Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Egg on Their Face

Today, the New York Times gets into the thick of the whole raw egg-Pegu Club-DOH debacle that shook the New York cocktail word a couple weeks back. And it finds: drama, intrigue, mystery, fear and possible abuse of authority. (This is my interpretation.)

Backstory: a Department of Health inspector walks into the cocktail lounge Pegu Club on Jan. 19 and sees someone order the signature drink the Earl Grey MarTEAni, which contains egg white. Supposedly, the customer was served one, but was not informed by the bartender that there was raw egg in the drink. So the inspector slapped the joint with a health citation and sent the cocktail world into a tizzy.

The first thing we learn from the Glenn Collins' great, and fascinating, article is that owner Audrey Saunders immediately “86’d the Earl Grey” rather than knuckle under to the DOH's demand she make the drink with pasteurized eggs.

But it turns out Pegu may not have violated any law at all. Elliott S. Marcus, an associate health commissioner, told the Times use of raw eggs is not illegal in the city, that "shell eggs or foods containing shell eggs" must be heated to 145 degrees or greater for 15 seconds, "unless an individual consumer requests" a preparation with raw egg. Otherwise "The bartender has to make a positive, affirmative statement" if there is raw egg in a cocktail. But, he added, if a customer orders from a menu that identifies raw egg in a dish or drink, that can serve as notification.

But wait. There is a notice on the Pegu menu. Everyone who's been there has seen it. It goes "we take the greatest care in the storage of our organic eggs. Please note, however, that like sushi, the consumption of raw eggs can be hazardous." So why was Pegu cited? Well, supposedly, according to the inspector, because the customer who asked for the MarTEAni didn’t order it from the menu and the bartender didn’t mention raw eggs were in it. Sounds like a big eavesdropper, our inspector. Also sounds ridiculous. Obviously, if a person orders something as specific as an Earl Grey MarTEAni, he has been to the bar before, and has ordered it before, and knows it has raw egg in it. 

But it get murkier still. According to the Times, "the bartender on the night of the inspection, Kenta Goto, said that no MarTEAnis were served while the inspector was present. The inspector who signed the violation sheet, Nathalie Louissaint, could not be reached for comment."

The DOH seeems to have admitted some sort of error already,  saying the inspector was wrong to list the infraction at 28 points and reissued it at 7 points, a more minor violation that does not require a court appearance or a reinspection.

Perhaps cocktailians need not fear an egg prohibition, since it begins to seem clear that the DOH has egg on their face in this matter. And, even if the Department continues in this foolish vein, we all have a weapon: step up to the bar and demand your drink be prepared with a raw egg.


Brett said...

This is a great summary of the issue, and your analysis is a fair sight better than that in the Times piece.

As you point out, if Pegu was being cited for lack of a verbal (vs. written) warning, one vitally important fact is that any customer who orders the drink off-menu almost certainly knows what it is and that it contains raw egg.

Perhaps this entire debacle stems from DOH inspectors lacking an understanding of contemporary cocktail culture on par with their understanding of "restaurant" culture. Nobody would suggest that someone ordering a rare steak was unaware that it may not be fully cooked. Similarly, it would be fairly obvious to any bystander who frequents these types of bars that if someone orders an Earl Grey MarTEAni (or a flip, or a silver fizz, etc.) he/she knows what's in it, including raw egg white, yolk or whole eggs.

Robert Simonson said...

Thanks, Brett. But I think Collins did a great job on the piece.