Friday at five: The Rusty Nail

Is there such a thing as an “old man drink?” In the early 90s, we were in our 20s, and into cocktails. Although this predates the canonical “cocktail renaissance,” you could still find cocktails in Toronto. For the most part, the cocktails you were likely to encounter fell into three categories: 70s singles bar cocktails, contemporary twists on the same, a small subset of classic cocktails. Of that last group, the few classic cocktails you encountered weren’t likely to be particularly well-made. People were drinking Manhattans, but in Toronto, they were usually made with Canadian whisky. (No doubt in part due to the confusion between Canadian rye and American straight rye. We would never make that mistake now, right?)

Another Canadian twist on a classic cocktail is the Bloody Caesar, or in Canadian parlance, a “Caesar”. It’s a take on the Bloody Mary that substitutes clamato juice for tomato juice. It has a fascinating history whose details involve a Canadian and a Polish New Yorker—I’ll save that for a later post. Being contrary, I have always preferred Bloody Marys, mostly because they were the drink of one of my all-time favorite TV characters: Olivia “Mother” Jefferson, played so brilliantly by Zara Cully. (A “grandma drink”?)

You know what 20-somethings in Toronto weren’t drinking much? Martinis. At the time, classic Martinis had an old-man-drink vibe. To get a good one, you had to visit a place where old men hung out, like a steakhouse or a hotel bar. I distinctly remember a visit to the bar at the Top o’ The Senator. There were four of us sitting at the bar and we ordered a round of Martinis. We got the Martinis and the check, unasked for, at the same time. Message received.

During that era, I remember having an after dinner drink at a wedding with the father of the groom. He was a classic old-school older gent. (Like Alton Benes, although not a tough guy.) He had a Rusty Nail. I had never had one. I tried it. I liked it, even though it was sweet and I’m not a sweets person. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand how many Rusty Nails I had had since then. But since December is our Scotch cocktails month, I thought that would be a good place to wrap things up.

I began my Rusty Nail research at Hudson Malone. I asked my bartender if anyone ever ordered the drink. He laughed a bit and said, “Rusty Nail? That’s something my parents would order.” OK, some evidence to support my thesis. The question is, should we rescue the drink? For me, the answer is a resounding yes! It’s a very simple drink: scotch on the rocks with a hint of Drambuie. Perhaps a bit sweet for an aperitif, but I like it as an after dinner drink. Really the only variability is the type of scotch and the amount of Drambuie. I’ve tried many variations over the last few weeks, and here’s where I landed.

Rusty Nail

  • 2 oz blended Scotch whisky (Johnnie Walker Black, or Famous Grouse)
  • ½ oz Drambuie
  • Build in tumbler with plenty of ice

We hope you have been enjoying this series. We’re now going on a hiatus for January and will see you again later in the New Year. Please let us know in the comments if there are any cocktails you would like us to cover in future posts.

Friday at five: The Robert Burns

Towards the end of my post on the Rob Roy, I pondered swapping out the bitters in the drink for something sweet, like Benedictine, or Drambuie. Now we will take up that thread as we continue our look at Scotch whiskey cocktails for December. I have known about the Robert Burns and Bobby Burns cocktails for as long as I have known about the Rob Roy, and that is a long time. But I’ve always been a little bit hazy on the details of these drinks, and it turns out, that’s understandable.

To begin with, one can’t be blamed for assuming that the Robert Burns is named after the great Scottish poet. But in an early reference to the drink, in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1935), Albert Stevens Crockett writes:

“It may have been named after the celebrated Scotsman. Chances are, however, that it was christened in honor of a cigar salesman, who “bought” in the Old Bar.”

Crockett lists the recipe as follows:

Robert Burns

  • Dash of Orange Bitters
  • One dash of Absinthe
  • One-quarter Italian Vermouth
  • Three-quarters Scotch Whiskey

Compare this to his recipe for the Rob Roy, just down the same page:

Rob Roy

  • Dash of Orange Bitters
  • One-half Scotch
  • One-half Italian Vermouth

So, it’s like a drier version of a Rob Roy, with the addition of absinthe. (Also, recall that the Rob Roy is meant to be a red drink, in honor of its red-headed namesake.) But was Crockett just kidding around about the cigar salesman? Well, I wonder, because here’s what Harry Craddock wrote five years earlier in The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930):

Bobby Burns Cocktail*

  • ½ Italian Vermouth.
  • ½ Scotch Whisky.
  • 3 Dashes Benedictine

“*One of the very best Whisky Cocktails. A very fast mover on Saint Andrew’s Day.”

So at the very least, people drinking in the American Bar at the Savoy thought that the drink had Scottish significance. Let’s take a look at what David Embury wrote about the drink in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).

“Rob Roy – Made exactly like the Manhattan but with Scotch in place of the rye or bourbon. If orange bitters are used instead of Angostura, the drink is sometimes called the Highland, or the Highland Fling, or the Express. An interesting variation on the Rob Roy is the Bobbie Burns.

