“We’re the oldest people here,” the silver-haired man confessed, almost in a declaration of surrender, as he and his chiseled partner took their seats next to my table at Seamstress. I took a long sip of my Wiz Fizz, a riff on the Ramos Gin Fizz (king of egg-white drinks) named for the joint’s young-gun head bartender Pam Wiznitzer and made with root beer, like an edgy ice cream float.
“We’re the oldest people here.”
I heard this sentiment uttered twice at this rollicking, “antique chic” restaurant on the Upper East Side — easily one of the most progressive venues to set up shop in this stodgy zip code in the past decade. The second time it came from a balding, bespectacled man with whom my dinner guest shared a makeshift armrest at the amoebic tree trunk that served as our communal table. I nearly choked on my drink. Clearly Seamstress has made an impression on the residents of this changing neighborhood, which has steadily welcomed an influx of young professionals. Then again, I also had aging on the brain — specifically, a platter of charcuterie strewn with samplings of cured salami, lardo, and chicken liver pâté.
In speakeasy fashion, the sign out front advertises a dummy business (look for a pair of scissors on the recessed doorway) and the dining room is hidden behind a velvet curtain. Up front, the host’s station doubles as an atelier for pricey watches and leather goods. What’s next — an on-site tailor to perform mid-meal alterations?
The combination of Wiznitzer’s experimental cocktails and chef Will Horowitz’s ambitious menu would have done swift business downtown, where the latter’s pickled, smoked, and otherwise preserved creations pack ’em in at Ducks Eatery in the East Village. Up north it’s wall-to-wall on weeknights, and reservations have been hard to come by since Seamstress opened its doors in February. (A thread runs through it: Steve Laycock, Horowitz’s co-owner at Ducks, has a piece here; so does Josh Mazza, an Upper East Sider who — along with Laycock — owns the Gilroy, a popular drinks den six blocks north of Seamstress.)
Before decamping to Kings County, I spent my first seven years out of college in Yorkville. Way back then, in the mid-Aughts, a craft-cocktail bar that fed you mutton, boozy pickles, and chicken with its claw still attached would have been radical. Today it’s merely notable. But the bird — a special of whole local hen basted in beef fat and roasted with sweet, caramelized parsnips and maitake mushrooms — transcends most people’s notion of “pub grub.” A hefty entrée, to be sure, but it’s dwarfed by a cold-smoked rib eye for two that has been dry-aged in house for 90 days. Served with a twice-baked potato, the steak is an earthy, bovine tempest.
Horowitz hits the woodsmoke frequently, and the New York native and erstwhile pro Ping-Pong player anoints a number of Seamstress’s dishes with its mouthwatering, acerbic flavor to varying effect. Applied to creamy farmer’s cheese, smoke bolsters a dish of dense cornmeal griddlecakes served in their cast-iron cookware and drizzled with spiced honey. It also does wonders for the moist meat of fried chicken scented with citrus-thyme oil. But the acrid perfume fails to penetrate small plates of raw artichokes; ditto a “porridge” of chewy ancient grains sitting in a pool of parsnip cream that bears little of its promised smolder. Smoked shrimp cocktail arrives as a crustacean pimp cup with Marie Rose sauce for dipping, but the seafood’s a bit too high on its own supply, obliterating its innate briny sweetness. A grilled mutton burger would rank among the city’s finest — if only it weren’t swallowed up by an ungainly brioche bun. Any and all of those slight miscues could be fixed with minimal tweaks. But no such shortcomings mar a massive brined-and-smoked pork shank, whose Flintstonian bone hovers over downy grits ladled with piquant gravy made from coffee, fermented black beans, and dry bush tomatoes (an indigenous Australian nightshade that tastes like a sweeter sundried tomato).
Almost everyone sitting at either of Seamstress’s two bars — tucked away in opposite corners of the restaurant — has a cocktail in hand, although European and U.S. wines (several of the latter are local) are on offer to quench lighter drinkers. The drink menu is split into cutesy categories like “patchwork” and “embroidery,” flowery descriptors that serve the concept with little actual benefit to diners. But once you start to explore the concoctions Wiznitzer and her band of bartenders have dreamt up for this nostalgia factory, it’s easy to see why Laycock and Mazza, bartenders themselves, put her in charge. Her drinks rustle taste buds with nuance, and they’re practically under-market at $13 a pop.
Tableside-flamed Baked Alaska is ultimately a snooze — the strawberry ice cream and cold yellow cake tastes pedestrian beneath tufts of charred tarragon meringue. Better to opt for sticky pineapple upside-down cake or sit with one of Wiznitzer’s sweet and frothy cocktails, like the “Early Bird” — an ode to the morning after, mixed with coffee, Cognac, sherry, and the Italian digestivo Averna — and celebrate this vibrant neighborhood whose pulse continues to quicken.