Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A (Last) Beer At...Holiday Cocktail Lounge

The Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark's Place in the East Village was the first New York dive bar I frequented on a regular basis, and the first New York dive bar I fell in love with. My habit was to visit Theatre 80 St. Mark's, a revival house across the street, see a double feature of old films, and then walk across the street to talk about the movies over a beer or two.

On Saturday, Jan. 28, the bar closed for good, after nearly 50 years. I paid the joint one last visit and wrote up the experience for Eater. It turned out to be a memorable evening.
A Beer At...Holiday Cocktail Lounge
Amy Winehouse was the balladeer of choice to the raucous mourners at theHoliday Cocktail Lounge last night. She was played twice within a half hour of my taking a seat at the old, beaten, horseshoe bar.
"This is the best night of my life!" shouts the louche young woman a few stools down. It's the third time she's said it. "Can we smoke in here?" The bartender, Jeff, a sane, seen-it-all fellow, shakes his head. "What? Is the Health Department going to shut you down?!" yells the woman, laughing. "It's all over anyway."
What she means is the Holiday, a beloved dive on St. Mark's near First Avenue,will close its doors for good on January 28. The owner has sold the building, beer-seasoned floor, memories and all. Everyone is the low-ceilinged, basement bar knows it, and they've been drinking many toasts to the joint's health.
A slack-jawed young man so drunk he can no longer speak gestures Jeff over. He'd like another beer, and a shot. Shot of what? "The green bottle," he muttered. Jeff points to the bottle. "This?" he says, disbelieving. I look at the man, who is sitting next to me. "That's vermouth," I say. "I like vermouth," he mutters. Jeff pours. "I've never seen that," I say to Jeff. "Me neither." This puts me in the mood for a shot, so I order a Jameson. Jeff likes Jameson. He pours two and has one with me.
Back on the other side of the bar, there's an argument about who invented pizza, the Italians or the Chinese. "Putting shit on flat bread does not make it pizza!" one man argues. "Give me a cigarette before I put my tongue in this woman's mouth," says the louche young woman. People are too slow on the draw, and the women lock lips. Jeff smiles appreciatively. "You're a lucky man," he say to the louche woman's boyfriend. "I tell myself that every day," he answers.
A raven-haired a few stools down is telling the story of when she woke up to find "Holiday Cocktail Lounge" written on her forehead. "You fell asleep on the bar," said Jeff. "I told you if you did that again, I'd write HCL on your head. What I wanted to do was draw eyes on your eyelids."
Jeff seamlessly slips out and is replaced by a second bartender who seems to be as loaded as his customers. He loves the bar and is not happy about the sale. More Jamesons are poured out in sloppy rows and people snatch them up. "What the hell," says the bartender. "It's all over." People start to leave, each saying "See you tomorrow" as they do.
I take a last tour of the bar. The Christmas decorations are still up, lending a celebratory tinge to the sad reality that hangs in the air. The wooden phone booth still has a dial tone. The tables between the booths, lit by sconces that were perhaps once fancy, are covered with empty pint glasses. A flat-screen TV is on, but nobody is watching. On one wall is a print-out of a narrative by the Holiday's founder, Ukrainian immigrant, Steven Lutak. "Our bar counter is in the shape of a half circle," he said, "like the table at the United Nations. People from many countries meet here. Also their money goes farther here. The price of the drinks must be the lowest in Manhattan." Lutak started the Holiday in 1965. The space had been a bar since 1936, and, according to the unhappy bartender, was a speakeasy before that. Lutek died in 2009. His son sold the building for $4.2 million.
"For what?" a drinker next to me has asked earlier in the night. "What can you do with all that money? $4 million goes pretty fast. This building would make money every day!"
I look up from the narrative and the bar is empty. I'm the only one there. Through the open doorway, I see people scuffling on St. Mark's Street. The sparks of a butt skitter across the pavement. The bartender and other members of the U.N. have gotten into a full-fledged brawl. I step outside. The night is cool and damp. "What, are they five-year-olds?" asks a man watching from the sidewalk, the only barfly not fighting.
Every night at the Holiday should end with a street fight. Rest in peace, sweet dive.
— Robert Simonson

