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The Art (And Science) Of Cocktails At Lombardi Family Concepts

Local Profile talks the magic of mixology with Andrew Stofko

It's not yet noon, and we're already drinking. Coffee, that is. At least, I am. Andrew Stofko is drinking mineral water. And yet, here we are at Taverna in Legacy West, on a bright late spring morning, talking about booze.

"I thought this would be a good place to meet," says Stofko, decked out in a white sport coat and skinny jeans. "The ambiance is good."  

Stofko is the beverage director for Lombardi Family Concepts, the restaurant group behind Lombardi Cucina Italiana, KĀI, Toulouse and Maison Chinoise, among others. He makes some of the most delicious — and beautiful — drinks in Collin County. 

"In this day and age, presentation is paramount," he says. "Fifteen years ago, I would've said it was less important and what was in the glass or on the menu mattered more." But fifteen years ago, Instagram didn't exist. "Everything is so social media driven — visual psychology affects whether you want to give something an extra second of your time," he adds. For cocktails, that might mean using a particular garnish or glassware. "An understanding of this is important." Cocktails are an art and a science. 

Stofko hails from Oak Cliff. After graduating from Booker T. Washington, he studied jazz at the University of North Texas. On weekends, he'd play Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea at a now-shuttered Dallas coffee shop called Naughty Dog. But instead of behind the ivories, he ended up behind the espresso machine. There was more money in being a barista, and the job paved the way to making another type of drink: cocktails. 

Everything changed when he got a job at Victor Tangos, the bar that legendary Dallas mixologist Alex Fletcher made famous. That's where he learned more than he ever wanted to know about cocktail templates, jiggers, homemade ingredients and using chef tools and approaches to cocktails. 

"But it's not rocket science," says Stofko. "I remember Alex Fletcher telling me one day: I pour liquids from one cup into another cup." The years he spent at Victor Tangos were instrumental. The experience prepared him for heading up the beverage program at Lombardi Family Concepts, where he designs drinks and creates menus. 

"When I start writing drink menus, I approach it two ways," he says. "Half the time, I do research on the focus of the restaurant. Then, I think about what I want to drink and what the guests tend to want to drink." For the research part, Stofko aims to pay homage with authenticity to the restaurant's theme or cuisine, but in an approachable way. If it's not approachable, guests won't be able to connect with the drink — or might not even order it. For the second part, not all guests want to drink the same thing. More importantly, not all cities do, either. 

"I've noticed differences between places as close as Frisco and Plano — and really, we're talking about a mile difference," says Stofko. In Plano, if you look at menus or spend time in restaurants and bars, you'll notice that vodka, tequila and champagnes and wine in general tend to reign supreme. "That's what is driving volume," he says. But, he adds, if you go one more north to Frisco, you will see a lot more whisky drinkers and people who want bigger, nicer red wines. The difference could be the clientele, whether that's the age or income difference. But just because these cities are neighbors and in the same county, that doesn't mean they're the same. 

"When I opened our restaurant in The Star, I assumed it was going to be a heavy tequila market because I was basing it on what I knew about Legacy West," says Stofko. For Lombardi Cucina Italiana, he put together a beautiful tequila wall with obscure, boutique bottles. "But nobody wanted it, and the tequilas weren't flying off the shelf," he says. But he noticed that whiskies were moving and that there were knowledgeable and experienced whisky aficionados in Frisco. "They know what they're looking for, they're willing to spend money and they understand the value of what they're looking for," he adds. "So I had to change gears and when we started adding more whiskies, we started moving more spirits." 

Go further south into Dallas, and at Deep Ellum bars, you'll find more experimental and cutting-edge cocktails — plus, more gin and more mezcal-based mixes. "You see more adventurous drinks the further you get away from the suburbs," he says. "At Maison Chinoise, I think it's a lot more adventurous with the cocktails and yet, I still needed to keep it approachable." In the past few years, cocktails and cocktail menus, even in Dallas, felt as though they were going over folks' heads sometimes. "People spend all day working and don't want to spend too much time deciding whether or not they want to try this or that drink."

For Stofko, the ideal cocktails need to be "sessionable." Meaning? You should want to order another. Some one-and-done cocktails can be overwhelming, either in presentation or flavor. "Approachable" is the keyword here when Stofko sits down at his computer to write a menu. 

What follows is a decision tree: Shaken or stirred? Which spirit? What's the flavor profile? What ingredients are available? "You then have a starting point," he says, comparing this approach to that of an optometrist. This is the same method he uses when writing menus and when teaching students at the regular art of the cocktail classes Lombardi Family Concepts offers. 

Once the menu is written, he brings it into the restaurant to have the drinks finally made — writing a drink menu is akin to writing a symphony. The composer doesn't need the full orchestra. They can hear the music in their head. It's at the point that last-minute tweaks are made before finalizing the drink.  "Maybe the color isn't right or maybe the glass didn't fit the way I envisioned it — or maybe I need to play with the recipe and make adjustments," he says, as I finish my coffee. "I don't try to put two ingredients together that would be fighting an uphill battle to work well. I think I've been able to avoid that."

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