Everyone likes being in on a secret, so here’s a juicy one for you. At Walter’s, a very American and Brooklyn-esque restaurant in Fort Greene, there is a door that leads to Karasu, an elegant Japanese speakeasy hidden in the back. Out goes the scrappy bearded hipster hangout, and in comes the sleek and beautiful black-and-gold cocktail lounge. I felt like I was back at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, only I was surrounded by white people wearing normcore clothing instead of businessmen wearing suit-and-tie. Different people, similar ambiance.
Karasu is more of a cocktail bar with small plates to accompany your drink and not the other way around. The drinks list is an extensive and interesting one. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Thomas Waugh, who is the head bartender and made a name for himself at places like ZZ’s Clam Bar and Death & Co. We ordered the Ginger Baker, a refreshing and fruity drink made with ginger and tequila flavored with oolong tea; the Thrice Rice, a smoky and savory cocktail made with Dewar’s infused with rice cakes, and the Dippermouth, another smoky and manly concoction of bourbon, black walnut and creme de banana. All three cocktails were excellent, but if you want something simpler, you can also order some sake, shochu and Japanese whiskeys. We had two cups of the Kamoizumi Summer Snow Sake, an unfiltered and sweet sake that was simply delicious.
The food features Japanese izakaya favorites like pickles, karaage, sashimi and potato salad, although with a Western twist. One example is the karaage, which is normally prepared as fried chicken, but Karasu re-interprets it as soft duck wings in a spicy sesame sauce that feels more like a teriyaki. There’s also the inventive tagliatelle pasta with uni, which is not something you’d find in any Japanese bar, and the heavy flavors of smoky ham and butter that dominate are very much American. I thought the best dishes were the ones that stayed truest to the Japanese flavor profile, the refreshing and clean crudo of kampachi with shiso and the miso potato salad with sesame and nori.
My favorite moments at Karasu are on the earlier side, when there aren’t as many people and the noise level isn’t so high. You can comfortably carry on a conversation with your dining companions while enjoying the jazzy music in the background, but after 8 pm or so, that becomes harder to do. But after a few drinks, and when owner Danny Minch chats you up with fun stories about his travels to Tokyo and Kyoto, that becomes less of an issue, and you’re more focused on when you can drop by again to pick up from where you left off.
Karasu, in the back of Walter’s
166 DeKalb Avenue (and Cumberland St)
Brooklyn, NY 11217
call 718-488-7800 for reservations
Bar Goto is a new Japanese cocktail bar in the LES run by Pegu Bar alum Kenta Goto. Its quiet elegance and serious-minded approach to cocktails is very reminiscent of other Japanese lounges such as Angel’s Share or B Flat. Something about it though feels a little more like a destination bar in a way that these smaller places don’t. Clearly it would be a waste if you ordered a traditional vodka soda or a gin and tonic here. Properly utilize your bartender and have him mix you an interesting cocktail like the fizzy Calpico soda or an “Umami” Bloody Mary. These might sound like silly, lightweight drinks, but they are actually far more thoughtful and complex than what their labels suggest.
There is a limited food menu should you want to pair your drink with some small bites. The highlights by far are the savory okonomiyaki Japanese pancakes and the crispy miso sesame chicken wings. Coincidentally they also happen to be the most substantial items on the menu. If you want something more delicate, the sesame oil coated celery sticks and the octopus sashimi will hold you over without overpowering your palate. But whatever you do, make room for refills of that wonderfully effervescent Calpico cocktail.
245 Eldridge St (Stanton and E. Houston St)
New York, NY 10002 (212) 475-4411
This winter in NYC has been a brutal one. The snowstorms have been relentless, wreaking havoc on our commute and social lives in countless ways. One event that got swept up in winter’s fury was Edible Manhattan’s Fourth Annual Good Spirits soiree. Originally planned for February 13th, it was postponed to March 20th when yet another powerful snowstorm shut down everything in the Northeast.
I was having a bad case of winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD!), and I was really looking forward to taking the edge off with food and drinks from some of New York’s finest vendors. Which was why it was so disappointing to hear about the weather delay. It’s sort of like when you’re at an airport, ready to take off for your trip to Aruba, only to hear that all flights at JFK have been grounded due to a blizzard. To console myself, I poured myself a glass of wine at home. It helped a little, but it definitely wasn’t the same.
Luckily Feb 13th came in like a lion, and March 20th came out like a lamb, and I could finally get my drink on! And scheduling for a Thursday night was perfect timing, because after 4 intense days of deliverables and meetings, what better way to blow off some steam than getting buzzed on some classy cocktails?
The underground loft space at 82 Mercer in Soho was optimized for housing a large group of spirits enthusiasts under one roof. Normally food festivals and tasting events can be overwhelming, with long lines and overcrowding putting a damper on the festivities. However, the ratio of spirits to guests here was very reasonable, making for a civilized and enjoyable evening. The only criticism that I had was that the food ran out pretty quickly 2 hours into the event, so my spirits to food consumption was a bit lopsided. No worries, though, there were plenty of other protein and carbs to keep my hangover in check!
