Thursday, August 14, 2008

A happy coincidence for P.F. Chang's

You could find lots of cocktail menus that change seasonally. It's a nice little time frame to work with a nice solid anchor point that's easy to casually remember as well as motivate with subtle hints from the world around us. "Oh, hey," you might think to yourself bartender person. "It's getting a little warm. Wow, is it summer already? I guess I should start working on a new menu. And that spiked hot apple cider really isn't holding up all that well and I'm sweating buckets having to go warm that thing up."

Or something like that.

However, another way to go about it is take opportunities when you see it, as P.F. Chang's China Bistro did when it recently released a new cocktail menu celebrating 15 years. You can always make it a celebration.

Out of the twelve new cocktails developed by P.F. Chang's beverage director Mary Melton, the Chinese 88 was extra lucky that this year also happens to be the year China is hosting the Summer Olympic games. For those who haven't gotten it pounded into their heads already by Olympics coverage, the number 8 is considered lucky in Chinese culture. The games even began on Aug. 8 (08/08), with the opening ceremony starting at 8 pm.

And since the cocktail is a variation of a French 75 cocktail, et voila, we have the Chinese 88. As John "Hannibal" Smith would say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

"We wish we were that clever," P.F. Chang's beverage director Mary Melton said before breaking into peals of laughter with director of public relations Laura Cherry. I had scheduled a phone interview a couple of weeks ago to get a bit more information on the new menu as well as the Chinese 88 for our Featured Cocktail section.

"It was fun way to tie it in," Mary continued. "It just worked out for us...could you write that we'd planned it for years?"

The cocktail is made with Plymouth Gin, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, shaken and topped with Mumm Napa Brut. The drink is served in a champagne flute with half of the rim sugared.

"It gives it a texture and bubbles," Mary said of the Brut. "And its Brut so it’s dry, so it has more of a heavy presence. It’s not sweet or fruity. It marries well with the lemon and the Plymouth gin, which is a softer gin and not so herbaceous as other gins."

"The wine and beverage program have always been a big component. [P.F. Chang's] was one of the first chains nationally to have every wine available by the glass," Laura Cherry explained. "We've always have a strong bar presence...We're very well known for our specialty cocktails."

P.F. Chang's cocktails are mostly updated flavors and styles of classic cocktails using different ingredients and premium modern spirits.

"We’re seeing that people enjoy the premium spirits," Mary said. "And the new trendy things like the plum vodka or organic tequila, they’re being very well received. As far as classics, we see people going back more and more."

The Plum Collins came about because Melton wanted to use a plum vodka because she had fallen in love with the flavor and thought it was a flavor that would work well on an Asian menu and it was something new.

"We started playing with that and it did matched well with the citrus from a Collins."

With some plum vodka and fresh lemon juice, the Plum Collins also has a splash of Plum Wine, an item already on P.F. Chang's menu that already does well.

But not every new flavor gets an automatic OK.

"It’s tricky now with so many different flavors," Melton said. "We do try to see what’s happening. For example, we really wanted to use watermelon. We had a hard time keeping it consistent. So we work with our produce partners a lot to find out what’s going on."

Which is how a the Pink Bellini, a Bellini with pear puree, made it onto the new menu.

Coming up with new cocktails at P.F. Chang's is a very hands-on process.

According to Mary, there's no real team that she works with. Usually it's herself and Laura first trying out flavors then basically walking around P.F. Chang's HQ in Scottsdale, Ariz., and having people try things out.

"It could be the president one day, it could be the mailroom guy the next."

Drinks are tested out in locations four to six week prior to rolling out, and with eight stores in the Arizona area, Mary said "we can test it in our own backyard, so to speak." It's during this time where some drinks won't make the cut. A lot of times its operations; whether it takes to long or holds up service. Some things might change, such as swapping out squeeze bottles for a smaller size to help the flow of service better.

Basing cocktails on the classics play a dual role of creating a familiar base for people who are ordering as well as being something new for those who aren't well-versed in cocktails.

"There’s also a generation of people who aren’t familiar with cocktails," Laura chimed in. "It’s a nice way of reintroduce them to those who are not familiar with them and showcase the flavors out there."

"The menu at P.F. Chang’s is very varied, with sweet and sour spicy, savory and mild Cantonese type dishes. There's also the new grill flavors; a lot of clean savory flavors," Laura continued. "The cocktails Mary created have crisp clean flavors...the cocktails go really well food, and are a little more refreshing than something like a big red wine."

Not all of the new drinks are available at all P.F. Chang's locations, but click here to download and see what all the drinks are.

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