Matt Poli of The Catbird Seat talks about his current ingredient obsession—plus explains how to use it at home.
Matt Poli learned about beer in Chicago while bartending at The Publican. He learned about wine in Denver while working at Frasca Food & Wine. But when he moved down south to be the Beverage Director at The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Poli’s interests began shifting away from booze.
Though he’s sure his passions for beer and wine won’t ever go away, Poli has become obsessed with the world of non-alcoholic drinks. “It actually helps me understand the alcohol better,” Poli said. “When you try to figure out the flavors in the pairing and make them without alcohol, you perceive a lot more.”
At The Catbird Seat, 22 diners sit at a u-shaped chef’s counter each night, watching as executive chef Ryan Poli — Matt Poli’s brother — creates innovative, dynamic dishes that reflect his culinary pedigree, which includes Noma and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The brothers work together to offer guests an experience that pairs the flavors of the food with those of the drinks. There are two curated beverage programs: one includes wine, sake, and cocktails; the other doesn’t contain any alcohol at all.
The latest drink to land on the restaurant’s non-alcoholic lineup is made with leftover coffee shells, an ingredient that Poli discovered by chance. At the beginning of each week, the restaurant buys the staff a big jug of iced coffee from Crema, a local roaster. Chef Ryan liked Crema’s coffee so much that he started using it to infuse beets. One day, Poli stopped by the roastery and he noticed that there were a ton of coffee shells everywhere. Crema's employees explained that they have to husk the fruit of the coffee plant in order to obtain the coffee beans. The leftover shells are called cascara.
After doing some research, Poli started experimenting with the raw material, steeping it like tea. “We discovered that it has a deep, rich, cherry-and-date kind of flavor to it,” Poli said. Wanting the fruitiness to shine, Poli puts the flavored liquid into a dehydrator to reduce it, then adds a splash of Luxardo cherry juice and a tiny bit of salt. By the the time the drink reaches a table, it’s brick red in color and contains a minor amount of caffeine.
In a coffee-two-ways type of move, Poli pairs the cherry tea drink with his brother’s beet dish. The roasted, coffee-infused root vegetables are covered in a potato-and-white-chocolate mousse and topped with dehydrated olives and lime. “You get a little bit of that slightly bitter coffee flavor in the cascara drink,” Poli said. “I think that really accentuates the flavor of the beets." Taste aside, Poli likes being able to reuse something that would otherwise be thrown away.
For an at-home approach to cascara shells, Poli recommends making sun tea. Simply place the shells in a jug of water, set it outside under the sun for a while, strain it off, and add some lemon. The shells can be used in food, too. Poli suggests grinding them into a powder to dust over a dessert or cooking them down into a syrup that can then be used in sauces or drinks.
Poli hasn’t yet experimented with pairing cascara and alcohol, but that’s what he thinks will come next. Maybe he’ll add a touch of the coffee shell syrup to a champagne cocktail. Maybe he’ll create a spritzer that enhances cascara’s cherry flavor. Or maybe he’ll keep the drink as is: fruity, salty, and alcohol-free.