Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler are the husband and wife team behind Queens Kickshaw, the Astoria cafe loved by locals for its grilled cheese and great coffee. It's also known for its impressive cider list, so it makes sense that the duo's next venture, Wassail, will be New York's first dedicated cider bar. Eater talked with Lim and Sandler recently, to hear more about Wassail, which is set to open in the next three or four weeks on the Lower East Side. Read on for details about the cider they will offer, the difficulties of turning a profit in the restaurant business, and much more:
How did you get interested in cider?
Ben Sandler: After our first Cider Week, we started to live and breath cider. The interest in it is palpable — it's a new beverage category that everyone's interested in, and it's truly an agricultural product that screams "place." It's also an expression of season. We really felt a strong connection to it, especially after meeting some local cider makers like Elizabeth Ryan from Breezy Hill and the French ones from Le Perche—that really turned us on to the world of cider. Before that we'd only ever tried one French cider.
Tasting a French cider next to an American cider totally blew my mind. Jennifer Lim: Yeah, it all started around the time we met our third partner, Sabine Hrechdakian. This event she produced in 2011 prior to the first Cider Week is what really turned us on to cider. She was hired by Glynwood to bring together cider makers from New York's Hudson Valley and producers from Le Perche in France. That event was eye opening. There was no place, at that time, where you could go and try that many ciders side by side. Tasting a French cider next to an American cider totally blew my mind. They were made of the same thing, but so completely different. We kept in touch with Sabine and started participating in cider week over the last three years. When she we heard that we were opening a cider bar she got really excited and came on board.
Why did you decide to open your bar on the LES?
Ben: Since it's the first cider bar in New York, we wanted it to be iconic in some way, and really relate to the neighborhood. We started with the places that we related to really well, because a business is an expression of who you are. Jen and I, when we first moved to the city in 2005, lived about five blocks away from here. It was the first neighborhood we lived in in New York. Our partner, Sabine, has also lived in the LES. So we all felt a strong, personal connection to this neighborhood more than any other. That was a big factor. You also have to look at where a place like this will be successful — things like foot traffic, hotels, and density of residents all have to be considered. The good thing about the LES is that of New York passes through this neighborhood at some point.
Jen: As much as we think that Wassail is going to be a destination, it's also important for us to feel connected to the community that we're going to be in, because that's what's going to give us staying power. We want to replicate that feeling we have in Astoria at Kickshaw.
Any accommodations you've had to make bringing your business from Astoria to the LES? How did you decide on pricing in this new neighborhood?
Ben: Lots of things like design, choices we made on the menu, pricing, were dictated by the neighborhood. We felt that in the Lower East Side there's a lot of high brow and a lot of low brow: two and three dollar shot places and $16-18 cocktail places with menus from Michelin starred chefs. We felt like we wanted to come in somewhere in the middle, somewhere approachable but still with really high quality ingredients. But, at the same time, we don't want to feel like we're excluding the neighbors. Will we charge for bread because it's made in house and we're culturing our own butter? Or not? Where's the cut off? It's an issue we have at Kickshaw all the time. It's hard to make money off of a grilled cheese sandwich. We use really good quality ingredients but most people are very familiar with the costs involved in making basic comfort food. Many people will also have a strong opinion of how comfort food should be valued. It doesn't matter how well we make it, it's still just grilled cheese to some people. And there's a point where it could start to feel like we [as restaurateurs] are gouging. But our cost of doing business keeps going up. We support paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage—both are great things. But we have to figure out how we're going to pay for them. One way is by raising prices, but that can only work if all restaurants are raising prices at the same time. There's still a learning curve between the restaurants and the public as to what's fair to charge and what they are willing to pay.
Will the menu at this new place be vegetarian like at Kickshaw? I know that's not something you guys really publicize.
Ben: There won't be any meat on the menu. We're calling it "cider-focused cuisine." Every dish is prepared with cider in mind and is sometimes prepared with cider. Yeah, we really don't want to advertise the word vegetarian because it describes a cuisine and a very flavorless and boring cuisine. People use the word vegetarian for lack of a better word. People who hate "vegetarian" cuisine have come up with "vegetable-focused" or "vegetable-driven," and I don't even know if I like those. I just want to not say anything about it. They can figure it out for themselves.
Why devote a restaurant to cider?
Ben: It pairs so well with food. Wine, for example is frequently made from one grape and occasionally blended, but with ciders it's the opposite. What you're looking for with a great cider is a balance of sweetness, tannins, and acidity. So what we're ending up with is different blends and balances of those different taste characteristics that make for an incredible experience when paired with food. The other great thing about cider is that you can enjoy it without getting plastered. It's much lower in alcohol than wine, so it's the best of beer and wine at the same time. Compared to beer and wine, it's at a much better price point, and it's also much more versatile. There are ciders that are tart, some that are sweeter, and some that have a different mouthfeel and offer a funkiness and crispness. And there are still ciders and dry—there's a diversity of offerings.
What are the best food pairings with cider?
Jen: In general, mushrooms and egg yolks with a French cider. And seaweed.
Ben: Grains and leafy greens go really well with American style ciders. Smokey dishes with beans and potatoes go really well with Spanish ciders. English ciders we're still working on.
Where do you like to for cider other than your own places?
Jen and Ben: Proletariat, Donostia, Huertas and Terroir.