There were about 60 tables set up at Good Spirits, and we managed to drink and eat our way through all of them. Here’s a recap of some of the spirits and food samples that really stood out that night. A huge shout out to my talented friend Caroline Nelson, who took the awesome pictures on this post–thanks so much for helping me out on Thursday! If it were me taking the photos, they would have become mighty blurry towards the end of the night. 🙂
Prohibition Bakery’s The Revolver Cupcake – A LES bakery run by two pastry chefs devoted to baking boozy cupcakes? These are two girls after my own heart! The delicious Revolver cupcake, which was infused with Four Roses Bourbon and orange bitters, generated an interesting and aromatic flavor profile similar to Earl Grey.
Lejay Spritz – I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I like my cocktails sweet and uncomplicated, which explains why the refreshing Lejay spritz was my favorite cocktail of the night. The combination of Lejay creme de cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur derived from blackcurrants, champagne and sparkling water went down nice and easy. The deep vermilion coloring also made it the prettiest. The frou frou girliness of it all made it pretty clear who Lejay was targeting, and I don’t care that I totally fell for it.
The Penrose’s Smoked Trout Crostini – Smoked fish and creme fraiche is one of those classic flavor pairings that never go out of style, and it also holds up very well at a 3 hour event. The small, rich mixture of trout, potatoes and cream coated the palate in a full-bodied layer that served as a perfect foil to the sharp, smoky acidity of the different spirits.
Greenhook Ginsmiths Last Word Cocktail – The name of this cocktail was quite fitting, because after I tried it, I was speechless. I had never tasted anything quite like it. The mixture of Greenhook Ginsmiths gin, fresh lime juice and green chartreuse tasted like Christmas trees, smoke and lavender all at once.
Luca & Bosco Ice Cream – Luca & Bosco playfully embraced the spirits theme by incorporating some into its Whiskey Fudge Rebellion and Drunk & Salty Caramel ice cream flavors. The former was made with some Jameson, while the latter was made with Woodford Reserve bourbon. The Drunk & Salty Caramel was my favorite sweet dessert of the night. The texture was so pleasingly light, fluffy and airy, almost as if I were eating ice cream clouds, and the slight hint of salted caramel was perfect.
Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur’s “El Caballito” – I had a lot of questions about this one. First of all, what does el caballito mean? Answer: pony. Second, where does the pony come in in the cocktail? He then revealed that the artisanal Mezcal Vago that was in the drink was made with some smoked agave drawn and ground by horses. The drink was slightly smoky and very reminiscent of a margarita, and the papalo plant provided some complex herbal accents that brightened up the cocktail.
Monument Lane’s Smoked Pork Shoulder and Baked Beans – Back in fourth grade, when we were in our Gold Rush history phase, our teacher Mr. Katz cooked some baked beans and bbq for us to give us a taste of a gold miner’s life. This hearty bite from Monument Lane took me back to that time where we all wore overalls and pretended to be roughing it. Sweet, smoky and savory, this “cowboy breakfast” was comforting and nostalgic.
1889 by Geijer Glögg – This unfamiliar Scandinavian mouthful definitely caught my eye. Apparently glögg is a Swedish drink that has long been part of the European holiday tradition. It certainly is the perfect winter elixir, heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, cardamon and orange peels to ward off winter’s ills.
Hecho En Dumbo’s Beef Tongue Skewers – Serving beef tongue at a big event is a pretty bold move, but luckily Hecho En Dumbo’s risky bet paid off. The beef tongue, which was cured in-house and braised in whiskey, had the texture and consistency of pancetta, which was a pleasant surprise. The creamy cactus dipping sauce that accompanied it was spicy and fantastic.
Hudson Whiskey’s Two-Hit Fig Punch – The two-hit fig punch was another one of those pleasant and uncomplicated cocktails that I like so much. You have to be careful with this drink because the innocuous punch flavors are very misleading, and you could easily drink way too many of these way too quickly. There’s no messing around with the two lethal hits of bourbon and rum!
L&W Oyster Co.’s Oyster Taco – I love oysters, especially in a boozy happy hour setting, so I thought it made a lot of sense that L&W Oyster Co. decided to pay homage to a cherished drinking tradition with some oyster tacos. The tasty oysters were coated in cornmeal and then fried, making it the optimal platform to absorb all that alcohol.
Coppersea Distilling’s Elettaria Sour – I’ve heard of rye whiskey, but not raw rye aged whiskey (try saying that tongue twister 10x fast). A key component of raw rye whiskey is that it consists of 75% unmalted rye and 25% malted barley, a throwback to how whiskey would have been made in the 1800s. The Elettaria Sour cocktail was very creamy and frothy, similar to a White Russian in texture, but definitely not as sweet.
