Chef Vijay Sadhu doesn’t let anything like a failed restaurant concept keep him down. When his innovative, yet unpopular, Sutra, the modern Indian cuisine restaurant at the The Shops at Legacy closed, he gathered new ideas and investors and opened Pepper Smash, A Cocktail Kitchen. Sadhu reworked the Sutra interior, 86ed the Indian food, added an extensive mixology program, up-tempo music, and a snazzy website. The food is Modern American with a Mediterranean twist.
Recently I attended a tasting event for the media and many dishes we tried (seemingly the whole menu) were impeccably prepared. I have said it before but will repeat it again: Sadhu’s greatest strength is his ability to wring every ounce of flavor out of the ingredients he choses. So pick a protein, like chicken, that could be bland and put it in Sadhu’s hands. He grills it until the flavors of the Maillard reaction http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maillard_reaction emerge and balances them with tahini sauce.
Keith Thomas LaBonte, proprietor and molecular mixologist of Four Lounge in Uptown, it the man behind the cocktail kitchen. Currently, he is consulting, devising drinks, and training staff. Pride of place goes to the restaurant’s signature drink, the Pepper Smash, made from lime juice, smashed red bell peppers, and caramelized sweet onions marinated in 100-proof vodka, sautéed basil, and jalapeno. The mix shaken with Tito’s Texas vodka and served in an old fashioned glass with an oversized ice cube and a chile salt rim. Don’t underestimate the jalapeño kick. This is the ideal starter for after-work happy hours.
LaBonte’s also uses molecular mixology techniques: He has liquid nitrogen, smoke machines, and heaven knows what else in his devil’s tool shed. It all adds up to create a captivating intergalactic dive like those in the early Star Wars movies. Some of the patrons might even come to resemble the characters in the movie after one of LaBonte’s vanilla bean-blueberry mojitos.
Vijay Sadhu’s food is as familiar as the cocktails are esoteric. The Small Plates section of the menu features crostini, hummus and olives, ceviche tostadas, spicy Texas chicken lollipops, and VJ’s maple-bourbon blazed pork belly. The next section on the menu is a selection of flat breads. One with Mediterranean tendencies, one more Italian, and another with the BBQ-inspired pulled pork. The Big Plates section of the menu has a trio of corn tacos, a couple of pasta dishes, a Catalan fisherman’s stew of mussels, and familiar meats. There is a chicken shish kebab, a house-made lamb sausage, rack of lamb and short rib.
The service is a far cry from the Sutra days of getting a waiter feeling like hailing a cab in a national park. The new regime is serious, senior looking guys with suits on. They have the 20-20 attentiveness that you find in the better steak houses. I can’t swear to this, but I thought I saw some of them at Social 121 at one time.
In the background is perhaps the biggest change. The force behind Pepper Smash comes from the partnership of Sadhu and Al Bhakta, a restaurateur and CEO of The Chalak Group (Baker Bros, Genghis Grill, Yum).
Bhakta just sees The Shops at Legacy as a great location and at this time the duo aren’t considering a rollout. I consider the concept sound. Everything will depend on execution. In that situation, Al Bhakta may be the best guy to have on the team.