There’s a time and a place for hushed dining rooms, white tablecloths and four‑hour gastronomic odysseys. But between you and me, I think there’s often more fun to be had in the bar – even in the world’s best restaurants. You can graze on Michelin-starred titbits and skip around the drinks list in a way you can’t in a more formal setting. And it often feels like the staff are enjoying themselves a little more too.
At Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Humm’s three-star restaurant in Manhattan, the bar does a five-course tasting menu that’s as good as anything you’ll find in the cavernous main dining room. The food is superlative – this place was voted World’s Best Restaurant 2017, after all. But what really took me by surprise on a recent visit was the quality of the cocktails. Original, fresh and full of interesting, seasonal ingredients, the list merits a visit in its own right.
Cloistered away under a low, gold-leaf ceiling, we started with a cocktail of mezcal, sorrel and fennel liqueur. Cool, grassy and light, it paired beautifully with a mound of crab topped with sorrel and amaranth. A cocktail of dry sherry, clarified tomato juice, tarragon and apple was also a pitch-perfect partner for lobster with coriander and tomato. “We want our cocktails to really work with the food, so a lot of them are lower strength or use savoury or herbal flavours,” explains bartender Matthew Hunter. “It changes several times a year, too, like the food, depending on what’s in season.”
That light touch with alcohol means you can get through quite a few cocktails in two hours – an icy Yuzu creation (vermouth and grapefruit, garnished with a tiny nasturtium leaf) and a crystal-clear punch of tequila, rhubarb and pineapple, served over a glistening ice block, were both delicious. We also drank a bittersweet beer cocktail made with a bergamot-scented wheat beer brewed in collaboration with Folksbier Brauerai in Brooklyn. To finish, Hunter served us the restaurant’s own bottling of Laird’s Apple Brandy with salted-chocolate pretzels.
A lot of attention has also been lavished on the non-alcoholic drinks list – a flute of sparkling chamomile and pear the perfect champagne alternative with caviar. The very good tea list was similarly chosen with food pairing in mind.
Chefs and sommeliers have always worked closely together, but this sort of interplay between bar and kitchen is a newer phenomenon. It opens up a fresh seam of creativity; creates a new kind of narrative; and also means that if you can only get a seat at the bar, it might not be such bad thing, after all.
Alice Lascelles is Fortum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.