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The View From Houston

It hadn't occurred to me that Houston's cocktail scene might be worth checking out until I interviewed bartender Sean Beck for Wine Enthusiast. Now I think a side trip is in order next time I'm in New Orleans. Here's the interview:
Mixologist of the Month: Sean Beck
Sean Beck keeps his eye on the flat Texas horizon when exploring ideas for the wine, spirits and cocktail lists at the three Houston restaurants where he serves as beverage director. And there’s little that escapes his notice.
While every mixologist knows of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a Lone Star product that now has a national profile, Beck favors the smaller Dripping Springs Texas Vodka, made outside Austin. He also utilizes Texas whiskey, made by Balcones Distilling in Waco, in some of his cocktails, including the blue corn-based Baby Blue Whiskey and Rumble, a liqueur made from Mission figs, sugar and wildflower honey. But just being from Texas isn’t necessarily enough for a spirit to meet Beck’s approval.
“I love local, but it can’t be local for local’s sake,” he says. “That’s not good enough and that’s always been the problem with Texas wines. They’ve sold out ferociously, so they haven’t had the pressure to ramp up the quality to where it should be.”
A native of Rochester, New York, Beck has lived in Texas for 22 years. He worked as a waiter at the Backstreet Cafe while in college; by graduation, he’d been promoted to sommelier. Today, he’s responsible for a restaurant group that includes Hugo’s and Trevisio.
Beck thinks Houston’s greatest strength as a cocktail town lies in what it’s not. “It doesn’t follow rules,” he says. “Once someone does something in New York, everyone knows about it. That’s one of the reasons New York goes through beverage trends and wine trends so quickly. Houston is so spread out that people aren’t cognizant of what other people are doing. So people march to their own drummer.”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pierre Ferrand Gets Into the Curacao Game

Triple sec is an ingredient that will set bartenders arguing. One of the oldest liqueurs associated with the American cocktail scene, and a critical ingredient in many classic drinks, every barkeep has an opinion which, among the many orange liqueurs available, are the best (Combier, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Curaçao de Curaçao), and which are trash. And there is little agreement.

Into this fractious market niche come a new curacao by a Cognac producer, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao Ancienne Methode. (As terms, Curacao and Triple Sec are often used interchangeably, though the former should indicate that the oranges used are from the island of that name.)  As with Ferrand Cognac 1840—the brandy introduced in 2011 that was purportedly patterned after 19th-century styles of Cognac and geared toward the cocktail crowd as a mixing Cognac—the new Curaçao was produced with a consulting assist from historian David Wondrich. Again, the hope is the bottling will become a mainstay in backbars.

The new liqueur is "based on a 19th-century recipe," chosen from among 50 that were tested. Some came from cellar master hand notes, some from published books of the time (one provided by Wondrich). The winning recipe is actually "a combination of the best each recipe had to offer."

The Ferrand formula takes dried Curaçao orange peels from the actual island, as well as a bit of lemon and sweet oranges, and steeps them in un-aged brandy. It then redistills the brandy, blends the result with brandy and Ferrand Cognac, then aged it in oak casks. That's not the end. While aging, the elixir is infused with more Curaçao orange peels.

According to Ferrand, the mix of brandy and Cognac is critical, because the brandy allows what they call the "vegetal infusions"—that is, the brandy is infused with some botanicals to create complexity—that were an important part of 19th century technique.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

And Cocktails Get Even More Complicated

There seem to be two divergent trends going among in the cocktail bars opening recently. One set (Mother's Ruin, Basik) is trying to simplify and render more humble the consumer's craft cocktail experience, while the other (Aviary, Rogue 24) is ramping up the level of ornate experimentation and invention exponentially.

Squarely falling in the second category is Booker and Dax, the new collaboration between superstar chef David Chang and cocktaildom's benevolent mad scientist Dave Arnold, the French Culinary Institute‘s director of culinary technology who has more technology toys that did Fred McMurray in his Disney years. Arnold preaches the simplicity of complication. For him, the old cocktail methods are inefficient and can be solved with a bunch of tubing, gases and open flames. It sounds terribly geeky (and it is), but in Arnold's hand is often infectiously endearing.

