For 25 years, Avery has been a fixture in Kansas City restaurants, making — and making up — drinks and serving them to thirsty people whom she treats like family. If you went to the late, lamented Zin, you knew her. Or Lidia's, when it first opened. Or a handful of white-linen nightspots around town, never anyplace dingy or garish.
"I've opened a lot of restaurants. In this field, opening is a hell of a lot of fun."
Sometimes she has stayed 18 months and then re-evaluated her options. But she's not the Mary Poppins of mixology, someone who blows in, fixes everything and then flies away when the wind changes. Most of her tenures have been, for the restaurant business, lengthy.
Since last September, she has been at Café Europa (323 East 55th Street), presiding over the intimate bar in this revival of a neighborhood favorite.
On a Tuesday night in late summer, she describes two of her recent inventions, one made from ginger-infused vodka (ginger being one of her signatures), the other based around vodka infused with green tea. That one, the one with the green tea — yes, let's have that. She smiles, a look that confers her approval instead of asking for yours.
The liquor stops in Avery's jigger before going on to the cocktail shaker. She was always good at math, and to mix drinks is to understand ratios: knowing that what most people order will involve a recipe that's one part to one part or two parts to one part.
"I like consistency," she says. "When it comes to making drinks, I'm formula-oriented. I use my shot glass. When people tell me I make the best cosmo they've had, it's because I measure. I'm a double Virgo."
First the vodka, then a dose of St. Germain. It's a liqueur made from the elder flower. She opens the bottle, holds it out to share its perfume. Then a little limoncello splashed into the ice-filled shaker. She adds fresh lemon and muddles. "When you do it over ice, it's called a Seattle muddle," she says.
This month, just after her first anniversary at Europa, the restaurant debuts her martini list. On this night, it's not final yet.
The hard part for Avery is settling on what to call a new drink. She often resorts to asking friends. The concoction she has just poured into a wineglass, which turns out to be perfect — cold and citrusy, happy proof that nature's elemental function is to give humans a buzz — has no name yet.
One of the contenders for the list has a name, but Avery hasn't yet settled on its ingredients: the Crestwood Flower, named for the clean-cut strip of Brookside shops where Café Europa has taken root. One of the infusions she spent the summer working on involves hibiscus. Also likely to make the list is the American in Paris, another showcase for St. Germain, which takes the vermouth role alongside a U.S. vodka in this lemony martini.
Not that the art of the mix precludes customer involvement. Avery works without ego and does that other thing that the wisest, most intuitive barkeeps do: She lets you be you.
"That's a wonderful thing, when someone knows how they want something," she says of the inevitable experts and the casually demanding. "Embrace it — it means they care." Probably not as much as Avery does.
— Scott Wilson
(Photo by Angela C. Bond)