Ambitious cocktail establishments don’t tend to list Whiskey Cola, a caffeinated predecessor to Vodka RedBull, as a marquee offering. This makes sense. Accomplished bartenders refrain from touting such drinks for the same reason that good sommeliers don’t put Veuve Clicquot on their menus; they'd rather expose guests to something a bit more interesting. Whiskey Cola, after all, requires no skill to construct; it tastes no worse when furtively made in a movie theater bathroom stall than when poured at a mahogany counter staffed by bearded men. And really, is an artificially-flavored, mass-produced beverage really the smartest way to show off a good spirit?
So you'd be forgiven for balking at the $14 version at Porchlight, a price that only seems right when you notice the bar is located opposite auto dealerships that sell Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and other cars that cost more than a law degree at Columbia. But passing up on that drink would be a mistake, because it's one of the city’s finest new cocktails.
Porchlight's Whiskey Cola is one of the city’s finest new drinks
It's unlikely you'll make this version of the drink at home. Nicholas Bennett, the mustachioed head bartender, injects CO2 and phosphoric acid into a batch of corn whiskey and homemade cola syrup, carbonating the entire concoction at once. This process creates such a uniformly bubbly libation that Bennett could serve it in a Champagne flute as pass it off as faux-sparkling wine – just like the famed gin and tonic at his old stomping ground, Booker & Dax. Now take a sip. Does the Whiskey Cola taste a bit more complex than usual? That's because Bennett adds a dose of Fernet-Vallet, a Mexican cordial whose medicinal overtones transform the entire concoction into a boozy cardamom-clove-quinine coke. The beverage is normally poured over ice, but ask for it straight out of the glass bottle it's stored in, all the better to appreciate this masterpiece in its astringent, undiluted glory. That's $14 well spent.
Not bad for the first standalone bar by Danny Meyer, the guy who runs a small empire of restaurants and a billion dollar burger chain called Shake Shack. The Gulf Coast-themed Porchlight, on 11th Ave and 28th St., instantly qualifies as one of New York's most relevant new drinking establishments, even though the "food program" needs work.
Porchlight, like Eastern Standard in Boston, belongs to a rare class of high-end cocktail spots that also happen to be high-volume venues. The distressed-wood space, in a repudiation of the small, speakeasy motif where a doorman calls you two hours later when a bar stool becomes vailable, is big enough to accommodate, well, everyone. It's bigger than most East Village restaurants and one could probably fit a McFadden’s inside and still have room left over.
Porchlight provides a powerful argument as to why Bennett deserves a prominent stage of his own.
Just as Meyer’s own Gramercy Tavern, in the mid-aughts, served as a launching pad for PDT’s Jim Meehan, Porchlight now provides a powerful argument as to why Bennett, with his simultaneous modernist and classical inclinations, deserves a prominent stage of his own. The 33-year-old Sag Harbor native pours a Hurricane on par with Maison Premiere's, Brooklyn's preeminent New Orleans-themed watering hole. Currents of passionfruit and grenadine impart his rum-based potable with such sweet-tart flavors it could pass itself off as a high-end Sour Patch Kid if one added a packet of gelatin.
Bennett's Sazerac is excellent too: refreshingly light on herbsaint, letting the cognac and sugar come through in a cleaner, more Old Fashioned-style way. Even better is his punch, a malty mix of Old Tom gin, amontillado sherry, black tea, and maraschino, all poured from a tap; it boasts the concentrated tang and gentle burn that you'd expect from something served in a flask, which this is, with a paper straw. Pass it around.
And Bennett's Gun Metal Blue (mezcal, curacao, peach brandy) looks and tastes like what would happen if the Caribbean were smoked over hickory and finished with a squeeze of lime. Life is good, and it gets better when you start gnawing on warm soy-chili beef jerky, or when you start chomping on a fried chicken po' boy; the spicy, juicy snack, with a crust as dense as a cast iron-fried bird, is a sign that Danny Meyer might just rock the Chick-fil-A sandwich world as has been rumored.
Then you order the bison burger. It's awful. And there’s the rub. Just as many of New York’s better restaurants hawk signature cocktails that you wouldn’t want to drink, Porchlight is a bar that sells a fair amount of food that you wouldn’t want to eat. And even though alcohol is clearly the focus here, it’s hard not to bemoan substandard cuisine in a neighborhood with so few dining options. With that in mind, here’s what to order and what to avoid on the remoulade-heavy menu by Blue Smoke chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois.
Po' boy (lunch): Soft bread, crispy lettuce, and a pile of tiny shrimp whose rubbery texture is closer to that of a gummy bear than a crustacean. You’d be angry if you got this at a neighborhood bodega; you’ll be angrier to pay $18 for it at a restaurant. The stronger move is the excellent fried chicken version for $14.
Pimento cheese sandwich (lunch): A blend of cheddar, cream cheese, mayo, piquillo peppers, and Creole mustard, served on crustless white bread. The tangy, spicy flavors prove that Bourgeois thinks carefully about this product, which elsewhere can taste like it came from the refrigerated section of a supermarket. Too bad the kitchen renders such precision moot by serving it on stale bread.
Tom’s balls: Rice balls studded with funky bits of chicken liver. Perfect drinking food.
Fried oysters: Laurent Tourondel was the first chef to serve me great fried oysters; they were big, plump, briny, and metallic – the maritime equivalent of pan-crisped ravioli. Here, the smaller bivalves pack the same one-note flavor as chicken nuggets, which wouldn’t be a problem if they were six for a dollar, and not $4 apiece. A cooked oyster should be as complex as a raw oyster if it costs more than the latter.
Meat pie: One night, the indistinct mash of animal protein arrived in a shell so soggy it tasted like it came straight out of the microwave. Another night, it was perfectly crispy, albeit with little detectable meat flavor inside. Sell.
Avocado toast: Not sure this belongs at a Southern-themed restaurant, but no matter: here we have room temperature avocado and slightly cool, slightly sweet crab. Not as compelling as the $16 crab toast at ABC Kitchen, but it gets the job done for $13.
Collard Caesar: Now here’s something Jean-Georges wishes he were serving at ABC or elsewhere. What makes this classic salad distinctly Southern (and elegant) is the addition of cornbread croutons for a sweet crunch to counteract the bitterness collards; preserved lemon rind adds a lingering citrus aroma.
Shrimp on shrimp: This one’s straight up Paula Deen: Overcooked rock shrimp over an oversalted shrimp salad crisp. If you closed your eyes you wouldn’t be able to tell this was seafood.
Bison burger: Danny Meyer, whose Shack Shack is the force behind one of the world’s great burgers, should not allow such a substandard product to be sold at one of his establishments. The duo of grey, chewy, medium-well patties evoke a heat lamp travesty I once tried at Johnny Rockets at Yankee Stadium. The suculent tasso bacon and pimento cheese do little to salvage the affair. I ordered this twice so you don't have to.
Cost: Most cocktails at $14; punch on tap is $12. Small plates and sandwiches from $6-$18.
Sample dishes: Warm beef jerky, bison burger, frog's legs, fried oysters, rice pudding.
Bonus tip: Fried chicken po'boy is the money lunch order.