Liquid nitrogen, a Red Hot Poker, a centrifuge and a rotory evaporator are Arnold's bar tools of choice. I wrote an article in the New York Times about the bar's imminent opening (see below), but there are a few featured drinks that I couldn't fit into the text. There will be a carbonated Gin & Tonic; and a carbonated drink called Chartruth, a mix of green Chartreuse and lime. Maria de la Noche will be a clear riff on the Bloody Mary, a blend of clarified cherry tomatoes, clarified Worchester sauce, clarified Siricha sauce (all rendered so in the centrigue); a horseradish liquid produced by the rotovap; and tequila. It's light and elegant, an evening version of the classic brunch drink.

There will also be a drink made of rum and actual banana juice ("Nobody's got banana juice!" cried Arnold with glee), topped with salt, candied ginger and coconut ice cubes. It's a clear drink—perhaps a first for any cocktail involving bananas. To make this, Arnold blends in three ripe bananas into a bottle of Zacapa 23 rum, adds an enzyme, passes the potion through the centrifuge and rebottles it.

The simplest drink on the menu by far will be something called the Nederlander—nothing more than Bols genever, a quarter ounce of Angostura and a little simple syrup. It's fantastic.

Here's the article:

High-Tech Cocktail Lounge Is Opening at Momofuku Ssam Bar
A little liquid nitrogen with your manhattan? Warm up that drink with a foot-tall flame?
Booker & Dax, a new bar that places technology squarely in the service of mixology, has you covered.
Situated in the back of David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village, where the original Milk Bar once was, the new bar is a collaboration between Mr. Chang and French Culinary Institute‘s director of culinary technology, Dave Arnold. It is set to open Friday.
Over the last few years, Mr. Arnold has won a reputation as the cocktail demimonde’s own Mr. Wizard, passing alcohol through a variety of elaborate gizmos and coming out with something purer, more potent, and arguably better on the other end. His experiments have influenced many modern bartenders, but Booker & Dax will be the first tavern where he’ll have direct control over the drinks program. The bar also shares a name with a new company run by Mr. Arnold and Mr. Chang that will build cooking equipment. (The names Booker and Dax themselves refer to Mr. Arnold’s two sons.)
“For the last seven years at the French Culinary Institute, I’ve been trying to show you can use new technologies without being terribly wacky,” Mr. Arnold said. “I don’t think we should be in a business of pushing outside people’s comfort zones here. I’m more interested in slam-dunk delicious.” He added, “I want you to feel happy to be here. I don’t want you to feel like a lab rat we’re testing on.”
You may, however, want to put on a lab coat, and perhaps some goggles, when the bartender sticks a device called a Red Hot Poker, heated up to 1,500 degrees, into a mixing glass of Pernod, lime juice, sugar and water. This results in a libation called the French Colombian. “The burning takes the ingredients to a new place,” Mr. Arnold said. The poker, which he custom-made, is modeled after the hot irons early American innkeepers would stick into customers’ cups to heat up their drinks.
Mr. Arnold finds the way most bars chill their glassware inconsistent and a waste of space. So the vessels at Booker & Dax will be cooled on the spot by a shot of liquid nitrogen, a wisp of frozen mist sent chasing around the rim.
“The glass just sits there becoming awesome while we make the drink,” he said. Into it may go Mr. Arnold’s vision of a manhattan, which he admits may be controversial. “Stirring a drink is just chilling and diluting, without adding texture. It is prone to error and takes a long time if you’re stirring a lot of drinks. Why wouldn’t I dilute that thing beforehand, chill it to the perfect temperature in a bottle, bring you a coupe chilled with liquid nitrogen, and crack the bottle and pour it in?” he asked. “I can serve you that drink in under 30 seconds and it’s going to be perfect every time without variance.” (The bar will make you a stirred manhattan if you want it.)
Other techniques to be regularly used include cocktail carbonation, and drinks made with the help of a rotary evaporator and centrifuge. Just don’t call it molecular gastronomy. “It makes me violently ill to think someone would call this that,” Mr. Arnold said. “It doesn’t sound delicious. And it’s inaccurate.”
The debut menu will feature 16 cocktails, each at $14. “Whether it works or doesn’t work,” Mr. Chang said, “that’s what this restaurant has always been — taking a chance on something new.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Three Gins, Three Martinis