Bobbie Burns – Rob Roy with the addition of 1 dash of Drambuie for each drink. Benedictine is sometimes used in place of the Drambuie. However, the Drambuie is preferable because it is made with a Scotch whisky base.”

So, where does that leave us? Well, to list everything, we are in doubt of the drink’s name, provenance, bitters-yea-or-nay, absinthe-yea-or-nay, Benedictine-vs-Drambuie, whiskey-to-vermouth. Given all the above, my assumption was that this would be another cocktail I would need to explain to every bartender. And that turned out to be incorrect! As a matter of fact, on my first outing on the trail of this drink, I went to Hudson Malone. I asked the bartender if he knew how to make a Robert Burns, or a Bobby Burns. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, the Bobby Burns is on our cocktail list!’ Well, there you go again, Doug Quinn for the win! I ordered the Bobby Burns and sampled it. Hmm. Pretty good, but it was not going to be my favorite. I asked which whiskey they were using, and it turned out to be a rail brand, whose name I shall not utter here. For round two, I asked for Famous Grouse, and Drambuie in place of the Benedictine. Also some arancini to help maintain my critical focus. Yes! This one works—quite decidedly.

For my next Robert Burns, I enjoyed one pre-diner at Bar Shun. A quick explainer to the bartender and we were off to the races. This was also very good, with much restraint on the sweet notes, and great balance. Swanky even, to match the swanky room. I had another Robert Burns at The Blasket, which is a very nice Irish pub very close by. We were meeting our friend Liza Weisstuch. Liza is a whiskey expert and Guinness lover, so The Blasket was a good choice. The bartender, Liam, made me a fine Robert Burns. I asked him which Scotch he liked in cocktails like these, and he simply replied, “I don’t really like Scotch.” Fair enough!

My Robert Burns

  • ¾ Scotch whiskey (Johnnie Walker Black or Famous Grouse)
  • ¼ Italian vermouth
  • Few dashes Drambuie
  • One dash absinthe
  • Stir and serve up with maraschino cherry

My original plan was to enjoy these drinks on the outside, as I didn’t much feel like investing in Benedictine or Drambuie. However, I broke down and picked up some of the latter. When I brought it home, Nora dryly intoned, “welcome to the bottle of Drambuie we will have for the rest of our lives.” But I don’t think that is going to be the case. It’s very sweet on its own, but when paired with whiskey, something magical happens. I found myself making these drinks at home much more often than strictly required for research purposes. In fact, I think the Robert Burns is getting an official spot in the rotation. Next time, we will wrap up the year with a look at another classic Scotch and Drambuie concoction.

How We Compost in NYC

I started composting kitchen food scraps this year. It’s easier than I thought and I’m never turning back. Here’s how I make it work in my NYC apartment.

It all started when our super went on vacation last July. We live in a small, four-unit building, and, like many apartments in the city, ours is quirky. That means when our super took time off during two of the hottest weeks of the year, the building’s garbage room did too.

During this hiatus (which weirdly exactly coincided with Chester’s being away for a jazz workshop), tenants were instructed to leave trash in black garbage bags on the curb on any of the three weekly collection days for our street. This didn’t seem like a very appealing prospect during the dog days of summer. We were in the habit of re-using small plastic shopping bags as trash can liners and taking everything out to the garbage room daily before odors could develop. But now I pictured storing a stinking, quarter-full large black trash bag in our apartment for a few days, before leaving it half-full on the curb. There had to be a better way.

This is when necessity nudged me in the right direction.

I’d noticed that the two farmers’ markets I liked to visit both had compost drop-off stations. It was peak season for New York State sour cherries and I’d been meaning to make a batch of maraschinos–why not drop off my compost and pick up some fruit at the same time?

Waste trimmings from cutting radishes
Roots and stems: compostable waste trimmings from radishes

Flash forward six months and I’m a committed composter. (And Chester, having returned from his two-week workshop to the puzzling sight of a collection of peach pits and spent teabags in the freezer, is now fully on board too.) Here are a few things we learned along the way:

Why Compost?

I’d been vaguely aware that there were environmental benefits to composting. Turning food scraps into fertile garden soil instead of shipping them off to landfill could only be a good thing, right? But, as I soon learned, there’s much, much more to it.

If you send your banana peels and coffee grounds, etc. to oxygen-deprived landfill, they’ll decompose anaerobically, releasing the greenhouse gas methane, which has a significantly larger Global Warming Potential than CO2. But put that same banana peel and coffee filter into a well-aerated compost pile and they’ll actually lock in carbon from the air as they break down.

What to Compost

Guidelines will vary from program to program, so it’s best to check in with the host organization on what they do and do not accept (click here for GrowNYC’s). Animal products and food containing fats and oils are usually a no-go. Fruits, vegetables, grain products–basically anything non-greasy that came from a plant–are all good.