Is it hard to get other people interested in cider? Any barriers to entry?
Ben: There always has to be an entry point. In the 1970s it was Riunite and Gallo for wine. And for ciders, in the last five years it has been products like Crispin or Woodchuck or Magners. Those are very different from the traditional ciders we plan on serving at Wassail. We want to focus on products that really express the apples that went into them and the terroir they grew in. We found this cider the other day where water was listed as the first ingredient. It should be apples only. The barrier used to be that great cider was only available in 750ML format bottles. You'd have to pay $25 to $40 a bottle and either drink it yourself or convince your friends, who might be dubious, to share it with you. Now, with all the different drafts we offer here, it will be very easy to try many different ciders without committing to a lot of liquid.
Jen: Entry point is something we're super conscious of, because this place is going to be the first of it's kind. We want it to be cozy and welcoming and not snobby at all, because that can be a barrier to people coming in. Holding cider classes is another non-intimidating way for people to ask questions. Having a well educated staff that can easily converse about cider is also important. The knowledge can't be exclusive to a limited number of people. Also, having a large selection of draft and by the glass offerings definitely helps.
What kind of cider will you be offering?
Ben: One year ago we could have offered every single cider that we liked that was available. That's how few there were. Now, the number of ciders that are available has increased so rapidly that we can be choosy and creatively put a list together that has a voice. There will absolutely be American ciders, with a focus on the Northeast and the West Coast. There will also be Spanish ciders primarily focusing on Asturias, but also Basque ciders from both sides of the Spanish/French border as well as Norman and Breton ciders from northwestern France. And there will be a few outliers as well coming from the Savoie in France, Canada, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Chile, and hopefully Japan. There will be 80 bottles to start excluding ice cider and pommeau. A rotating selection of these bottles will be available by the glass, which opens up the ciders to the public and helps educate our staff. There will also be 12 dedicated tap lines. And, of course, there will be wine, beer, and cocktails, as well as juice, that farm stand style apple juice that most people think of when they think of cider.
What are some common misconceptions that people have about cider and who's your typical cider drinker?
Jen: That it's sweet. They think of the juice or mulled, hot cider. Other people who've tried cider automatically assume that we're talking about Angry Orchard or Woodchuck. They'll say that they don't like cider because the ones they've had are too sweet and that's when we them what kind of cider they've had. We are confident that we can find a cider for anybody.
Another stereotype is that cider is drunk primarily by women. We don't see that at all.Ben: Everyone drinks cider. There are some stereotypes around who would typically drink cider and, honestly, I don't see it. Cider is often typecast as a gluten free alternative to beer, implying that a gluten intolerance that would be the only reason to drink it. You've got to remember that we're a grilled cheese restaurant. We don't get that many gluten free customers. We don't see that as a viable marketing tool about cider, and it's an odd association that we try to steer clear of. Another stereotype is that cider is drunk primarily by women. We don't see that at all. Not sure what makes people think this.
Jen: Maybe because it's usually only found in beer bars, and it's the only sweet drink in a beer bar. That's a shame because it's such a democratic beverage and of the masses. At first it was mostly beverage directors that sought out our ciders at Kickshaw, but now it's everyone.
Will you be using a specific type of cider glassware?
Jen: Because we're the first cider bar in New York City we're super conscious of how we're going to serve it—at what temperature, in what glass, how are we going to talk about, and how will we write about it on the menu. We're very aware of the idea that we're giving to the world about how cider is consumed. Also, because there is no real culture in the US about glassware and stuff, we know we're setting some precedents in New York.
Ben: There is traditional glassware for cider in the Germany, France, Spain and even in England. Whereas in the US, we're finding that many cider makers will have their own preference. In most cases we will just ask them what they want the cider served in. And that's typically how we serve it. Some want it in a small goblet, or a wine glass, or really unpretentiously in a water glass or a tea cup. In some cases we may not go all the way to the tea cup, but there are different preferences and reasons for them.
What is your favorite cider on the list right now?
Jen: I'm really digging Millstone out of Maryland right now. They're by no means adhering to traditional American ciders from the last few years. They are inspired by the beer world, and do collaborations with breweries, and are big into yeasts. They blend separately with different yeasts and then age. The end product is delicious. In general, I love dirty ciders—that's what I call ciders that are unfiltered, native yeast fermented. They're intense and challenging.
Ben: I always go back to Farnum Hill Semi Dry. It's the gold standard. It's what's emulated by American cider makers. I am also interested in the minimal intervention wines we will be offering. We really love where wine can taste cider-like and where cider can taste wine-like. That overlap is something we'd like to explore at Wassail.
What other apple spirits/cocktails will you serve at Wassail?
Ben: We will be offering calvados, apple brandy, and pommeau, which is made from apple brandy or calvados that has been blended with fresh, sweet juice and then aged for a couple of years. Usually it results in a sweet dessert beverage that's about 17% alcohol. Ice cider is another beverage we will be serving. It originated in Quebec and is made by cryo-concentrating the juice: either in the apple on the tree or by pressing it and then freezing in a tank. There's also an incredible range and depth of flavor. It's very Sauternes-like. The cocktail list will have about twelve options. Obviously, calvados, apple brandy, and juice will be used, but not exclusively. We're not trying to hit anyone over the head with the concept.