If you’re going to charge nearly $20 for a vegetable puck, you’d better make sure it tastes good. At Wassail (162 Orchard Street; 646-918-6835), the city’s first dedicated cider bar — which opened this past spring — chef Joseph Buenconsejo’s quinoa, farro, miso, and smoked-mushroom “burger” packs an incomprehensible amount of flavor between its brioche buns. I was reminded of Minetta Tavern’s fabled Black Label beef blend, so surprisingly intense was the first bite.
Buenconsejo enrobes his loosely formed grain-and-umami patty in melted provolone and smoked cheddar, brightening the earthy foundation with fresh tomato and raw red onion, upland cress, yuzu-mustard aioli, and both smoked-paprika-pickled and smoked-and-caramelized onions. He serves it with pickle spears and a bowl of petite, mild jalapeño tots. The sandwich could be a menu mainstay, but Wassail owners Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler — who also operate the grilled-cheese haven Queens Kickshaw — offer it only at brunch and during an early-evening happy hour. Limiting its availability is a smart move, as the burger merely hints at the rest of Buenconsejo’s talents, and its scarcity allows the Philippine-born chef to execute his clever, innovative, and affordable ($18 and under) vegetarian menu unencumbered.
He accessorizes potatoes with zeal and panache, setting charcoal-kissed spuds adrift in goat-butter foam and dill sauce — a clean and grassy diorama. Foam shows up again (pungent, cider-spiked gruyère), practically floating in a deep bowl that holds (among other things) sunchokes both shaved raw and cooked tender. Along with brussels sprouts leaves, the airy dairy accents the root’s nuttiness with startling intensity. A main course of crisp-edged hen-of-the-woods mushrooms welcomes depth from chestnut purée and smoked olive oil and the fresh bittersweetness of raw apple and endive. These dishes are as warming and comforting as cooking gets — vegetarian or otherwise.
Other plates recall spa cuisine yet leave you feeling more refreshed than a hot-stone massage. The kitchen arranges melon cubes and cucumber, honeydew, and cantaloupe pearls around a pool of silky fermented macadamia milk drizzled with borage oil, which tastes similar to celery. Laid over a bed of crunchy chopped raw nuts mixed with citrusy green sorrel, it’s nearly as eye-catching as Buenconsejo’s grilled butternut squash mid-course: charred slices of the gourd beneath wilted purple radicchio leaves, painted with dollops of squash purée. The chef plays with sugar, fat, and bitterness, heightening the squash with dried fruit and sesame to complement cocoa-nib vinaigrette that gracefully lacks any cloyingness. Using lobster mushrooms to channel firm tofu in another main course, he gets foamy yet again (vadouvan curry this time), layering handmade pasta with cauliflower purée and roasted-cauliflower breadcrumbs.
Seldom does anything arrive that fails to impress, and all of it — down to Buenconsejo’s house-made sourdough and bar snacks like Scotch eggs and mushroom escabeche — finds suitable matches among the restaurant’s massive cider inventory. Ministered to by head bartender Jade Sotack and beverage director Dan Pucci, the list offers nearly a hundred varieties, many of which hail from New York State. In the same way that modern drinkers are showing more interest in natural wines, sherry, and other beverages with unconventional flavor profiles, cider represents an exciting new field of quaffable exploration. Wassail avails itself as the fermented concoction’s champion.
The sheer range exhibited even within the selections poured from the bar’s sixteen taps showcases cider’s versatility, from juicy Hudson Valley Farmhouse Scrumpy to funkier, super-acidic Basque and Asturian ciders. And with Wassail’s bottle list, cider-heads can compete with beer nerds and oenophiles in chasing after coveted rarities from domestic outfits with names like Good Life Farm and Left Foot Charley. Pucci even offers special-run kegs and carboys direct from local orchards. “I’ve got something special in the back selling for five dollars a glass,” he discloses one evening before returning with tumblers of gently fizzy, unfiltered juice made from Northern Spy apples.
Rebecca Eichenbaum, who rose to pastry prominence crafting precious sweets in fine-dining kitchens, shines here, imparting her desserts with herbs and other savory and vegetal ingredients in convincingly sensible ways that harmonize with Buenconsejo’s handiwork. Parsley root gets whipped into heavenly mousse paired with celery granita in one dish, and boulders of goat-cheese cheesecake sit along a bed of dehydrated grape and apple skins under a squiggle of Concord grape sorbet and grapevine granita in another. In her most striking composition, Eichenbaum divines biblical levels of temptation from fig leaves, plunking freeform hunks of frozen, chocolate-crumb-dusted leaf parfait into a moat of deeply caramel-sweet fig consommé, île flottante–style. The pastry chef seasons her fruit broth with chaga, a mocha-flavored fungus that grows on birch trees, for a nearly psychedelic palate-tricking creamy mushroom soup. It turns raised eyebrows into approving head nods — a feat at which Wassail excels.