Restaurants often get a bad rap as cocktail bars and frequently that is a valid criticism. That said, some of my favorite places to enjoy well conceived, constructed and craveable cocktails is in restaurants and NYC happens to be home to a number of them – places like Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad, Estela, Cosme and Mission Chinese to name a few. Those places combine wonderful, delicious cocktails with great food. Another restaurant that clearly belongs on my list of favorites combining spectacular cocktails with sensational food, and maybe at the very top of this list, is Betony in mid-town Manhattan. I have previously written about the restaurant, it’s dedication to details such as clear ice and how they make what may be their signature cocktail, the Milk Punch. Eamon Rockey and chef Bryce Shuman have not been standing still, however, and continue to evolve and hone their respective crafts – Eamon in the front of the house including the bar program and Bryce the kitchen. I was recently invited to sample some of their recent work and I left blown away by what they’ve been doing (and just slightly inebriated).
I was there for lunch towards the end of service. I had the bar to myself along with head barman, Nicholas. Just to be clear, I tasted a lot of cocktails, but as much as I would have loved to have finished each and every one, that would have been suicidal, especially given that I was heading to The World’s 50 Best Awards later that evening. It wasn’t easy to stop sipping these refreshing and delicious delights, but somehow, I managed. As for the food, I had no such issues and finished each and every glorious dish!
Nicholas started me with an “Alpaca Morada,” a beautiful play on Peruvian Chicha Morada, a drink of fermented blue corn. This delicious refresher used cooked Mexican blue corn as its base and combined it with Pisco Acholado (a blend of two or more grape varietals), basil, banana and a touch of rum to round it out. The result was a light, surprisingly not-too-sweet, well-balanced and beautiful cocktail. I would not typically order a cocktail like this, fearing the sugar factor, but this was superb, with enough fruit and sweetness to lend a flavorful heft, but not so much as to make it cloying. The only thing that made me put this drink to the side was the arrival of the next one just a bit later.
Betony is not typically a Martini bar per se and rarely offers one on the cocktail menu. Though a classic Martini is always there for the asking, the menu is reserved for their own special concoctions. A new cocktail to their list was “The Socratic Oath,” which plays off of the special relationship that the ancient philosopher had with the poisonous, wild perennial plants. The coniferous hemlock tree, or Tsuga, shares the name of the poisonous Apiaceae family of plants thanks to a similarity of scent upon the crushing of the leaves and needles, but fortunately, that’s where the similarity ends. The Socratic Oath uses foraged coniferous hemlock as part of an infusion of Pineau des Charentes Blanc along with yarrow, angelica and other foraged herbs. which is combined with gin and poured into an absinthe washed glass. The presentation is elegant and beautiful, but it is the dry deliciousness of the crisp, cold cocktail that creates a contemporary classic.
Even though I wasn’t finishing the cocktails, this tasting was not going to go much farther without food to absorb some of the alcohol. When it arrived, my first thought was that it was another cocktail and why not? It was served in a cocktail glass and was a gelee. It turned out to not contain alcohol and was an amuse – one of the most delicious amuse bouches in memory! Deep and savory, but ethereally light, it was an intensely flavored mushroom gelee perfumed with fresh herbs and flowers. By itself, this was not going to be enough to absorb any significant alcohol, but it did enliven my palate and my anticipation for the food to come.
I did not need to wait long for the next dish. The Socratic Oath was still well chilled when a plate of Fluke Carpaccio with fresh, shelled sugar snap peas and mint was placed before me. Light and refreshing, this dish reflected the essence of late spring with pristine ingredients that played together like a well-rehearsed jazz trio.
While I was busy devouring the plate of raw treasures, Nicholas was busy crafting another cocktail. This one, called “Eat a Peach” is a spectacular representation of what elevates the Betony bar program far beyond the ordinary. It is creativity married with a complete attention to detail and process with a desire to do what it takes to make something both unique and delicious. For this cocktail, fresh peaches are juiced with the remaining pulp dehydrated into a dark, rich fruit leather, which is used to infuse white whiskey. In the meantime, the pits are baked, smashed and then extracted in the fruit leather steeped whiskey. This whiskey is then mixed with peach leaf tea, apricot liqueur and bourbon to create this extraordinary cocktail. The finishing touch is a slice of sugar soaked and lightly charred peach as a garnish.
The first of the full plates came to the table following the arrival of the sensational “Eat a Peach.” This was skate wing served with cucumbers dressed with a lime vinaigrette and dill fronds, a green curry sauce and coconut cream on the side. All of this was wonderfully delicious with great textures and a variety of bright complementary flavors, none of which overwhelmed the pristine wing. The element that catapulted this dish into the stratosphere though was the least intuitive one. Skate cartilage was dehydrated then flash fried until it puffed and crisped. Fabulously seasoned, this added jaw-dropping flavor and textural elements to this marvelous dish. Where have they been all my life?