Where to Compost in NYC

Food-scrap-drop-off-Union-Square-NYC
The food scrap drop-off at Union Square Greenmarket gets a lot of traffic

If you live in a large apartment building with many tenants interested in composting, building management can set up centralized collection.

But if you’re in a smaller building like we are, your best bet is to drop off your scraps at one of many GrowNYC locations dotted through the city. Click through to a map with a schedule here.

Or for the adventurous, you might consider indoor vermiculture. Yes, folks, that’s composting with live worms. (Erm, I don’t think we have the closet space for that.)

Collecting and Storing

That first week I started composting, I stored all my scraps in the fridge a plastic bag I knotted closed at the top. They were a bit squishy to transport and stuck to the sides of the bag when I went to dump them out. The knot was hard to untie too. One of the compost concierges at Dag Hammarskjold Greenmarket saw me in my messy struggle and tactfully advised me to try a paper bag (which is also compostable) stored in the freezer–no emptying out required. I experimented and found paper bags to be too leaky for my liking. But the deep-freeze method was a definite improvement. I’ve got my personal system down now: a Ziploc bag (which I continue to wash and reuse until it falls apart) stored in the freezer.

Unexpected Benefits

Since our household started composting, our (landfill) trash output has been drastically reduced. Instead of taking out a bag daily, we only take out a small bag once or twice a week. And because there’s nothing organic in it to go bad, there’s no rush.

Getting out to the greenmarket on a regular basis for compost drop-off has also encouraged us to pick up more fresh, local produce, so we’re eating better too.

We’ve also become motivated to reduce the amount of usable vegetable trimmings we’ve been wasting (save that freezer space!). We started going to Zero Waste Chef for recipes using parts that might have otherwise been compost. Broccoli stems, radish greens—I can’t believe we used to throw those out.

Friday at five: Rob Roy

Louis & Wally

Did you know that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were contemporaries? Even If you are not a classical music buff, you may have lately noticed more and more references to Beethoven popping up around you. Well please get ready, because you will see more and more Beethoven over the next year, as December 16 2020 will be the sestercentennial, or 250th, anniversary of his birth. Or so we assume, since we don’t know definitively on what day Beethoven was born, only the day of his baptism, which was December 17 1770, in Bonn, Germany. Even Beethoven didn’t know his own birthday, and at one point he asked his pupil, friend, and later, biographer, Ferdinand Ries, to do some research to help him figure it out. Scott will have his sestercentennial a year later, in 2021, and we in the US will have our country’s five years after that.

I don’t know of any definitive connection between Beethoven and Scott, other than the fact that Scott had an interest, in his younger days, of German Romantic literature, and that Beethoven set three of Scott’s poems as part of his 25 Scottish Songs, Op. 108, first published in 1818. At that time, Beethoven was one of the world’s most famous composers, well into his “late” period, and composing some of the greatest instrumental music ever written. So why the Scottish folk songs? Well, in a word, money. Despite his fame, money was always a problem for Beethoven, and there was not a single point in his life where he could settle down and stop the hustle. The song settings paid fairly well, and were easy and enjoyable work for him. (They are worth listening to; they’re quite beautiful.)

Late in his life, Scott had money problems too, although his trajectory was entirely different from Beethoven’s. Scott was born into nobility and had a steady day job as a Writer to the Signet (a kind of solicitor) among other things. He began his professional writing career in 1796 with a translation of German ballads. Later the same year, he published his first poems. By 1805, his poems had reached international acclaim. (Beethoven at this point was four or five years into his mature “middle period.”) In 1814, Scott published, anonymously, his novel Waverley, historical fiction about the Jacobite rising of 1745. Waverley was a smash, and over the next 18 years, Scott published 20 more books which have come to be known collectively as the Waverley Novels. The novels brought Scott substantial wealth, but the money problems still came for him. In 1825, the publishing company in which he was a partner went bust. Scott took it upon himself to write his way out of his debts, publishing over the next seven years a non-stop stream of novels, plays, and non-fiction.

All-in-all, Scott’s collected works make for a very impressive leather-bound set. Judging by the number of these sets from the late 1800s that are still around in New York City, they seem to have been quite popular among the type of families who could afford to purchase them, and also to afford to keep them around in good condition for 150 years. At this moment, Argosy Books has available a set of the Waverley Novels in a centenary edition from 1871, 25 volumes and a comparative bargain at only $950. A fancier edition from 1877 in 48 volumes is currently available for $4,000. We can deduce from all these collected works sets that Scott was popular in New York City. But we also have more direct knowledge: in 1833, 6th Street in Greenwich Village was renamed Waverly Place in Scott’s honor. Pity they spelled “Waverley” wrong, but oh well, you say “whiskey,” I say “whisky.”

