Mike Koozmin/S.F. ExaminerMIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER

Bartender at The Sea in Palo Alto knows the art of cocktails

The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse may have an unwieldy name, but every dish, from appetizers to desserts, makes such an impression that the lines between culinary and visual arts are blurred.

Art figures prominently in lead bartender Ryan Watkins’ life. Originally from Cupertino, Watkins studied art at San Francisco State University and once taught art to children in after-school programs. He is also a sculptor, illustrator and painter.

Is this basically Alexander’s Steakhouse with an expanded seafood menu? No, we very much have our own identity. The only food item you’ll find on both restaurants’ menus is our Hamachi Shots. We do carry two types of steak that are also offered at Alexander’s, but we prepare them differently. Speaking of seafood, we don’t serve farmed fish. All the salmon is line caught by Native American fishermen in Washington state, and we’re not always worrying about the cost of things.

How would you describe your cocktail program? We try to stay seasonal as much as possible. And I’m looking for consistency. We do measure all our pours, because we have all these amazing ingredients, but if somebody’s measuring them differently, you’re not going to get the same experience every time.

But surely there are times when a customer’s taste dictates deviating from your established recipes? Yes, judging on how intimate we can get with the customer, we can just build a cocktail on the spot. That’s only possible when your bartenders know what they’re doing. When I go out, sometimes I have trouble trusting the bartender.

What’s a good example of a cocktail that is unique to The Sea? Our Nouveau Carre is an interpretation of the Vieux Carre, which is an old New Orleans cocktail from the French Quarter. Its name means “Old Square,” so ours is the “New Square.” Like the original, ours is based on rye whiskey, but where the original used cognac, we’re using calvados, which is a French apple brandy. And instead of sweet vermouth, we’re putting in Kina L’Avion D’ Or. We also add Peychaud’s Bitters, the original bitters used in the New Orleans’ Sazerac. And we barrel age it for three months.

How did you get started in bartending? My first bartending job was at the Outback Steakhouse in Campbell. I know what you’re thinking, but the thing that’s great about Outback is their training process. If you get a job applicant who’s worked at Outback, you know you can work with them.

Would it be correct to assume you didn’t have many opportunities to use your creativity at Outback Steakhouse? Well, all the drink recipes were from corporate. What’s great about The Sea is I can buy the cocktail ingredients I want and make what I want. This bar is really a blank canvas with a lot of different tools.

Is there anything you learned as an art teacher that might apply to training your bartenders? I get a lot of kids, or even adults, who say, “I can’t draw.” First of all, you can’t do it if you say you can’t. In Zimbabwe, they have a saying: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.”

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