A grey sky morning… Best I ever had (at B Flat)… Swimming my way through the night… Barfly makes a party foul… The ultimate New York curiosity: “What do you suppose the rent is at this place?”… The Doctor is a prestidigitator… A sprint to the start…
Friday, February 22
***For the full sensory experience, please put this on, then read on.***
It’s misting this morning, a fine drizzle flying at an angle outside the Doctor’s Walker Street window. In the grey noon light, last night is coming back to the Barfly in pieces as small as this sprinkle. These are watery memories, liquid memories, returning along some cerebral stream. Some of them may have washed into the gutter, lost forever to the sewers of New York. If the Barfly can retrieve the rest, he’ll hang them up to dry in this SoHo loft and put them to paper for you.
Let’s work backwards. We ended the night, the Doctor and S— and I, three abreast on the couch, giddy and glowing in the light of a Bertolucci film. Before that, B Flat, a tiny Tokyo-style jazz joint where the bartenders toiled over our drinks with deadly serious precision.
“The best cocktail I’ve had so far,” says the Doctor, as we reminisce this afternoon on the previous night’s endeavors that included B Flat. We both smile wide smiles, both glow with the warm memory of his “Autumn Leaves,” a spiced blend of dark rum, cinnamon syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice, and my “Enigma,” Hendrick’s gin, Elisir M.P. Roux liqueur, lime, orange, and cucumber puree. And let’s not forget S—, our friend who had rolled into town from Washington that evening and who had sipped a “Lush Life,” with jasmine tea flavored gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, rose water and fresh pear. After all, we wouldn’t have made it to B Flat if S— didn’t suggest it—and what a satisfying suggestion B Flat turned out to be.
Remembering what happened before B Flat is proving more difficult as time passes. It’s like fighting upstream in a rapidly flowing river of booze. Barfly puts his head down and strokes—freestyle, of course, his best stroke from swim team years—pulling furiously and kicking like hell.
I make some headway and remember that before B Flat was the Vault at Pfaff’s, a speakeasy-type establishment where the bar was down a long flight of steps and the cocktail waitresses wore short, short skirts. The Doctor and I had tried to break into the Vault on two prior occasions. The first, locked door. The second, last call. Third time was the charm.
S— and the Doctor and I settled into a cozy corner and picked up the paper, a clever menu on newsprint with a headline that touted the name of the joint. Our conversation careened from old times and past loves to points further afield (and not fit to print). That was when the unthinkable happened. The Barfly spilled a drink.
“Whoa, easy, buddy,” said the Doctor, grinning.
House-spiced rum, cognac, varnelli punch, and sour from the Doctor’s “High Thread Count” trickled off the table and pooled on the dark-grained floor.
“That’s the first of the entire trip,” I lamented with mock gravity, “Our track record has now been tarnished.”
Although clumsy, I still had (most of) my wits about me and quickly found our waitress Christina, who brought a replacement post haste. Life is quite tough when a spilled drink is the biggest of your worries. At least I hadn’t spilled my “Turf,” a really nice riff on a gin martini with Nolet’s gin, Bols Genever, dry vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino, absinthe, and orange bitters, for that would have been a tragedy. And S—’s “An Apple Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” with Laird’s Applejack, Rittenhouse rye, a house-made amaro, dry vermouth, and Luxardo Maraschino, was still intact.
Barfly’s earned a breather, he believes, from all this swimming up the boozy stream of memory. It’s exhausting—while time inexorably and effortlessly flows on, threatening to wash away all these memories, Barfly must struggle and flail to gain an inch of headway. He moves laterally to the shore and rolls over on the water-polished stones, gasping, spluttering, and cursing. Although just immersed in a thirst-quenching creek, his mouth is dry, lactic acid arid.
So, a digression while Barfly catches his breath: the great thing about many of these bars, at least the really serious ones, is the bartenders’ commitment to slaking this thirst. And let’s clarify—not with a cocktail, but with a consistent attentiveness to the water glass. It’s the ultimate drinker’s draught—a palate cleanser, a hangover hinderer—an always refreshing cocktail of two parts Hydrogen to one part Oxygen. But now, dehydration be damned, Barfly must press on.