Succession, 1890s Style

If you were a New Yorker in the 1890s and had the cash, not to mention the shelf space, for a 50-volume leather-bound set of the works of Walter Scott, you were probably the type of clientele that William Waldorf Astor had in mind when he opened his Waldorf Hotel at Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue in 1893. On February 13 of that year, the New York Times raved: “This hotel is a palace. The new Waldorf Hotel is soon to be opened. Its cost over $3,000,000. Fortunes expended upon a single room—a thirty-five hundred dollar bed. Plans for a grand opening next month.” Browsing through the Times archive of the subsequent months, you see many stories on the Waldorf—interesting ones that probably merit a post of their own. But then on November 3, 1893, a bombshell hits. “It will tower above the Waldorf; John Jacob Astor to build a hotel adjoining that of his cousin. An eighteen-story hotel is to be built by John Jacob Astor on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, adjoining the Waldorf. If expectations are realized, it will be the largest, best equipped, and in most luxuriously appointed hotel in the world.”

The story reads:

“When William Waldorf Astor put up the Waldorf on his part of the old Astor homestead, it was rumored that the other branch of the family was not exactly pleased, and that its members would continue to live in their brick house at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, right next door. The Waldorf has prospered however, and John Jacob Astor some time ago decided to go his cousin one better in the hotel line.”

Family intrigue! Extreme wealth! Cousins making power moves just to piss each other off. Yes, this is the 1890s version of Succession. At the end of the Times story, they announce that John Jacob Astor had chosen a name for the hotel, “a capital one” at that, but he would not yet reveal it. Well, of course, he named it the Astoria Hotel. The Astoria opened in November, 1897, the Astor family having decamped from their brick house way uptown to Sixty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue. The two hotels were at first operated separately, but both under the same general manager, George Boldt. But soon thereafter, they were combined into a single hotel, with a “Peacock Alley” skyway connecting the two properties above Thirty-third Street. The combined hotel became the Waldorf-Astoria, with the hyphen symbolizing the peacock alley. When Conrad Hilton bought management rights to the new Waldorf-Astoria (the old one was razed in 1929 to make way for another folly, the Empire State Building), he changed the hyphen to an equal sign, making the reference to the old skyway that much more explicit. Hilton dropped the hyphen in 2009, which is a pity.

Oh Promise Me

Not far from the original Waldorf, the Herald Square Theatre opened at 1333 Broadway in 1883. Herald Square was, of course, the home of the New York Herald, a sort of Fox News for its age, and which would later become the Herald Tribune. The two famous squares on Broadway, are actually “bowtie” squares, each consisting of a pair of squares: Herald & Greeley, and eight blocks uptown, Times & Duffy.

Composer Reginald de Koven had his first smash hit in New York with the operetta Robin Hood, which, after debuting in his native Chicago in 1890, opened the next year in the Manhattan Theatre, just down the street across from Greeley Square. The Times gave the show a very good review, and one tune, “Oh Promise Me” has survived, becoming for a time a popular sappy song to sing at weddings. If you were a fan of All in The Family, you may recall the episode in which Edith Bunker, much to Archie’s chagrin, gives us her version of the tune.

Looking for another hit, de Koven settled upon Rob Roy for more Robin Hood-ish action. I don’t know to what extent de Koven or librettist Harry Smith were inspired by Walter Scott’s novel, but certainly the novel would lend an air of rich-mahogany-many-leatherbound-books respectability to the affair. How to describe de Koven’s music? I guess calling it second-tier Gilbert and Sullivan would get you in the ball park. The rhythms are square, the harmonies are square, the tunes are written so that you can hum along the first time you hear them. There don’t seem to be any recordings in print, but Naxos did a well-produced recording of Robin Hood in 1981, many selections from which can be found in the usual places. I’ve leafed through the score of Rob Roy, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be any better, and the Times review would indicate that it didn’t quite reach the heights of Robin Hood.  

Rob Roy score.

Nonetheless, the show was a hit, running at the Herald Square Theatre through March 1894. And so, to celebrate the hit show running around the corner, one of the bartenders at the Waldorf came up with a show-themed cocktail, and the Rob Roy was born.

The Damn Drink

If Rob Roy the operetta is the red-headed stepchild of Robin Hood the operetta, I don’t think you could quite say the same about Rob Roy the cocktail in relation to the Manhattan. True, that’s the easiest way to conceive of a Rob Roy–as a Manhattan with scotch whiskey subbed for rye. And that’s undoubtedly how the drink’s originator came up with the idea. But since the world of scotch whiskey is so vast, this drink can go in a million different directions, some of which are amazing. Mixing one up with a relatively neutral blended whiskey, like Famous Grouse for example, and you have not strayed too far from Manhattan town. Going with a single malt that is balanced but with some nice peat, say a Glen Morangie, or a Cardhu, and now you are really venturing into new territory. How about with a peat bomb from Islay like a Lagavulin or a Laphraoig? Off the Island for sure!

