on the menu, however, could stand a reshuffling; intuitively, you’d expect them to be listed from less boozy to more boozy or before dinner to after dinner, but they are all mixed up on the paper.
You’ll recognize the sweet and fizzy drinks from traditional bunch menus (although, for the time being, Sassetta only serves dinner). The Bellini — a favorite of many in the dining room — is made from white peaches, elderflower liqueur and Prosecco. The drink has a cloudy coral hue and a thick body; it’s less bubbly than Bellinis made elsewhere. It is as if the Prosecco was left to rest for a bit, becoming practically still before pouring.
Also on the sweet end is the Sassetta Spritz, made with Aperol, Prosecco and sweet vermouth. This summertime favorite comes in a big wine glass that’ll make you feel dramatic. I couldn’t resist grasping it tightly in one hand while gesturing wildly with the other during a not-even-remotely intense conversation.
The Sienese Fizz is the closest thing to a craft cocktail here. It is made with vodka, mint, celery, lemon juice and soda. It is garnished not with a mint sprig, but with an entire mint plant. It feels so lavish. The drink is savory and tastes overwhelmingly like celery. If you, like me, ever bought into the myth that eating celery burns more calories than it has and have eaten so much celery in your life that you have a taste aversion to celery, you may not like this drink. I found it to be verging on unpleasant, but for some reason I kept revisiting it, trying to digest the flavor.
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Then there’s the timeless Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda) and White Negroni (gin, gentian root liqueur and dry vermouth). The drinks taste more similar than they sound. The Americano is bitter, like cherries and oranges. The White Negroni is bitter, like grapefruits and dandelion greens. The name is also misleading; the liqueur makes the drink green like pickle juice. They both pair well with food and are quite boozy. You could order one when your appetizers arrive and still be delighted with its robustness as you round the corner toward dessert.
Drinking bitter drinks like these is a great way to reset your palate and ease into the headier fall and winter months. Granted, this is Dallas, so we won’t have cool weather until February, but it’s fun to imagine sipping an Americano on the restaurant’s breezeway and watching the leaves change. By then, you may even be ready to venture back into homemade orgeat and quinine territory. Or maybe not. Appreciating solidly made, simple drinks can be revolutionary in its own way.
Sassetta, 1617 Hi Line Dr., Suite 395. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.