Tag Archives: Joshua M. Bernstein

Announcing My Next Book: The Complete Beer Course

CBC_CoverComplete Beer Course is due out September 3.

It’s the best time in history to be a beer drinker. It’s also the most confusing time. Stroll into any craft-beer bar or beer distributor, and you’re forced to sift through a dizzying array of dozens, if not hundreds, of singular brews. A marketplace of overwhelming choice can lead to paralysis and settling for the same old, same old. Repetition can be comforting, which is why I always purchase the same pair of jeans at the department store.

Do not make the same mistake with craft beer, where curiosity rewards the intrepid imbiber. That’s the philosophy behind my newest book, The Complete Beer Course, in which I demystify beer, elementally breaking down the grains, yeast, hops, and techniques that cause beer’s flavor to spin into thousands of distinctively delicious directions.

After outfitting you with the tools to taste, smell, and evaluate brews, the book will lead you on a flavorful trek through the most critical styles of beer. Structured around a series of easy-to-follow classes, you’ll hop from lagers and pilsners to hazy wheat beers, Belgian-style abbey and Trappist ales, aromatic pale ales and bitter IPAs, roasty stouts, barrel-aged brews, belly-warming barley wines, and mouth-puckering sour ales. Through a sequence of suggested, targeted tastings, you’ll learn which flavors are appropriate, and which ones signify that you should dump those beers down a drain. Simply put, you’ll be able to walk into nearly every bottle store or bar in the world and, with confidence, order just about any beer in the coolers or on tap.

I’m incredibly proud of The Complete Beer Course, which has been a crazy labor of love for the last two years. My publisher, Sterling Epicure, will release my book this September. (It will be out a few months before my other baby—my first child—is due to be born. It’s going to be a crazy fall.) If you’d like to pre-order a copy at a discounted price, Amazon and Barnes & Noble already have my book on sale. 

New York on the Cheap

Do you trust me with knives?

As a child, when I came to New York City with my parents to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I loved nothing more than reading the Zagat guide. For an Ohio-reared boy such as myself, the guide provided a portal to a new, ever-more delicious universe packed with “great” “descriptions” of “unparalleled food” and “peerless service.” So, I consider myself super-lucky this week to have been able to contribute my two cents to Zagat’s inexpensive grub guide. I provided a daylong eating arc, focusing on breakfast, lunch and dinner done for dirt-cheap. What are your favorite inexpensive foods in the city?

NYC Homebrew Tour: January 22

Who is that doofus?

Hey, I’m leading another homebrew tour! This one takes place on January 22, and it’ll be a humdinger. Tons of great brewers, tons of great beer. To nab a spot, please visit Brown Paper Tickets.

Here’s the boilerplate write-up: Despite New York’s gnat-size apartments, NYC homebrewers refuse to let space limitations detract them from their mission: crafting some of the city’s tastiest beer. On this tour, you’ll venture inside the homes of three of the city’s finest amateur brewers, who will display their set-ups, discuss their craft and, most importantly, open up their stash of superlative beer. There will be several stops throughout the afternoon. Bring a Metrocard. And eat a big lunch.

P.S. We’ll be starting in the Bronx! New worlds! Easy subway access! I swear!

New York Press’ Gut Instinct: Junkie Love

It is true.

I know what it takes to keep my girlfriend from going crazy.

“I don’t go crazy,” she says.

I pause. This is a critical conversational juncture. One misspoken modifier, one unclear adjective could spell doom—or, more likely, a few days when our bedroom relations are as chilly as the North Pole.

“Hon, first thing in the morning, you need coffee. Without it, you become, well…” I trail off. Sometimes words are best unspoken, especially when they rhyme with itch.

“I like my coffee,” she says, getting defensive. Like is too weak. When ranking things she loves, I would list: me, our wonder mutt Sammy and coffee, not necessarily in the order. “I go to bed excited, because I know I can drink coffee in the morning,” she says. It’s the kind of language common to alcoholics, thirsting for that lovely a.m. bloom of warming, mood-brightening booze. Whether it’s alcohol, coffee or narcotics, that first fix is always the finest.

I know I’m the last person to judge an addiction. Sweet jelly beans, I’d need every finger and toe to count the number of times last month I awoke pants-less, head like a construction site, forced to crab across the ground in search of aspirin. But damn, my girlfriend’s a java junkie.