There is also a wide range of tuning to be made on the vermouth dial. Fin de siècle cocktails were sweeter than current tastes call for, a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth would be the starting point. Personally, I prefer my whiskey cocktails much drier and would more likely aim for 3:1 or even 4:1. As I noted in my post about the Old Pal vs. the Boulevardier, the white vermouth or perfect (white and sweet vermouth) versions are worth checking out.

And lastly, there’s the dash. Angostura bitters is the standard, but there is an argument to be made for Peychaud’s. And what if you skip the bitters altogether and opt for a dash of something sweet, like Benedictine, or Drambuie? Well, you’re on to something there, but that’s a topic for next time!

One last question remains, and that is, where to drink one? The original Waldorf bar disappeared 90 years ago, the current Waldorf Astoria is closed, the Oak Bar is still closed. Well, it turns out there is still a great old place to enjoy a Rob Roy in period setting. It hails from 1885, predating with Waldorf and the operetta. And better yet, it is right around the corner from the original Waldorf and the Herald Square Theatre. I’m of course talking about Keen’s Steakhouse. It’s perfect, and in fact, I went back yesterday just to be sure of it.

At Keen’s, I tried two different Rob Roys. For the first, I was looking for a ‘straight down the middle’ blended scotch. They had just run out of Famous Grouse, so we went with Cutty Sark instead. We went 3:1 on the vermouth, and Angostura bitters. It was good, and would serve well as an evening opener. For the second, I wanted to try out a really peaty single malt. We went with Caol Ila, and this was a really good choice: it’s peaty but without the iodine, medicinal qualities of some other Islay malts. We also went sweeter with the vermouth on this one. Hugely different! I don’t think this would be my favorite way to start an evening, but I very well could see myself enjoying one of these by a fireplace as a night cap.

Friday at five: The Gibson

If you asked Doug Quinn, owner and bartender at Midtown East’s Hudson Malone, what my drink is, he’d probably say, ‘rye Manhattan.’ And it’s true, I do order a lot of those, and it’s even the drink we chose to launch this column. But I’ve always had a lot of drinks in the rotation, mostly sticking to the classics. That is, unless I’m at one of my favorite craft cocktail joints like Amor Y Amargo in New York, or Stagger Lee in Berlin. In that case, I’ll gladly let their list of in-house specialties map the way. However, if you were to ask the same question of Tom Dillon, my friend who is also the lunch service bartender at La Grenouille, he would unhesitatingly answer, ‘Oh, that’s easy—a Plymouth Gibson.’ And now that I think of it, that is almost always my first order when Tom and I are out. Increasingly, over the years, it has become my go-to cocktail.

Nora and I got seriously into cocktails in the early 90s. It all started with our love of classic film. We would be watching the Thin Man, or My Man Godfrey, and want to have ‘what they were having.’ This was well before the 21st century cocktail renaissance, and so at that time, classic, well-proportioned cocktail glasses resembling those used in the films were not easy to come by. Enter Bombay Sapphire, with a holiday season gift set consisting of a bottle of gin, and two small, nicely proportioned cocktail glasses. We kept buying these gift sets for ourselves, and eventually had enough of the glasses to throw cocktail parties at our place. Along the way, I developed a new appreciation for gin. Up until that point, gin for us had mostly meant Gordon’s, and had mostly been consumed in G&T form.

Gin martinis continued to rank high on my cocktail list through the aughts, and for some reason, when I think of NYC in the aughts, I think of Bombay Sapphire. Also in the aughts, Nora was writing a great column on food and drink in film, called The Celluloid Pantry. One of her posts was on The Gibson cocktail in the film All About Eve (1950). Throughout the pivotal party scene, Bette Davis brandishes the cocktail as a dramatic prop. Most famously, Davis downs a Gibson, skips eating the onion garnish, and delivers the line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” (Nora also used this wonderful scene in her popular Classic Cocktails, Classic Film lecture and demonstration series.)

Earlier in that same scene, Gary Merrill hands Celeste Holme one of the cocktails delivers the line, “Karen–you’re a Gibson girl.” This is a nod to Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator whose “Gibson Girls” were featured in prominent magazines in the early 20th century. As the story goes, Gibson invented his namesake cocktail, essentially a gin martini with a pickled onion as garnish, in New York at The Player’s club. This is where Tom Dillon re-enters the story, as Tom recently explained to me that the correct number of cocktail onions in a Gibson is two, in an anatomical homage to the Gibson Girl. You get the idea.

And so, perhaps inspired by the film, The Gibson started displacing the martini as my favorite gin cocktail. Unlike Davis, I always eat the onions, which I think is a perfect way to whet the appetite for whatever is coming next. In fact, eating the onions really sets you up too well for ordering another Gibson, which for me is a no-no, so I have now taken to eating the garnish midway through the drink. Uncharacteristically, I prefer store-bought cocktail onions to artisanally house-pickled ones, mainly because of the size—craft bar house-pickled onions tend to be too large, which spoils the proportions of the drink.

