It all began with a cucumber Cosmopolitan. Gina Chersevani, founder and owner of retro New York City-style deli, bar, and soda fountain Buffalo & Bergen, was bartending at Penang—a Malaysian restaurant in Washington, D.C.—when she added cucumber chunks to a Cosmo and pushed it across the bar. It was 2002, and cocktails that integrated food were virtually unknown. With that drink, Chersevani launched herself into the beverage alcohol world, where she continues to experiment with cocktails through food, fermentation, and franchising.
After leaving Penang in late 2002, Chersevani was hired to help launch a beverage program at 15 Ria restaurant in D.C. She eventually went on to work at Indian restaurant and lounge Rasika, also in D.C., which exposed her to spices that would inspire a slew of new cocktail recipes. “My experience there was really eye-opening,” says Chersevani. “The spice closet there was a total treasure trove—it allowed me to experiment.”
Chersevani’s cocktail recipes soon began appearing in major publications and, as she gained recognition for her unique drinks, she decided to open her own concept where she could freely experiment. Chersevani debuted Buffalo & Bergen at Union Market in December 2012. Today, some 14 employees operate the 330-square-foot venue, and a second location—an independent site in Capitol Hill—was slated for a summer 2019 launch at press time. Buffalo & Bergen features old-fashioned aesthetics and a vintage 1930s Bastian-Blessing soda fountain that Chersevani salvaged from American Soda Fountain, Inc. in Chicago and then had refurbished. “It’s beautiful and stunning, and when you make a drink with it—or when you see someone making a float—the art of watching it happen and feeling the anticipation is beautiful,” she says.
A Twist On Tradition
Chersevani’s bar offers a large selection of knishes ($6) and New York bagels ($1) and dozens of add-on options like eggs, bacon, and specialty cream cheeses. All food is also offered to-go so customers can bring their Buffalo & Bergen experience home. Chersevani chose these food offerings as a means of paying tribute to her family’s history of running dough-based culinary businesses, from pizzerias to bagel stores. “We were well-versed in two kinds of dough, and that was it,” Chersevani says. “My father always said there’s money in the dough.” She adds her own twist to this legacy by bringing beverage alcohol into the mix.
Counter classics—like the egg cream, ice cream float, and cream soda ($5-$7)—are featured on the non-alcoholic drinks menu, while cocktails like the Vegas Baby ($9), comprising Deep Eddy vodka, steeped Darjeeling tea, cranberry syrup, and fresh cranberry and lime juices, are served at the bar and from a 1968 stripped-down Airstream that sits just outside of Union Market. Chersevani found the Airstream on eBay and launched it in 2013 as a separate concept called Suburbia—although there is some menu overlap with Buffalo & Bergen.
Customer favorites at Buffalo & Bergen include such specialty food-inspired cocktails as the Lox’d & Loaded Bloody Mary ($20), a spicy Bloody Mary made with Wheatley vodka, Chersevani’s custom Bloody Mary mix, and lemon juice and dramatically garnished with an everything bagel that piles on lox, cream cheese, capers, and red onion. Also popular is the Rye Beet-ween The Lines ($12) cocktail, blending Redemption rye, Dolin sweet vermouth, house-made roasted beet syrup, and Bittermens Burlesque hibiscus bitters.
Waste Not, Want Not
The cocktail menu at Buffalo & Bergen spins off from Chersevani’s original cucumber Cosmo idea by using leftovers as key ingredients in new recipes. Chersevani compares her cocktail philosophy to the creation of the everything bagel. “The everything bagel came from all the dregs that were left over,” she says. “One day they just dipped a bagel in leftover brushings and said, ‘Yeah, it’s got everything on it.’”
The solid ingredients she uses in her drinks, like odds and ends of vegetables, would be thrown away otherwise. Chersevani is adamant about eliminating waste and making use of everything in the kitchen. “I’m a fierce opponent of food waste—I have a strict policy of using every part of the food, from leaf to root, whether it’s in cocktails or syrups,” she says, explaining that apple skin and seeds can be utilized for cocktail bitters, while mint and soft herbs can be incorporated into house-made syrups.
Chersevani notes that her goal of using all excess ingredients has led to some creative drinks. “It starts simple, with something like carrot tops,” she says. “I’ll blanch them in simple syrup, buzz them, make this beautiful green liquid, and now I have carrot top soda. I’ve also taken a deeper look at onion ends, letting them sit in water with some salt, which creates the beginnings of a miso to use as a martini mix.” Her Changing Leaves cocktail ($13) makes use of this philosophy, combining Catoctin Creek rye, juice from leftover beets and ginger, fresh-pressed Pink Lady apple juice, and cinnamon simple syrup, topped with sparkling wine and an apple slice.
Fermentation and other kitchen methods are key parts of Chersevani’s toolkit as a bartender. “Fermentation is an easier way to remove sugar and still get body in a drink,” she says. She finds that the technique provides balance and predicts it will grow in popularity behind the bar. The Vow cocktail ($13) includes strained pear juice that’s fermented for 60 days, mixed with Alvear Fino Sherry, Sipsmith London Dry gin, and lemon juice and topped with sparkling wine, while the Inti The Sun ($10) comprises Macchu Pisco, house-made ají amarillo syrup, and fermented pineapple syrup, as well as ginger, fresh lime, and soda.
Chersevani also employs souring methods, mostly by juicing fruits. When souring pineapples, mangoes, and passion fruit, she takes citric acid, puts it in vacuum-sealed packaging with the fruit, warms the concoction on a stovetop, and lets it brew, eventually taking it out and running it through a coffee filter. She also implements a blackening technique with citrus fruits, using fungus to control mold development. She takes lemons and limes that are developing mold and regulates the growth by letting the fruits sit in a controlled environment, eventually using a syringe to derive the juice, which at that point is sour, from inside the peel. “Blackening is pretty incredible, it’s just a long process,” Chersevani says. “You have to commit, because it doesn’t give instant gratification. But what’s left is a beautiful product.”
Chersevani’s passion for using kitchen methods behind the bar has led to another revenue stream. She makes handcrafted syrups ($14 a 16-ounce bottle; two for $22) sold exclusively at her venues, including Grapefruit Rosemary, Lemon Lavender, Ginger Mint, and Cranberry Sage, as well as Bloody Mary Mix ($13 a 32-ounce bottle). Chersevani has no plans to mass-produce the syrups in the near future, but she foresees them eventually being sold at retail.
When she first became a bartender, Chersevani assumed it would be temporary. “The job just grew on me,” she says, 17 years after starting at Penang. “Being a part of cocktail culture right now is amazing. People used to laugh at me, saying, ‘Nobody cares about cocktails!’” Chersevani has high hopes for Buffalo & Bergen; ultimately, she’d like to franchise and extend the concept by six or seven units in the next ten years. “My goal is to bring one venue back to New York,” she says, noting that New York City is where Buffalo & Bergen’s roots lie, after all—at an intersection in Brooklyn.