This has created interpersonal coffee wars to rival any minor Middle East skirmish. She usually rises before me, right after dawn cracks our bedroom window, in order to sneak in a morning run or a Sammy stroll. To fuel her active lifestyle, she requires inky java.

Solving this dilemma is simple: fill our metal French press with several fat scoops of dark-roasted Gorilla coffee or, more recently, beans from Brooklyn Heights bulk-food emporium Sahadi’s. Here, amid bins of cheap nuts and dried fruit, a pound of fine coffee—as black as beaches after the BP oil spill—runs as low as five smackers. At prices like these, anybody can become a caffeine fiend! Anybody!

Anyway, the problem is not cost. It’s quantity. Our French press only makes a bit more than two mugs of coffee. In a just world, we’d split the coffee even-steven. Half for you, half for me, makes a happy family. However, my girlfriend loves to drink from enormous vessels. Her water glass is a liter beer stein she filched from Astoria’s Bohemian Beer Garden. (“They have tons. They’ll never miss a glass,” she says, like a criminal angling for a score.)

Then there’s her coffee mug. It’s so big, several goldfish could spend an afternoon swimming around and never touch tails. Filling it requires nearly a full French press, leaving me a couple inches of grounds-strewn wake-up juice. “Just make more,” she says, her glasses merrily fogging with coffee steam. I get steamed. I could make more, but that’s not the point. It’s share and share alike. I try explaining this to her, but when you’re dealing with addicts, common sense doesn’t always make sense.

However, this inferno summer has thrown a crimp in our coffee consumption. Thanks to the mercury topping triple digits, drinking hot-brewed coffee has become a kind of torture the CIA could support. The solution is iced coffee. But I’m a cheap, cheap bastard. The thought of blowing two or three dollars a day on iced coffee is as unpleasant as a proctology exam. I started researching the most cost-effective way to craft iced coffee, stumbling across a website touting the cold-water Filtron system.

“With the Filtron, you’ll see, smell and taste a cup of coffee that’s beyond compare,” the ad copy touted. More appealing: the picture of a milk bottle–size carafe containing dark, concentrated coffee, enough to make 45 or 50 normal cups of java. I saw our coffee wars dissolving like Kool-Aid in water. I bought Filtron. I followed instructions. I made cold-brewed coffee possessing an unparalleled richness, with a smooth character and nary an iota of oily acidity. In the words of the copywriter, it was beyond compare.

I tested it out on my harshest critic, giving her a full cup mixed with sugar and milk. “How is it?” I asked, watching her slurp. She slurped some more. Then she slurped even more, draining the tan potion until only droplets remained.

“It’s perfect,” she said, smiling with beige-tinted teeth. “Can I have some more?”

“Of course,” I answered, filling her cup to the brim with black love.

Read—and vote for—the original column at the Press’ site.

New York Press’ Gut Instinct: Get Shorted

It is true.

It was an oven-like afternoon at Coney Island, and hell had seemingly frozen over.

“I have $40 toward the first round of tortas and huraches,” my friend Matt said.

“What’d you just say?” I asked. It was my 32nd birthday party, and perhaps my advanced age had caused sudden hearing loss. Or maybe it was the copious intake of Coors Light at the beach.

“I have $40 for Mexican food,” he repeated. Color me confused. As charter members of the Cheap Bastard Club, Matt and I like to play an unofficial game we call “out-Jewing.” This penny-pinching diversion is miserly fun for everyone! How’s it work? Well, let’s say you split a couple orders of spicy noodles at X’ian Famous Foods, chased by several cumin-spiked lamb burgers. The bill is $13—$6.50 apiece. the winner would give $6, thereby saving 50 cents. Sure, it’s a small sum, but it’s a big victory for a cheap bastard.

For example, last week at Spuyten Duyvil I mistakenly ordered a round for Matt and myself. I bought Stillwater Stateside saison, made with wine-esque Nelson Sauvin hops, while Matt requested a summery ale from Greenport Harbor. His cost $6. He gave me six dollar bills, as wrinkled as dishpan hands. “what about the tip?” I wondered, as he wandered out of earshot. My cold beer was little consolation to the additional cost.

But now, Matt had a change of fiscal heart. Perhaps he’d won the lottery, or his grandparents had sent him a check for his birthday. Oh, how I loved when my grandparents sent me those $50 checks. For a moment, I’d feel wildly wealthy, like scrooge McDuck diving into his money bin.

