Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Visit to Ft. Defiance

Too many of the menus at the new cocktail meccas are overly complex. They read like the multi-page, laminated menus you find at entrenched Greek diners; too many sections, categories and choices, confusingly arranged. So the clean and simple bill of fare at Red Hook's Ft. Defiance is a welcome deviation from the norm.

I'm sure owner St. John Frizell, a former bartender at Pegu Club and The Good Fork (as well as a fellow journalist), could make you any drink you cared to order, but he's listed only nine on his debut menu, three of them being twists on that neglected and somewhat disdained standard, the Tom Collins. (Simple drink for a simple menu—makes sense.) Similarly, the wine list is compact, 12 choices in all; there are only four beers (Six Point and Abita among them) offered on draft; three cheeses and meat apiece; and the lunch menu boasts four sandwiches only.

The key to the success of Ft. Defiance's approach—and it is a success—is every item is selected with care and, in the case of the cocktails and the food, meticulously prepared. The delicious coffee, each cup individually dripped, comes from North Carolina's Counter Culture. The egg creams are made with a sophisticated seltzer system set up by a Brooklyn seltzer man whose father used to own egg cream carts all around the city. The Tom Collinses benefit from homemade lemonade made with that seltzer. (The seltzer, available for $1, is delicious on its own, with a crystalline purity that led me to think of it as the Vodka of Seltzers.) The bread for the muffuletta, which is patterned after the famous version of the New Orleans staple made at Central Grocery, is made with bread specially supplied by Brooklyn's Royal Crown. Wherever you look at Ft. Defiance, you see the results of careful forethought.

I've had the muffuletta sandwich three times and can attest to its excellence, and its resemblance to the same sandwich as served in New Orleans. (For the uninitiated, the muffuletta is large circular sandwich, typically served in quarters or halves, owning to its great size. Inside are layers of capicola, salami, mortadella, swiss, and provolone, covered with a marinated olive salad, though the ingredients can vary.)

The cocktail list reflects the places visited by Frizell, who is an authority on Charles H. Baker Jr., the globe-trotting mixologist and cocktail writer of the mid-20th century. The Colonial Cooler, a type of Pimm's Cup, was invented at the Sandakan Club in British West Borneo in 1926; the Bardados Buck came to life at the British Club in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1930. The Prescription Julep, one of the most expensive drinks on the list ($10), comes from a 1957 copy of Harper's Monthly "via David Wondrich." It used Cognac and rye and, if my eyes did not deceive me, a splash of Gosling's rum on top. Frizell serves it with a sprig of mint and a cherry. It's a powerful and satisfying drink to be approached with caution and a smile.

There's plenty to simple refreshment to be found among the cocktails. The Watermelon Gin Punch, a Frizell invention, was was made for summer, as is the Tom Collins and the Cucumber Collins. (I did not sample the SUMO Collins.) Moreover, Ft. Defiance is more relaxed than many other cocktail joints I've been to in recent months. There's no hauteur or pretense. The vibe is a corner hangout where they just happen to do everything well.

I'm happy I got to Ft. Defiance as many times as I did in the past few weeks, because today, intending to lunch there, I was greeted by a sign saying the place had been closed down by the Department of Health for a very curious reason. The DOH decreed on Sept. 11 that "a restaurant with gas equipment—and no gas service—cannot be allowed to operate." Apparently, Ft. Defiance has been trying to hook up its gas for weeks, but to no avail. Frizell expects to open within a week.

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