Speak Easy and Carry a Good Drink
Jbird's excellent cocktails are a secret worth revealing
The speakeasy trend hit New York City hard some six years ago, with bars like Employees Only, Pegu Club and Death and Co. springing up in every alleyway. Discerning drinkers were lured in with unlisted phone numbers, unmarked doors and strict codes of conduct that promised to keep unaccompanied ladies unmolested.
But for some reason, the bars all managed to stay below the 49th (Street) parallel, leaving uptown high and dry. It's not as if uptowners don't like to bend the elbow, as the continued existence of establishments like Bill's Gay Nineties, P.J. Clarke's and Bemelmans can attest, but for some reason, intrepid cocktailiers felt no urge to move on up-until recently.
Jbird's first location opened in Midtown (241 w. 48th St., betw. Broadway and 8th Ave.), tucked away behind the mob scene of your standard high-gloss Times Square club. This is equal parts genius and misguided: Those susceptible to the allure of the comfortably underpopulated secret den may be too repulsed by the rubicon they have to cross to brave it-or they may run straight into its open arms.
Perhaps in recognition of this double-edged sword, or perhaps because there are fewer big scary clubs to hide behind, the Upper East Side Jbird (339 E. 75th St., betw. 1st and 2nd Aves., jbirdny.com) has its own storefront, albeit a very small one. They've figured out that in this neighborhood, cocktails this good don't need the gimmick-locals are so desperate for an interesting drink they stop at the awning and rub their eyes, convinced it's an alcoholic's mirage.
But its looks are still deceiving. Entering the narrow room, bottles stacked claustrophobically to the ceiling, it seems as if you're in a century-old haunt, where waxed mustaches were prevalent the first time around. Keep going, though, and the room opens up to 21st-century scale, all white tile and mirrors, leather booths and communal tables.
Back there you have a panoply of service staff and the option of a full dinner, as modern bars feel they must supply. Here's the secret: they don't have to. There are plenty of places to get dinner. There are very few places to get serious cocktails. You do the math.
Interesting bar snacks like savory popcorn with avocado and Cholula hot sauce or lardo on bread with "good salts" are a pleasant diverson, but a smoked chicken panini just ruins the illusion that you are in a more sophisticated time and place.
The truly remarkable drink menu that divides cocktails by type (old-fashioneds, swizzles, sours), then runs wild with combinations of spirits and flavors that put other bars to shame. This almost mathematical approach makes trying something new a reliable proposition, not a crapshoot-if you know you like old-fashioneds, a KSBW (bourbon, lemongrass acacia honey and bitters) is an easy jump.
Aromatized cocktails are similarly familiar yet fascinating, and the Maddow, which added elderflower liqueur and whiskey barrel-aged bitters to Old Tom gin, was spirit-forward with layers of sweetness and smoke that transcended its martini predecessor.
Jbird thoughtfully presents the different styles in the glasses that serve them best; a julep came in a proper silver cup with a steel straw to reach through the coarse crushed ice, while aromatized drinks are served in smaller-than-the-norm martini glasses with half the cocktail resting in a small decanter on ice, keeping the whole thing frosty as you sip.
At Jbird, it seems even the pioneers who have brought the first speakeasy to the Upper East Side got cold feet and given the neighborhood what they think it wants. But if you ignore this and demand what they're actually capable of, it's a cocktail to to rival the best in the rest of the city.
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