Before the calamity at the Vault, the Doctor and I greeted S— at the Campbell Apartment, a revitalized vestige of the city’s golden age opulence. S—, fresh off the bus from D.C. and still looking fabulous in charcoal pinstripes, found the Doctor and I in a little nook, our backs to the wall to avoid any nasty surprises—S— is known for such antics. We asked if he’d been here before, and S— said yes, he’d spent a night drinking scotch and trying to convince a group of senior Japanese businessmen to bankroll an excursion to Flashdancers, one of Hell’s Kitchen’s most storied strip joints—where, I will admit to you in the strictest of confidences, the Barfly narrowly escaped a job as a men’s room attendant. Desperate times, folks.
The drinks were classic, but uninspiring. I sipped a Manhattan and then a Highlander, cousins from Kentucky and Scotland. S— and the Doctor tipped back gin martinis and rum and tonics. Here the drinks were secondary. It was the scenery—a palatial Florentine-style salon with here a hand-painted plaster ceiling, there a magnificent mahogany balcony, and everywhere a waitress wearing a black cocktail dress and pearls. S— shared that the space was once inhabited by John Campbell, an American financier. Nice digs, we thought.
Barfly is finally hitting his swimmer’s stride—he’s past the pain now and and stroke after stroke is becoming steady and stretched out. No time to stop now.
Before that happy reunion with S—, I sat sipping Suntory Hakushu 12 year among old and new friends at M—’s 12th floor pad on the Upper West. Hadn’t seen M— since college days—a complete pleasure to eat with him and enjoy his hospitality—M— had fixed up a simple bibimbap—cucumber, coconut rice, chili paste and an over easy egg. The Doctor was performing card tricks at the table; the rest of us were trying to trip him up.
“Oh, I know this one,” M— said. “This isn’t magic, it’s just math.”
“Math is magic,” the Doctor replied.
The English major had to chime in. “Well, at least to me it is,” I said.
“So are you magical?” prodded M—, teasing.
“I’m not magical, I’m mathical,” the Doctor retorted.
The end of this swim is in sight. Barfly digs in and recalls teammates cheers timed to the rhythm of his stroke as swimmers sprinted for the finish. Sprint! Go… go… go!
This narrative ends where the night began, at Anejo Tequileria in Hell’s Kitchen. The tequila counterpart to V’s bourbon obsession, I had to ask my bartender Crystal Lynn for a special tequila flight. Moments later, I had sitting in front of me three rarities: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso, and Tequila Ocho Rancho “El Carrizal.” Both the bar and I were just waking up as the first sip of the first drink of many that day (undoubtedly too many) passed my lips. The five-year-old Reserva had notes of honey and anise, with smoked peat not far behind. Paradiso, also five and finished in cognac barrels, had a silky smooth mouthfeel, with lots of vanilla in the nose and flowers on the tongue. And the single estate Carrizal, three-years-old and aged entirely in older bourbon barrels, had a nose of salted caramel and mint, with a mouth-filling butterscotch and coffee finish. By the time I had leisurely tasted my way through the three exquisite tequilas, the bar had transformed from groggy and empty to a hopping, high-spirited joint. The night was young, full of energy and possibility, and it was time to get started.
Barfly is panting, doubled over, dripping from head to toe. His head is a little light and his arms are burning. Completely spent and exertion endorphins flowing freely, Bluegrass Barfly thinks: Whew. Time for a drink.
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.
Bone-chilling cold in Brooklyn… Forget the tour—show us the beer first… “Go West, young man…” Vortices in Santa Fe and the Ides… Delmano deals the best hand so far… The Barfly turns down a drink!… Even the delis are doing drinks these days… The bartender’s handshake at Dram
Wednesday, February 20
The Bluegrass Barfly is freezing his ass off. Brooklyn, for some reason, feels a full ten degrees colder than the main island, Manhattan. Barfly hops from one foot to the other outside the big red doors of the Brooklyn Brewery, where inside, he imagines, the vivifying vapor of boiling wort wreathes thickly ‘round the kettles; one deep inspiration of the fantastic aroma of beer being brewed would be enough to stimulate perspiration. But now, all that is mere fantasy. It’s five after five o’clock, the tour guide is tardy, and Barfly is contemplating bar work with frostbitten fingers. He knew Williamsburg was the cool new place in town, but this was ridiculous.
