The genuine cider bar —that place where finely crafted cider in numerous styles is the whole point — is still a rarity, despite the renaissance in cider now taking place across the country. You can count them on two hands. Because there are so few of these temples devoted to the fermented apple, expectations run high among those who have sought them out. The cider enthusiasts see them as true confirmations of their habit. They see these few cider places scattered across the country as the trumpeters who might encourage others to join the court of cider lovers.
Putting these kinds of expectations on a cider bar probably isn’t a good idea if only because the odds are they will fail. Not only is the market for cider still relatively small, but new most bars and restaurants will fail within a few short years.
All of this was on my mind when I walked into Wassail, the new cider bar/restaurant in New York City. I had wanted to visit this shrine to cider since hearing of its opening. Knowing the high-caliber people behind it and listening to the glowing recommendations of fellow cider geeks who had made the pilgrimage, I had high expectations that I tried hard to temper.
I took my sister, a resident of New York, with me. She has been a vegetarian for nearly three decades and Wassail is, as the owners describe, “a vegetable-driven” venue. I myself prefer to take my protein in the form of charred flesh. I was prepared to ignore the food entirely. More on this to come.
Wassail is located on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. Yes, “Orchard Street”. The place is relatively nondescript. A bar runs along the right side of the long, narrow, dark room. Seats and tables reside along the wall past the bar and along the opposite wall. There is not much to notice. It’s plain that the focus is meant to be on Wassail’s main attractions: The well curated collection of ciders on tap and in bottle…and the food.
Wassail attracts a someone younger crowd, just like cider generally does these days. On our night there we found a few older couples who looked like they knew the significance of the place. But many of the other tables (all of which were occupied by the time we left at around 9pm) were filled with younger palates, many of whom looked like they were exploring.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the collection of ciders served up at Wassail represent the best in the world and some of the rarest. The cidermaking community has clearly identified this place as a venue where they want their finest put on display and the proprietors have accommodated them.
Eve’s, Eden, Farnum, Burr, Black Duck, Foggy Ridge, Hudson Valley, Redbyrd, South Hill, EZ, Tilted Shed, Bordelet, Dupont, Villacubera….They are all here, and most often in their rarest and most enticing renditions. Wassail’s focus is clearly on presenting a well-curated and regularly rotating collection of the greatest and most interesting ciders made anywhere on the planet. For the cider lover it’s simply exhilarating.
In the course of our meal, we tried twelve different ciders. One can order pints, flights and short pours. We went with the short pours in order to try as many ciders as possible in one sitting without hurting ourselves. My cider expectations were met.
But here’s what everyone should also know about Wassail: The food represents some of the most elegantly prepared, artistic and flavorful dishes I’ve encountered in a very long time. In addition to creating a Cider Temple, owners Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler along with Executive Chef Joseph Buenconsejo and Pastry Chef Rebecca Eichenbaum have created a culinary touchstone for vegetable driven cuisine. The meal at Wassail was by far the finest I experienced while in New York and believe me when I tell you, I ate well.
The danger of a themed culinary destination is that something outside the theme is ignored or not given the proper attention. And with a cider-oriented restaurant like Wassail, the threat is the belief that simple pub food will be just enough to get the job done while the cider stars. This is not the case here.
Every dish we tried was off-the-charts-outstanding from the Tomatoes relished with Parmesan, olive oil and wheatgrass to the Cucumber & Melon with macadamia, sorrel, and borage oil. But the pairing of the Black Duck Perry with the revalatory Chicken of the Woods mushrooms dressed in bok choy, bulgur, and cured duck egg was inspired. My sister, a pragmatic, get-the-right-calories kind of eater was stunned into silence. By her account, she’d “never tasted any food this good in years”.
The seriousness with which Wassail’s mission is taken can’t be ignored. That seriousness is a gift to the cider community that knows it needs champions. In Wassail they have found a champion that delivers eaters and drinkers every opportunity to experience a first class experience with cider at the center and an ambitious culinary tour de force that wraps that experience up in a bow.
162 Orchard Street, New York City