Sunday, April 8th, 2012
(excerpted from the bartender’s GIN compendium.)
I worked at the North Star Pub in New York’s South Street Seaport for almost exactly four years, starting in February, 1988. They were four of my favorite years in the business, though I seldom worked behind the bar there—I was a manager-type at the time.
The North Star was as English as a pub could be, given that it was over 3,000 miles away from the Green and Pleasant Land, and it was Deven Black, the General Manager of the joint, who had made it that way. He refused to stock American beer, he boasted a collection of almost 100 single malt scotches, and since the pub catered to Anglophiles and transplanted Brits, he stocked lots of gins, too, Bombay and Bombay Sapphire among them. And whenever I think of these gins, I’m reminded of a guy we called Frank the Bank—a Bombay gin man through and through.
The picture above is of Quentin Crisp, a man who I am proud to say was a friend of mine, a Pearly Queen who entertained us when we held events at the North Star, and myself, circa 1990
The food at the North Star was also unequivocally British. We served authentic Bangers and Mash (the sausages were made by Peter Myers, a Brit in the Village who owned a grocery store called Myers of Keswick), and we also offered Shepherd’s Pie and Fish and Chips and the like. Steak and Kidney Pie, though, was not on our menu—it’s a hard sell in New York—but we offered it as a special from time to time, and quite a few of our regulars, lots of them were Brits who emigrated to New York to take jobs on Wall Street, ordered it every time we chalked it up on the blackboard.
Here we see a few of the regulars at the North Star on St. George’s Day, 1990—we made everyone wear the newspaper hats, and gave them all pretty line drawings of St. George slaying the dragon, and crayons with which to color them.
One of the regulars, a Canadian guy who worked at The Royal Bank of Scotland, handed me his business card one day, and asked me to call him next time we served Steak and Kidney Pie. This made me ponder, and it wasn’t long before I started to compile “The Steak and Kidney Pie List.” Every time the chef decided to feature the dish I’d get on the phone and call around twenty people whose numbers I’d gathered after seeing them order this British specialty. Most of the people on the list were high-level bankers and the like, so it was seldom that they actually picked up the phone.
“Tell him it’s Steak and Kidney Pie Day.” I’d instruct whoever answered the call.
“I beg your pardon?”
“He’ll know what you mean,” I’d say before hanging up and dialing the next number.
The ploy worked quite well. Not everyone on the list would show up every time I called, but we’d see, perhaps, a dozen Steak and Kidney Pie fans walk through the door on the days when we featured the dish. One day, though, this brilliant marketing scheme very nearly backfired.
Frank the Bank, as he was known, was a true Brit. He was a very successful banker who had come up from being a street kid in London. Frank the Bank had a keen sense of humor, everyone loved the man, and he was a huge fan of Steak and Kidney Pie. Frank called me over to his table one day as he was scarfing his lunch, and he told me what had gone down at work that morning after I’d spoken to his assistant.
“I was in a meeting with my ‘boss of all bosses,’ a guy from headquarters in London. I’d told my assistant that I wasn’t to be disturbed under any circumstances, but she walked into the meeting anyway, and she shoved a note into my hand. I opened it up and read the words ‘It’s Steak and Kidney Pie Day.’ She thought it was a code for some potentially important banking thing,” Frank told me.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, I love my assistant, and I didn’t want to get her into trouble so I looked my boss dead in the eye and told him that I had to leave immediately. I didn’t explain a thing. I left him thinking that something incredibly important personal thing must have cropped up, because otherwise there was no way I would have dared to leave him like that. Then I came down here for my Steak and Kidney Pie,” he grinned.
You’ve got to love a guy like Frank the Bank, right?
Posted in Barroom Flashbacks |
Thursday, January 12th, 2012
This piece was written for the Museum of the American Cocktail’s web site in 2005, and it marks the occasion on which I first discovered that Dave Wondrich is such a cheap bastard. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love Wondrich like a brother, and I find that time spent with him is time that’s very well spent indeed. And the fact that he’s so damned cheap gives me, well, it gives me something to rag him about. And because I’m so very, very generous, I even allow Dave gets to weigh in on the subject at the end of this piece.
Bloody Marys with Wondrich, Harry’s New York Bar, 2005
I’m sure that Gilles, the bartender who served Dave Wondrich and me during a recent visit to the birthplace of the Bloody Mary, makes wonderful mixtures of vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, and various sauces and spices, but I’ll probably never know for sure. Not a fan of the drink, personally. Wondrich neither. We opted for Sidecars instead. The drink was, after all, invented in the City of Lights, though nobody seems to know exactly where. At least we knew what we were doing–more than can be said of the two women from Boston who sat at the bar drinking Bellinis believing they were in the birthplace of that wonderful drink. No doubt there were people in Harry’s Bar, Venice, sipping Bloody Marys, too . . .