How much progress the gin revolution has made with the public is arguable (outside of the usual cocktail dens, I haven't seen an uptick in the number of people ordering gin Martinis), but it has certainly changed the way American micro-distillers do business. In the past, to release one gin was something unusual. Today, young distilleries release two or three at a time. In late 2010, New York Distilling Company made its debut on the liquor store shelves with two new gins. A few months early, St. George Spirits of California bested them by simultaneously introducing three new gins.  

All three look the same until you notice the small, lightly tinted, defining adjective that rests about the word Gin on each bottle. One says "Botanivore," another "Dry Rye" and the last "Terrior." With each, we are dealing with a different mix of botanicals and, in one case, a different grain. The Dry Rye is easiest to get a handle on. It is pot-distilled with a rye base, and what you expect from rye whiskey you get a bit of in this rye gin. 

The Botanicore Gin is infused with a whopping 18 botanicals, including caraway, ginger, California bay laurel, wild fennel, dill, celery seed, coriander. None of the gins shy away from the traditional juniper-heavy profile of the spirit, but this one has the heaviest juniper note. Finally, the Terroir Gin, as you might guess from the name, draws all its botanicals from the immediate, northern California area, including hand-harvested juniper berries, Douglas fir (from Mt. Tam), coastal sage, fennel, California bay laurel, cinnamon, cardamom and lemon. The inclusion of the bay laurel reminded me of the state's No. 209 gin, which has experimented with this herb in the past. 

I am, by now, fairly skeptical of so-called New Western Gins. Too many of them adopt flavor distinctions that make no sense, playing with unusual botanicals, and eschewing the traditional juniper, seemingly just for the sake of standing out. You end up with an unbalanced gin that does not serve a Martini or Gin & Tonic well, and thus renders itself a useless oddity. (No, I do not endorse the notion of a "sipping gin.")

Still, I have found a few likable North American gins over the years. I inaugurated the three new St. George gins by making Martinis with them on successive nights. I found each made a sufficiently pleasing drink. The Botanicore came closest to a classic Martini profile. The Dry Rye, unsurprisingly, instilled the cocktail with a hotter, spicier flavor. 

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I preferred the Terroir Gin Martini, which I expected to be the most peculiar, the best. It's not a typical Martini by any means; those pine notes come through strongly. But its unique personality comes out in attractive ways. It made for a perfect Winter Martini, if such a thing can be said to exist. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Beer at...Lucy's

My latest column at Eater, a classic dive in the East Village with a classic East Village hostess:
A Beer At...Lucy's
The heart of Lucy's, an Avenue A dive that has somehow held back the tide of East Village trendiness, is Lucy. She's a small woman about three times the age of the kids she serves. She had a puffy, light-brown coiffure that sits awkwardly on top of her head, and talks in a high, piping voice of an Eastern European songbird. She cheerfully takes orders, none of which are particularly difficult (beer, shot), and doesn't seem to have a mean bone in her body, probably because she doesn't pay much mind to the antics of her patrons.
The hipster-doofuses who populate the bar seem to get a kick out of Lucy. "Hey, Lucy! You like this song," said a young barfly, a juvenile delinquent smile on his lips, a PBR in his hand. It was "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton. He may as well have been asking Lucy if she had Prince Albert in a can. "What?" tweeted Lucy, distracted, smoothing out dollar bills plucked from the old cash register. The man asked twice more, intent on his joke. Finally Lucy paused and took a listen. "Yes. Yes. I like this song," she piped. She then took the TV remote and turned up the volume on the AMC presentation of "Young Guns."
The bar's facade is so warped with age, it looks like it might fall flat to the sidewalk at any moment. I believe it's held in place by the recently installed ATM machine. Getting past the often-locked metal gate is harder than at most dives. Lucy opens when she opens. It varies from night to night, but don't try coming before 7 PM. She also takes a ton of vacations, seemingly whenever she feels like it. Aside from her annual visit to her native Poland every August, don't be surprised to find the bar closed for a weeks at a time, without warning, any given month of the year.
Inside, there are two pool tables, a long old vaguely Art Deco bar, and an unintentional circle theme made up of round mirrors and round spaces where mirrors used to be. I've never seen so many bottom-shelf bottles prominently featured on the top-shelf shelf as I did at Lucy's. But the beer selection, in bottles and on draft, is surprisingly large and decent. A couple newer draft lines, hiding over near the window, draw on hipper craft brews like Goose Island. Their location seems to silently ask the question: "Who would drink this stuff when you can get a Bud?" Behind the bar, near the door, there's a glass-doored cabinet of tchotchkes. China cups and such. It's the kind of thing you'd see at your grandma's place. 
—Robert Simonson

