Photos and article by Virginia Miller
Working on a video project this Spring for Tastemade, I was asked to hand-select food and drink destinations to include in a Top 100 round-up of NY spots. This meant I was able to return to a number of my older favorites, like Amor y Amargo (my favorite amaro bar where, this time around, I enjoyed their iced coffee weekend brunch cocktail menu), Raines Law Room, Mayahuel, Cienfuegos, Brandy Library, Saxon + Parole and The Daily (the latter two of which I get into further below). Fine cocktails and spirits were had at each of these locations. Of course, I packed in some newer spots, too.
Sadly, the Golden Cadillac closed after my visit, though it hadn’t been open long. I appreciated the cheeky fun of the bar’s improved 70s cocktails, like a Golden Cadillac mixing Galliano, coconut cream, creme de cacao and orange bitters, or a Disco Daiquiri using almond milk instead of coconut milk (not to mention seeing great bartenders behind the bar, like Mathew Resler formerly of Empellon and Lulu Martinez, formerly of also-closed Painkiller. The East Village space will reopen as Boilermaker next month, involving none other than SF’s Erick Castro, who opened Rickhouse and the highly-lauded Polite Provisions in San Diego.
In the meantime, here are my 8 best cocktails in NYC this year (past years here), plus commentary on a couple newer cocktails bars.
1. SAXON + PAROLE, NoHo
Saxon + Parole has been one of my favorite NY bars for years since Naren Young used to oversee the program. It remains a favorite in its current days under the able hands of Masa Urushido, a gracious bar manager who came from some of Tokyo’s top bars to NYC in 2008.
His seasonal cocktails can be stunners. This spring, I was wowed by a Spring Daiquiri ($14) combining Cana Brava rum, sugar snap peas, a house lemon-thyme cordial, lemon and tarragon salt. Topped with fresh pea pods, it tastes blissfully of crisp peas, backed with rum’s spice and sweetness, perked up with thyme and lemon. Another standout on the creamy end of the spectrum is Rum & Raisin ($14), a blend of Appleton Reserve rum, Greek yogurt, vanilla, cinnamon and Perrier to cut the lushness with a bit of effervescence.
2. THE DAILY, Nolita
One of the great bar managers from the couple hundred NYC cocktail bars I’ve been to over the years is Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, at The Daily, who crafts well-balanced drinks in a seductive, mellow urban respite of a space featuring straightforward, daily changing cocktails and bites.
There’s one cocktail daily in each category, like bottled, “on the rocks” and aperitif. Returning this visit, a standout was a bottled La Perla for two ($26), served in a Daily flask (pictured below), a tequila, pear, sherry recipe from SF local, Jacques Bezuidenhout.
3. MOTHER’S RUIN, Nolita
Mother’s Ruin is a bartender/industry favorite and one of New York’s good-time hangouts where you’re greeted with a smile, elevated slushie and beer cocktails, and particularly during the day, a laid back, restorative vibe. Recently, Rabbit Done Died was the bracing slushie churning in their slushie machine, a combination of gin, carrot, lemon, cucumber and bitters, reminiscent of a Pimm’s Cup but icier and bolder. Fun was also had with a tequila and Cholula hot sauce cocktail partnered with a can of Tecate beer.
4. ZZ CLAM BAR, Greenwich Village
ZZ Clam Bar, a 12-seat, reservations-only seafood and cocktail bar is an intimate oasis in The Village that sings of island breezes and upscale Tiki culture circa 1940s with its romantic setting, soundtrack of lounge, exotica and other musical treats. Sounds like my dream spot, right? In many ways it is. Opened Summer 2013 by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone of neighboring Carbone, it is, like that red sauce Italian haven, vastly overpriced. It can easily cost a few hundred dollars here for dinner and cocktails, the latter of which are $20 each (more on the food here).
ZZ’s sole bartender didn’t seem interested in engaging or explaining the cocktails we tried, despite the fact that we have many friends in common as he came from SF and The Alembic (where he used to work and where I bartended for a few months – I did not present any of this information but should not have had to to receive quality service). Even a bit of genuine engagement would have made the difference between a mediocre and a fantastic experience commensurate with merely 12 diners and the fine dining price tag. Thankfully, service was warm from our waiter, which should be a given from all staff.
