Bar Codes

Better borough bars are growing like weeds in the summer heat. Here’s where we quench our thirst.

bar codeProdigy Barkeep
For the past several years, the best place in Brooklyn to get a classic cocktail has been on the quiet corner of Cranberry and Hicks Streets, at the Brooklyn Heights bistro Jack the Horse Tavern. While Manhattan bars like Death & Co.

, Milk and Honey, and Angel’s Share basked in the limelight, bartender Damon Dyer labored in relative obscurity, turning out pitch-perfect mixed drinks for a largely neighborhood clientele. A few months ago, Dyer passed the reins of the Horse’s bar to protégé, Maxwell Britten. In July 2005, Britten was fresh off a train from his native Tucson, and applied for a job as a busser at Jack the Horse. Now a bar manager and finally legal drinking age, Britten is arguably New York City’s youngest mixologist of merit, using the classic techniques he learned at Dyer’s side to make menu staples like Dyer’s Man of Leisure (a bourbon-fired take on the classic Man o’ War) and drinks of his own device, like the Silver Hammer (lavender-infused tequila, agave syrup and housemade grapefruit bitters).

And what happened to Dyer? His work at Jack the Horse completed, he packed his shakers and strainers and left to roam the borough, a cocktail ronin without a master. At press time, Dyer’s whereabouts could not be confirmed.

Smith Street Pours a Double
Carroll Gardeners have two new superlative drinking dens to choose from—and they’re within stumbling distance of each other. The JakeWalk is the latest jewel in Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda’s Smith Street culinary crown; the married couple, veterans of Manhattan’s fine dining scene, also own Stinky Bklyn and Smith & Vine, the strip’s go-to spots for exceptional cheese and wine, respectively. As one might imagine, the cheese and wine selections at the JakeWalk are superb, sold for a fair price and presented without undue affectation by a knowledgeable and friendly staff. There’s a list of mixed drinks, including the JakeWalk Cocktail (developed by friend and neighbor David Wondrich, whose book of cocktail history, Imbibe!, we reviewed last fall). But the JakeWalk is, at its essence, a wine bar, and one of the city’s best.

The most eagerly anticipated cocktail bar opening in New York this year is on our side of the river—Julie Reiner’s Clover Club. As owner and chief mixologist at the Flatiron Lounge, and partner in Audrey Saunder’s Pegu Club (both in Manhattan), Reiner is a cocktail thoroughbred with a pedigree and a winning track record. It’s no wonder that she received résumés from all over the country from bartenders eager to work at her new establishment (two of her bartenders—one from Boston and one from North Carolina—are relocating to our city for the job). She sought out people who were serious about good drinks—but not too serious. “There’s a decent amount of snobbery in this business,” Reiner says. “There are bartenders out there who get mad at you when you order a dirty martini, because it’s not cool enough. They’ve forgotten bars are supposed to be fun.”

The Clover Club, named after a 19th-century Philadelphia social club (and its namesake cocktail), features an ingenious mixed-drink menu which breaks down its offerings into broad categories, the way they’re often presented in pre-Prohibition cocktail books: sours and daisies, juleps and smashes, cobblers and highballs, and more. Inspired by the gin palaces of the Victorian era, the front room is dominated by an ornate antique bar that Reiner pulled out of a boarding house in Sugar Notch, Pennsylvania. The back room, where Reiner will host parties and educational seminars in an intimate parlor setting, is available by reservation only.

Move Over Edelweiss
Paul Goebert finds it difficult to describe the flavor of the elderflower syrup he uses to make the Elderblossom Martini, Elderblossom Gin Kir, and Fruit Bat (a bewitching mixture of vodka, lime and elderflower syrup) at his Park Slope restaurant, Café Steinhof. “It has a hint of ginger, a bit of green grape, a little lemon…there’s really nothing like it,” Goebert shrugs. To him, elderflower tastes like home. Nevermind the edelweiss; in his native Austria, elderflowers are hand-harvested in early summer and transformed into a cordial used in refreshing summer drinks and as an ingredient in baked goods.

There are a few readymade elderflower syrups available on the market (and a swell elderflower liqueur called St. Germain that some bartenders are addicted to—I’ve heard it called “eldercrack”). But Goebert doesn’t touch the stuff—he makes his own. Each June he harvests elderflowers from bushes that grow on the property of his home and surrounding forest in the beautiful Catskill countryside near Roxbury, New York. “The flowers grow in clusters, like big white umbrellas,” Goebert explains. “I reach in with both hands and pull them out by the bagful.” He steeps the flowers in a sugar syrup with lemon juice, strains it, bottles the fragrant elixir and brings it back to Brooklyn. Last year he made 50 liters, which he thought would last the restaurant about a year, but they ran out a few months before this year’s harvest. “We use it in lots of drinks—elderflower martinis, mimosas, spritzers with white wine, even on its own with seltzer and ice,” Goebert says. This year, he’s producing 100 liters—plenty for a year of elderflower drinks at Café Steinhof, and enough to sell a little at Grab, the specialty food shop a few doors away.

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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.