A three ring circus of Italian cuisine… Wine with attitude… Isn’t all that sawdust a fire hazard?… Mayahuel, mescal, and the art of agave… Bourbon barrels born again at the Beagle… A strange dissatisfaction… Milk & Honey soothes the soul
Thursday, February 21
The Barfly awakes much too early this morning, certainly too early for having spent the night sipping strange concoctions well past the witching hour in a Flatiron speakeasy. He feels a strange lightness in the air—and in his wallet. Best not to dwell on it. The drinking will help with that.
Eataly, Mario Batali’s Italian market and restaurant emporium in the Flatiron, was a madhouse. Complete, unabashed, consumer chaos. Restaurants turn into retail within inches; servers, hostesses, and other employees dart and wheel carts among throngs of ogling tourists and locals doing dinner shopping. The sheer volume of product, and people consuming it, is overwhelming. If there weren’t signs everywhere telling the customer where to check out, the interminable maze that is Eataly, I’m afraid, may have claimed me as another victim.
Every available surface, it seemed, was covered in signage. This way to the Rosticceria. The bathrooms are by the beer. Vogliamo pranzare con te! Most are informative, touting the culinary traditions by region, of which there are many in Italy. They’re regions all distinct and difficult to comprehend with the help of a single sign, or even a store full of signs, but by God, Batali’s going to give it the old college try.
And so there’s a sign by the Caffe, telling the Italian love for Lavazza; there’s one by the Paninoteca, showing sandwiches from across the country; there’s one specifying that La Pizza Napoletana T.S.A.* (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) must have cornicioni (i.e., crust) at least 0.4 to 0.8 inch high and a total diameter not over fourteen inches—well, you get the idea. At Eataly, there’s a sign for that.
The thing is, Eataly was pretty self-aware about it all. It knows it’s a mess. It embraces, even encourages it. The place becomes a sloppy, shameless tribute to the glorious cuisine that Italy has to offer.
Eataly has a policy—I found it on a sign, of course: “The customer is not always right. Eataly is not always right. Through our differences, we create harmony.” I agreed wholeheartedly.
Next to Eataly, Bottlerocket Wine and Spirit, my second stop of the day, was a delight. The wine was organized—organized!—in two ways: alphabetically along one wall, by country, or thematically, in island stations like Red, White, Pink, Value, Explore, Meat, Seafood, Pizza, Gifts, Critics, &c. Thus, as M.A., the store manager, tells me, every bottle is in two places, giving both left- and right-brain thinkers a way of finding some bottles to pop.
The Sex Pistols and then Iggy Pop played in the background as I wandered around the wine, in awe of the setup. Each of the more than 365 bottles has a placard, with the basics like vintner and area of origin, but also a two-sentence description and a longer background paragraph. There’s also a map, tasting notes, and ratings from Robert Parker, Spectator, Enthusiast, the Times, and the shop’s own scale. For those with a slight neat freak tendency—like me—the place was a dream.
But every dream must come to an end, and even in the delightful Bottlerocket, I’m thinking, “enough retail—it’s time for a drink.” By chance I happen on McSorley’s Old Ale House and stop in for a beer. There were two options—light or dark—and the bartender pours me the latter in two little mugs. They’re solidly built, as is the dark ale, and I try not to imagine how easily the mugs could become a bludgeon in a bar-fight in this brutish place. “Be good or be gone,” one of their slogans goes, which could deter somebody looking for trouble, although the straight-faced old bartender must help. I turned to warm my hands by the wood stove. Shuffling across sawdust on the floor, I stared at the memorabilia mummified on the walls, which had been there since 1910. The bar itself predates that by fifty years or so. E.E. Cummings called McSorley’s “snug and evil,” which, standing by the stove and inhaling the smell of bleach, sawdust, must, and decay, I must agree with.
Mayahuel was the Aztec goddess of fertility, the granddaughter of Tzitzimitl, Queen of the Demons. Held hostage by her grandmother, her carnal charms wasting in captivity, Mayahuel was set loose by Quetzalcoatl and took him as her lover. The romance was short-lived, sadly. Mayahuel was killed by her vindictive grandmother, her grave becoming a garden for the first agave plant—tequila’s source. With Mayahuel as their muse, the mixologists behind Death & Company—a pioneer in the cocktail craze—have taken to untapping the market on mescal and tequila drinks.
