Monday, May 11, 2009

The Mexican and the Dutch

New York City has seen two major cocktail bar openings in the the past month: Phil Ward's Mayahuel in the East Village and Sasha Petraske's Dutch Kills, in Long Island City. Both are excellent and merit a visit, and both trailblaze in their way. With Mayahuel, Ward brings the cocktail revolution to tequila, and, with Dutch Kills, Petraske brings the cocktail revolution to, well, Queens.

Both worlds had long been underserved by the minds of today's mixologists. Sure, bartenders respected tequila and all, but who was really going out of their way to create a new raft of cocktails using the South-of-the-Border liquor as their base? Few, really, aside from Ward, who made the Oaxaca Old Fashioned a staple over at his previous perch, Death & Co. Gin and whiskey were the ones getting the major workouts, with rum put to the task here and there.

Petraske, meanwhile, is a geographical frontiersman. The business formula he employs at Dutch Kills is basically the same one found at his Little Branch, Milk & Honey and White Star (Old World vibe, gentlemanly bartenders, classic cocktails), but it's set in Queens, which has been completely ignored by the mixed drinks renaissance until now. (The Bronx and Staten Island remain ignored, but that's another issue.)

Dutch Kills is located on Jackson Avenue, a lonely desolate boulevard in lonely, desolate (at least at night, but pretty much in the day, too) Long Island City, the westernmost nabe in Queens. The ugly, industrial facade has been untouched. There's a larger than usual (for Sasha) neon "Bar" sign outside, so kudos for visibility! Inside, there's room to spare. The high-ceilinged, dark-wood place goes back, back, back, past a multitude of booths, past the back, ended in a sawdust-strewn room with benches and a piano. It may be my favorite of Petraske's always beautifully designed spaces. It's pleasant to be in a bar large enough that not everybody in the place knows you're there.

For his opening menu, Petraske has kept it simple and straightforward, pushing cocktails with a Queens theme. These include libations only a cocktail geek would know have been around for 75 years: the Astoria (basically a Martini with orange bitters); the Flushing (a Manhattan with Cognac); and the Queens Park Swizzle (a beauty with rum, lime, mint, bitters and plenty of ice).

Mayahuel, names after an Aztec god, is a cozy place more typical of the cocktail dens of our time. It's in the thick of Cocktail Central—the East Village, that is—on E. 6th, and takes up two floors of a former Moroccan restaurant. The floors are quite different in character. The top is all cushions and luxury; perfect for executive types who like to spend money, and couples on dates. The bottom floor, which lies down a couple steps from the entrance, is more to my taste: a tight little bar, two inviting arches wooden booths, a couple hidden stools in back, and a cantina feel lent by a profusion of lovely tilework. I may like the space better than any other EV bar. It just feels right.

I'm treating my visits to Mayahuel as part of a continuing education course in tequila. It's a spirit I need to learn more about, and there are few who have more to teach that Ward. He's very specific about the kind of tequila he puts in each cocktail, from Blanco to Reposads to Anejo, as well as which brand of each category to use. Mezcal is put to work as well. Dozens of tequilas are also offered straight up—golden opportunities to try various liquors that are not usually available by the pour. And, for those who'd rather pass on tequila, there are sangrias, beer-based cocktails and the usual back bar. (As a perverse gesture, I'm tempted to order Martini here at some point.)

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