The next thing to be served to me was soup – Stone Soup to be exact. This “soup” wasn’t part of the dinner or lunch menu, but it was part of the bar menu. Based on a children’s book of the same name, the concept is one of starting quite simply, adding additional elements until a measure of delicious complexity is achieved then admiring the wonderful nature of this simple “stone soup.” This particular version is built around Chivas Royal Salute 21, fino sherry, pipe tobacco and oleo saccharum, Batavia Arack and demerara sugar, creating a layered punch that is replenished from its spouted glass decanter in a solera-like mechanism. The stones, from Central Park, are, of course, the elements that get it all started and lends their name to the final “simple” yet truly delicious product.
Chef Bryce Shuman has made beef short ribs into a signature, and to my experience, nobody maximizes the ingredient better than he. The current version is deceptive in its simple title of Grilled Beef Shortrib with Lettuce and Potato. While I like beef shortribs, I would not typically order a dish described as such. Not doing so would have been a great mistake as the flavors of each component of this dish were individually and conjunctively as explosive as a Kentucky Derby favorite emerging from the starting gate. This preparation was as perfect as a dish centered around these ingredients (or any others) can get. I adored the skate dish, but somehow, this was even more sensational without any unusual, visible fireworks.
The Stone Soup was an excellent accompaniment to the shortrib. It is because of attention to all of the details that elevate that the product at Betony, both on the plate and in the glass, is so extraordinary. The beauty of the ice in this glass is a clear indication of that fact.
The savory part of my meal was concluding, but the cocktails and beverages kept coming. I like beer, but I don’t drink it often mostly because I prefer other beverages and to reduce my carb load. I do, however, enjoy them in cocktails on occasion with Eamon Rockey the first to have showed me their brilliance in a shandy that he prepared for me way back when he helped open Atera as their initial General Manager. He remains, in my mind, the undisputed heavyweight champion of this genre of cocktail. The cocktail I had following the shortrib incorporated three distinct beer elements – house made beer vinegar made from Allagash Black, a house made syrup made from the same beer and an IPA along with Cardamaro and lemon juice. It was thoroughly refreshing and delightful.
The beverages kept coming, even if only for little more than a guilt-laden sip – the guilt a result of not being able to give full justice to each and every cocktail and beverage. I have praised Betony’s brilliant Milk Punches before, but Eamon Rockey and his team have taken them to the next level by saving batches to age and, somehow, improve.
These “Reserve Milk Punch” cocktails are not cheap, but they are sublime. I tried the Bourbon with Pineapple and Ceylon Tea that had been crafted in November of 2015. This luscious beauty will also be on center stage shortly at the quickly upcoming Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
Though not a mixed cocktail per se, Betony offers a class of beverages that they have collected under the title, “Short Pours.” The White Rhum ” Stonefruit Rumtopf totally knocked my socks off. Made by storing the previous summer’s stone fruits in a large stoneware jar filled with white rhum and letting the combination blend and mature, it is traditionally the fruit that is subsequently served as a special holiday treat. The liquor, served here, carried with it the complex essence of summer. Through all of the remarkable cocktails and beverages I had already enjoyed and those still to come, this was perhaps, my favorite and the most difficult to let go of.
Another fabulous “Short Pour” that I tasted was the Aquavit based “Beet Pickleback.” Savory with a kick this was rich and satisfying.
Not all of the beverages I sampled were “hard.” Their house made tobacco kombucha was simply delightful and as delicious and healthy a way of indulging in tobacco as I can imagine.
Dessert was served and I could just taste each of the items on the plate, but each taste was savored. The plating was minimalist, but the flavors were excellent.
The final touch was a “Digestif Cocktail” called a “Bean Shooter” that featured local red beans (aka habichuelas in Dominican Spanish), coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, Guatemalan rum, finished with an amaretti cookie and tonka bean. Though the beverage was filled with plenty of sweet things, the flavor profile wasn’t overtly or cloyingly “sweet.” Instead, it was sweet in the same way that a spiced Mexican hot chocolate is sweet. It was well balanced, delicious and a delightful way to end an extraordinary dining and drinking experience.
Betony has become not only one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, but also one of my favorite cocktail bars anywhere. The cocktail program at Betony is not just great for a restaurant, it is great without the need for any qualification. The Betony team approaches all aspects of the restaurant with creative imagination, dedication, craft and passion that shows on the plate, in the glass and in the extremely satisfied expression on my face every time I leave there.
For these and more photos from this meal at Betony, please see my Flick’r Album.