REVIEW: Milk & Honey

One phrase that has recently been added to the long lists of things I despise is “I’m over (insert something even fleetingly popular here)”. Never before has one collection of words so strikingly tapped in to so many different attitudes I found abhorrent. It’s not the assertion of a dissenting opinion, as anyone who reads this blog with any regularity can tell. What drives me up the wall is the sneering condescension, coupled with the implied fact that the person who is “over” the thing in question used to very much not be “over” it. As all hipper-than-thou wastes of oxygen can attest, once something has become even mildly entrenched within the zeitgeist, it begins to lose perceived “relevancy” (another terrible phrase) amongst a certain class of people.

ANYWAY, I open with this disclaimer because the following is a review of what some call a “speakeasy” style bar, and while this concept is still novel to the whole of the country, it’s been well-worn here in New York City, prompting many a self-appointed gatekeeper of coolness to announce that they are “over” speakeasies. That’s all well and good for trend-chasers, but those who are invested in the kind of atmosphere, service, and most importantly, quality that is rare enough in bars anywhere, let alone New York City, might want to take a second look.

I first became aware of Milk & Honey when my good friend Jacob Sloman recommended it to me on my first trip to New York City as an adult. He knew exactly how to hook me in, telling me that it was dark, quiet, and that they had an entire list of house rules on their website concerning the proper behavior of potential clients. Legend has it that none other than Quentin Tarantino was ejected from Milk & Honey, but this tale, sadly, remains unconfirmed.

Here’s how things work at Milk & Honey: you send an email message, indicating the desired time for your reservation and the number of people in your party. Generally speaking, it isn’t too difficult to get a reservation for a small group, but I’ve always made my inquiries weeks in advance. If one of your offered times is acceptable, someone will e-mail you back within a day to confirm, and then will send you a follow-up confirmation email on the day of the reservation, along with the location of the bar, if needed (in keeping with the speakeasy theme, Milk & Honey’s address is “secret”, but easily obtainable in the age of the Internet). When you arrive at the front door, an unmarked (save for the stenciled letters “M & H”) steel affair in the middle of a street that boasts mostly Laundromats and noodle shops, a buzz will get you inside, where a hostess will ask for the name your reservation is under (being somewhat new to the speakeasy myself, I have to admit to a certain petty glee aroused by watching the uninformed trudge into the bar in cargo shorts and flip-flops, only to be turned away once they admitted they had no reservations).

Once seated, or even before, the hostess will fire off a brief series of questions designed to equip the bartender with enough knowledge to make you the perfect cocktail. You can also opt for a classic cocktail of your choice, but odds are the mixologists here understand what you want as well or perhaps even better than you do. I’ve never been one for sweet drinks, but at the bartender’s urging, I tried a cocktail that had a rich, chocolaty taste combine with the robust flavor of scotch and other ingredients my palate isn’t well-trained enough to pick out. My friend Kate Brown who accompanied me claims to have discovered her favorite cocktail here, a concoction called a Penicillin that neither of us had heard of before. While sitting at one of the small booths is the most intimate and cozy option in the bar, sacrificing the comfort for a bar stool means that you have a front-and-center view of the entire process, and a brief education about each drink and ingredient from the person making them. Fascinating stuff, if you’re in the mood.

The atmosphere at Milk & Honey is dignified and restrained. Supposedly the place used to be lit entirely by candles, and while that’s no longer true (if it ever was), the bar is indeed very dark, both in terms of lighting and the various materials used to construct the beautiful bar, tables and booths. There’s something decidedly old world about a place so often derided as trendy or pretentious. The shadowy light level, combined with the tight but comfortable seating and the lounge music pumped in at low volume makes for an incredibly relaxed and, if need be, romantic setting. The bartender, if you elect to sit at the bar, is incredibly personable and attentive, and the waitresses and hostesses are charming and gracious to a degree that is almost absurd in this day and age. All of these elements are achieved through design, by owner/operator Sasha Petraske.

A quick visit to the bar’s official website reveals a list of house rules, which read as follows:

  1.  No name-dropping, no star fucking
  2.  No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behavior.
  3.  No fighting, play fighting, no talking about fighting.
  4.  Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.
  5.  Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies. Ladies, feel free to start a conversation or ask the bartender to introduce you. If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.
  6.  Do not linger outside the front door.
  7.  Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behavior of your guests.
  8.  Exit the bar briskly and silently. People are trying to sleep across the street. Please make all your travel plans and say all farewells before leaving the bar.

I was once engaged in an ongoing argument with my very close friend Jeff DeSouza: I have a soft spot for bars like Milk & Honey and The Cedar Social (Dallas), places in which a certain manner of dress and decorum is expected, if not explicitly enforced. Jeff frequently characterized such rules or encouragement as pretentious and image-focused, and perhaps in some instances they are, but we finally saw eye to eye on the issue (while drunk inside of a Whataburger, ironically enough) when my brother Alex put it into better words than I could. In a place like Milk & Honey, the rules, the dress, the expectations, are a matter of respect. As Alex put it, a person like Petraske, who puts the utmost care and consideration into crafting the perfect experience for a certain type of drinker—from the meticulous production and presentation of the cocktails to the impeccable service—deserves to have that consideration returned to him in the form something as insignificant as dressing like a grownup. The hassles of making a reservation days in advance, of dressing in something approaching your best, of paying $16.00 for a cocktail are a fair tradeoff for the joy of enjoying an incredible drink, mixed by an incredibly talented and gracious bartender while you enjoy the company of a close friend in a small, quiet corner of the city that never sleeps.

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