Leaving the band for a solo career is a risky business: there are far more Billy Corgans than there are Beyoncés. As a bartender, James Tait has played the headliners. His back catalogue includes Der Raum and the experimental Indian act, Tonka.
And now, Tait is taking the stage as bar manager of Thomas Olive, a slick new adjunct to Collingwood’s voguish restaurant Saint Crispin. Accessed via a near-hidden staircase behind the press of hungry punters, the bar gains immediate cachet by perplexing anyone trying to find it.
Once discovered, the bar offer immediate payoff. A slim corridor opens onto an elegant front room channeling some imagined Paris: black tiles, marble-topped bar, anonymous 1920s jazz and those tables from Les Deux Magots. In the midst of all this stands Tait, attired in dark tie and apron, enquiring after your cocktail proclivities.
The drinks list is the real Gallic deal. Seven vermouths (seven!) range from Lillet Blanc to the pretty odd Pineau des Charentes, a strong, sweet aperitif not often found outside western France. A selection of anis – a boozy anise liquor like Pastis – is served with ice and water, each with optional grenadine, mint or almond syrup. Even beer gets gussied up: the addition of Sirop de Picon (an aperitif bitters used in northern France) spikes your more humble lagers with citrus and caramel, giving your Brooklyn Lager or Pilsner Urquell a bittersweet depth.
Tait’s cocktails live up to the hype. A take-no-prisoners mix of rye, vermouth, Dom Benedictine and absinthe is herbal and rich, enough to put hairs on the chest of even old-fashioned Old Fashioned drinkers. The Scorpion, with its flashing tail of mint, sets Pisco's tartness against honey and almond. An Ile de France – Cognac and yellow Chartreuse, topped up with Champagne on arrival – is a masterful contrast of sharp and sweet. Tait pores over every drink with the attention of a watchmaker, and often what results tastes genuinely new.
Snacks, meanwhile, are prepared in Saint Crispin’s kitchen. Billowing pork crackling puffs scattered with sumac dust are salty clouds of crunch and tang – they also make for one hell of a meat cracker for the charcuterie board of South African biltong, soft-yolked quail eggs and satiny dabs of duck-liver parfait. Otherwise, go for lightly dressed Dutch carrots and radishes, and all with a fluffy hazelnut cream.
The only problem here is that in addition to mixing, Tait seats patrons, takes orders, makes chat, buses drinks and tots the bill. Sure, the one-man band is a charming conceit, but it’s hard to pull off. Half-hour waits aren’t unusual here, and a glance around the room reveals punters with varying degrees of patience. Still, if you’re prepared to adjust your expectations – and you’re not in a rush – Tait’s exceptional unusual cocktails are among the best acts in town.