A young woman walks across the crowded diner floor, hands the
manager an envelope and says, “I have a present for you.” The manager hugs her
and replies, “You’re my present!” An older trio open the front doors,
struggling a bit against the windy day, and a server walks over to them, gives
them hugs, and they all exchange sad expressions. Variations on this theme
played out many times during our visit, our final visit to Burger Heaven over
the lunch hour.
The place is packed, more packed in fact than I have ever seen any of their locations. We had to wait ten minutes for a table, also a first. Everyone found out yesterday, as reported in the Times and in Eater, that this Friday would be the last day for Burger Heaven, the family-owned mini chain founded in 1943.
This was not a total surprise, since my favorite location, on East 53rd Street had already closed in December. That location, per the Times, was where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ate with her son, JFK Jr. (Legend has it, they also frequented P.J. Clarke’s, another of our Midtown East favorites.) I started going to 53rd Street in the early aughts. Nora used to work across the Street at HarperCollins, but it wasn’t part of her routine. For me, it began as a reliable place for a veggie burger and fries for lunch.
Later on, Burger Heaven on 53rd became my go-to work breakfast. I flew most weeks, usually coming home late on Thursdays. Fridays, when I was back in the office at Avenue of the Americas and 54th, whenever I needed a substantial 10:30 a.m. breakfast, that’s where I would go. A few things always impressed me: the omelets were good, they were served up super fast, they buttered the toast for you (thus offering an excuse to over indulge) and the people working the counter were always so damned nice.
You get this touristy notion of gruff service people in New York, but the real story is that the city is filled with warm, friendly, funny people—if you know where to go, and especially if you become a regular. That counter was also a good place to people-watch and eavesdrop. On one of my last visits, a guy was having a work breakfast with a hedge fund manager he had just hired, “We’re gonna start you with a small position of 15 million and see what you can do with it.” Earlier that morning, we strolled past Willem Defoe walking solo along Park Avenue.
So today, we went to our closest branch, the only one still open, at Lex and 62nd. Nora ordered her diner standard: Whiskey Radio Down (tuna on rye toast) with coleslaw, and I went for a tuna melt and fries. Did we want any dessert? Yes, a chocolate shake and an egg cream. A few minutes later, our server came back and apologized, they were all out of shakes and egg creams because of the closing.
We chatted with our server over the check. “Do you know where you’re going after this?” “No,” she replied. I told her, “I used to go to 53rd Street and I never go the chance to say goodbye!” “I don’t want to cry!” she said, as she gave us a little hug. But she did, a bit, anyway.
NYC winters are not exactly the worst. (We both grew up in Canada.) Nevertheless, we usually try to find someplace warm and sunny to find some respite. This year, we chose Miami Beach. I had been there years ago for “work”, but Nora—gasp—had never been to Florida, apart from a layover. Our friends John and Sarah have been raving for years about The Standard in Miami Beach, so we decided to give it a try. Just what the doctor ordered! And although the food at The Standard was good, for a hotel, we knew that we would need at least one great non-beach dinner.
For that, we chose L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Miami. We are big fans of the late great chef, and love the concept of the restaurant, which was early-in on the counter-seating-open-kitchen approach. We had a super memorable meal at the old Atelier in NYC, which was at the Four Seasons on 57th Street. We loved how the friendly, approachable service complemented the exquisite food. That night, we kept asking for recommendations, they kept on suggesting vegetarian plates which seemed uninspiring on the menu, but were all mini flavor explosions. The counter seating creates a very chatty vibe, and we ended up going out for drinks afterward with the couple seated next to us, art industry folks visiting from Vancouver.
My next visit to L’Atelier was in London, which has alas since closed. I was solo on a business trip, but Nora’s sister Emma was living there at the time. The counter seating section was closed for renovation, so we ended up seated elsewhere in the multi-storied restaurant. In fact, we began with a cocktail in a lovely dimly-lit room in the basement, and then moved up a couple of floors for the main courses. I was telling Emma about the apple-themed counter service, and the staff gave us a mini tour of that room so that Emma could see it for herself.
All of which is to say, we had some very high expectations
for L’Atelier in Miami! As we settled into our seats at the counter, it was
clear that all the folks around us were old hats at the Robuchon game. The
couple to our right were New Yorkers (I have just heard that Miami is the ‘sixth
boro’), who seemed to be on a first-name basis with the staff. Both couples to
our left were younger locals, who chatted about all the other Ateliers they had
The Wine List
Settling down with an aperitif, Plymouth Martini (no onions for my preferred Gibson) for me, a glass of Rosé Champagne for Nora, the first step was to tackle the wine list. A somm appears, unprompted. Ideally for a meal like this, I’m looking for a red burgundy with some bottle age, something like a 2006 Gevrey-Chambertin would be perfect. I notice that the New Yorker couple has a 1998 Le Vieux Donjon sitting in front of them. I don’t see it on the list; I ask, and yes, they brought it from home. Must be some 1998 in the air, because the Somm guides us to a 1998 Vallet Frères Morey-Saint-Denis. It was very good! The Somm, who was French, advised against decanting, which I would have done, so he took care pouring it.
