Last night I made my first trip to Pegu Club, located on West Houston St on the outer limits of Soho. Pegu is a cocktail lounge that doesn’t go the speakeasy route. It’s a luxurious space with plenty of seating and an eye towards intimate conversations. The bar is a beautiful polished natural affair with irregular edges. The back bar is filled with syrups, tinctures, and old bottles of defunct spirits (has anyone ever tried Plymouth Fruit Cup, a bottled cocktail?). Overall the space is warm and interesting, the type of bar you can see yourself spending a long evening in while enjoying every moment.
We were greated by probably the most professional bouncer I’ve ever encountered at a NYC bar or club, which was a nice start to the evening. We were able to walk in and get a seat at the bar around 9pm on Friday with no reservation. We could have sat at a table, but wanted to watch the show.
I started off with a Zelda, which was straight up fantastic. It’s gin, muddled cherries, and lemon. It was garnished with a bamboo toothpick of two candied cherries, which were some of the most delicious I’ve ever had. My compatriot started with a Tantris Sidecar, made with cognac, calvados, and chartreuse (I didn’t take notes so these are not real recipes unfortunately, only rough sketches of what we drank).
I stuck with a gin base for my second round and ordered an Earl Grey MarTEAni. While I’ve enjoyed a number of tea-infused spirits courtesy of Adam Bernbach at Bar Pilar, I should have been wary about the capitalization of “tea” in the drink’s title. It’s hokey and unfortunately was a precursor to the drink I received. Basically the Earl Grey MarTEAni is a gin-based pisco sour. The tea flavor and the lemon stand out and the egg white gives it a creamy head. My drink, however, had at least two times too much syrup in it. Additionally the sugar-rimmed glass was entirely unnecessary. The drink was too sweet and there wasn’t enough sour to merit added sugar on the outside of the glass. The result was a cocktail that tasted like Diet Lemon Nestea. Now I’m sure a better made version of this drink could be great, but any time the cocktail you end up with tastes like a diet canned drink, it’s probably gone wrong. I didn’t see the bartender make this in detail – he was about halfway down the bar from me – but I’m guessing he didn’t sample the cocktail with a swizzle stick before serving it. Had he, I have to assume he would have trashed it and started again.
My fellow imbiber had a Whiskey Smash his second round that while being a very tasty interpretation of a mint julep with a hearty dose of citrus, was overpowered by the volume of mint in it. Again, probably a small problem of execution, but neither of us had a particularly successful second round.
While things weren’t perfect in our experience with the bar staff, it was clear they knew what they were doing and were fun to watch. I thought it’d be interesting to test them a bit and go off-menu for our third and final round. I recommend my friend order a Martinez, while I ordered a Cocktail a la Louisiane. The bartender took our orders and all seemed well. He consulted with the other bartender then both started consulting the two enormous rolodexes behind the bar, as well as a three ring binder of recipes. Before long, both were found and our drinks were served up. The bartender commented on the unique order and said he thought the A La Louisiane looked like a great cocktail that he’d never heard of before. It didn’t surprise me that he was unfamiliar of the A La Louisiane, I’ve only recently been turned on to it by Marshall of Scofflaw’s Den, but I had assumed the Martinez would be in his repertoire. In any event, both are now.
Two final thoughts…by the time we left, which was close to 11pm, the bar was starting to fill up two to three people deep. I was surprised that the door policy included a crowded bar, as it certainly reduced from our desire to stay longer. The low point of the night was some early 30s club-goer leaning over me to order a Absolut Citroen on the rocks, with a Bud Light. Poor performance, friend, poor performance.
As far as the bartending went, I think the two men behind the stick were very competent and clearly well schooled in their craft. Drinks were made with craft and technique was sharp. I’ve noticed at some of my favorite bars — Death & Co., Bar Pilar, The Gibson, and Tabard Inn — the bar staff strives to make every drink perfectly and it comes through in their products. Last night at Pegu Club, I got the impression that the bartenders were striving to make every drink well, but not necessarily perfectly. It affected our second round of the night, but it didn’t change my opinion of the bar a great deal. I’ll happily come back, though I think I’ll try it mid-week when there will hopefully be less of a crowd and more time to explore the menu. After all, I didn’t try the Pegu Club Cocktail, which should be reason alone for me to return.
There’s one thing that merits mentioning that I forgot to include in the original post. The sweet vermouth being used at Pegu Club was Martini & Rossi. I didn’t see a bottle of Carpano Antica and the drinks we ordered that included Italian vermouth were all made with Martini & Rossi. In my opinion Martini & Rossi is about as bad as it gets and it was disappointing that it was in use in such otherwise fine cocktails.