Greeting you at the door to BlackTail at Pier A in Battery Park City is a man with an earpiece and clipboard. It’s a jarring start: Isn’t this just a bar? Alas, there’s no casually strutting up and taking a stool at BlackTail, even when the room is half-empty at the opening hour of 5 p.m. You wait to be granted access, then head up the stairs and are greeted, again, by another person, who will escort you to your seat. “You’re in Cuba now,” you’ll be told, though you’ve just come in from experiencing a cold breeze off the New York Harbor. It may feel rather surreal, like a colonial Epcot exhibit of sorts: the bartenders in fedoras and guayaberas stirring drinks; the giant portrait above the bar of Christopher Columbus claiming land from fearful, naked natives; the vintage ceiling fans and the profusion of potted palms scattered throughout.
Needless to say, the era BlackTail glorifies isn’t the Cuba of the recently deceased Fidel Castro — there are no kitschy Che Guevara posters to be seen. Instead, we’re transported to pre-revolutionary Cuba, where Mafia kingpins rubbed elbows with Hollywood big shots and Hemingway drank himself to oblivion on daiquiris at El Floridita (the stools are replicas of the ones he would’ve sat on there). The bar takes its name from the planes that flew well-to-do drinkers from New York City to Havana during those years. It’s a period rich for inspiration, which is why the Dead Rabbit’s founders, Irishmen Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, chose it for their second bar. That first spot, named the best in the world by Drinks International this year, takes a similarly immersive approach to Irish whiskey. There, the narrow bar’s two floors evoke nineteenth-century New York, when the original “Dead Rabbits” battled the Bowery B’hoys and other gangs on the streets downtown. Muldoon and McGarry are famous for menus you can read like novels, and BlackTail’s Joycean version would require many visits to properly absorb. There are stories, quotes, and explanations for every section, as well as a postcard keepsake for each menu.
The drinks here are rum-focused, naturally, and split into five categories of eight drinks apiece: highballs, punches, sours, old-fashioneds, and cocktails. Each gets its own specific glassware, and there are no garnishes; the kitsch here is reserved for the décor, while the drinks are serious business — and seriously delicious. The Rum & Cola takes the last slot in the highball section and is made with a Puerto Rican rum blend, Italian amaro, Coca-Cola, Champagne, and the Dead Rabbit’s proprietary Orinoco bitters. This version will make you forget any syrupy-sweet Cuba libres from your past: The amaro adds depth, while the Champagne gives the mix a bit of dryness. Suddenly, this adult beverage appeals to actual adults.
From the four daiquiri variations to the El Presidente — which balances sweet, smoky, spicy, and fruity — to the whiskey-, genever-, and bourbon-tinged selections on BlackTail’s newly released fall menu, you won’t find a bad drink in the house. That’s to be expected from this team. Where mediocrity creeps in is on the food menu. The $11 Cuban fries are the only worthwhile bite to soak up the booze, composed of crispy plantains and yuca served with a deliciously oily herb dipping sauce, making for a plate you could imagine enjoying with the ocean in view. A $16 vegetable bouquet feels truly decadent: A giant, ornate bowl filled with ice comes studded with carrots, radishes, endive, multicolored cauliflower, asparagus, and baby zucchini, but the paltry cups of runny black-bean hummus and flavorless dill crème fraîche ruin the fun.
Of the meat- and seafood-heavy large plates, the $23 Rabbit Cuban Sandwich, with confit rabbit leg, rosemary ham, roasted pork shoulder, Swiss tomme, dill pickles, and mustard sauce, proved dry to my dinner companion — lacking in the anticipated spice and acid, and not grilled to the thin, crispy level one expects. The pricing is on par with the Spotted Pig’s $20 showstopper, but there’s nothing here to suggest it’s worth that much (and besides, a perfect $8 cuban can be found at Margon in Times Square). Similarly, the tres leches cake was serviceable, but the promised anise wasn’t present in the whipped cream.
For rum lovers — and cocktail enthusiasts in general — BlackTail is a worthy addition to the high-end pub-crawl circuit. While it might be a bit out of the way for date night, the drinks and the vibe take flight, even if the food stays grounded.
BlackTail at Pier A
2nd floor, Pier A Harbor House, 22 Battery Place
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 8, 2016