Oxalis originally opened as a pop-up restaurant in 2016, but it was only a few short years later when the restaurant found its permanent home neighboring Prospect Park. The neighborhood bistro features a hyper-seasonal menu and tightly curated beverage list, and has one thing many other neighborhood bistros do not — a Michelin star. When the brainpower behind Oxalis — director of operations Steve Wong, chef Nico Russell, and beverage director Piper Kristensen — decided to additionally open a more casual dining option, they did so with Place des Fêtes, a Clinton Hill wine bar with an ever-changing selection.
At both Oxalis and Place des Fêtes, patrons can find excellent food and beverage selections they may not encounter at other restaurants in the area, from longfin squid served with sorana beans and Basque chile to unique wines from passionate winemakers around the world.
VinePair talked with Kristensen about his path into the industry and what the process of beverage selection and curation at both locations entails.
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1. How did you end up at both Oxalis and Place des Fêtes?
Before Oxalis, I worked at Booker and Dax in the lab, but I wanted to get some bartending experience, so I was managing a bar in the neighborhood and doing some consulting. I was friends with Nico [Russell] and Steve [Wong] at the time, and they brought me on to help out doing some beverage stuff for Oxalis when it was still a pop-up. Then, it just grew, and I was brought on as a partner when we opened.
2. Did you go to college wanting to enter into the beverage industry, or was this a career path you discovered along the way?
I went to college for creative writing, but it was in college and right after that I got really into cooking and went to culinary school in New York. There, I met Dave Arnold, who was working in the culinary-creative-technology area, so I interned with him and through this internship, I got really into making cocktails.
3. Speaking of cocktails, what was behind the decision to focus on spirits from small, independent distilleries at Oxalis and PdF as opposed to larger, more corporate distillers?
Honestly, I had just been burned a lot by larger corporate distillers and their distributors. They didn’t need me as a customer; we are very much a little guy and always have been. So, I connected with a local distillery on Long Island called Matchbook, and they had me come out. At the time, they were making a lot of bespoke-style gins, and during the tasting you try all of these different distillates, like a lemon distillate and a chamomile distillate. And from there you can make your own based on the flavor profiles you like, and they blend it for you. I remember thinking that the distillates on their own were so great, and if I could use them raw, as a bartender it gives me a lot of opportunity to manipulate it. So, we decided to source spirits exclusively from Matchbook when we opened Oxalis.
With corporate distillers, if there’s 50 botanicals in your gin, it makes it very difficult to use that spirit in other applications. By sourcing our liquor from Matchbook, we’re able to use our palates and our creative brains to build cocktails and explode flavor with total control over the botanical blend, which I think is really cool.
4. Where have you found inspiration for your cocktail list?
Before we opened Oxalis, I went to London to go to a few cocktail bars there. I think London is one of the most interesting cocktail cities in the world. I got to spend some time at White Lyan, where they showed me their cocktail program in the basement. They worked directly with distilleries and they would get 5-gallon buckets of Scotch delivered straight to them, and they could use it how they wanted. So they would tinker with it a bit, and the end result was a spirit with a unique taste and not much waste. They were so hands-on and able to manipulate things, and I was really fascinated by that.
When it came time to open, we didn’t have a liquor license, so I had time to be really creative and I decided I wasn’t going to let all that I had seen in London go to waste. So, while we had no liquor license, I saw that people were interested in drinking non-alcs, but they were also into drinking something interesting, and that gave me a lot of inspiration.
5. Can you expand a bit on the cocktail recipe development process?
It’s a little bit of two brains. At Oxalis, we really work hyper-seasonally, so we use seasonal ingredients and we really want to highlight a certain flavor. Basically, we want to dig into that flavor not so much by only using it as a component of the cocktail, but instead by building the cocktail around that central flavor.
At PdF, we don’t use any of the Matchbook distillates and instead try to use the back bar consisting of small- production spirits by people who either also make wine or are wine-adjacent. There, we really like to focus on the producer, so the menu is mostly classics — but not through a classic lens. We try to move away from these more traditional mixers that I think can make everything taste the same. With both menus, I’ll taste spirits that I think are really interesting, and I’ll sit with it and figure out how the flavor can fit into the frame of a more traditional cocktail.
6. Have you received any backlash from customers seeking big-brand spirits in their cocktails?
So far, it’s been good! You know, people haven’t stormed out too much because we don’t have Jack and Cokes. But for example, let’s take the Martini at Place des Fêtes. Initially, I was trying to create a play on a Dirty Martini, which was just a mistake because Dirty Martini people are some of the most particular drinkers I know. With our Martini, we put a tomato liqueur in and the idea was for the “dirty” aspect to come through with the savory notes of the tomato, sherry, and vermouth. I just thought that flavor profile would play really well.
I think the Dirty Martini is a great template for exploring savory applications, and you can explore without losing the roots of the cocktail. With ours, this tomato distillate is so fantastic and I love sherry, so there’s salinity and savoriness as well. It all just makes a lot of sense to me.
7. For those who are more inclined to opt for a glass of wine, you have an incredible selection of wines with incredible stories behind their operations. How did you discover these winemakers?
I taste wine all the time, and I think that with natural winemakers particularly, there is a lot of narrative. It’s usually first-time winemakers, and for a lot of them, it’s a career change. For a lot of them, they did art or movies, or they were architects before, but they’re led by these passions to produce wine. I try to be very narrative-based when purchasing wines to feature by figuring out each winemaker’s particular quirk. How have they incorporated other winemaking theories and made them their own? How have they created their own philosophical or religious aspect into their winemaking?
All of these are things that are going to influence their decisions down the line, regardless of how they treat their vines. The things every winemaker is doing or not doing are dictated by a personal code of ethics they’ve developed independently, but it all comes from a central text. It’s kind of all really secular when you think about it, and it all really fascinates me. I’m just trying to tap into that wavelength of winemakers, and it’s so great because they’re all independent and there’s so many.
8. How do you then choose which wines to feature on your menus?
At Place des Fêtes, we feature a lot of Spanish wines because the winemaking is so different there. In France, when you follow the thread of winemakers, it’s all very linear and hierarchical, but in Spain, they’re all doing things together. It’s sort of like in college or that part of your 20s when everyone you know is in a band, and they’re all in bands with each other. That’s the same sort of energy you get from Spanish winemakers, where it’s more of a sprawling Venn diagram rather than a family tree.
So with the wines we select, I’m really just extremely fascinated by the producers. To make wine well, you have to be really driven and passionate, and maybe even a little bit crazy. It’s a special type of person and I think the restaurant industry is like that, too. It takes a very dedicated and hardworking person to be able to do it well, and it’s really exciting to pull it all apart and not only see where they’ve been, but where they’re going from there.
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