Monday, September 25, 2023

After Years of Hunting Rabbit, The Dead Rabbit

Finally going to a place you've have put the years into yearned-to-be is a fraught experience. Expectations of greatness are difficult to meet, let alone by something that hopes to be a pub. A really damn good one. Say, one that has twice been named best bar in the world at Tales of the Cocktail.

So maybe that's why instead of trying to write up my at last visit to the lauded Dead Rabbit in FiDi* New York, I instead decided to craft a cocktail from the bar's first book, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog  Drinks Manual (Houghton Mifflin, 2015). Turns out that a Bijou, inspired by Harry Johnson's 1900 Bartenders' Manual, is an almost perverse delight--gin and sweet vermouth in equal parts, with some Green Chartreuse (get them monks into the glass for a good time), and soupçons of orange bitters, Angostura bitters, and Pernod. You do "garnish" by expressing orange peel over the drink, but discard the peel (pay attention, that detail will be important later).

*That's short for Financial District, and despite our desires, it's not, alas, pronounced, feh-DEE.

The Dead Rabbit--which takes its name from one of the Irish gangs that roamed these tip of Manhattan streets in the 19th century--earns its Irishness as its founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are two self-proclaimed "Belfast boys" who first kicked butt in their hometown, then came to New York City, because if you can make it there.... (I so didn't want to do that, but couldn't help myself.) Of all things the location is around the corner from Fraunces Tavern--you know, where Washington bid farewell to his troops--so certainly offers historical bonafides. Even if most of the current TDR building was part of the build out beyond the heavy-hewed ceiling beams, it certainly has a been-around feel in the best way. You feel as if you're entering an old lair of cocktail loveliness.

It doesn't hurt that the service is far from gruff pub land. Someone opens the door as you climb the stairs to enter. You are ushered to the host stand, and led upstairs--if you are us with a reservation--to the Parlor, billed "the cocktail cathedral" on their website. (The first floor, the Taproom, offers punch and different drinks and Irish coffee and louder craic and conviviality; the top floor, the Occasional room, is for special events.)

If you get sat at the bar in the Parlor, as we were, no one will be standing behind you. It's only table and bar seating, loud enough to feel buzzy, but the buzzing won't takeover your head. Plus you get to order direct from the bartender, the only one, actually, who manages to work steadily but never in a frenzy. It's a place of calm. It's like they took service tips from the French Laundry, almost, how well-timed everything is, how knowledgeable everyone is, how pleasant. 

And then there's that book above (see the entire book as PDF online). Twenty-two cocktails await (a brief panic as to how to choose and choose the best!), arranged in pairs of Tradition and Tomorrow, although Tradition is mucked with in yummy ways most of the time. The categories: Effervescent, Martini, Gimlet, Egg White, Daisy, Whiskey Sour, Savory, Tiki, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Bitter. We scan through, and realize it might be smart for our hopefully hangover-free tomorrows to pick a core liquor and pick two of each we hope to consume over the evening. It didn't seem prudent to go from gin to scotch, say. That made whiskey an easy choice, given it grounded several of the categories.

Plus we both wanted a Buttoned Up (Chryss luckily got it), the traditional Old Fashioned. 

Each cocktail gets its own page--how seen and honored each one must feel in this temple to potent potables. TDR helpfully offers three distinguishing characteristics for each drink, a charming drawing from the Great British Bake-Off school of culinary sketches (except the finished product actually does look like its drawing at TDR), and the ingredients. Who doesn't want an opulent char, especially one that layers Angel's Envy Bourbon and Craigellachie Armagnac Cask Scotch? You know how it is--those who are buttoned-up often conceal the most power. Plus, what a perfect, clear hunk of ice. (I really need to raise my home ice game--TDR sort of shames me.)

I couldn't resist the Whiskey Sour of tomorrow, especially because I had to Google several of its ingredients (why drink what I already know?). The Amazake Kick lived up to its dried fruit, ready, robust descriptors. Amazake, which auto-correct doesn't know either, so I don't feel so bad having to look it up, is a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice; TDR gives even that a twist, via Ireland, of course, making theirs from soda bread. That helps led to the breadiness, of course, and the welcome homeyness is always darling in a drink. Once again there are two whiskeys--they love layering on the core pours--and then there's the odd Danish product Plum I Suppose, from Empirical, a bright botanical liqueur that brings marigold and plum. A drink like this one makes me want to be Sour a lot tomorrow.

We also ordered both versions of the Manhattan, what with our whiskey predilection for the evening and, well, that was where we were, after all. The "traditional" Jupiter Switch did what we like to do at home--use Amaro--but even gave that an unusual nudge by making it green walnut Amaro. Not that a hint of nocino is unwelcome or even that unusual in a Manhattan, but that earthy/nuttiness is a hearty touch, especially with the eucalyptus and cacao extending all the flavor's edges.

Tomorrow's Clare to Cádiz made me wonder if the present day and tomorrow are closer than they first appear. It's good to know elegance won't go out of style in the future, as this drink combines for a laser precise lusciousness, and then just enough extender notes--that hint of apple, the edge of nettle--to make it imminently quaffable. 

Most notable about all the cocktails--none were served with garnishes. The aromatics were all poured into the glass, and nothing detracted from the prefect crystal and the combined elixirs inside. And combined they always were. Cocktails at TDR--at least our four pours--all did that "let's make a whole new terrific taste" trick, as opposed to the, "I'm getting the whiskey, I'm getting vermouth, I'm getting the Angostura" bippity-bip moments of some cocktails elsewhere. 

I would also be remiss if I left out the food. I came in with little to no expectations there, assuming it would be all about the mixology. But I was sorely wrong. It's pub food, yes, but every bit as thought-through as the cocktail menu. Take these perfect deviled eggs, elevated with smoked salmon, herbed creme fraiche, caviar, espelette and dill. Savory, creamy, salty, devilishly addictive.

And we didn't photograph the rest of our food, partially as the light was dim enough (no, not too) that good photography wasn't easy, and partially because we were hungry (our evening came after a day of coast-to-coast flying and conquering the NYC transit system with two suitcases). Chryss had the fish and chips, a large enough platter we could have shared it even in our famished state--Harp Lager battered cod, mushy peas, crispy chips, and Ballymaloe tartar sauce (which made us recall our impressive lunch at Ballymaloe a few years back). Each item was nailed.

I went for the Bangers and Mash, a plate named simply so that every thirteen year old boy could suffer a giggle fit. The Cumberland sausage themselves were tasty little numbers, the pork in a good grind and well-spiced. But, of course, this dish is all about its accoutrements, especially that scallion-flecked mash potato, creamy yet not mush, and a lick-the-plate worthy gravy that brought the whole dish together.

The Dead Rabbit surpassed all expectations, and then some. It was mighty hard not to try one last tipple--I regret passing on their Irish coffee, but I don't regret not falling hard asleep that evening, too.

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