Justin, the Director of Operations at Brooklyn Brewery, was discussing Local One, a Belgian-style strong golden ale that is showing a fine and persistent bead in my tulip glass. Bottle-fermented, the effervescent beer is unlike most, so much so that Justin’s “little Puerto Rican grandmother,” he told us, asks every year at special dinners for “some of that special champagne I like so much.” The bigger bottle, with its cork and cage, could easily enough be mistaken for bubbly.
The tasting takes place before the tour, so by the time we have reached the third and last stop of a laughably short excursion, we don’t mind much, having already downed Brooklyn’s Winter Ale, Lager, Local One, and There Will Be Black, a dry black IPA. That last beer still lingers in our glasses, a dark-chocolate covered orange beauty with floral and spearmint notes. I let the rest pass my lips as Justin talks about the killer deal co-founder Steve Hindy cut with Milton Glaser, graphic design superstar, for the latter’s services. Milton refused a $20,000 check, instead bargaining for company stock and free beer—for life. Steve, thinking he was getting the better end of the deal, readily agreed. From this arrangement was born the brewery’s distinctive “B” logo, and Milton continues doing design work for Brooklyn Brewery—and drinking their beer—to this day.
Night has fallen when I belly up to the marble bar at the Ides. Perched on the 6th floor of the Wythe Hotel, the Ides boasts one of Brooklyn’s best views of the Manhattan skyline. This wasn’t the best time of year or time of day to be here, I thought—too cold outside to take in the open air on the terrace, too early in the evening to bump elbows with many Brooklynites. A few twosomes and threesomes whispered in the dark corners of the room, but besides the cocktail waitresses and bar back lingering to my left, I was the only one at the bar.
Oscar, the bartender, deftly uses the classic bartender’s trick—leaning over and taking me as his confidant and co-conspirator. He’s sharing a secret about a spirit behind the bar, a bourbon distilled in Kentucky and aged in upstate New York. “I’ll tell you—I think it’s pretty bad. You’ve had Elijah Craig, you’ve had Blanton’s, you’ve had decent stuff. This doesn’t match up.” He pours me a taste, as bartenders are wont to do—we drink even the bad stuff, if only for the experience.
I had to agree that the stuff was too young, too hot, and had only one note. So deciding on a Sazerac, this one with the excellent Whistlepig rye from Vermont, I was interested to see the drink served without a garnish. Oscar, with no ostentation, but a subtle expertise, brushed an orange rind over the lip of the glass and tossed it away. The drink, like the service and the bar itself, was pared down, stark, and solid. The real focus wasn’t on cocktails, for there was nothing groundbreaking here—or on the music, an ambient electronica—but rather the cold, crystalline Manhattan lights across the Hudson drew the eye and the mind up, and away.
No surprise, then, that Oscar and I grew to talking about Santa Fe, his hometown.
“I honestly think it’s a nexus of the universe,” I said. “I don’t know if you believe in vortices, these things, but you have to agree there’s just something different about it out there.” I brought up Georgia O’Keefe’s quote on New Mexico, one of my favorites: It is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light.
The light in Oscar’s eyes shone as he nodded. “Here’s what you need to do out there. Go back—late July, August—and go swim in as many lakes as you can. They’re all high up, four thousand feet and higher, and so clear, you can see for a hundred miles. That’s what you need to do.”
Here we two were, on a black dark Brooklyn rooftop, dreaming of the light out West. The Ides and New Mexico suddenly felt like yin and yang, complementary but connected. We bid each other farewell; Oscar gave me my drink on the house. “See you again,” I said, “in this life or the next.
On Oscar’s recommendation, Hotel Delmano was the next stop, a speakeasy-type joint just down the street. The sound of many merry patrons penetrated the frosted windows, light flickered dimly from within, but the iron grate was closed. Refusing to be rebuffed, I dragged open the grate, stepped inside a packed house, and found a perch in the middle, by the raw bar. The cocktail menu—eleven house standards, nine seasonal cocktails—was a solid twenty drinks. “The First Step” was a 20th Century Cocktail spinoff with crème de cacao, lemon juice, orange bitters, and rye and amaretto in place of gin and Kina d’Or. Delivered in a old fashioned coupe glass, the drink was excellent—the amaretto just robust and nutty enough to hold its own against the Old Overholt rye.
