Modern mixology walks a fine line between authentic craft and goofy gimmickry, and delineating between those two is really in the eye of the beholder. Old-school types never want much more than ice cubes in their booze, while those seeking a spectacle at the bar enjoy nothing less than listening to long talks on technique, sampling obscure adjuncts, and wading through waves of garnish to reach their cocktail.
Something of a middle ground is settling in at Djinn, the lobby bar of the Hotel Californian that opened last Halloween. The small space features top-shelf liquor, so purists can happily settle into one of the couches with a Manhattan or on the outdoor patio with a margarita. Yet the hotel also enlisted the cocktail consulting services of Devon Espinosa, a Los Angeles–based, culinary-school-educated chef turned mixology magician. That means there are also drinks that emerge shrouded in smoke or adorned with cursive writing in foam, or that require the guest’s own participation for mixing.
“My process is solely focused on creating a cocktail that makes sense with the rest of my menu and tastes great,” said Espinosa. “I then take what I created and figure out how I can present it to the customer in a new way. I don’t take myself too seriously, and I want my drinks to be fun, interactive, and whimsical to enhance the drinking experience. Techniques and garnishes, as crazy as they can be, still need to make sense with the liquids inside the glass.”
When I visited last week, bartender Ty Ledesma translated Espinosa’s recipes into a visually stunning display of four different drinks, all of which were well-balanced, flavorful, and unique. We began with the Bright Idea, a pink affair in which a strawberry purée with vodka is topped with a sugar-coated gummy candy, known as a pâte de fruit in fancy company. Alongside that is a twist-top lightbulb filled with sparkling rosé, which I added to the purée while my sipping made space available. A hospitality buzzword these days is “activation,” which means bringing certain spaces to life, and this drink actually activates the customer to find a happy mix to their cocktail, which is very fruity yet still dry.
As I sipped, the hotel’s sales and marketing director, Mia Thomas, explained that “djinn” is the ancient word for genie. “It speaks to the mischievous nature of the venue and the drinks,” said Thomas, who is excited about the hotel’s expansive events calendar, such as the monthly HOWL @ Djinn full-moon party. That happens again on June 17, when they bring in a deejay and a tarot-card reader. Espinosa himself typically works the bar during the special events, including the hotel’s second-ever Constellation evening on June 1, which includes a cocktail reception, six-course dinner, and soul singer Mayer Hawthorne spinning vinyl until the wee hours. (Another one is coming August 17.) There are also beer dinners, wine-down Wednesdays, and plans for a Summer Solstice gathering.
The bar’s flagship cocktail is A Djinn by Any Other Name, also later christened The Empress by the tarot card lady. This is also pink, extremely floral in flavor with rose, elderflower, and other gin-related botanicals in the mix, and finished with a signature of “Djinn” on top of the foam.
The most gimmicky, yet most tasty in my opinion, cocktail is the Puff, Puff, Pass, a blueberry-bourbon concoction that is closed in a glass case and treated to a bath of hickory and cinnamon smoke. That gives the tangy drink a savory edge, enhanced for the eyes by the bed of dried lichen and moss that surrounds the glass. My last sip was of Just Chai Me, the bar’s spiced-up take on an Old Fashioned, served with a charred orange peel in a metal, dinosaur-egg-shaped vessel that was slightly awkward to drink from.
Amid my sips, I was also treated to the small bites prepared by Chef Blake Silberman and delivered into the bar. The uni toast, which floats on brioche fingers; oysters with sumac pearls; and chickpea fries (why don’t we see more of these) went great with the first two drinks. The grilled octopus held up to the smoky Puff, Puff, Pass, and the chai spices worked well with the strawberry pastry dessert, whose sour-cream ice-cream companion stole the show.
4•1•1 | Hotel Californian hosts Constellation this Saturday, June 1. Tickets are $250 for the cocktail reception with Devon Espinosa, six-course dinner with Margerum Wine Company, Mayer Hawthorne vinyl session, and all beverages, or $50 for the music only. The next HOWL @ Djinn is June 17. See hotelcalifornian.com for a complete calendar of events.