“Thanks for the birthday food, Matt,” I said, genuinely touched.

He paused for a beat. “That’s money from last night.”

The previous eve, 19 of us dined at my favorite Caribbean restaurant, The Islands. As if the luscious, coconut-creamy calypso shrimp and lip-singeing jerk chicken are not lure enough, the Islands is also BYOB. You can dine and imbibe in the tree house–like upstairs for hours, not worrying that each beer will add $6 or $8 to a tab—the costly bane of every restaurant birthday dinner.

When the check arrived, the bill neatly broke down to $20 a person, tip included. That was a teensy sum for a three-hour bacchanal. Everyone anted up an Andrew Jackson. I gathered my bag, ready to waddle home. “Hold on,” Matt said. “We’re short $40.”

“Who didn’t pay?” I said.

“Don’t worry, baby,” my girlfriend said, soothing my inner indignant beast. “It’s your birthday. We’ll take care of it.” Five-dollar bills were passed forward, and soon the deficit was a thing of that past. Still, it left a bitter taste in my mouth—or maybe that was just acid reflux, from three too many five-alarm chicken wings.

But the beauty of the digestive system is that no matter how much you overindulge, you’ll be ravenous again. By the next afternoon, I was hungering for huge tortas from Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave. betw. W. 14th & W. 15 Sts., 718-265-0675). Planted a couple blocks from the Coney beach, the teensy Mexican storefront serves skyscraping sandwiches piled with avocado, stringy Oaxacan cheese, refried beans and your favorite flesh. I like spicy carne enchilada best, but juicy al pastor is equally excellent. at $5 apiece, they’re the best boardwalk-area bargain—and my cheapskate-in-arms was going to buy me one! It was too good to be true. It was.

“I forgot that I had $40 in my pocket last night,” he admitted, his cheeks reddened by sun and slight embarrassment.

I was just tipsy enough to be incensed.

“You overcharged everybody!”

“They just paid it forward,” he said.

“Now, what do you want to eat?”

“Carne enchilada,” I said. We called Alex and, in Coors Light–accented Spanish, placed our order. Matt abandoned the beach to retrieve our food, returning with arm-straining bags of grease-stained pleasure. I bit into my torta, relishing the piquant pork, creamy avocado, zippy salsa verde. It was perfect fuel to survive another four hours basking in the celebratory sun.

“How is it?” Matt asked.

“Tastes like a million bucks,” I replied, wiping grease from my lips, “or maybe just 40.”

Read—and vote for—the original column at the Press’ site.

New York Press’ Gut Instinct: Condiments to the Chef

Unappealing poster, yet awesome.

For this committed carnivore, watching the deli dude slice the soft, rose-hued corned beef was a lot like ogling lesbian porn. My pulse quickened, pupils dilated, sweat slicked my brow. I reached deep into my pants and pulled out my fat, bulging… wallet.

Damn, David’s Brisket House (533 Nostrand Ave. betw. Herkimer St. & Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, 718-783-6109), you drive me crazy. For a half decade, I’ve been hitting this first-rate Jewish deli, which soldiers on in Caribbean Bed-Stuy like a reminder of an earlier, yarmulkewearing era. David is long gone, replaced by Muslim ownership. It sounds like a Borscht Belt joke (“A Jew and a Muslim walk into a deli…”), but it’s all kosher. Muslims are stricken from feasting on swine. Luckily, cows are the building blocks of David’s daily made corned beef, pastrami and brisket. Briny, tender, fatty, peppery, savory—name the adjective, it’s applicable. Hell, if you cinch your eyes and whistle a klezmer tune, you might envision that the meaty masterminds are men named Abe and Moe.

Today, I’ve taken my friend Dave to David’s. It was his virgin voyage. He ordered corned beef. Me, brisket. We watched rapturously as the counterman built our sandwiches to Empire State heights. Bread? Rye. Mustard? Yes. Mayo? Mayo?!

I gasped. Dave, a native West Coaster, nodded. “Yes, please,” he said, words that made me reevaluate our friendship. “No mayo, only mustard,” I said, changing his order. “You have so much to learn about condiments,” I said, keeping eagle eyes on the sandwich to ensure only brown mustard marred the pink flesh.

I have no hard feelings about mayo.