It’s hard to say $300+ is worth it for a non-fine dining experience where portions are tiny, although in making reservations, one could request a couple seats against the wall and go just for drinks and a bite or two. At the same time, ZZ is such a one-of-a-kind spot that imparts romance in its size and decor, worth experiencing if you can afford it and desire something different, as those of us do who dine and drink at hundreds of places annually around the world. While we’ve seen seafood crudo and raw fish menus before, ZZ’s interpretations are imaginative and the cocktails maintain tropical flair, each visually striking in gorgeous vintage glassware.
I tasted six cocktails, intrigued by combinations like Plymouth gin, creamy with pistachio and honey, tart with kumquat, or a reposado tequila-based concoction mixed with squash, thyme and allspice. I crave this type of creative, culinary experimentation in cocktails. While some combinations worked better than others, I truly appreciate drinks with a vision beyond the usual. Kudos also for an anejo tequila cocktail implementing butter, pineapple and ras al hanout spices, and another with crème de menthe, apple brandy, mandarin orange and mole bitters.
5. BETONY, Midtown West
Betony is an upscale Midtown restaurant that comes with a price tag as high as its gorgeously chic décor would suggest. Cocktails run $15-17 but are elegantly made with the type of sophistication one might expect from an Eleven Madison Park alum, namely GM Eamon Rockey. Betony is known for their lovely, regularly changing Milk Punch ($17 – read more about this in Robert Simonson’s NY Times article published around the time of my visit).
Their Milk Punch during my visit had a Del Maguey Vida Mezcal base, combined with a Moroccan spearmint, cocoa nib tea and lemon. Another impressive drink was Coco Chanel, inspired by Chanel No. 5 perfume and made in collaboration with a master perfumer across the street. Though the drink seems to have evolved (note this earlier iteration in Town & Country), when I tried it, Rockey combined Cocchi Americano, lemon oleo saccharum, a dry French rosé wine and a spritz of rose water. The aforementioned master perfumier created a mixture including bergamot, roses, jasmine and citrus, which was rubbed on the garnish of mint leaves for enhanced aromatics.
My take on two newer bars:
2nd FLOOR on CLINTON, Lower East Side
I was immediately smitten with the 2nd Floor on Clinton space for its removed, mellow vibe hidden upstairs in a Lower East Side space filled with mismatched couches and a lived-in, Victorian living room feel. The vibe (not the look) reminds me of the relaxed, non-trendy “speakeasy” days of Angel’s Share back in the 90s or the early days at the original Milk & Honey. One hopes the word doesn’t get out and make the space obnoxious or impossible to get in to.
Too bad the cocktails ($15) don’t quite keep up with the romantic space. Despite how intriguing they sound, the cocktails I tried from listed “mixologists” Ektoras Binikos and Sarah Miller seemed to lack focus coming across “muddled” or confused, with no distinct flavor, like the Mistral (Martin Miller’s gin, Averna, verjus, sage and yuzu), or Blessed Thistle, a combination of Michter’s Sour Mash, Cardamaro, honey liqueur, lemon, Meyer lemon zest, Dutch’s colonial and cardamom bitters.
NITECAP, Lower East Side
David Kaplan and Alex Day are big names in the cocktail world, opening NYC’s Death & Company and more recently Honeycut in Los Angeles. They opened their intimate basement bar, Nitecap, just a couple weeks before I was in NYC in April so I caught it in early weeks. With brick walls and plum leather banquettes, the dim space is seductive and appealing. I just missed head bartender Natasha David, but tasted a few cocktails on their playfully-designed menu. They were pleasant though soft cocktails where the alcohol was barely a whisper (making some drinks feel more for the spirits novice rather than the aficionado). Service was aloof and unengaged, making it less fun than Portland’s Pepe Le Moko, which also opened this spring in Portland with a similar basement vibe and look though it is decidedly more fun. Kudos, however, for Nitecap’s late night, early ‘90s hip hop soundtrack.