Cocktail geeks can quibble about which fancy lounge shakes up the most perfect Old Fashioned in town; whether I’m at the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, or Little Branch, they all taste pretty good to me. The boozy concoctions slip down my throat, and before I know it, I am both poorer and hungrier than I was before. The bank account is a lost cause, but shouldn’t the snacks be as tasty (and free-flowing) as the liquor?
At a few places, you’re in luck. Speakeasy PDT offers deep-fried hot dogs from Crif Dogs, including off-menu dogs like the Chang, which is named after Chef David Chang and topped with kimchi. At Death & Co., there’s gussied-up comfort food like jalapeño short ribs and fish and chips. But at most other classic cocktail lounges, there’s nothing to eat (or nothing worth eating). The focus is on the cocktails, which makes sense. But bar snacking is a tradition at least as time-honored as the Ramos Gin Fizz.
That’s why I was excited to hear that Philip Kirschen-Clark, formerly of WD-50 and most recently of Jimmy’s #43, had jumped over to Pegu Club and revamped the menu, which had been languishing in boring crab-cake obscurity since the place’s 2005 opening. At Jimmy’s, Kirschen-Clark whipped up a menu that changed every night, somehow accomplishing this with only hot plates and a toaster oven. From his tiny kitchen emerged delicious molasses-glazed lamb riblets and blistered shishito peppers. With Kirschen-Clark in the kitchen, maybe Pegu Club’s food would finally measure up to owner Audrey Saunders’s booze.
Pegu Club’s new menu keeps its former tilt toward Asian flavors, but Kirschen-Clark’s new small plates are exceedingly light and bright, the sort of food you’d want to eat on a date, not the kind that soaks up liquor. Several of the offerings are excellent, but others are forgettable.
The very best of the lot is crispy squid, fried in an airy, tempura-like batter that’s studded with black sesame seeds. The squid sizzle up entirely greaseless and crunchy, and the sesame seeds lend an anchoring earthiness. Dip the fried critters in the spicy dipping sauce, which reminds me of a really good barbecue sauce. Duck crostini are also excellent—gloriously meaty, with pink shards of duck on brown-bread toast, spread thickly with cherry preserves and topped with more cherries.
In another good dish, swatches of cucumber are wrapped around a mix of peaky-toe crab and Japanese kewpie mayonnaise. (You know what makes it so good? MSG. And no, you’re not allergic to it.) The cucumber and crab are augmented with peach chutney. These rolls aren’t rocket science, but they’re perfect summer food, cold and light.
Shrimp skewers feature fat crustaceans sprinkled with Korean chile flakes. But the “lime-in-the-coconut” dipping sauce doesn’t have enough zesty lime, and it’s too sugary. Summer rolls are meager, thin cylinders of rice paper wrapped around mango and avocado—at $12, a ripoff.
Scallop ceviche “sliders” arrive as a pile of ceviche in the middle of the plate, sided by two mini brioche buns. The ceviche itself is composed of sliced scallops tossed with a vibrant mix of corn, fava beans, green tomatoes, and fresh currants. You’re meant to place the bits of scallop and veggies on a mini brioche bun and eat it like a burger. But you’re only provided with chopsticks, so you’re reduced to picking the corn kernels up one by one and depositing them on your bun. (I hope you haven’t had too many cocktails.) If you do manage to put it together and get a bite, the dense and dry brioche completely overwhelms the delicate scallop mixture. Ceviche and sliders should not go together.
For now, go for the squid and the duck and wait to see if Kirschen-Clark will be changing the menu soon, as he’s apt to do. Meanwhile, Clover Club, the newest addition to the “club” rush, has just opened in Carroll Gardens.
Clover Club seems to have debuted at exactly the moment that media-types have wearied of the cocktail renaissance. Its six-page menu, heavy on the exposition (“A proper swizzle is a labor of love and definitely worth the wait”), and prohibition-chic design have inspired eye-rolling in the Observer as well as the Voice.
Maybe Clover Club’s vibe is too earnest, although I thought the biggest problem with it was the incredibly uncomfortable wooden chairs, which seem to have been designed to make you want to get up and leave. On the other hand, my rum swizzle—dark rum, pineapple, lime, and falernum—was awfully tasty. And when I got hungry, I was happy to find the bar snacks here entirely unpretentious, and both more generously portioned and more affordable than those at Pegu Club. The offerings at Clover Club top out at $14 and average around $8 to $10, while Pegu Club’s lean plates top out at $16 and average around $12.
The caviar shrimp toast is the only item on Clover Club’s menu that I’d go out of my way for. It’s actually much more down-home than it sounds—white-bread toast triangles smothered with a buttery mass of shrimp, fresh herbs, and caviar. Suspended in the creamy shrimp salad, the caviar looks like poppy seeds, but tastes much, much better.
Clover Club’s deviled eggs come in a foursome, each one with a different topping: bacon, tomatoes, olives, or capers. Equally good are the crisply fried oysters and the smoked salmon plate—a straightforward combination of brown bread, cornichons, onions, and Norwegian salmon.
Steak tartare was over-salted, but served with great potato gaufrettes (a fancy way of saying waffle-cut potato chips). Molasses-glazed chicken drumettes had greasy, rubbery skin, and their glaze was too sweet. Dunking them in Roquefort sauce improved them slightly.
Clover Club’s snacks are relatively affordable and have bar-food soul. But it will never be a food destination, and in fairness, it’s not meant to be. (Coincidentally, chef Gavin Citron, who came up with Pegu Club’s original menu, also designed Clover Club’s menu.) Although both Pegu and Clover Club have a few great things to eat, the cocktails are still infinitely better than the food. Or maybe I just wasn’t drunk enough.
Over at Quarter, a cocktail bar in South Park Slope that gets a lot less buzz than its more pedigreed cousins, you can bring your own meat to grill in the bar’s backyard. All things considered, if you’re going to get tipsy, it’s probably best for your wallet and your stomach if you bring your own snacks.