Dino Balocchi, the head bartender making cocktails and sourcing beer and wine for chef Jason Travi's menu at Hollywood's littlefork, says he moved half-way across the country, from Chicago, because of music. No, seriously — Google him. Balocchi is a musician, with a band, and an album. But he also knows how to make a drink. The Midwestern boy honed his cocktail craft at Longman & Eagle, a classy Michelin-starred bar and restaurant in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. One day, while telling a guest that he was moving to Los Angeles to focus on his music, he got a job offer. Three months later, he was behind the bar at David Reiss' littlefork.
So, how did you get this gig? I was at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, working behind the bar, and thinking it was time to get back into music. Moving to LA had always been an option, but I had some meetings set up and was feeling good about making the move. One day last summer, Brian Butler (A-Frame) and his fiancée sat at the bar and starting chatting with me. I was in the weeds, but eventually we got to talking. I told him I was planning on moving to LA. He said he was working with some guys who were about to open a restaurant in Hollywood, and if I was interested, to give him a call in September.
How long have you been in LA? Do you like it? Exactly three and a half months. I love it. I mean, I haven't seen much of it yet, obviously when you open a restaurant ... been to the ocean twice, but that's it. There's time for that later.
So are you doing the music thing then? This is what keeps happening. I get on this kick of wanting to focus on the music, opportunities come my way and I meet great people and then out of no where, an amazing restaurant opportunity comes up. This is what happened at Longman & Eagle. I was about to record a new album when that job opportunity came to me, and how can you turn something like that down? Same thing happened with littlefork. I still do music, but this is my focus right now.
How did you come up with the cocktail menu in light of Travi's concept for littlefork? Jason told me the focus of littlefork early on — Montreal meets Boston. He was talking about poutine and oysters and mussels and smoked meats. Immediately, I thought: whiskey. And Jason loves whiskey so we had to have that be a strong element. I wanted to put together a cocktail list that would enrich the flavors of the menu, that would be comparable but more than a standard list ... I was going to put maple on the menu, but it's too obvious. We might do that in the future, but I wanted to start out strong, and play with the flavors of the food first, and see how they interact with the drinks.
What about the beer and wine? You can see with the beer picks that there's lots of stuff that has to do with region, beers from the Northeast and Canada. La Fin du Monde is one of my favorites.
Are there any unique spirits here that might be hard to find elsewhere in LA? Leatherbee is a gin made in Chicago that I brought here. It's the first time it's been served in LA. It's got a good crisp flavor that makes it a good backdrop for the Logan Square (Leatherbee gin, carpano, benedictine, angostura bitters, chocolate, mint), which is one of my favorite cocktails. I've also brought Chicago's Malört to littlefork. It's bitter, but with the popularity now of bitters and similar flavor profiles, I see people drinking it more and more ... We make our own ginger beer. It's made with ginger root, lemons (the juice and the peels), limes (the juice and the peels), raw sugar, and yeast. We allow it to ferment in tinted, air-sealed bottles for a couple of days. And then we also make our own tonic water, which means I make a tonic syrup and then we add soda water to it in the process of making drinks.
What nights are you behind the bar? How late is it open? Almost every night, especially Thursdays through Saturdays. It's open Sunday and Monday til 11, Tuesday and Wednesday until 12 and Thursday through Saturdays until 1 a.m.
Do you think you'll give up music for life as a bartender? I feel like you can spend your life doing what you've decided to do, what you've decided you can do. And I can do more than one thing, that's how I think about it, so I can do both and both give me a good balance. I don't feel like I have to decide on just one path, be it music or beverage. I can do both and still be creative and successful. Keeps things fresh.
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