Jigger of Gin at a New Grand Street Cocktail Lounge
There's a trend I've noticed lately: Restaurants mainly intended as beer bars and cocktail lounges have been hiring ambitious young chefs, who make do with comically small spaces and a dearth of kitchen equipment and produce amazing menus. It's like running a marathon with only one leg. At Jimmy's 43, the chef cooks on hot plates with no oven; at Cantina, he toils at two tiny counters behind the bar, often bumping into the bartender.
So, when I stumbled into a new cocktail lounge on Williamsburg's Grand Street the other evening, I found myself on familiar terrain. Named after a fragile purple berry that appears only two weeks out of the year—or maybe after a character invented by Mark Twain—Huckleberry Bar is located east of the BQE on a stretch of Grand that has remained resolutely Dominican until only recently. The entranceway is particularly appealing, clad in black-stamped tin that curves inward toward the lounge, sucking you in as certainly as a straw in a sweet mixed drink. The room is long and spare, configured to accommodate as many standing swillers as possible, and a row of stools along the bar constitutes most of the seating. A sunken rear room with a couple of tables looks out onto a backyard filled with wooden booths. Until summer arrives, it functions as a zoo of cigarette smokers for those watching from inside. Nice place to suck a spliff, too.
When I bellied up to the bar, I noticed a food-prep area nestled among the bottles of crème de menthe and Cointreau, used to make the elaborate cocktails that are Huckleberry's most prominent offerings. These have been developed, I was told, by a prominent "mixologist," a scientific-sounding term I'm still grappling with. (Why not "alcohol chef"?) The gin-heavy cocktail list is evenly divided between respected traditional concoctions—the Sidecar, the Negroni, and the Harvey Wallbanger—and invented concoctions. The one I liked best was the Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an invention composed of ginger-infused rum, crème de cacao, and grapefruit juice. I'm not sure what it has to do with the Victorian author who coined the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword."
In line with the crippled-kitchen theme, the cooking is done in an oven tucked under the counter that looks like it came from a mobile home in a trailer park—small but serviceable. The oven has no stovetop, of course. The only other equipment visible is a mean-looking electric knife, whose angry buzz cuts the air periodically as chef Seth Johnson quarters his wonderful toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich ($8). This is no ordinary sandwich, of course: The smoky ham hails from Chelsea's Biellese Salumeria, the cheddar is Irish and lathered with beer, and the round roll has turned crisp and warm in the oven. Pickled purple onions send the sandwich spinning off into the zone of culinary ecstasy.
Those onions are a harbinger of pickles to come. You can see why pickles are a popular leitmotif of these micro-kitchen bars—they can be made ahead of time, flaunt farmers'-market products, and involve no cooking. Johnson turns out a perfect pickle platter ($4), in which veggies the size of a baby's thumb march onto the plate in pairs, like a miniature Noah's Ark: fennel bulbs, carrots, turnips, Bosc pears, yellow beets, and sliced Kirby cukes, each with its own lip-puckering astringency. King of the genre is a beet salad, with crumbled Stilton and honey-roasted walnuts, that's been pickled in gin ($7.50). A clever mixologist might throw it in a blender and call it a cocktail.
Picking your way among the small plates and sandwiches is half the fun at Huckleberry. On one evening, we enjoyed an egg-salad sandwich hot-wired with watercress; on another, our favorite was an open-face sandwich of fluffy goat cheese topped with sunchoke chips. There are good cheese and charcuterie platters priced at $15, the latter including a tasty large-bore salami with the beguiling name of "Baby Jesus." Hard-core drinkers with tender stomachs can nibble on salty boiled peanuts or a pair of hard-boiled eggs ($2.50), which come with a wild choice of condiments.
You'll want to pay special attention to the separate specials menu, which featured, upon our last visit, pigs in blankets, braised lamb on a bed of polenta, seared scallops with whipped sweet potatoes—all tasty and interesting—and something we didn't like so much: tea-pickled salmon festooned with thinly sliced radishes and turnips. All it really needed was a shot of gin.
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