The final piece in the puzzle is the matter of the gin. On the heels of the 21st century cocktail renaissance came a distilling renaissance, which we are still enjoying today, at the end of the ‘teens. Over the years, we have sampled many small production gins with flavor profiles all over the map. The problem for me was that, as interesting as these gins are when sampled solo, they tend to make for pretty monstrous martinis. In the course of sampling all these gins, we rediscovered Plymouth gin. Compared to Bombay Sapphire, it’s a little more rounded, a little less juniper-forward. And for reasons that I don’t quite understand, Plymouth is very forgiving to different levels of vermouth, whereas with Bombay, I feel the need to really dial it in to get a well-balanced drink (an under-vermouthed, or under-diluted Sapphire martini is not pleasant). And so Plymouth became the new standard for me, not to say that I dislike any of the big London Dry gins. In fact, I now regularly employ what I call the Plymouth test, with the simple rationale that if a bar doesn’t carry Plymouth, perhaps it’s not the best place to order a gin cocktail.

We would like to humbly dedicate this post in memory of inspirational educator, cocktail writer, and bartender, Gary Regan, who died last Friday.

Midtown East: La Pecora Bianca

After debuting its first location in NoMad in 2015, the Midtown East branch of La Pecora Bianca opened with some neighborhood buzz in October 2017. I recall chatting about it in expectation with the folks across the street at Somm Time just before opening. In the weeks afterward, it turned into somewhat of a hang for the somms, and it did for us too! The restaurant would feature locally-sourced produce and meat, pastas made with ancient and whole grains, and an Italian wine list. I have to admit that the first thing that caught my eye on the menu was Produttori del Barbaresco by the glass. I had a feeling right then that this could be our kind of place.

We booked a table during opening week. Dining at a restaurant during opening is always interesting, because it’s not a question of whether things will go wrong—they will!—it’s a question of how the staff will handle them. On this night, our only tribulation was a bit of a wait for our table, and for this trouble we were offered a nice cheese plate as we waited by the bar. They passed the test with flying colors!

Since then, Pecora has found its way into our regular rotation. The food here is what you might call mainstream modern Italian. This is neither fine dining, nor old-school, but it’s good, and it leans healthy. We have sampled salads, pastas, fish and seafood, and while there haven’t been any dishes that we dream about at night (hello cacio e pere at Felidia!) everything is good enough to keep us coming back, the pastas in particular. I was pleased to see a bucatini cacio e pepe, previously a special, make it to the regular menu. Arancini have been on the menu since opening. While Pecora no longer offers Produttori by the glass, there is almost always a good Produttori, sometimes a reserve, available by the bottle, along with other solid Brunellos and Super-Tuscans. Cocktail service is good, and they pass the Plymouth gin test.

The main dining area is rather large, on the bright side and with a volume level approaching high (although nowhere near the cacophony of the nearby Smith). These are not our favorite attributes for a dining room, but somehow Pecora makes it all work. This is a very solid choice for entertaining out-of-town guests. Breakfasts and brunches, during which the scene is not as lively as dinner, are also good options.

Details

La Pecora Bianca
950 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022
https://www.lapecorabianca.com/location/midtown/
(212) 899-9996

Friday at five: Rye and Ginger

“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby!”

And with that drink order, Greta Garbo spoke her first ever line in a talkie, 1930’s Anna Christie. “Garbo Talks!” screamed the ads! It was a big deal. So we also see that whisky and ginger ale is a classic combination. And with good reason: the burn of the ginger acts as a counter-irritant (as William Powell’s Godfrey would say) to the burn of the booze, and the sweetness of the mixer gives the whole drink a nice lift.

My own connection with the drink is, however, much more personal: it was my Dad’s drink. He would have them when company was over, but I think his favorite time to have them was on the weekend, watching hockey games on TV. I was a precocious kid, and I learned at an early age, probably nine or ten, how to make them for him. My parents had these fancy tumblers with gold trim; there was a ring around each glass near the bottom, which I figured was the right fill line for the whisky. I’d then fill it up with Canada Dry ginger ale, no ice. I remember the first time I made him one, he approached the drink with caution, took a sip and then with a somewhat surprised expression, proclaimed it good. After that, for the next few years anyway, I would mix him the odd one while he watched those hockey games. Now I know that there will be people who are perhaps appalled at the thought of a young child mixing drinks for their father. That’s fine, but I really don’t care. It’s but one of many nostalgic memories I have of my father, who left this Earth in 2002.

In Canada, up through the 90s at least, which is when I left Ontario for NYC, Rye and Ginger is a popular drink. And ‘Rye’, in that context refers to Canadian whisky, which is very different from an American straight rye. My Dad didn’t really have a preference, I remember seeing Crown Royal (with the cool bag), Canadian Club, Seagram’s VO, and Seagram’s Five Star (with the cool plastic “sheriff’s badge”). I suspect that in the years since I left, Rye and Ginger may have become somewhat of an old man drink.

