Article By: Fred Bouchard
MICHAEL SCHLOW + THOMAS HOLLAND
Exec-Chef/Owner + GM – TICO, Boston
Specializing in 1OO% agave tequilas (112 and climbing), this snazzy bar-risto opened in February at Berkeley and St. James, in the former spot of Cottonwood Cafe. Tico’s long bar boasts a stunning gold glass tessera mosaic wall of beautiful bottles. Décor features lush red leatherette armchairs and floor-to-ceiling red curtains under an old-south pressed tin ceiling. A state-of-the-art sound system churns out a bright multi-kulti mix of Latin, Elvis, Euro, funk-rock, cha-cha. The vibe is fresh, spicy, edgy. The yew-cloistered patio with orange umbrellas, packed nightly, opens up to the old Hancock Tower. Confabulation between these two principals (plus Chef Joshua Smith) is bringing about new flavor pairings and marketing concepts for this ‘muy caliente’ Mexican spirit. My taco lunch (tuna tartare, beef two-ways) was brightened by a shot of Partida Blanco. Every taco, salad and side plate tried was excellent.
Tico’s cocktails tend toward the citrusy, blending tequila with grapefruit juice, blood orange juice, hibiscus infusions, pink lemonade.
BICOASTAL ROOTS THOMAS I was a busboy at The Roadhouse in Hyannis, still owned by Dave Colombo. I went in smiling every day – I loved it! There was energy excitement, something happening all the time, I knew I contributed to making peoples’ nights out special. I kept working at it, loving every day. Later I was a bartender and took that job all over the country: San Francisco, New Orleans, Omaha, Providence, Boston, Cape Cod. It was a great way to see the world, meet tons of people, have fun. I was a bartender, server and manager, but never cooked. As a kid in San Francisco (’88 to ’95) I thought it was the culinary and wine capital of the world. Maybe it was! I worked with Chef Bruce Hill (sous-chef with Michael Mina, founder of Aqua) and opened Oritalia (oriental/Italian).
FRESH PALATE MICHAEL For me, Tico’s a totally new concept, a complete departure. Except for Radius, my restaurants are mainly Italian [Alta Strada, Via Matta]. On vacations to South America, Spain, Mexico, I‘ve become enamored with the culture, people, flavors. Thomas and I wanted to do something fun and casual – but no crappy food! Integrity without intimidation. Show flavor profiles with mixed ingredients: limes, cilantro, chile, homage to dishes. Tacos every night, all different. Two-way beef combos: short ribs braised soft and beef shredded and crispy. Crisp-fried chicken with buttermilk. We tried 15O dishes and only 4O made it onto the menu, many as small plates [encouraging] communal sharing and fun. 8O% of our menu is small plates, in three price points for every budget. Our homage to Barcelona is escalivada salad with pepper, onion, eggplant on toast with white anchovies; we make it tighter using seared raw tuna, white anchovies in vinegar, smoked paprika with eggplant puree.
BOSTON GOES SALTY MICHAEL Tequila’s in the mix: Boston finally catches up to America’s fastest growing spirit. It’s natural for us; at Via Matta and Alta Strada we have all Italian wines. Here it’s all South American wines and Mexican tequila. Our tequila list is spectacular – every one 1OO% agave, even the pours! This will set us apart, show our commitment to quality over quantity. We seek out the best Mexico has to offer. They’re not all in Massachusetts yet, but we’re working on it. Among our partners in distributors, MS Walker and Horizon have been most proactive. MS Walker’s Steve Riley brought the new DeLeons to us on a busy Friday, we tasted immediately, and Andrew Dietz is very passionate. I had a lot to learn about tequila. Andrew put some amazing stuff in front of us. We order Frida Kahlo when we can get it. Tequila makers are going stride for stride [with grappa-makers in] packaging in handsome bottles. We don’t need decoration for our backlit gold bar!
BLOODY MARGY THOMAS Proximo represents Maestro Dobel; it came out as an ultra-premium at $75 wholesale; we’ve had a great response, even at $12 a shot. He got it into the market at $35! So we use in our popular margarita with blood orange juice. One night we knocked out 6OO margaritas – never one made in advance!
