For this installment of Bartender Spotlight, I headed to Flora in Uptown Oakland to chat with Polina Kharnas. We started talking casually, when I realized that there was some pretty good conversation going on, and I decided to hit record midway through:
So the Bay Area is not as close knit as San Diego?
San Diego's got a really close-knit community because it's so small and everybody knows one another. And here [in the Bay Area] everything is so spread out; it's great. A lot of the people that started bars up here moved to San Diego to open other bars and they are doing phenomenal, like Erick Castro. But it's so different here, and getting into the industry and getting to know people has been hard.
I think it just takes time. I've been here two and half years, and I'm getting to know people. Especially in Oakland, in Uptown, it seems like everyone is connected and everyone [lives within] walking distance.
What brought you to The Bay Area?
Actually, [my partner] Leslie. She got a job here, and I wanted a change. I wasn't leaving her. I wasn't staying in San Diego with her here. So I came up, and ended up at Tigerlily, which is how you and I know one another. Leslie found Umami Mart. She was like, "We got to go!" and I was super stoked.
That kind of segues into my official "Bartender Spotlight" questions. Do you have a favorite bar tool?
Oh, totally. It's a jigger. I carry my own, even if I stage at a place. I have a relationship [with my jigger]. I know how it works. It fits right in my hand. I'm used to it. And also, I love a barspoon that matches a jigger. My jigger is gold, so I have a gold barspoon, actually from Umami Mart. I feel extra fancy. With bartending and bar managing, you're creating a show for somebody, and you're making the experience. If you feel fancy, the person who's sitting in front of you is going to be extra stoked.
Do you have a favorite drink?
It depends on the weather. In the summertime when it's hot and I want something refreshing, I'll probably do an Eastside Rickey. Mint, cucumber, lime, simple syrup, gin, soda on top, with just a dash of absinthe. But if it's cold out, I'll go for something stirred and straight up like a Rob Roy or Bobby Burns. I love a good Old-Fashioned. If I go to a bar and they make a terrible Old-Fashioned I'm like, "Whyyyyyy? This is not how it tastes!" I like a lot of whiskies, especially peated Scotches.
That reminds me, I need to get the recipe of the drink you made for me the last time I was at Flora. I asked for something with low ABV. Do you remember what that was?
Yeah, it's what I drink at home. It's Carpano Antica with soda and orange. It's delicious; I can drink that all night. Two ounces Antica, two and a half to three ounces soda water, with ice and an orange peel in a Collins glass. I like simple. Simple does so well.
When I'm ordering a drink and see three ingredients listed, I'm thinking that it'll be a solid drink.
It's harder to make a drink that's incredibly basic and limited in its palette. Everything has to be so balanced. When you taste it, you are able to taste all the different ingredients in it. That's why an Old-Fashioned is perfect. Or a Manhattan. It's balanced and beautiful. A lot of times, people rely on having numerous ingredients and flair on top of flair, which is great. If you are doing that, there are so many techniques that I want to learn from you. But I think it's very difficult, and I really appreciate, when a cocktail is done right with limited ingredients. It's the perfect little marriage, you know?
Do you have a favorite glass?
I'm such a sucker for punch cups. I love punch bowls, Nick & Noras, and coupes. I hate martini glasses. You end up sloshing everywhere. I guess I have many favorite glasses. Like old fizz glasses. They're like stout little jam cups used for fizzes back in the day. Anything that's gaudy, or with etching, or with a gold rim, I'm in. The Russian in me comes out, for sure.
Favorite bar in the Bay Area?
I'm going to cheat and say it really depends on what I want to do. For example, on a day off, when I want to read a book and take my dog with me, Heart and Dagger Saloon is perfect. But for a really good cocktail, I absolutely love Ramen Shop. They have a great bar and take so much pride in what they put out. From cleanliness, to glassware, to garnishes, to the spirits that they carry – everything is so consistent. And everyone there is so kind, approachable, and fast. If they see somebody new at the bar, they will acknowledge you. I love when a bar does that. I absolutely love Prizefighter. Grab the dog, go have yourself a cocktail. Or on late nights, when I get off from work, I want a shot and a beer at the Ruby Room. It's dark, it's a little creepy, but a good level of creepy. The back bar there is fantastic. Once they had a bunch of Taiwanese and Indian scotches as their special. Whoever runs that back bar is putting some great things on the menu.
Favorite bar food?
Pretzels. Soft pretzels. I'm a fat kid at heart, and I'm Russian. So bread and salt? Done. Perfect combination.