For my own version today, I’m going to skip the Canadian whisky and opt instead for an excellent NY state rye, Breuckelen Distilling bottled in bond small batch. And I’m also subbing in my own house-made fermented ginger beer– recipe to follow soon! My current batch of ginger beer isn’t super carbonated yet (it’s only been going for two days), but it has a lovely yeasty, slightly funky, honey and spice flavor profile. If I were served this blind, I would not guess in a million years that this is a two-ingredient drink.

Ingredients

  • A shot of rye whiskey
  • Ginger beer
  • Serve in a tumbler, on the rocks, or neat like my Dad liked
Ginger bug in a Le Parfait jar.
Ginger bug, like a sourdough starter for ginger beer.

Variations

For a classic Rye and Ginger, use Canadian whisky and commercial ginger ale. To make a Horse’s Neck, substitute brandy (classic) or bourbon (another variation), serve on the rocks and garnish with a long lemon twist, extending outside the rim of the glass.

Here’s to you, Dad!

What’s fermenting: Easy Homemade (Vegan) Kimchi

You might say I caught the fermentation bug from kimchi.

Salty, spicy, sour, with a slightly crunchy edge, this staple of Korean cuisine makes a deliciously addictive addition to everything from fried rice to tacos to sourdough pancakes to grilled cheese sandwiches.

You can buy small jars of artisanal versions for upwards of $10. I’m here to tell you it’s easy–and satisfying–to make at home.

The active prep time is minimal. But with all the resting/fermenting required, it’ll be four days at the very least until you have kimchi that’s ready to eat. The ingredients are: Napa cabbage, daikon (Japanese radish), scallions, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, plus a Korean a hot red pepper powder called gochugaru (available at specialty stores such as Kalustyan’s here in NYC and also online). Traditional non-vegan recipes include fish sauce and dried shrimp.

Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, korean chile powder
Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, gochugaru.

Kimchi relies on the same probiotic (human-friendly) bacterium for its fermentation as sauerkraut: lactobacillus acidophilus. The bacteria are naturally present on the cabbage leaves and just need a little encouragement. That encouragement comes in the form of salt and being packed tightly in a container deprived of oxygen. Both of these things kill off the competing (human-unfriendly) bacteria, giving the lactobacillus acidophilus freedom to take over. (If you’re interested in reading more about the subject, I highly recommend books by Sandor “Sandorkraut” Katz.)

I made my very first batch of vegan kimchi three years ago. I’d never tried my hand at making any fermented foods before and, to be honest, felt a little apprehensive about adding dried shrimp to something that was going to be sitting unrefrigerated on my kitchen countertop for over 24 hours. Plus shrimp and the fish sauce were just another two ingredients I’d need to buy. I decided to try a vegan recipe instead, and found a great one from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats. It’s possible to simply skip the seafood and leave it at that. But he substitutes miso paste to give the finished product extra tasty umami depth.

I’m a much more confident home fermenter now, but am hooked on this vegan version of kimchi (one day I’m going to try the shrimp). I make it regularly, and over the years have adjusted the ingredients and prep method slightly to my preferences. Traditional recipes call for whole Napa cabbage leaves–or, for larger batches, an intact, whole head of it, with the seasonings packed between the leaves (cool video here). But I found tearing the leaves into smaller pieces made them easier to handle every step of the way. They were easier to salt, easier to mix with the chili paste, and easier to pack in–and pull out of–jars.

I also learned the measurements don’t need to be exact. If you only have three scallions on hand instead of six, three scallions will do just fine. Same goes for garlic and ginger–and the hot pepper. You even have some leeway with the amount of salt. As for the countertop fermentation, 24 hours is a basic minimum, but in cooler weather I let it go for about 36. The kimchi will get more and more sour as the process goes on. Once it’s in the fridge, fermentation will continue but at a much slower rate. Feel free to adjust to your own tastes.

Vegan Kimchi

(adapted from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats)

  • 1 head of Napa cabbage (1-2 lbs)
  • 2-3 tablespoons non-idodized salt (kosher or sea salt)
  • 6 scallions, trimmed, greens separated from white parts, and cut into 2-3 inch lengths
  • fist-sized piece of daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and cut into matchsticks approx. 1/4 inch thick
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped coarsely
  • 1/2 cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder)
  • 2 tbs miso paste (I used low sodium)
  • 1 tbs sugar (I used dark brown but any kind will do)
  • water

Remove core from bottom part of Napa cabbage. Tear leaves into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add scallion greens and daikon matchsticks. Add salt a little at a time to bowl, mixing to distribute among the leaves. Cover with a cloth and allow to wilt for 6-12 hours. Stir as needed to redistribute salt. The vegetables should release 1/4-1/2 cup water.

In a food processor, combine scallion whites, garlic, ginger, gochugaru, miso, and sugar. Whir for a few seconds to form a coarse paste.