Such excellence in craftsmanship and showmanship from the bartender, Austin, demanded another drink, so I moved to grab a seat in front of the bartender’s station. The mise en place was impressive. Austin hardly had to move his feet as he made my second drink, a “Rattlesnake,” again with rye and lemon, but using an egg white and absinthe rinse. As I sipped my second, the texture frothy and satisfying, like a perfect soufflé, I was lost in conversation with Rita, to my right. As we talked with such animation of life and language, I settled into the bar seat and felt perfectly at home at Hotel Delmano.
Pressing on was important, however; many more places to go. The Bedford was a bust, the single bourbon cocktail not worth ordering, an uninspired “Bourbon Apple” blend of lemon and apple juices, topped with ginger ale. I selected instead a “Gin Ricardo,” with muddled basil, lime, a splash of soda and a cayenne salt rim. After the smooth and integrated drinks at Delmano, this felt hurried, half-assed. So I had the potato and artichoke soup instead—non-alcoholic, of course. I gave thanks to Melanie, who graciously took the drink off my tab, and moved on. No time to waste when bar-hopping with the Barfly.
After another quick bite at the Meatball Shop to cleanse my palate and clear my head—and just water to drink, although even this gourmet deli-style café offered a 20th Century Cocktail, Moscow Mule, and Hot Toddy—I moved on to Dram, my last stop of the night. Where Ides was sparse, Delmano was packed, and Bedford was forgettable, Dram was the sweet spot. Dark as all the rest, what little light was here was warmer, and so was the clientele.
Tanya, my bartender with rosy eyelids and a sly smile, whipped up the “Rosalie Come Go,” a complicated mix of Rittenhouse bonded rye, Manzanilla sherry, pear liqueur, crème de cacao.
“It’s as if a Manhattan and a 20th Century had a baby,” she quipped. I had to agree, and when she put it that way, the drink didn’t seem so complicated. We talked of the cocktail trend across the states, thriving here, burgeoning elsewhere, and my mission—to bring that same New York excellence to Danville. The hour had grown late, and as I rose from my seat, Tanya set down two shots of Fernet Branca, that herbal, minty, bitter spirit from Italy that has taken the city by storm.
“It’s the bartender’s handshake,” she explained.
So we shook, and I went on home.
A late start, to say the least… Feeling blue about the ‘cue… The subterranean life of cheese… Clowning around in caves… Bubbly at a Bleeker Street staple
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when Bluegrass Barfly finally got around to having a breakfast of barbeque. Brisket, to be exact, at Blue Smoke, a Danny Meyer creation in the Flatiron District, a barbeque joint above a jazz club. He sunk his teeth into a sandwich, soggy from the drippings, and let out a sigh.
Blue Smoke was cool, quite refined, but almost too smooth. The food seemed to sink into the background, like elevator jazz—not striking enough to grab your attention; but innocuous and pleasant enough to fill your ears (or stomach). The house made sauces were simple, not spicy. The bartender largely ignored us.
Now I’m not saying the Doctor and I were dissatisfied. We cleaned our plates and left content. But something about Blue Smoke seemed lacking in character. The dining room was clean, but too clean, immaculate, even. The brisket was buttery soft, but bland. The slaw seemed sparse on the seasoning. I want my ‘cue joint to be a bit messy, gritty, dirty. But we didn’t even need the complimentary wet towel at the end of the meal. Maybe it was the time of day—2:30 in the afternoon is a restaurant dead zone. Or perhaps it was us—our senses dulled from the previous night of debauchery. Either way, Blue Smoke seemed inauthentic, just smoke and mirrors.
Murray’s Cheese, however, was the real deal. Donning lab coat, booties, and hair net, we were led by Cavemaster Brian Ralph to the caves beneath the Bleecker Street shop. We shuffled in and out through the narrow vaults, ogling the cheese, looking absurdly like clowns vacating a miniature vehicle, the smell of ammonia strong in the air from Geotrichum candidum and Penicillium candidum, microflora that help ripen the cheese. Making and caring for cheese is a living, breathing process, or like Brian put it, “Each cheese is like a little ecosystem that we can eat.”