Originally we’d planned to seek out the best Sidecar in Paris–a somewhat formidable task–but time was tight. We were leaving to tour cognac distilleries the following morning, so we sampled the cocktail in only two bars–the Hemmingway Bar at the Paris Ritz was the venue for our second round, or should I say third, forth, and fifth rounds. Two drinks each at Harry’s, and another three, or maybe four, made by Colin Fields’ marvelous staff at the Ritz. (Colin Fields, the head barman at the Paris Ritz, was a guy I’d known only by e-mail until that evening. I was happy to discover that my suspicions were correct–he’s one helluva great guy, and a wonderful bartender, too.)
Personally I’d planned to take it easy, but that Wondrich guy shot down his first cocktail at Harry’s as though he’d been stranded on the Alps for three weeks and a St. Bernard had just arrived. I couldn’t let the lad drink his second quaff alone, now, could I? By the time we got to the Ritz we had food in our stomachs, it was late in the evening, and we didn’t want to offend the staff by having only one drink after we’d traveled so far to be in such an illustrious bar. Besides, we were on a cognac trip, and someone else was picking up the tab, so what the hey . . .
Wondrich and I tend to be pretty much whiskey freaks–he’s a straight rye man whereas I usually favor bourbon–so although neither of us goes so far as to avoid cognac, this trip provided a great opportunity for us both to focus our attention on the spirit of the grape, rather than the grain. Very interesting it was, too. The French distillers really know what they’re doing.
I searched my cocktail database when I arrived home from the trip, and found lots of very distinguished cocktail recipes with a cognac base. The Betsy Ross, Between the Sheets, and the Brandy Alexander, of course–stop rolling your eyes, it’s a great drink if you don’t kill it with too much crème de cacao. Café Brûlot is an incredible drink, too, and if you ever find yourself at Commander’s Palace in the Big Easy (while visiting the museum, naturally), don’t leave without sampling their version. They serve the quintessential Café Brûlot.
Even the Sazerac, one of God’s greatest gifts to us mortal imbibers, originally contained cognac, but the base spirit was changed to straight rye whiskey at some point toward the end of the 1800s, perhaps a result of a shortage of cognac due to the phylloxera epidemic that decimated the vineyards of France around the same time. And then there’s the Stinger, yet another wonderful, if simple, cocktail, that sips very well indeed if it’s made with good cognac and just a touch of white crème de menthe.
Sipping Sidecars, Side by Side
The Sidecar, though, remains my favorite cognac-based cocktail, and the versions we sipped at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris that day slid down our throats easily, releasing a beautiful late afternoon glow that lasted throughout our trip to France–the people in the cognac industry were eager for us to sample as many bottlings as possible, and we were eager to please them. They were, after all, footing the bill.
And speaking of footing the bill, I feel it necessary to point out that Wondrich never did dip his hand into his pocket at Harry’s. “I’ll get these,” I told him, expecting at least a little protestation, but no, Dave thanked me kindly, and reminded me to tip large. We were, after all, representing cocktailians from the U. S. of A. I’ll be seeing the lad again, though, and I’ll be sure to make my way to the men’s room when the tab is presented next time. It’s an art I’ve more or less perfected over the years.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t had yourself a Sidecar recently, mix one up right now, and make sure you use lots of good cognac–the cocktail will be sublime, and the guys in France will be able to bring more thirsty cocktail writers to their wonderful country. Once they’ve recovered from our trip.
Words from Wondrich
Please allow me to clear up one small point. No, I did not make a counter-offer when Mr. Regan offered to buy the drinks at Harry’s Bar. As those who know me will attest, I have NEVER bought a round of drinks in my life, nor, as long as my sinews remain strong and my nerves swift, SHALL I EVER do so in the future.
Nor do I purchase drams or mixed drinks for myself in public houses or keep any sort of spirituous or otherwise alcoholic beverage in my home. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a low, base and therefore disgusting habit, and I do not wish to subsidize those who seek to extend its sway. However, since I have been blessed by nature with an unusual capacity to absorb such beverages without outward marks or inward effects of intoxication, when I find myself in the company of some poor, benighted soul who is hell-bent on self-destruction through liquid ingestion, I consider it my moral and Christian duty to divert as many of that sad sinner’s financial resources as I can from their devilish uses.
Indeed, I sacrifice myself that he or she may live: every drink a lost lamb such as Gary Regan cannot buy himself because he has spent the money it would cost on me is one less mark against his name in the Great Book of Judgment.
I’m glad we’ve got that straight.
And Gilles certainly does make a fine, fine Sidecar. Comes in these nice little glasses, and he holds the shaker just like Old Harry MacElhone used to in the old pictures.
Posted in Barroom Flashbacks |