I stepped in from the chill and sat in front of an even chillier bartender. A drink to warm the spirits was in order, and I sat quietly, meditating, as he mixed a drink. The bar was all black wood and glazed gold tile. A few steps below the street, the place felt solemn and still, a quiet sanctum where one could worship the gift of Mayahuel’s sacrifice. The “After Dark” paired reposado tequila with dry oloroso sherry, Galliano Ristretto, Benedictine, and Mole bitters. I later learned the drink won the local Vino de Jerez cocktail competition. The “After Dark” was all chocolate and coffee on the nose, with some dried dark fruit soon after. Was there even tequila in this drink? Brown, smooth, and serious, the drink was like the place—no mariachi band would bang out a song for this libation, not here.
When Jan, the host at the Beagle, mentioned a barrel-aged cocktail, I was smitten. “So how do you make this so damn good?” I asked him, a huge grin on my face as I savored a barrel-aged Manhattan with a depth of flavor I’ve never before tasted, even with big daddy Carpano Antica as the drink’s sweet vermouth.
Quick to answer any questions, and I had many, Jan deferred this time to the expert. “Let me get the maker,” he said. “I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.” He introduced me to Tomr, who like almost any bartender, opens right up when you ask about his art. He explained that the Beagle uses the solera method, mixing old and young juice among six used barrels from a Hudson Valley distillery, Tuthilltown. Starting with white dog and Dolin vermouth, Tomr aged the Manhattan mix for two years before pouring it into my glass. The end result was enviable.
I asked if I could sneak a peak at the barrels. Tomr shook his head. “It’s not that they’re proprietary, it’s just that they’re stuck back in this office. It’s not really very…”
“Glamorous?” I interjected.
The cocktail certainly was.
With a group of seven others in tow, or in transit, we came to the Pegu Club, a New York institution in the cocktail world that draws inspiration from a British Colonial Officer’s club in Rangoon, back in the days of the Empire. The Club had no cocktail among the twenty on its list that didn’t evoke an image of the far reaches of the Kingdom’s dominion. The conversation was animated and the feeling convivial, but I couldn’t find a drink to suit, although I had tried quite a few, and this frustrated me.
The Doctor turned to me, “You’re so—frantic,” he finally finished. His words came haltingly, as if he were afraid to provoke some wild animal within me. “You need to just—calm down, buddy.”
I tried to do just that with what the Club called “The Last Word,” a Sandy Relief Cocktail, the menu said. I could use a little relief myself, I thought, and it was gratifying to know that all ten dollars I shelled out for the drink would go directly to help those affected by the dreadful hurricane. But even this blend of Junipero gin, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino and lime juice couldn’t slake some silly thirst I had for satisfaction.
I was saved by Milk & Honey, a nondescript speakeasy hidden in plain sight on 23rd Street. At the front of the joint, there were no windows. The door was painted the most innocuous of particle-board grey. The threshold looked like a construction site—pallets stacked outside, scaffolding above, signage absent.
Inside, the speakeasy was austere. The walls weren’t painted, only primed in a similar grey. The entire place was still under construction. But still, despite the incomplete and unpolished décor, Milk & Honey was playing host to around a dozen of us, some down a long hallway at the back bar, some strewn in booths behind us, and the Doctor and I at the bar. Even with the construction, the place felt clean, respectful, and earnest.
I let out a long contented sigh, although I hadn’t even yet ordered a drink. “Now this is just what I needed,” I smiled, finally, at the Doctor, and felt human again.
The bartenders, Theo and Gil, took their jobs very seriously. Milk & Honey had no menu. One just tells the bartender what one wants, and one receives something exactly to taste. With that in mind, I told Theo I wanted something drier, with brown liquor preferred but not necessary, and lighter in the mouth. “I’ve been drinking these cloyingly sweet drinks all night, even when I didn’t expect to,” I said.
Theo promptly got to work, and a few fastidious moments later, placed a “Migration” on the bar in front of me. It had smoke and dark chocolate, tinged by bitterness that cleansed the palate. With dark aged rum, Cynar, and sweet vermouth, the “Migration” had sweetness in the mouth, but it wasn’t sugary. Instead, it rolled down full and smooth, making the tongue tingle somewhat on the finish, spurring another sip. The Doctor and I raised our glasses to Theo and each other, and with a knowing smile, drank in silence.