Combine paste with the cabbage mixture in a bowl. Add 1/4 cup of water and either stir with a spoon or knead with hands until the paste is evenly distributed. Taste for desired saltiness and adjust as necessary. Pack into a large jar, pressing down with the back of a spoon to release any trapped air pockets and allow some liquid to rise to the surface until the vegetables are completely submerged. Tighten lid on jar.

Allow to sit at room temperature 24-36 hours. Open jar after 12 hours or so to release gasses. Place in fridge. Can be consumed in 48 hours and keeps for a month or two. Note: Kimchi will become softer and more sour as time goes on.

Midtown East: Tacovision

When we heard that the folks at Crave Fishbar were opening a taco joint in our hood, we were thrilled. Crave is our go-to seafood restaurant in Midtown East, and it’s got a lot going for it: great oysters, a solid wine list, healthy and delicious fish and seafood options, and a really lively dining-at-the-bar scene. So we had high hopes for Tacovision, the team’s new taco bar on East 53rd Street. With the Crave pedigree, we were expecting great fish and seafood options, as well as solid vegetarian and vegan choices. In short, we were not disappointed.

We visited TV—as the cool kids already call it, no doubt—on taco Tuesday. In addition to $6 margaritas, they were featuring a $3 brussels sprouts taco. There are plenty of options for us non-carnivores, with four vegan taco options, and four pescatarian. We went with three of each, and also opted for vegetarian nachos. The nachos were serious business, piled high with kale and cauliflower, beans, and cheese—decidedly not nachos “Flanders’ style!” All of the tacos were great, with the fried cod taking first place in our ranking. The house-made blue corn tortillas were very good. The $6 margs were good too. We ordered them up, and they came cold, an in an appropriately-sized cocktail glass.

With the departures of some good, and some not so good, Mexican and taco joints, Midtown East is currently a little underserved for tacos. Sure, there are solid upscale versions at Pampano and Rosa Mexicano (as well as Maya and Cascabel a little further uptown). So Tacovision has a sporting chance of finding a solid niche. The block of 53rd between 2nd and 3rd is already home to some of our neighborhood favorites: Doug Quinn’s saloon Hudson Malone, underground Japanese whiskey and jazz bar Tomi Jazz, as well as an outpost of the Kati Roll Company. Tacovision is a welcome addition to the block and to the hood.

Details

Tacovision
244 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022
https://tacovisionnyc.com/
(646) 921-1990

Friday at five: Old Pal

A guy walks into a bar:
Bartender: “What’s yours?”
Guy: “Old Pal.”
Bartender: “Listen buddy, I don’t know you from Adam. So I’ll ask you again, what’ll it be?”
Guy: “I’d like an Old Pal, please.”
Bartender: “What in hell is that?”
–end scene

Some version of this scene has been playing over and again for me, minus the Capra-esque patter, for many months now. I’ve been conducting a bit of an experiment, and have found that hardly anyone, bartenders included, knows how to make an Old Pal. I think the bartender at Elixir, a truly excellent bar in San Francisco, may have been the only one who remembered it. And that’s a shame, because it’s a great drink.

I’m a big fan of Negronis–they’re my go-to when I’m looking for a gin cocktail that’s as bracing as a slap across the face. A few years ago, I fell in love with Boulevardiers, which swap out the gin for bourbon. I was in Louisville for two weeks this summer, and had one of those pretty much everywhere I went. But Nora and I both have a preference for rye whiskey over bourbon, at least in cocktails, and that’s where the Old Pal comes in. If you swap out the bourbon in a Boulevardier for rye, and also swap out the sweet vermouth for dry vermouth, now you have an Old Pal. This is exactly how I explain the drink to a bartender who doesn’t know what an Old Pal is. If they also don’t know how to make a Boulevardier, I’ll order a whiskey on the rocks.

The drink was created by Harry MacElhone, of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, in honor of his friend and frequent customer, William “Sparrow” Robertson, a sports writer for the New York Herald. Robertson would call everyone his “old pal,” and the drink was named. The associations with Harry’s and Paris in the ’20s complete the allure of the drink for me.

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Rye Whiskey
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Dry Vermouth
  • Lemon twist

Method

Build in a tumbler filled with ice. Serve with a lemon twist for garnish.

Given the similarities between the Old Pal and the Boulevardier, I thought it would be instructive to mix up one of each and do a side-by-side comparison. I was expecting the Old Pal to be crisper and the Boulevardier to be sweeter, and I was blown away by how much that turned out to be the case. The Boulevardier was tasting almost like sweet cough syrup in comparison to the sleeker, racier Old Pal. I think I will keep ordering them!

And speaking of old pals, our friend Kara Newman has a great book, “Shake. Stir. Sip.” which features the Old Pal, and about 50 other equal parts cocktails. It’s worth checking out, as are all her books!

Kara Newman's book Shake Stir Sip, and the Old Pal cocktail.
Kara Newman’s great book, Shake. Stir. Sip. features equal parts cocktails.