Murray’s doesn’t make cheese, but they do purchase, store and ripen cheese in their five cheese caves one story below Bleeker Street. The caves, Brian said, are like “a day spa for cheese. They get to hang out, sometimes they get flipped over, sometimes patted, sometimes brushed.”
It sounds simple, but our Cavemaster, with all the rigor and knowledge of a scientist—he studied neurobiology in college, after all—tests various iterations of cheeses to perfect private orders for some of the best restaurants in the city. Over a three-month process, Brian said, his eyes lighting up at the prospect, he plays with variables like pH, moisture, salinity, temperature, and time to create the desired product for his customer. “R and D is the most fun part of my job,” Brian said. “I love to dork out and do that stuff.”
At the tasting after the tour, we were lucky enough to try a specially aged Jasper Hill Harbison called Greensward, which, brined and babied by the Cavemaster, recently made its debut at the 11 Madison Park, a swanky French joint with three Michelin stars in the Flatiron District. The Greensward had all the Brassica flavors of the original Harbison—cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower notes—but amid a slightly tart taste and a more substantive structure that didn’t run like the Harbison. It was delicious—perfect with the Blanc de Blancs we had sparkling quietly on the tabletop.
On my way out, I lingered by the cheese case, fully twenty-five feet long and packed with the stuff. I felt like a kid in a candy store, but this was the version for folks without a sweet tooth. Here and there were cheeses from our own case at V—Landaff, Bonne Bouche, Colston Bassett Stilton, Robiola Bosina—and I realized how special it was that our own little market in Danville could keep pace with Murray’s. Head stuffed with information and belly with cheese, I walked out onto the rainy Greenwich Village street with a smile on my face.
A fire burns in Barfly’s head… Awake, inspired, and nattily attired… A first drink—of chocolate… Columbians and Southerners in South Africa (or thereabouts)… The St. Regis has a rude secret… Bemelman’s gives way to Bar and Books and bed, eventually…
Monday, February 18
Bluegrass Barfly awoke this morning in a SoHo loft to the clanging of the fire bells. An engine was rushing to quell the inferno raging between his ears! He heard the fire truck rush closer, ever closer—oh, quench this thirst, douse this fire!—but Alas! the siren blared down the street, out of earshot. He’d get no help from the FDNY today. They were preoccupied with protecting Manhattan, not undoing the damage of one too many Manhattans.
I enjoyed a far less rude awakening Monday morning. The field outside Max’s barn was vacant, the wind that rattled the windows the night before had blown its course, the house was silent, sleeping. With the distinct pleasure of being the first to rise, I snuck down two flights of stairs on tiptoe and put a kettle on for tea.
With St. Regis and Bemelman’s on the day’s list, a coat and tie were in order—not absolutely necessary, but important if we were going to do this thing right. Dressed in favorite suit and thrift-shop tie, I creaked open the door to Max’s bedroom and selected an implement to rouse him—field hockey stick or whiffle bat?—and gave him the lightest of taps with the latter. A groan issued from beneath the sheets.
“Morning, Maxie.” Dulcet tones from me; more groans from the Doctor. He leered out from the linens.
“What? Why?” I assumed he was referring to my snazz.
“Just wanted to look sharp,” I said.
He thought for a moment. “Wait until you see my costume,” he said, grinning.
Loaded with leftovers and other provisions for the city, per Ruthie’s insistence, we bid her goodbye and drove down the driveway amid many downed trees, a consequence of Hurricane Sandy. As we grew closer to the city, we picked up WKCR, the Columbia radio station. DJ Phil Schaap was holding forth on Lester Young, “Prez.” “This guy is crazy. He’s a walking encyclopedia on jazz,” Max said, remembering his time at the station himself. “He’s got nothing on the table in front of him. No notes, nothing. Just him and a microphone.”
“That’s amazing.” Phil was still droning on, describing in minute detail the similarities between a guitar fill on a Bing Crosby song, “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” and a sax piece by Prez. It was fascinating, this man’s encyclopedic knowledge and extemporaneous skill.
“We’ve been listening for ten minutes, and he’s played maybe a minute of actual jazz,” Max chuckled. He was right.