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Plymouth Gin Get New/Old Look

In recent years, I grew to love a Plymouth gin that looked like this, all tall, sleek and Art Deco. 

But come this spring, the Plymouth found on your liquor store shelves will look like the bottles below. The redesign is really a return to the centuries-old brand's roots. The Are Deco look was introduced only five years ago, in 2006. The original Plymouth bottles and labels once looked very much as the new specimens do. 

Rest assured, the stuff inside will remain the same.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Bemelmans, the Bar That Daren't Speak Its Patrons Names

I suggested a feature story on Bemelmans Bar to Edible Manhattan before doing any research into how much access I would be granted at the swanky, timeless Hotel Carlyle watering hole. I won't make that mistake again. The Great and Powerful Oz didn't have better press security than do the well-heeled patrons of the Carlyle. Not only was I instructed that I could not talk to any of the customers at the bar, I was told to not even approach them and ask if they'd mind being talked to. (That would be an imposition.) Nor could they be photographed. So all the shots for the usually photo-heavy Edible feature "Back of the House" are devoid of people, as if a Neutron bomb had been dropped on the hotel. In the end, among the Bemelmans staff I only spoke to managing director Erich Steinbock and veteran barman Tommy Rowles, who functions as Bemelmans human mascot, as well as former employees Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders. Despite the paucity of sources, I managed to put together a piece that I think pretty well captures the saloon. Just imagine, as you read it, lots of people milling about.

Back of the House: Bemelmans
By Robert Simonson
In the last few years, a few of the paragons of the modern mixology movement have tried to recapture the lost art of the Manhattan hotel bar. They’ve romantically revamped the drinking dens of fusty old Midtown hotels like the Edison and Iroquois, bringing in sophisticated decor, soft lighting, cool music, jacketed barmen and old-fashioned service.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Visit to Aviary

Last October I visited Aviary, the Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler Chicago bar that has been attracting a lot of positive attention from both critics and bartenders (not to mention the public) since opening last April. My briefly sketched impressions were published in this month's GQ, along with some equally concise thoughts on the barrel-aged cocktail programs at Clyde Common in Portland and Saxon + Parole in New York.

A place like Aviary can not, or course, be captured in 300 words, so I thought I would elaborate on my two-hour, multiple-drink visit in this space.

Aviary is very much a liquid extension of Achatz's culinary philosophy. It is a hybrid of the bar and the laboratory. Mixologists—called Bar Chefs—have "stations," which look like expensive, shiny versions of the lab tables you used in chemistry class in high school. Here, the bar chefs execute the complex drinks Schoettler and Achatz have devised, and deviation from the formulae is not permitted. Soldiers are required here, not personalities. There's no bar, per se, and nothing you can belly up to—no stools. (There is limited seating in the lab area, and, from what I understand, standing is allowed.) Instead you sit at tables in the airy and expansive dining room, which is decorated in muted colors and sheltered by walls of curtain. The feel is very much restaurant-like, with perhaps a page taken, design-wise, from Violet Hour, the Chicago cocktail bar pioneer.

As with the bar chefs, customers are not encouraged to wave their flag at Aviary. The menu is the menu. It's been painstakingly put together and you're expected to order from it. So don't come in and request a Martini, a Gin & Tonic or whatever your usual is. They won't make it. And don't ask for specific liquor brands; the spirit in each drink is pre-ordained.