In fact, the creamy condiment is the reason I even have a girlfriend. About five years ago, my friends and I ganged up for the Idiotarod, a shopping-cart race in which drunk humans act as sled dogs. Our team was the Mayo Clinic, and we were despised. That’s because we flung mayonnaise willy-nilly, coating contestants’ carts, clothes and hair with Hellmann’s. It was terrible—and terribly hilarious.

A few weeks later, I was dining at Pacifico after a Jonathan Ames reading. Across from me sat a couple of girls, one blond, one brunette, discussing the Idiotarod. “Hey, I did that too,” I said, trying my hand at dinner conversation.

“Oh, what was your team?” the blond asked, batting her blue eyes.

“We were the Mayo Clinic.” “We hated you,” she said. And that, dear readers, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

But while mayo has brought me love, it brings little to sandwiches. It’s little more than a lubricant, the K-Y Jelly of the condiment world. If moisture is needed, give me a splash of olive oil, or maybe mustard. Ketchup? Keep it. I learned my lesson long ago.

I must’ve been around 10 or 11, in New York for the third or fourth time. My family and I were visiting my grandparents, who lived in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Hunger hit. We stopped at a hot dog shop, and my parents sent me in to secure the frankfurters. Big man! Big man in a big city! I ordered griddle-crisped dogs, then painted narrow, ruler-precise stripes of ketchup. I brought the wieners outside. My parents looked at me as if I presented them dog shit on a bun.

“You can’t have ketchup on a hot dog,” my dad said. I was confused. Every kid in my suburban-Ohio elementary school coated hot dogs in Heinz 57. “Ketchup goes on a hamburger,” my dad instructed, “while you can only have mustard on a hot dog.” He sent me back inside to remove the tomato-based topping and replace it with a lonely yellow streak. It was embarrassing. It was instructive.

“I don’t remember that happening,” my dad will doubtlessly complain after reading this column. He often says that. But as a doctor, he should remember that though he can’t recall every incision, his patients remember every scar.

But hey, save your hankies and psychotherapy for someone else. Matters of taste are as much a product of nurture as nature. Who would I be if I didn’t grow up smearing mustard on Hebrew National hot dogs? Or if meatloaf decorated our dinner tables instead of fiery Thai curries and stir-fries with tofu and fermented black beans? I eat, therefore I am.

As for the case of Dave at David’s Brisket, his empty plate told me he didn’t miss mayo too much.

Read—and vote for—the original article at New York Press’ site.

Porterhouses’ Wrasslers XXXX Stout – Beer of the Week

Frothy!

Well, chickadees, I wrote about this stout last week, when the temperatures had dropped into the bone-numbing 40s. But today? The mercury will make its way to 80, meaning that drinking a stout is as smart as stepping into a sauna come August. Or some other mixed metaphor. But anyhoo, what can you do. This week, I turn my liver’s attention to Wrasslers XXXX, a lovely stout hailing from Ireland. Bitter and full-bodied, this beauty kicks Guinness to the curb. Don’t believe me? Take a gander over at Slashfood. Drink it up!

Homebrew Tour, Take Five: May 22

Hey, hey, thirsty New Yorkers. So, on Saturday, May 22, at 1pm, I’m going to be leading another homebrew, this time spanning Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn. We’ll savor the joys and tribulations of homebrewing in Brooklyn’s gnat-size apartments–without compromising taste. We’ll venture inside the homes of the city’s finest amateur brewers, see their set-ups, discuss their craft and, most importantly, sample from their stashes of superlative beer.

Cost: just $25, baby, for enough beer to make you talk funny. If you’re interested, e-mail me at: josh.bernstein AT gmail.com. Tickets are going quick!

Gut Instinct: Bottoms Up

219651343_bc17e7d5bdThirst be gone!

My greatest asset is my gullet. Despite my horse-jockey height, my gullet is long and elastic, permitting me to swallow ponds and streams in one breathless gulp. It’s like discovering a Wizard of Oz munchkin is hung like Dirk Diggler.

I unlocked my throat’s secrets during college, when my roommate Geoff devised a drinking contest based upon a baseball videogame’s homerun-derby feature. If you smacked two consecutive long balls, your competitor drank for two seconds. Three dingers equaled three seconds of consumption, and so on. But if a round-tripper landed in a predetermined locale—say, the bullpen— your competitor finished his 40-ouncer.

“One Phat Boy, going down!” my roommate Geoff would scream, pointing at my malt liquor that incorporated ginseng—zero health benefits, 100 percent hangover. I’d disappear the swill then grab the controller, smacking homeruns as drunkenly as Babe Ruth once did.

