Boston Barhopper | SKY Restaurant
March 14, 2014
One of my favorite things about enjoying a drink in a top-notch cocktail bar is being able to talk with the person who made it. Having the chance to hear a skilled mixologist explain why he or she uses one liquor brand over another, or what modifications they’ve made to a traditional recipe, can be fascinating. I especially enjoy those occasions when a bartender inquires after my preferred spirit and then crafts a drink based on that. Under such circumstances, I often don’t even bother looking at the drink list and instead rely on their judgment and recommendations. It doesn’t happen all the time, but with so many excellent cocktail bars in Boston, it’s not an uncommon experience.
Admittedly, it’s not a dynamic I was expecting to find 30 minutes south of the city in the town of Norwood. But then again, there’s a lot about SKY Restaurant that’s unexpected.
Most people in Massachusetts know Norwood as the home of “the automile,” a stretch of Route 1 dominated by auto dealerships and punctuated by strip malls and fast-food restaurants. There’s more to the town than that, of course, but cruising down Route 1 doesn’t usually prompt anyone to say, “Hey, we should really come here sometime for dinner and drinks.”
This monotonous landscape of commerce makes SKY stand out all the more. Endeavoring to offer upscale, city-like dining in a casual, suburban environment, SKY is a huge restaurant with two separate dining rooms and a second floor with function space. But the stylish cocktail lounge is what makes SKY a true suburban destination.
There’s a long, L-shaped bar with 15 comfortable leather seats; candles dot the polished wooden surface, casting an intimate glow. Beyond the bar is a spacious dining area with a fireplace. Dark red and mahogany colors give the lounge a traditional, conservative look, but funky, modern lighting fixtures contribute to a more casual, relaxed atmosphere.
The cocktail menu is fairly expansive, featuring original concoctions and creative twists on some of the classics. What really sets SKY apart, though, is its growing array of liquor infusions. Now, infusing alcohol is nothing new; at plenty of bars, you’ll see the obligatory glass dispenser loaded with fruit and vodka. But it’s rare that infused liquors figure prominently into a bar’s nightly offerings.
“We had a pineapple vodka infusion and a green apple one for a long time,” says Nadine, one of SKY’s four bartenders. “And we thought, what else can we do?”
Get creative, that’s what. Unsatisfied with merely soaking pineapple rings in a gallon of vodka, Sky’s bar manager, Kyle, teamed up with head chef Andy DiPace to develop infusions with greater complexity and character. They started small and played it safe, infusing vodka with a combination of golden, red, and green apples and adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract. The result was not only a better-quality infusion but a new signature cocktail – the Apple Orchard.
Representing everything that a well-conceived vodka infusion can be, the Apple Orchard quickly took off among SKY’s customers. Simple and approachable, but with complexity and balance on account of the apple blend, it’s like a fresh slice of apple pie in a glass. A cinnamon stick garnish adds a spicy aroma to every sip.
The drink’s popularity inspired further experimentation and bigger risks, like a vodka infused with poblano peppers, onions, tomato, garlic, and peppercorn, which features in the house Bloody Mary.
Emboldened by their early successes, Kyle and company then took a much more daring leap – infusing whiskey.
With even the most cursory understanding of the differences between these spirits, you can see the problem here. The best vodka is odorless and tasteless; that makes it ideal for infusing, since it easily takes on the flavors of whatever you put in there. Whiskey, with its complex flavor profile, is quite another matter. “There’s a different range of things you can put in bourbon,” Kyle says. “Things like bananas, nuts, and spices work well with it,” he explains. “Pineapple and bourbon, probably not.”
Those challenges are not lost on customers, some of whom are inclined to be skeptical. “Some people, when they hear we’re infusing whiskey, they say you just can’t do that,” Kyle admits. “But they try it, and most of them are surprised.”
It’s hard to imagine even a whiskey purist not appreciating the Maple and Rye, which infuses rye whiskey with banana, crushed candied walnuts, and Vermont maple syrup. The flavors are well balanced; the banana is prominent but not overpowering, and there’s only a touch of syrup, so the final product isn’t overly sweet.
The Bourbon Smash takes on the warm, earthy flavors of figs, apricots, golden raisins, and orange peel. Bourbon and citrus are long-time friends anyway, but the sweetness of the fruit and the depth of the bourbon make this luxuriously smooth and eminently drinkable.
“A lot of it is trial and error,” Kyle says of the whiskey infusions. “And they don’t always come out the same way, depending on the state of the fruit.” He discovered that green bananas and riper, brown bananas, for example, yield very different results in terms of both flavor and smoothness.
Not all of SKY’s drinks are infusion-based, but that same spirit of innovation and experimentation permeates the entire cocktail list. On the first of my two recent visits, Kyle asked whether there was a particular spirit I favored and seemed pleased when I mentioned bourbon. He recommended the Fashion Nut, a smart variation of an old fashioned that he devised after seeing something similar on a cooking show. Combining bourbon, brown sugar, and black walnut bitters, it’s an exceptional cocktail with a mild, molasses-like sweetness and a nutty, smoky essence from the bitters. An orange twist provides the requisite citrus.