Even though we were on an escape from winter, we ordered from the ‘aux saveurs d’hiver’ four-course menu. I started with caviar and crab, Nora with the beet salad. Both were delicious. Next course, we both had gnocchi with black truffle. Good, but I have some caveats. First, I am a gnocchi monster, so having a few on a small plate is not going to scratch the itch. Second, same goes for truffles–if you can count the number of truffle shavings on a dish (three), it can be a little underwhelming–“un peu, mais pas assez!” Third, pasta should be either piping hot, or chilled I guess, and this was luke-warm. As we know from basic thermodynamics, a small body is going to radiate out all its heat much more quickly than a large body: a huge plate of pasta will stay hot, a tiny bowl will not.
For our main course, we both had the Icelandic cod with caviar, baby leek, and Champagne sauce. Hello, we are back in Robuchon country! When the younger couple saw that dish come out, they ordered one for themselves. I have to admit, I think Champagne sauce is from Heaven. It reminded me of the sauce that comes with the Quenelle de Brochet at Le Coucou. I should also state that this dish came with a side of chef Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes, which it is safe to assume are 50/50 potatoes and butter.
We still had plenty of wine left at this point (the New Yorker couple was smartly taking a leisurely pace through dinner, enjoying their wine, instructing the team when to fire the next course), so we added a cheese course. I haven’t mentioned L’Atelier’s bread yet, and it’s worth mentioning! In addition to the expected mini baguettes, they offered bread with Comté cheese baked in, as well as little snail-shaped croissants—all so good that we needed another round with the cheese.
The desserts were also both very good: Nora had Le Calamansi with a glass of 2005 Chateau d’Yquem, and I had Le Chocolat Sensation, with a vintage port. All in all, it was a lovely meal with my best gal. The next night? Valentine’s Day, and we know better than to brave that one, so we opted instead for pizza in Miami Beach, at Lucali.
I’m sorry to say the first time I encountered krautfleckerl, I gave it a hard pass.
It was the first night of Chester’s and my first visit to Vienna. We were equal parts excited, tired, and hungry. Our hotel’s concierge recommended a nearby restaurant, but we neglected to tell him that we were looking for vegetarian and pescatarian options. The pickings were slim. The only fully veggie entrée on the menu consisted of pasta sautéed with cabbage and onion. (Yes, that’s our krautfleckerl!) At the time, the dish seemed to me like an afterthought, something a meat-focused chef might toss together from pantry staples to accommodate the rare vegetarian diner who stopped by. I ordered the salmon.
The next day, better rested, we visited the legendary Café Central for lunch. With its vaulted, cathedral ceilings and gleaming glass and gilt cases full of expertly made pastries, it ranked high on our must-see list. The line to get in snaked down the café’s 19th Century stone steps, but we knew it would be worth it.
Finally seated at one of the marble-topped tables, we read through the menu. There it was again: Wiener Krautfleckerl.
The accompanying description wasn’t any more enticing than the one at the last place: “Viennese square noodles with white cabbage and lettuce.” But I realized now this was a classic local dish and decided to give it a try.
It was absolutely delicious.
Homemade pasta squares sautéed in butter with tangy-sweet cabbage. Toasted caraway seeds tossed throughout added additional savory depth. Fresh, simple ingredients, coming together in that perfect way only fresh, simple ingredients can.
I realized too that it was something we could try recreating back at home.
Later, some Googling revealed krautfleckerl was originally a Hungarian dish enthusiastically adopted by Austrian (and German) cooks.
In our home kitchen, Chester added a Polish element by using some of our homemade sauerkraut, in place of fresh chopped cabbage. He said this touch was a nod to a Polish noodle dish, haluski.
The tangy-sour fermented taste balances out nicely with the dash of granulated sugar krautfleckerl recipes traditionally call for. Caramelized onions lend a little sweetness too.
He made the noodles from scratch using Marcella Hazan’s recipe (2 eggs and 1 cup of flour–that’s all you need for the dough!). He rolled it out in our pasta machine, then cut it into squares.
This was a labor-intensive but delicious weekend version of the recipe. For a quick weeknight dinner, store-bought egg noodles (or really any other wide, flatish pasta like farfalle) would do just fine. Either way, the ingredients are very inexpensive for such a satisfying and luxurious-tasting dish.