My gullet once again proved its handiness during last week’s voyage across China. See, the People’s Republic plays the world’s most dangerous drinking game: “gan bei,” roughly translated to “bottoms up.” At bureaucratic and businessmen banquets, glasses are filled with beer, wine or bai jiu—a raw, vicious grain liquor that makes moonshine taste like sweet tea.“Gan bei!” the meal’s host will call, meaning everyone must empty their vessels and display them for inspection. Refusing to drink is disrespectful; drinking as much as a frat pledge is applauded. China is a country where an alcoholic could feel right at home.

I knew of the dangers before I boarded my Air China flight to Beijing, embarking on an 11-day, government-sponsored trip across China—seriously. But I sidestepped disaster as I bounced from frenetic Shanghai to seafaring Yantai to bike-friendly Hangzhou. My lucky-liver streak ended in Qingdao, a mountainous Yellow Sea city better known as Tsingtao, the birthplace of America’s favorite beer to accompany General Tso’s chicken. You won’t find such gloppy abominations in this beachy town: Culinary Qingdao traffics in fried, braised, seafood-focused cuisine that’s by turns salty and savory, with an emphasis on soy sauce, peanuts and peppers.

In Flushing, Qingdao eats are available at bright, friendly M&T (44-09 Kissena Blvd., betw. Cherry & Elder Aves., Queens, 718-539- 3398). Customers share $10 pitchers of beer alongside crispy ribs coated in shrimp paste and golden-fried fish strewn with peanuts and addictively crunchy hot peppers.

It was a good primer for dinner in our secluded dining room—a circular table filled with my six traveling companions, a local guide and three bureaucrats of varying importance, including the host, the local head of tourism. A lazy Susan was loaded with plates of tangy and flaky white fish, cartilage-crunchy sea cucumbers swimming in a minced-swine sauce and heaps of crunchy pork nibs awash in a red capsaicin ocean. I was a chili head in heaven. Hell was around the corner.

“Josh,” my translator began, motioning to the host, “he has heard you write about beer and alcohol. He would like you to drink bai jiu.”

“Can we stick to beer?” I gulped my golden Tsingtao.

“The bai jiu, it is for special occasions,” she said.

“How strong is it?” “Seventy-two degrees.” “Which is… ” “About… 145 proof.”

“Line them up,” I said, eager to make America proud. Fleet-footed waiters filled our glasses as quickly as I typed this sentence. A toast was said, the gist of which was,“We are glad to have you visit our town and vomit in our bathrooms.” Then the host hoisted his glass—sloshing white liquid smelling of unleaded gasoline—and said the words that consign so many businessmen to cirrhosis: “Gan bei!” His shot vanished like a mirage. I brought the glass to my lips and, relaxing my most reliable body part, dumped bai jiu down the hatch. It was like turning a hairdryer on my intestines. I displayed my upside-down glass, a sole drop falling onto the tablecloth like a tear. The Chinese contingent golf-clapped, as if I’d just sunk a particularly difficult putt.The waiters filled our glasses again. “Gan bei!” the host toasted. Our shots visited our respective bellies.We switched to beer, then to wine, then back to bai jiu—who knew being a Chinese bureaucrat was so fun?

Though my gullet was indomitable, my bladder was not. I excused myself to the bathroom, nearly turning my red shoes yellow and wet. Back at the table, more bai jiu awaited. I grabbed a glass.The host guffawed.

“He says you can drink well,” my translator explained. “But you should never be the first person to go to the bathroom.”

Gut Instinct: For Shame

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When I was young, with a liver that performed like a Lamborghini and employment as the world’s surliest receptionist, I adored open bars. I’d spend workdays alternating between misdirecting phone calls and scouring Craigslist for freebie offerings—say, unlimited Bud at Lit Lounge or vodka tonics at Blue Owl, a Wednesday standby that endures today.

Free-drink deals felt like alcoholic welfare. I could continue my collegiate revelry without emptying my bank account like swimming pools come September. Night in, night out, I’d shoehorn into bars, waving my wrinkled dollar bills like flags to attract the overworked bartender’s eyes.

“Four drinks,” I’d say, batting my hazel eyes like a weathered starlet pretending to be an innocent teen.

“All for you?” the bartender would reply.

“For my….friends,” I’d say, motioning to the massed inebriants, as decorous as soccer hooligans.