Walking into MarieBelle, the SoHo chocolate shop, was like walking into an exquisite gift. I handled the chocolates gingerly, afraid to touch them, much less unwrap and eat one. But when the shopgirl offered a taste of the Aztec hot chocolate, a 65% South American single-origin concoction, I took the cup gratefully, savoring the rich liquor in the tiniest sips I had perhaps ever taken.
Well, after that, I was hooked. I dropped in the café in the back, took a table for one, and 30 minutes to down a small cup of the ambrosial stuff. Carla Bruni was playing on the radio. The kitchen was the size of a closet. In fact, it was a closet. Somehow, I was in Paris and New York at the same time.
That evening I met with Katie Beargie at Kaia, a wine bar with a South African menu and wine. Katie was a Lexington native, a Centre and Columbia grad, and a delightful dinner partner. The menu, in Afrikaans, touted “Botterskorsie en salie toasties,” which we ate, little crostini with diced butternut squash and ricotta cheese, garnished with sage. But it was the “Bunnychow” that really caught my eye, perhaps because I had spied a beautiful flop-eared bunny earlier that day in the window of a boutique clothing shop. There were about three articles of clothing in the shop, and one bunny in the window. So as I had the Bunnychow, a hearty chicken and tomato curry, I remembered Mrs. Cooper, nibbling her straw in the heart of SoHo. Only in New York, I thought.
I had gone into the evening planning to extract some bit of dirt on my boss, Mary Robin, from her Centre days. But Katie, MR’s college roommate, was too sweet to divulge anything of any use. All I learned was how obscenely cheap the rent was on their St. Mildred’s Court apartment, which may date MR, so I’ll keep it to myself.
Kaia was rustic, all planks of wood and chalkboards, exposed brick and Edison bulbs. Turns out “kaia” means “hut” in South Africa. Founder’s Breakfast Stout and Ayinger Celebrator were on the beer menu, beers dark as night to accompany the dimly lit dining room. It reminded me of my own little bar at home, except here the glasses of wine were $17.
I met Max outside the St. Regis hotel, and we walked in to meet Tiff, nattily dressed and strutting like we owned the place. Turns out we were overdressed—that suits were entirely optional on a Monday at the King Cole Bar—and most everyone else was untucked and casual. So we relished the singular pleasure of being the best-dressed patrons in the place as we sipped on our cocktails—Max the “Penny Lane Martini,” with Hendrick’s Gin, Sake, Dry Vermouth and a Cucumber garnish, Tiff the “Jazz Me Blues,” a concoction of Grey Goose Pear Vodka, St. Germain, and Champagne, and I the “New York, New York,” an altered Manhattan with Woodford Reserve, Sweet Vermouth, and Apfel Liqueur.
The cocktails weren’t groundbreaking, just slight riffs on established classics, although they were entirely drinkable and went down altogether smoothly. No surprise that it’s not the style of the St. Regis to be on the cutting edge. Instead, they offer the comfort of a New York of yesteryear, and so walking into the bar is like going back in time. An exorbitant price was the most extraordinary thing about the drinks, although I must give the bartender, Mike, props on pouring with a generous hand.
Before taking our leave, we approached the bar to thank Mike for his service and inquire about the mural’s secret, which Mike gave up instantly—he was tired of the question, I’m sure, which must have been asked innumerable times in his twenty-two years tending bar at the St. Regis. It turned out to be a matter of monarchical indigestion. That is, the Old King Cole had passed gas. Thus his pages and attendant knights are stifling a smirk, or else turning away in disgust. Maxfield Parrish, the artist, had the last laugh of all.
We found ourselves at Bemelman’s after last call, wandered around aimlessly for a minute or two, and decided we couldn’t go home on such an anticlimactic note—that, and we needed another drink. So we wandered down to Lexington Bar and Books, a cigar bar that was warm, sexy, and alive in all the ways that the St. Regis was not. Here patrons, their eyes briefly gleaming in the flare of matches furnished by our helpful attendant, leaned over the tables to whisper in each other’s ears. Wreathed in smoke, we sank into the seat leather, happy to find ourselves among folks that felt like co-conspirators, at a place that felt like home. We ordered a first drink, and a second, and then, giddy and exhausted, we stepped out onto the sidewalk and hailed a cab to whisk us off to dreamland.