WHITE SPIRIT FOOD PAIRING MICHAEL Vodka challenged me at Double-Cross to create a dinner starting with tastes of vodka straight. Then cocktails with orange with fennel salt rim, and fennel foam, and with it I cooked a salmon dish with fennel. It can be done but doesn’t have the flavor profile. Here at Tico, if people want to do tequila shots, it’s their call. But we recommend sips over shots. Cesare Casella [fine NY-based chef from Lucca, Italy] said, “I don’t like tequila, bring me grappa.” I said, “Oh, no, try this.” I brought out Cuervo Reserva de la Familia – like a fine scotch! – and chilled it a few seconds. Then he said, “You know what? I could drink this.” We’re avoiding that rough taste of tequila shots you did in college; we’re looking for those subtleties and staying power. Sake does that for me, too, nuance and subtlety from wood aging, real variations. It’s not easy to match, but it can be done.
BASIC BLANCO THOMAS Tequilas and flavor profile are classic. Back to Italian concept: you drink local, you eat local. So our cilantros and citrus notes blend nicely with tequilas. MICHAEL Tasting blancos for our series of dinners with the reps from various companies, we found them very different from each other. When I cook a wine dinner I never start from the dishes, but rather from the wines. It’s unfair if tempting to say “blanco = taco”. Blancos vary: they may need herbs, acidity, spices; they’re different chilled from neat… possibilities are endless. Years ago I tackled making a dish with a complex viognier; I paired scallop with roasted red pepper and onion puree. That wine didn’t work with other dishes! With tequilas, likewise, you let your mind wander, look for analogies.
CLIMATE CHANGE MICHAEL We were told since the day we moved here that this would not work – Bostonians don’t like spices, weird drinks. But with the local successes of Lolita, Papagayo and Temezcal, the naysayers are now being proved wrong. A handful are really diving in. We do have very expensive tequilas, but it’s better to entice entry-level diners with something light, smooth, not too complex, as with any alcohol. Milagro is good; another not yet in Massachusetts is Casa Dragones; Bob Pittman has been working on this for a year! It is in New York, California, Florida.
TEQUILA MYSTIQUE MICHAEL Newness, brashness, excitement . . . tequila says “we’re going out!” it’s naughty, slightly dangerous! My go-to drink used to be Grey Goose with dash of cranberry. Now it’s a Paloma, silver tequila with grapefruit. Makes me happy! The taste excites, not deadens, tastebuds! It’s celebratory, not quite like champagne, but signals fun, a good time. Tequila also has that subliminal association with warm weather. We Bostonians are trapped in a cold climate – so here’s warm weather brought to your table.
LEARNING CURVES THOMAS Tequila offers tons of possibilities. Each profile and category has its own blend and niche – spiced infused pepper, gin-like herb quality to some blancos, añejos are more smoky, like scotch or brandy. Find out what people like, then guide them toward the T-bar.
We’re still gearing up the excitement of learning experience. Our Wednesday and Friday staff training by Horizon and MS Walker reps are 2O-minute sessions showcasing a single brand in all categories, to focus on flavor nuances. Our hostesses immediately show guests our tequila list – with the menu. It’s a single page legal-size board with frequent updates, broken down by style and price. Blanco, añejo, reposado, riserva. (Not all reservas are extra añejos.) And our trained waitstaff can field guests’ orders and questions.
TEQUILA VOCABULARY MICHAEL There’s a well-worn vocabulary for wine, but we must create one for tequila. Certain wine terms are weird. “Tar?” “Leather?” “Barnyard?” Hmph. But tequila and sake, despite their alcohol differences, have certain evocative parallels, like banana, mango, salt. We tend to chill them a bit, but not too much, maybe to 6O°F. You taste it, and come back to it, to see if you can decipher nuance shifts over time and temperature. We serve 2-ounce pours in traditional tequila glasses – 5-ounce, no stem, like a tiny Collins glass.
WHERE’S THE SMOKE? [I asked: ‘Got any Mezcals?’] MICHAEL The process of opening any restaurant is huge, but this was overwhelming. The staff is bombarded with sheer amount of information: menu, management, rules, on top of learning in depth about tequila. THOMAS Is mezcal our Final Frontier? Ha ha. We’re getting there. We have one exciting brand called Ilegal.