When I had my fill, which is to say when the drinks ceased to be free, I’d lurch away on legs as steady as a newborn calves’. My brain would be as blank as a reformatted hard drive, driven by a simple, fallible operating system: Go home. Eat cheap food. Since I largely roamed the East Village, my feed station was Bagel Café/Ray’s Pizza (2 St. Marks Pl. at Third Ave., 212-533-6656), where I’d opt for the Sicilian slice. It was as fluffy as a pillow and as big as Tyra Banks’ forehead.Whether it was a placebo, like Prozac, or an actual cure-all, I believed the dough bomb sobered me up for the train home.The slice, I imagined, prevented me from conking out and awaking in the underground hinterlands, my pockets cut and my Velcro wallet as missing as a milk-carton kid.

Devouring the “head slice,” as Ray’s Sicilian came to be known, was a formative New York experience. Sure, it was bland and dry, the cheese like spackle, but it was our $2 tradition. Mention it to Aaron, Andrew, Steve or any character inhabiting my ecosystem, and they’ll grin broadly.Then they’ll groan and shake their heads: the regretful remembrance of consuming shame food. Shame food is as multifaceted as

Magic the Gathering dice. It could mean ravaging a 99-cent bag of bodega-bought sour-cream-and-onion Utz potato chips. Or ditching your locavore leanings for a Big Mac, chased by Middle Eastern street meat painted with yellow-tinged “white sauce.” Buying shame food is naughty and regrettable, a tequila-fueled dalliance with an ex.

You should know better, but some urges are just too strong to resist. Like open bars.

Welcome to two weeks ago. I swung by rustic rathskeller, Jimmy’s No. 43 (43 E. 7th St. betw. First & Second Aves., 212-982- 3006), to scope out a weekly event featuring sustainable, locally harvested oysters, such as Long Island Peconic Pearls and Connecticut Mystics. Fancy, yes, but I possessed a press pass. (I occasionally don pants and imitate a journalist.) But upon arriving at the antler-decorated tavern, every bivalve had been shucked and slurped. Instead I took a liquid repast in the form of Green Flash’s bitter IPA and Climax’s smooth, bright Hoffman Helles.

By 10 p.m., I was buzzard prey. I lurched to the subway, dumbly bypassing Ray’s and taking the train to Brooklyn’s

Franklin Avenue.When the witching hour draws close, my Crown Heights neighborhood is a dead zone of deliciousness.

There’s bulletproof-glass Chinese food and bulletproof-glass fried chicken. I opted for the latter at McKing’s (790 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn, No phone).

Its specialty is shame food, especially popcorn chicken served with matchstick fries.The combo costs $4.99.When alcohol has weakened me like Kryptonite, I lack the willpower to fight off the fowl lure. “I wan’ tha’ one,” I told the bored counterman. I pointed at the lurid picture of popcorn chicken.The golden orbs were round as vending machine bouncy balls.

What chicken parts create such circular flesh, I wondered, as my factory-farmed chicken and fries gurgled and crackled in the deep fryer. Ding, the timer binged— dinner served in a paper box. Outside, I crammed dubious meat between my molars. It was chewy as gum, tasting of old grease and tomorrow’s remorse.When I reached my house four blocks later, the box was crumbs and Rorschach oil blots. I clodded upstairs and embraced my girlfriend. She kissed me hello, once again thankful I hadn’t fallen into a ditch.

“Why does your breath smell like grease?” she asked, recoiling from my slick kisser.

“Sumpin’ I ate,” I muttered, stifling both my burp and the truth.

Gut Instinct: A (Green) Fairy Tale

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I first met the green fairy in damp, gray August 1998. That summer, my pal Andrew and I lived in grimy north London. We shared a two-floor flat with chain-smoking Aussies who chugged cheap champagne and obsessively played Jenga. Andrew was an office lackey; I slogged at the Great American Bagel Factory.

“Do you really want a Marmite-and-butter bagel?” I’d query customers hell-bent on that salty, sticky yeast spread. “How about peanut butter and jelly?”

“I’d rather lick your bum,” snarled one patron, snatching his buttery plain bagel. Was my rump really preferable to creamy Jif?

“We’re not in the States, Josh,” chided my pot-bellied boss, who likely hired me because my American Jewry lent his company street cred. “Peanut butter and jelly is a load of tosh. Stop pushing it.”

