It’s hard to believe that until now, there has been no bar dedicated to cider here in New York City — the beverage has slowly gained popularity over the last few years, thanks in part to a burgeoning industry right in our backyard. (What else are you going to do with all those New York State apples?) But as of tonight, that niche will be happily filled by Wassail (162 Orchard Street, 646-918-6835), a cider-dedicated establishment on the Lower East Side.
The crew behind this place is a cider dream team — Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim have spent the last four years building out the cider program at their Astoria gathering place, the Queens Kickshaw, as the distribution network for ciders grew. For this project, they teamed up with Sabine Hrechdakian, who produces Cider Week, an annual celebration of cider that hits the Hudson Valley in June and New York City in November.
Unsurprisingly, the cider list here is both broad and deep, with twelve selections on tap, five available by the glass, and dozens more in bottle. You’ll find local ciders, to be sure, but also ciders from Spain, France, England, Austria, Italy, Chile, and Ireland, which Sandler says has likely had an influence on many of the regions. And the draft situation allows you to taste a number of these regions side by side, which’ll help you start to get a feel for the different regions. France, our server told us, usually makes sweet and funky cider, Spain’s products are normally dry and funky, and the U.S. is known for easy-drinking ciders.
The back bar also runs deep in ice cider, poire, and pommeau; cider finds its way into a handful of cocktails; and a non-alcoholic apple juice makes the non-alcoholic section of the menu. (And if you absolutely can’t drink cider, but somehow find yourself here, you’ll be offered a very short list of wine and beer, as well as a full bar.)
Back when they announced that Wassail was forthcoming, Sandler told us that the food menu would include items cooked with cider, apples, pears, or apple- or pear-based spirits, as well as culinary traditions of cider regions. “Without banging people over the head, we’ll have Spanish food to go with Spanish cider, and French food to go with French cider, but it will be more creatively woven together,” he said.
The team tapped Joseph Buenconsejo to pull that vision together, and his menu certainly trots the regions, though it reads, more or less, New American gastrobar. There are snacks like a fried pastie, an English pastry pocket stuffed with spinach and English cheddar; jalapeño fritters, and scotch eggs. Appetizers include burrata pooled with winesap apple water and topped with cucumber, sweet peas with smoked ricotta, and a duck egg with barley, hedgehog mushrooms, and brussels sprouts. In the entree section, look for a roasted cauliflower head with black garlic and cashews, layered potatoes with turnips and mustard greens, and asparagus with morel, parmesan custard, and vin jaune. You’ll be forgiven if you fail to notice that there’s not one morsel of meat on the menu — this is hearty fare, and the staff here is certainly not pointing out its herbivorous bent.
Do not miss dessert — pastry chef Rebecca Eichenbaum is pulling together disparate flavors in interesting ways. Try her English pea cremeaux, which eats like a sweet pea custard, plied with the sweet nuttiness of fenugreek; or her chocolate ganache, which plays salted chocolate off pine nut and anise hyssop.
The owners have completely gut-renovated this address, which was Todd’s Mill before it became Wassail. A cozy bar anchors the front of the space, while the narrow dining room, painted in light grays and lit by chandeliers that cast patterns over the walls, ends in a private room that can be opened up or partitioned off. The team eventually plans to host cider classes there.