1/2 lb pasta, either fresh or dry (see note above)
Set a pot of water for the pasta on the stove at high heat and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt the butter at medium heat and add the onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring until the onions caramelize (turn brown and translucent). Add the remaining ingredients and continue to cook about 3 minutes until the ingredients are soft and well-combined. Turn off heat and allow to sit.
Meanwhile cook and drain the pasta. Combine in the pan with the cabbage mixture and heat and stir a minute or two, to allow the flavors to combine. Serve immediately. We enjoyed our Krautfleckerl with a great Austrian wine, 2016 Moric Blau Fränkisch.
Le Veau d’Or was without a doubt our restaurant of the ‘teens.
Stradling the border of Midtown East, and the Upper East Side, it was a quick
stumble away. For years, we would pass by that storefront with brass sign, intrigued
and yet something always held us back. Maybe we thought the menu was too
meat-centric. Anthony Bourdain gave us the needed push in his 2009
“Disappearing Manhattan” episode of No Reservations. We dressed up, gulped
hard, and stepped in.
I remember that first visit quite vividly. Robert Treboux, was
perched on a seat at the bar with a small glass of red wine. Robert’s daughter,
Cathy, was flitting about from table to table, taking orders, chatting with the
regulars. “My father is melting,” she told us. We all hit it off. I liked the
table we had, in the back, with a clear view of the entire room. “I really like
this table, this should be our table whenever we come in,” I told Cathy. She
thought about that, and then gave us a test to see if we were worthy: she
showed us a postcard with a picture of a calf snoozing in a bed, cutely tucked in
under the covers. Nora and I both laughed, “Ah, le veau dort!” We got the joke,
we were in. We also never sat at that table again.
We bounced around different tables on our next few visits. We had the Orson Welles booth once. Then we settled in to “our table,” which was about three tables in, across from the bar. We were seated there pretty much every time we came. Robert died in 2012. Cathy of course took over, but she had already been running the place for some time. We got to know Cathy better over the years, we became friends. We loved bringing people in. We brought in our friend Liza Weisstuch, and she was so taken with the place, she wrote about it for the Boston Globe (those are Nora’s hands in the photo). When Cathy decided last year that it was time for her to move on and sell the restaurant, we were of course sad to lose Le Veau d’Or, but more than anything, we were happy for Cathy.
In the Bourdain episode, he marveled that Le Veau served dishes
so old-school that “no one makes this stuff anymore.” Two of those dishes became
parts of our regular order: “Oeufs a la Neige” aka “Îles Flottantes,” and “Céleri
Rémoulade.” When we spotted some beautiful (well, weird and wonderful) celery
root at the Union Square Greenmarket last weekend, Nora and I both had the same
idea: Céleri Rémoulade!
For a recipe, I turned first to our trusty 1967 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but guess what, it’s not there! I found a recipe from David Lebovitz online. But it turns out, you don’t really need a recipe. Céleri Rémoulade is just shredded celery root dressed with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. So simple, and it comes together in just a few minutes. To shred the celery root, begin by trimming away the outer skin. You end up with something that looks like a dodecahedron, or a D&D die. I used the shredding disc of our trusty Cuisinart for this. (I once heard a guest at Le Veau say to Cathy, “The rémoulade is great, you must have a mandoline in the kitchen?” and Cathy replied “No darling, to tell you the truth, he just uses a food processor!”) For the mayonnaise, I was able to rely on Julia’s recipe. It was actually my first time making it, and it was also a piece of cake. I used the blender for this, but upon reflection, it would have been smarter to use the same food processor for both. We were out of Dijon mustard, so I just used some of the fine Löwensenf we had on hand. A bit of seasoning, thirty minutes in the fridge, and it was like we were back at Le Veau!
Amanda Cohen, at the helm at Dirt Candy, is arguably NYC’s top vegan chef. When we heard that she was opening a vegan burger joint in TriBeCa, we were thrilled! Today we got to try it. The restaurant is called Lekka Burger, and it’s at 81 Warren Street, right around the corner from Sonic Youth’s old studio on Murray Street.
The menu features five different burgers, fries with various toppings, salads, shakes, and a bar. The burgers are Cohen’s own secret recipe. They’re quite delicious, earthy, mushroomy, umami-y, with a satisfying heft and texture. The sides were great, and we loved the mango oat milk shake–we’ll try vanilla with a shot of bourbon when we go back for dinner.
Cohen’s partner in Lekka is South-African-born philanthropist and climate activist Andrea Kerzner. The team’s focus on zero-waste is evident; merchandise sold in the store benefits Grow NYC. It’s also a nice room with a friendly vibe. We can’t wait to come back!
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.
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.
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
“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:
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
Dash of Orange Bitters
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
“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
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.