I did. By quitting. Andrew and I then purchased Eurail train passes and hit Amsterdam, where we slept in a park frequented by bike-riding drug dealers. During Buñol, Spain’s La Tomatina festival, we flung ripe tomatoes at strangers. And in gothic Prague, we drank crisp Pilsner Urquell and absinthe.

“This is what the fuss is all about?” I said, shaking my scruffily bearded head at the grass-colored liquor—Jägermeister infused with wildflowers and licorice. It was as disappointing as losing your virginity and realizing you preferred dry-humping a pillow. Absinthe was hyped-up hooey, the 100-proof equivalent of Miley Cyrus. So what if Van Gogh hacked off his ear under absinthe’s hallucinogenic grip—drink enough raspberry Mad Dog and you’d lop off an appendage too.

Nonetheless, absinthe’s brain-addling rep hastened its doom. “It leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse,” wailed early 1900s French temperance leader Henri Schmidt. “It is truly madness in a bottle.” Schmidt and fellow killjoys spearheaded absinthe’s ban. By 1912, absinthe was also barred in America, making the liquor as unobtainable as affordable health care.

A lucrative booze is hard to suppress forever. Last year, absinthe gained legality; spirits companies minimized the presence of FDA-banned thujone, a psychoactive drug present in minute quantities in wormwood (a key ingredient). Of course, you’d need to slurp an absinthe pond to hallucinate, but our nanny-state government ain’t much for common sense.

I decided to give the green fairy another go-round. I started small, sampling the absinthe-rinsed rye Sazeracs at white-tiled cocktail repository Weather Up (589 Vanderbilt Ave. betw. Bergen & Dean Sts., no phone; B’klyn). Then I hit wood- and marble-drenched Clover Club (210 Smith St. betw. Baltic & Butler Sts., 718-855-7939; B’klyn) to sample the wondrous Improved Whiskey Cocktail: An icy glacier anchors a fragrant sea of rye, bitters, maraschino liqueur and absinthe. It’s both strapping and gentle, a smack with a goose-down pillow.

I saw absinthe in a new light. It wasn’t a rock-star frontman, but an axe-wielding sidekick—Slash! Keith Richards! And it’s never wise to let sidekicks steal the limelight, I was reminded one eve at Chinatown’s White Star (21 Essex St. betw. Canal & Hester Sts., 212-995-5464). Sasha Petraske, the cocktail maven behind Milk and Honey, opened White Star in the former King Size. It was a wink-wink name for a rail-thin hip-hop hangout drenched with graffiti murals and chest-rattling bass. Petraske added dim Moroccan lanterns (they provide the bar’s name), lowered the easy-listening beats and installed vest-clad barkeeps and a draconian drinks policy: only beers, wines and straight-up spirits, chiefly absinthe.

A lesser owner riding a one-trick pony would quickly go bankrupt—hey, let’s open a hookah bar!—however, Petraske possesses magic pixie dust. He convinces customers to pay double digits for drinks and crave absinthe like it’s the first cup of morning coffee.

“Four Kübler absinthes, please,” orders a gentleman with side-parted hair. Ah, Kübler—the Swiss brand as colorless as my chest come December. I nabbed one too. And waited. And waited. Petraske traffics in slug-slow absinthe pageantry, with a chilled-water drip dissolving a sugar cube into the aromatic spirit. It’s lovely to observe when you’re nursing a full drink but as irritating as too-tight underwear when stone sober.
“Your absinthe, sir,” the bartender announced 10 minutes later.

I grabbed the cool glass, greedy and eager, and brought it my cracked lips. The first milky swallow was sweet and licorice-like, my tongue numbing like a trip to the dentist. The second sip revealed more sugar, more anise—ad nauseam, add nausea. Absinthe is a novelty, a pulse-quickening thrill ride for the pseudo-adventurous. What sugar-mad alcoholic ever drank enough absinthe to go nuts? I’d have to be crazy to order another round.

Gut Insintct: Bikini Kill Me


Here’s the wrong way to inform your girlfriend you’re visiting a bikini bar.

“Baby, I’m throbbing with curiosity.”

“Wrong choice of words,” she replies.

“Pulsating with intrigue?”

“Wasn’t that topless breakfast enough?”
Recently in Montreal, I ate runny eggs at a dingy diner where waitresses bared their boobies and poured burnt coffee.