The Lavender Honey Sidecar offers another modern interpretation of a classic. A traditional sidecar recipe made with Remy VS cognac, Cointreau, and fresh lemon juice, the addition of honey and lavender make it soft and floral, with muted sweetness and a hint of vanilla.
Even a comparatively simple drink like a margarita benefits from a couple of unique touches. A house-made sour mix cuts down on the usual sweetness, and a rim coated in black sea salt is visually striking.
It is the culture of creativity behind the bar that encourages such novelty and nuance. As explained to me by J.C., a mellifluously voiced mixologist working alongside Kyle, all four of Sky’s bartenders contribute ideas and drink recipes, thriving on the sense of friendly competition. Their passion for mixology is evident as well, especially when J.C. explains that the unusually large chunk of hand-chipped ice cooling my drink is leftover from a 300-pound ice block they used during a recent whiskey event. When I mention to Kyle a whiskey he hadn’t heard of, he pulled out a notebook and jotted it down. I have to admire anyone who keeps a whiskey notebook.
The innovative spirit that infuses the drink list extends to the food menu as well. You could probably make a meal just out of the extensive appetizer list, with items as diverse as lobster sliders, lettuce wraps, and baja egg rolls.
Deviled eggs are jazzed up with smoked bacon, blue cheese, and micro arugula. The crab cake trio is accompanied by a trio of tangy sauces – pineapple salsa, sweet chili, and a traditional remoulade.
The dinner menu is stocked with traditional Italian dishes, seafood, and a host of classic comfort foods with modern twists (I’ll admit to feeling a slight pang of regret in not trying the apple bacon pear pizza). The delicious winter vegetable spaetzel, one of several seasonal offerings, is a hearty combination of roasted brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, sweet potatoes, and heirloom carrots, topped with a rich demi glace.
Frutti del Mare, which translates to “fruits of the sea,” was one of the evening’s specials. This outstanding dish was a mix of haddock, calamari, and shrimp stuffed into fresh, house-made raviolis, tossed with sautéed spinach, and served in a sherry cream sauce.
When dinner arrived, I asked Kyle if he could suggest a cocktail that would go with my meal. Given my new appreciation for the challenges of pairing food and cocktails, I realized this was no simple request. Kyle responded admirably, though, with a drink combining Nolet’s Silver gin, St. Germain, ginger liqueur, peach bitters, and a splash of pineapple and cranberry juice. One of Nadine’s recipes, it was a vibrant drink with a sweetness that nicely complemented the creamy sauce.
It may be hard to justify dessert after two appetizers, a filling meal, and a few drinks, but SKY’s “minis” make it easy to allow for a little post-dinner sweetness. These artful, sample-size desserts made by the restaurant’s pastry chef are served in individual glasses, and a few bites of apple pie, key lime pie, and strawberry cheesecake are manageable even if you’re full.
The chocolate fondue, on the other hand, is the very epitome of decadence. If there was one thing we didn’t need right then, it was a chocolate fondue with marshmallows, cookies, and cake pieces for dipping. But one of Sky’s regular customers insisted my wife and I try it – then ordered one for us and put it on his own tab.
It was wonderfully generous, and our benefactor’s enthusiasm was entirely justified; the fondue was delicious. Granted, being rolled out to the car a few minutes later was not my most dignified exit.
It’s tough for any suburb to compete with a city when it comes to nightlife. Boston will always have more bars and restaurants, and thus more variety, than any of its distant neighbors. But even in a city with a preponderance of cocktail bars, finding a staff with the same talent, enthusiasm, and good nature as the one at SKY is not always a given.
My visits were as illuminating as they were entertaining. The creative and competitive spirit that fuels the SKY’s cocktail menu is also evident in the animated dynamic behind the bar, with liberal amounts of witty banter, verbal jabs, and bickering over things like the proper way to arrange a place setting. It makes for a relaxed environment conducive to conversation and exploration – something I find more valuable than simply placing an order. To that end, Kyle, J.C., and Nadine seemed genuinely happy to discuss the finer points of the cocktail menu and offer helpful suggestions.
And they listen, too. Not long after Nadine and I had a chat about rum, she surprised me with a drink that she’d just made up. “It’s kind of a rum sidecar,” she explained. Combining Gosling’s rum, cognac, peach schnapps, and orange bitters, garnished with an orange twist, it was fruit-forward but with considerable depth and complexity from the cognac. I was impressed with both the cocktail and her attentiveness. “It’s not every day that someone says they like Nadine’s drinks, so it’s good for morale,” Kyle noted dryly.
As for SKY’s liquor infusions, the experiments continue. Tonight they’re unveiling a tequila infused with jalapeno peppers, avocados, and limes, which will feature in their new Angry Sombrero cocktail. That sort of inventiveness and originality makes you wonder whether city bars will start taking cues from the suburbs for a change.
Address: 1369 Providence Turnpike Highway, Norwood