Call it the University of Cider. The first thing you notice when you walk into Wassail is a row of taps protruding from a vertical gray surface behind the bar. No apparent labels, just stainless steel spigots with black bakelite pulls. As for the layout, there are three consecutive rooms, the first outfitted with a white-marble bar plus some window seating; the second a bit darker and quieter, the best tables along dimpled black banquettes; the last a bare-bones overflow room that should be avoided if possible.
From those 16 black taps flow the beverages that are the heart of the place, draft apple ciders that, through their wonderfully woodsy flavors, conjure up the trees that produced the fruit with every sip. Some are lightly carbonated, some are still; some are sweet, some sour or even semi-skanky. These beverages come from several distinct areas of the world, most prominently Normandy, Asturias (not to be confused with Astoria), England, Virginia, Oregon, New England, and, in New York itself, the Hudson Valley, Finger Lakes, and Lake Ontario. Those who love to drink locally will find plenty to quaff at Wassail.
In addition to those spigots, there’s a list of around 120 bottled ciders in a chapbook, some from even more obscure parts of the globe (New Mexican cider? Chilean cider?), including one section that allows you to compare Basque ciders from both Spain and France. Then there are other apple-based beverages, including brandies, eau de vies, calvadoses, pommeaus, and ice ciders. The proper response to this plenitude, unless you already have a favorite apple-based beverage, is bewilderment. That line of taps will be your best refuge.
From them, you may select an international flight of three ($15), and learn that the Spanish ciders, made from adventitious yeasts and bacteria, are delightfully sour and a bit skanky; French ciders pour clear, slightly sparkling, and on the sweet side; and the English product tastes a lot like beer, sometimes even containing hops. Work your way through the draft list as I did on four visits, and you’ll qualify for a Bachelor of Arts in Cider. Advanced degrees are awarded if you become intimately familiar with the bottled products.
The chef has fixated on the kind of fanciful vegetarian cooking found at fashion-forward places like El Rey, Avant Garden, and Semilla
In a place so obsessed with alcoholic manifestations of the ruddy pomaceous fruit the food might be an afterthought. Quite the contrary. Wassail is the offspring of Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, and like its parent, vegetarian. The chef, Joseph Buenconsejo, has fixated on the kind of fanciful vegetarian cooking found at fashion-forward places like El Rey, Avant Garden, and Semilla, with dishes in three general sizes, so you may treat Wassail as a snacking spot, small-dish joint, or full-menu restaurant.
A vegetarian menu seems like a good choice where cider is concerned, matching the beverage’s light flavor and rustic qualities with wholesome and inventive fare. An unexpected pairing of cukes and melon balls the size of BBs ($14) flavored with sorrel and mint is so cool on the tongue. The salad is dressed with borage seed oil, a medicinal-sounding ingredient that may come in handy if you suffer from rheumatism.
Mild and wintry hakurei turnips make their appearance in a thin shitake broth that nods to Japanese cooking, while an apple and parsnip soup with a thick puree seems almost French. Many dishes also have a dreamy component, including the small potatoes that come engulfed in a thick white froth, like pebbles at the edge of a foamy tide, or anklet socks seen through the window of a washing machine. Indeed, several dishes seem surreal as they appear at the table. There are some normal things, too, including a bread service ($8) featuring three warm sourdough slices and homemade butter, dimpled with buttermilk and strewn with quinoa.
Many of the chef’s creations depend on mushrooms and such grains as quinoa and farro. The last appears most prominently in a risotto ($18), a vast dark heap with a science-chef egg on top that not so much as bursts, as subsides into the other ingredients. The dish is as heavy as a wheel barrow of sod, too ponderous to wash down with a light glass of cider. It shouts for red wine or stout.
There’s a separate menu for bar snacks that includes a vegetarian chicharron along the lines of El Rey’s, and a formidable veggie cheeseburger ($17) featuring provolone and smoked cheddar. Made with farro and mushrooms, the patty owes a debt to Superiority Burger. Parallel to Buenconsejo's cooking is pastry chef Rebecca Eichenbaum’s, whose parsley root mousse with celery granita ($11), though it sounds like a dangerous undertaking, is absolutely superb.
One evening delving into the cider book and looking for a bargain, two friends and I happened upon the Villacubera Traditional ($28 for 700 ml) from Asturias. The waiter wrinkled up his nose and warned us, "That cider is a little sour and funky." As he opened the bottle a sideways plastic spout popped out, and he showed us how to hold the bottle high in the air and dribble the cider into the glass to permit aeration. "Pour a little at a time and drink it fast, the way they do in Spain," he urged. Not bad advice, and how enjoyable to encounter a historic drinking tradition from far away as we sat in a bistro on Orchard Street.
Cost: Dinner for two, with bread service, two small dishes, one large dish, one dessert, and two international flights of cider, $110, including tax but not tip.
Sample dishes: Cucumber and melon salad, grilled butternut squash with cocoa nib vinaigrette, chicharron de harina, charcoal potatoes, goat cheescake
What to drink: Dupont Reserve, slightly sweet French cider aged in calvados casks; Castanon Sidra Naturale, Spanish cider with no fizz and a salty aftertaste; Soon’s draft apple juice (no alcohol).
Bonus tip: A happy hour on weekdays between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. offers cut-rate cider flights and a special bar discount menu that includes a great vegetarian cheeseburger.