“That was in a foreign country. It doesn’t count.” While traveling, I believe vacationers are allowed licentious leeway. That would handily explain Thailand’s thriving ladyboy trade.

“Fine,” she says. “Just don’t come home late.”

No problem, captain. I prefer happy hour, pigeonholing weekday drunkenness into a tidy 6–10 p.m. slot. It’s time enough to transform into a slurring heap and snag a seven-hour siesta. I’m a smart adult!

So at 6 p.m. one late-summer eve, I stroll down randy Eighth Avenue. Sandwiched between buff Chelsea and turista Times Square, the sleaze zone is primed with squalid gaming dens that draw construction workers, low-rent office toilers and beefy Madison Square Garden–goers. I’ve sucked many a Miller at daytime-boozer dive Walter’s Bar (389 Eighth Ave. betw. 29th & 30th Sts., 212-502-4023), whose slogan is “We are a place to get drunk!” But the blue ribbon for sordidness goes to Deno’s Party House USA (393 Eighth Ave. betw. 29th & 30th Sts., 212-695-1814).

“Why, Josh? Why?” my friend Aaron wonders. We’re standing outside Deno’s, aka Bikini Bar. A row of plants prevents prying eyes from peeping inside.

“Because we’re bikini-bar investigators,” I explain. In the holy name of research, we’ve partaken of pizza parlor–cum–grind hall Cordato’s Deli (94 1/2 Greenwich St. at Rector St., 212-233-1573). And seaman hangout Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge (200 Flushing Ave. at Washington Ave., B’klyn; no phone). Oh, and Port 41 (355 W. 41st St. betw. 8th & 9th Aves., 212-947-1188), where skanky gals serve free franks. Bikini bars, I’ve deduced, are classier than a cubic zirconium wedding ring.

But here’s my hypothesis: Does pseudo-nudity portend a Puritanical streak, an enduring Giuliani hangover? No show vajayjay, but you wear a seventh-grader’s string bikini. Nah. Entrepreneurs are exploiting a salacious loophole—by keeping ’tenders and servers “attired,” they can sell spirits, beer and grub. Hello, Hawaiian Tropic Zone bikini contest.

“At least there’s no cover,” I tell Aaron as we enter Deno’s and sit beside men with sunken eyes and perspiring Buds. We grab potato chips and a bathing beauty’s attention. She sidles over, belly ring reflecting red neon. Her smile reveals Chiclet teeth with a field-goal gap.

“You want beer?” she asks, her Russian accent thick as borscht. My heavens, is Deno’s staffed by mail-order bartenders?

I inquire about happy hour. No happy hour. Three-buck Buds are only available until 4:30 p.m. Least. Happy. Hour. Ever. Since cocktails cost $9, and Amstel Lights run $7, we order $6 Bud pints. They’re brimming with golden joy. Less joyful are the half-dozen swimsuit sweethearts, half-heartedly shimmying to piercing pop. The scene is less erotic than a proctologist’s appointment.

“Though it’s sketchy, it’s still safe—sort of,” Aaron says, pointing to a duct-taped security camera. The broken equipment is an urban scarecrow to deter the twitchy men, who glare at fellow scabrous bar-goers. Smiles are scarce. Cocktails are consumed like water. Why do breasts always signal danger? Like bumblebee’s yellow-and-black coloration, areolas must be nature’s method of saying, Stay away from here, wussy boy!

Because the music inhibits conversation—louder does not equal better—Aaron and I order a second round. “You like…shots?” the bartender asks, smiling. Please marry me and rescue me, whispers her body language. She leans over the bar, demonstrating how underwire defeats gravity. No, no shots tonight. Her shoulders slump. I could’ve told her I’m no savior.

In the abstract, I’m stoked that dirt holes like Deno’s exist. New York City needs more sleaze, fewer condos and nail salons. But not all grubby establishments are created equal: There’s good sleaze (Mars Bar, Welcome to the Johnsons) and bad sleaze (Big Easy, Cheap Shots). There’s a certain je nais sais quoi to sleazy bars, an ineffably gritty trait born of whiskey, vomit, rock and roll and 3 a.m. mistakes—not pert Russian ta-tas and too-expensive brew.

“More beer?” the waitress inquires, as we drain our pints in a Usain Bolt instant.

“Yes,” I reply, “but no, not here.” We then decamp for Holland Bar, Dave’s Tavern and other murky alehouses where clothing is required.