Restaurant Cocktails That Aim Too High – New York Times
New restaurants in New York City are offering cocktail lists that are becoming more creative, and not in a good way.
All mixed drinks can be divided into two categories: good and not good. A cocktail that you finish involuntarily, that moves to your lips again and again without requiring you to decide to raise your arm, is a good one. A cocktail that you finish because you hate to waste alcohol, or one that you don’t finish at all, is not good. This is the binary theory of cocktail criticism.
Lately, an awful lot of the cocktails I’ve had in restaurants have landed with a splat in the “not good” category. Some are rudely sour, or pointlessly bitter, or ickily sweet, or phonily complicated, or just too reminiscent of a spoonful of Robitussin with a hangnail of lemon peel floating on top. Others aren’t actively bad in any of those ways, but they don’t glide down the back of your throat, either; they’re simply not good.
New York City’s restaurants are in the midst of an epidemic of not-goodness. Sit down in any new dining room, and you are handed a cocktail list. Each drink on this document will have one ingredient you have heard of and seven that were apparently named after distant planets. Sometimes you may think you recognize a cocktail that you like (a good cocktail, in other words), but everything you like about it has been replaced by some other thing that you’re not sure about. “Hello there, that sounds like an old-fashioned!” you think. “But with burdock syrup instead of sugar, Croatian absinthe instead of bourbon, and hemlock bitters instead of Angostura.” If curiosity gets the upper hand and you ask for one, you will wonder why you couldn’t have had an old-fashioned old-fashioned.
At this point, newspaper tradition, taking the kindly human form of my editor, demands that I cite specific examples of the not-good restaurant drinks that are supposedly so common. I could name a few, but just hearing what’s in them wouldn’t tell you what’s wrong with them. The drinks I’m talking about aren’t like the lowbrow cocktails of the ’80s with names that could just as easily have been the titles of teen-sex comedies. With those, one look at the ingredients (butterscotch schnapps, Amaretto, Reddi-wip) and you could instantly picture the long night and regret-filled morning down on sorority row.
Modern, highbrow restaurant cocktails are different. The ingredients appear to have the right pedigree. Look behind almost any bar, and you’ll find fresh citrus, a half-dozen vermouths and twice as many bitters in brown apothecary bottles. With these drinks, the difference between good and nongood can come down to a missing drop of Peychaud’s or an extra 10 seconds in the shaker.
One reason I am suckered by restaurant drink lists so often is that I’ve learned to trust the bartenders at my favorite cocktail lounges, like Pouring Ribbons, PDT or Tooker Alley, to make preposterous-sounding combinations of liquors click together like tumblers in a padlock. Certain restaurants, too, can pull off the seemingly impossible. I’ve never been swindled by the lists at Eleven Madison Park or the NoMad, both under the care of Leo Robitschek, and the bars at Michael White’s restaurants are dependable, too.
As a general rule, though, a restaurant is way more likely to hand you a not-good drink than a bar that prides itself on cocktail conjuring.
This wouldn’t be a problem if restaurants didn’t give a false impression of expertise by handing out lists of original drinks. A few years ago, only a few restaurants had cocktail menus, mostly variations on classics like the margarita and the daiquiri. Now, if a server doesn’t offer a list right away, customers ask for one. And restaurants have come to depend on these lists for extra revenue, which comes in two forms: the margin on the cocktails, and the extra cash that first drink of the evening may pry loose from a customer’s money clip.
“It’s an unspoken truth in the business,” said Eben Freeman, who used to superintend the bars operated by Mr. White’s Altamarea Group and recently moved to a similar job with AvroKo. “You’re hoping to get a cocktail sale in before they settle down with the wine list. The dark side is that they will drink the cocktail faster” than a glass of wine, he continued. “And it will affect their decision-making, and might cause them to get the steak for two. Or the more expensive bottle of wine.”
To my cynical ears, the shocking revelation was not that some restaurants engage in a little consensual drunk-rolling. What’s surprising is that so many of them are bad at it. The maneuver’s success depends, after all, on pouring cocktails that the prospective victim will want to finish.