Like my father before me, I am a creature of habit. Especially when it comes to dining out. I prefer to keep a handful of haunts in heavy rotation rather than race to have my ticket punched at the latest, must-try spot. And if it’s Friday night you’re likely to find me at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you probably already know this as I have a (surely annoying) habit of checking in with a choice lyric from whatever song might be be blasting from the speakers as I settle in. Sometimes it’s utterly random but, being a sentimental sort, you can’t discount synchronicity. Pull up a stool and you might hear the Pixies’ “Debaser,” the Stones’ “Shattered,” Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” or Pulp’s “Common People.” And since this is a David Chang restaurant you can count on at least one Pavement song per half-hour. So if I’m on a date or feeling particularly wistful when “Spit on a Stranger” comes on, I hope you’ll cut me some slack if Stephen Malkmus singing “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch / and we’re a perfect match” makes it seem like the movie of my life is being backed by a killer soundtrack.
One late night this summer I was sitting across from Ssäm Bar’s John McEnroe Shrine, the framed painting of McEnroe that stands sentry over the bottles of brown whiskey and amari. The picture represents six different McEnroes: five smaller action shots orbit around a grinning portrait of the man in his tennis whites. (Note: This is not to be confused with the oversized framed Nike poster of McEnroe that hangs on the wall opposite the bar.) And depending on how long you sit across from the McEnroe Shrine (and how many drinks you knock back) that portrait can possess an angel/devil-on-your-shoulder quality. The grin might be interpreted as a reassuring smirk, warning “I think you’ve had enough tonight, buddy. Let’s get back to Brooklyn,” then quickly morph into a mocking sneer, “Man up, brother. It’s Friday—another Pappy Van Winkle isn’t going to kill you!” As I was finishing the last OB of the night the fellow next to me gave a quick survey of the room. He then motioned with his chopsticks to the McEnroe portrait and asked, “So, what’s the deal with McEnroe here?” Without looking up from my beer, I volleyed back: “Spirit animal.” He nodded, instantly getting it.
More on McEnroe from my 2009 interview with Dave and his Momofuku co-writer and partner-in-crime, Peter Meehan.
BTP: Your restaurants are pretty boisterous and filled with a great energy but the design aesthetics are pretty austere. Each place has a simple decoration—a photograph of the Band at Noodle Bar, John McEnroe at Ssäm Bar. What’s the story behind those particular images and what they mean to you and the energy of the restaurant?
Chang: Everyone thought that we had this minimalist approach because we wanted to convey something about our food, about our aesthetics. But, as usual, it was a simple answer: we had no money. When you have no money you can’t really decorate anything. The first version of Momofuku we literally had nothing, there was nothing on the walls.
Meehan: That Tsukiji poster in the bathroom…
Chang: I stole a poster from Tsukiji fish market in broad daylight in Tokyo.
Meehan: It was of a sushi chef with a lazy eye—
Chang: No, it’s not a sushi chef. He’s a famous comedian from Osaka… with a lazy eye. I remember jumping up on a trash can and ripping it down and nobody really caring what I was doing.
Meehan: Oh, that’s good, I didn’t realize it was all stolen art. And the McEnroe poster—
Chang: Peter Lano, my good friend Luka Lano’s older brother, moved to Switzerland—he and his friend stole it off the side of a bus stop in 1984. It had been passed down to Luka. When we were figuring out Ssäm Bar and in the initial days of construction really my only concern was where can we put John McEnroe? I wasn’t concerned really about anything else. I was infatuated with this big giant lifesize poster of John McEnroe and that was pretty much it.
Meehan: But you later followed it up with an additional John McEnroe poster.
Chang: That was because John McEnroe’s dad called and he gave us a bunch of stuff—John McEnroe, Sr.
BTP: So do you have a particular affinity for that particular poster or the man himself?
Chang: Both. But that poster’s amazing, just because it’s totally, utterly random. But also because McEnroe’s ridiculously hilarious.
Below: It takes more than one photographer to distract McEnroe from his game. Ed Anderson sizing up an old-fashioned on Day One of the photo shoot for Bitters.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
And in the far corner of the restaurant, near the pass, you’ll find another framed poster that completes the John McEnroe Ssäm Bar Spirit Animal Trilogy. Cast in a haze of early-80′s purple, McEnroe—in jeans and a leather jacket, clutching two wooden Dunlop rackets—slouches in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers standing tall across the East River. The whole violet twilight tableau lands on the line of equal parts Cocktail one-sheet and the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Bright Lights, Big City. And it’s a thing to behold.
When I was considering an epigraph for Bitters I quickly rejected using the much-referenced 1806 definition of the word cocktail (“…a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…”) and instead went with two inscriptions that, for me, capture the spirit of the book. The first was the classic SAT analogy, “Salt is to food as bitters are to [blank]…,” which I nicked from Kurt B. Reighley’s The United States of Americana, and the second was a lyric from Pavement’s “Gold Soundz”: “So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like…”
At first it felt a little high-school yearbook quote of me to use a song lyric. (In the time capsule that is my own high-school senior yearbook you’ll find tombstone-worthy classic-rock quotes from The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Seger along with deep thoughts from of-the-era artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, and Howard Jones.)