Whole Foods’ Bitter End Brownies – I have such a sweet tooth, so of course I headed straight for the brownies as soon as I saw them. Whole Foods approached the spirits theme by injecting their brownies with Mexican Mole Bitters, which added some robust complexity to these delicious bites.
Alder isn’t really a place to go to for a proper sit-down dinner. It’s more of a place to go when you’re in the mood to drink, and the food revolves around accommodating your buzz. In essence, it is a modern day gastropub. But, this being a Wylie Dufresne restaurant and all, the bar food here isn’t your run-of-the-mill burger and fries. Expect highly inventive takes on familiar favorites that we typically pair with our beer or wine. This is extremely refined hangover food, which means it will taste good even after you sober up. Unlike that dollar 2 Bros. pizza you ate at 5 am in the morning, which tasted awesome at the time but horrible in a sober state of mind.
Alder is seriously the third “small plates” restaurant I’ve been to in the past month that seems to offer a menu consisting entirely of appetizers. I guess this whole “let’s do away with entrees” movement is here to stay. This makes me a little sad, because I have a big appetite and I actually enjoy eating a full-sized entree in addition to appetizers. And a meal of small plates is exactly the reason why I hate tapas–I feel like I’ve nibbled on a lot of things but I’m not particularly satiated. I also find it very curious that these appetizers are priced like entrees. $21 for a “small plate”? Seems a bit disingenuous to me.
Despite my reservations about the small plates trend, I would definitely come back to Alder solely for its pigs in a blanket dish, an absolute culinary smashing success. Pigs in a blanket is a pretty standard if uninteresting offering that makes the rounds on the hors d’oeuvres circuit, but Alder’s rendition is like the hot Asian mistress to the homely wife. The traditional frank was swapped out for Chinese sausage, which provided a distinctive and unique tangy flavor, and the pastry enclosing the meat was so rich and dense in the best possible way. This is one of my favorite dishes of all time.
I’m going to backtrack now and talk about the cocktails we ordered at the start of dinner. The pigs in a blanket was so good that I felt it was necessary to single it out in the beginning. Alder offers a menu of creatively named cocktails like Pinchelada, Bikini Season and Spring Fling, as well as a thoughtful selection of wine and interesting beers. We ordered the Red Zeppelin, a fizzy and refreshing strawberry cocktail that resembled a spiked artisanal Boylan’s soda, and the Hey Rube, a Pimm’s cup with a very generous pour of gin.
I gave so much of my love to the pigs in a blanket that there wasn’t much leftover for the other small plates we ordered. Sort of how a parent really fusses over the first child and then pays less attention to the younger siblings. Despite this, the other dishes were able to hold my attention, which is a testament to the cooking at Alder. Some tasted better than others, but they were all very cerebral in their execution, which I appreciated.
The pickled beets was my second favorite dish of the night. This was another example of Alder breathing new life into a pretty conventional and somewhat boring dish. Who really gets excited over beets and goat cheese? Nobody, really, unless you swap out standard goat cheese for a beautifully fluffy and creamy coconut ricotta, as well as throwing in some fragments of Thai basil croutons for exotic flair.
I really wanted to like the rye pasta. The notion of deconstructing a pastrami rye sandwich into noodle form seemed so fun and playful, but the dish did not live up to expectations. I felt like I was eating pasta that had been infused with liquid pastrami smoke. It was very strange. This was a reinvention that was inferior to the original. I would have much preferred a thick, juicy sandwich from Mile End.
The fish and chips were surprising in how conventional they were. It’s like Alder didn’t do enough of the out-of-box thinking here. I thought the fish was fried perfectly, and I did really enjoy the chips, which in this case consisted of extremely crunchy and satisfying potatoes. It was an extremely solid dish, but it lacked the mad science genius that characterized the more memorable small plates.
For dessert, Alder had some zany and experimental sweet treats on the menu. We decided to split an order of the root beer, despite my hatred of the beverage. I chose to do this as a test: if Alder could make the extremely strong and polarizing flavor of root beer edible, then it was further proof of its remarkable culinary skills. Plus the waitress really sold me when she said that she too hated root beer but considered this her favorite dessert. The cold and creamy dessert was refreshing and certainly made root beer very edible, but at the end of the day I wanted something more conventional like banana pudding.
The moments I enjoyed most at Alder were when I was savoring the delicious flavors of a dish rather than thinking about its experimental qualities. This is why I enjoyed the pigs in a blanket, which was unbelievably good in its own right, and why I didn’t particularly care for the rye pasta, a dish that was too self-consciously postmodern. There’s no doubt that the kitchen staff is extremely intellectual and talented, let’s just hope that their fervor for the odd and inventive can be tempered with great flavors for every dish.
— Alder 157 2nd Ave (between 9th and 10th St) New York, NY 10003 (212) 539-1900