Bar review: Top cocktails without the hard stuff?

I once took a poetry class that required students to write a series of poems following rigid forms: epic, sonnet, haiku and so on. The idea is that working with restrictions can sometimes be a source of inspiration, rather than a limitation.

Although I haven't written a single verse since that class, the lesson stayed with me, and I sometimes use it as a way to boost creativity when I get stuck.

It's the first thing that came to mind when I had a look at the drink menu at Reading Room, a new restaurant built into an old Christian Science Reading Room (hence the name) on Central Avenue.

Since opening in March, Reading Room's kitchen has accumulated generous praise from critics and online reviewers alike. I only visited for the cocktails, and the approach to cocktails at Reading Room is so well-conceived that it's worth its own review.

Reading Room has a beer and wine license, which means that it can't serve distilled spirits. The key word here is distilled. That means that any variety of fermented drinks are on the table, including some that may involve a spirit here and there, like vermouth and other flavorful aperitifs.

There's a nice selection of beers (many local), as well as a full wine list that ranges from sake to high-end Champagne. Attention is also due to the inclusion of natural ciders from Manoir de Grandouet and Mayador. These ciders, from France and Spain, are naturally fermented and contain a broad range of complex flavors, easily standing up to the most flavor-dense selections on the food menu.

But the cocktail list, brief as it may be, is where the real story is. Beverage director Jessika Palombo worked within the restriction of a beer and wine license and created a list of cocktails that would belong on the menu even if Reading Room were able to serve liquor.

While many bars and restaurants either work with beertails or cocktails made from wine-based faux spirits, these drinks feature ingredients that aren't trying to be anything they're not: sweet and dry vermouths, Vinho Verde, Lillet, Contratto and so on. They're maximizing creativity within a set of imposed restrictions.

I started with All Pickled Up, which is a martini-like drink made entirely with dry vermouth, spiced up with pickle juice and black pepper and served in a coupe glass. I skipped the asiago garnish. Despite the inclusion of pickle juice, this simple drink had an excellent balance that really brought out the intense flavor of the vermouth, which is one that's all too easily forgotten, given vermouth's perpetual position as secondary player.

Slippery Slope was even more geared toward vermouth lovers, featuring both sweet and dry vermouth, along with ginger and cream soda. A burnt orange peel is frozen into an ice sphere that cools the drink, changing its flavor and aroma as the sphere dissolves. That explains the name.

The standout drink may be All Things Rose, which features a dry rosé wine alongside Lillet Rosé, housemade lavender syrup and Peychaud's bitters, garnished with a dehydrated starfruit. Like the other drinks on the list, this one is relatively low in alcohol, but it's anything but low in terms of flavor. This drink could stand on its own on any cocktail list.

Although this part is purely coincidence, the drink menu is affixed to the inside of a small hardcover Shakespeare book. Mine was The Merchant of Venice, which is written primarily in unrhymed iambic pentameter. How's that for synchronicity?

Stuck with a restriction on serving liquor, Reading Room has gone the extra mile and crafted a memorable cocktail lineup without simply trying to replace the forbidden spirits with passable stand-ins. On concept alone, I'm sold, but factor in the execution and it's a done deal. Plenty of people will tell you to go for the food — I'm going to insist that you pair it with a cocktail.

Contact Justin Grant at Follow @WordsWithJG.

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