I also remember a reading in a college poetry class where a tortured theatre major friend of mine, who was mid-gear between his Jack Kerouac and James Dean phase, took to the podium and solemnly presented the lyrics of U2′s “Running to Stand Still.” I fought back a church giggle when after he finished reading he bowed his head in reverence and attributed his work to “Bono and The Edge.” The professor stared at him a for beat then offered, “Next time why don’t you bring in some Percy Bysshe Shelley.”
A song lyric may be shorthand to conveying a mood or emotion but that’s exactly why so many people can connect with and recite Bruce Springsteen rather than Randall Jarrell—but it’s also about how one interprets it. A while back I e-mailed my dear friend Tom Nissley some pages from the front matter of Bitters (the Tipsy Nissley cocktail in the book is in honor of him) and he was kind enough to write on his blog that the “photographic dedication page to his dad may be the most endearing I’ve seen since Franny and Zooey” and complimented the design and layout—”even the creepy Pavement quote.” Creepy Pavement quote? How could Tom misread a spirited ode to late-summer nostalgia as a sloppy drunk guy hitting on a girl?
Pitchfork put “Gold Soundz,” the second single from 1994′s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, at the top of their mammoth 200 Greatest Songs of the 1990s list. In Pitchfork’s coronation of the song they describe it as “tinged with nostalgia” and say “It sounded like a memory in the best possible way.”
The scope of this brief 2:40 minute song is heartbreaking and often inspires an immediate repeat listen, especially after that jangly, hang-your-head-out-the-car-door-window guitar break eases into the verse at hand:
So drunk in the August sun And you’re the kind of girl I like Because you’re empty, and I’m empty And you can never quarantine the past
Granted, having the word “drunk” in the opening pages of a book on cocktails doesn’t exactly come across as “please drink responsibly,” but for me it’s not about the booze, but the aching hangover of nostalgia with a hint of promise that things will be okay. I listened to Pavement an awful lot while writing Bitters and they continue to be in heavy rotation on my iPhone during my morning commute. And while I did my best to avoid pun-filled names for the original drinks in the book, I did approach the drink selection like I was assembling a mix-tape and there’s more than a handful of cocktails inspired by song titles from Pavement, Bowie, Yo La Tengo, and the Velvet Underground.
As Pavement fans know, their videos were far from groundbreaking and definitely put the low in lo-fi. The official video for “Gold Soundz” is an odd account of the band dressed in Santa Claus suits frolicking around an Irvine, California, office park and features bows and arrows, a water fountain, a convertible, and a raw chicken.
August is ticking away, so whether drunk on nostalgia or a stiff bitters-soaked cocktail, enjoy the August sun while it lasts. Here’s Pavement rocking “Gold Soundz” from a 1999 Seattle gig at the Showbox.
Last Friday I caught a late afternoon matinee of Crazy Stupid Love. Much of the action takes place at a slick pick-up joint of a bar, where Ryan Gosling’s Jacob prowls the room looking for a new conquest using his closer, “Let’s get out of here.” While Jacob always has a timeless old-fashioned in his hand, Steve Carell’s sad sack Cal nurses an emasculating vodka and cranberry through a skinny straw. (On straws in alcoholic drinks: unless it’s a tropical drink or a mint julep, whose intentionally short straw serves as a lure to get your nose closer to the aromatic bouquet of mint garnish, I do think a gentleman should part ways with the straw.)
But in addition to the dialogue on the screen I was treated to two hours of not-so sotto voce back and forth between the elderly couple seated directly behind me as the gentleman repeatedly demanded a replay of the action from his wife.
Her: “Bat shit crazy.”
Her: “Tiny schwanz.”
Her: “Mr. Miyagi.”
My favorite audience-participation moment, though, was when Jacob brings Hannah, played by Emma Stone, back to his place. He makes two old-fashioneds, the camera fetishizing the ritual: dotting the sugar cube with Angostura bitters, muddling the bitters-soaked sugar cube (with a bespoke muddler!), ice, bourbon (Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year Reserve!), and finishing with a thick swath of orange peel.
When the bottle of Angostura, with its distinctive yellow cap and oversized label, made its big-screen cameo, Mr. and Mrs. Miracle Ear piped up once again:
Him: “What’s he doing with that?!?”
Her: “Slipping her a Mickey.”
Esquire recently called “old-fashioned, no fruit” the manliest drink order a fellow can ask for at the bar, so it’s natural that too-cool-for-school Jacob doesn’t make a fruit salad out of his drink by adding a muddled cherry and orange to the mix. My favorite version of the old-fashioned is served at Prime Meats in Brooklyn: Rittenhouse 100 rye, simple syrup, housemade pear bitters (made with pears picked from the pear tree next to the restaurant), a big chunk of hand-chipped ice, and a lemon peel garnish. The last time I encountered fruit in my old-fashioned was at John Currence’s Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi. Made with Blanton’s bourbon, Demerara syrup, homemade bacon bitters, and a muddled cherry and orange slice. The sweet-and-smoky cocktail went down like boozy candy and I went back for two more (and didn’t question my manhood one bit).