The Varnish & the Art of the Cocktail

A few weeks ago I met some friends for drinks at Cole’s, one of the oldest eating establishments in Los Angeles. As I ate one of their famous French dip sandwiches, which they invented, I noticed a steady stream of people going into a little red door in the back of the room and not coming out. It was like a secret portal of some kind. (Did it lead to the Island, I wondered? Sorry, I’ve watched too much Lost.)

It turns out it was a portal — to a speakeasy set somewhere in 30s, with dark wood walls and lush, red ceilings, with little Tiffany lamps and bartenders with rolled-up shirt sleeves and pants with suspenders, and girls with flapper dresses and feathers in their hair. This would be The Varnish.

I looked over and noticed one Sasha Petraske, cocktail connoisseur of New York City, also sporting the suspenders-and-rolled-up-sleeves outfit, and thought, not too smartly, what’s he doing here?

Petraske and I go way back, thanks to me working with his mum at the Village Voice in the factchecking department. It was because of her that I was ever able to enter the ultra-exclusive confines of his very first bar, Milk and Honey in the Lower East Side.

“Hey Sasha,” I said to him, after asking about his mom. “I heard you’re opening a bar here.”

“Yeah,” he said, pointing at the floor. “This is it.”

(See I told you, I’m not too smart.)

That was just a soft opening of the Varnish — which Petraske opened with his former partner Eric Alperin, himself no cocktail slouch (see Osteria Mozza, Seven Grand, Little Branch, Milk and Honey), and a generous host to boot.

“We ‘ve been wanting to open a backroom lounge — I hate to use the term ‘speakeasy’ because we’re not a speakeasy,” said Alperin of their new project. “Something with a bit of intimacy, a bit of adventure. ”

The renovation of Cole’s last year provided a perfect opportunity in the form of a storage room. “We could build what we wanted,” said Alperin of the space in the landmarked building. “It wasn’t protected by the Historical Society, ’cause there was nothing historic.”

On a weekday, it was already looking like it would be a difficult task to get a seat in a bar that’s small enough to qualify as tiny even in New York. And on a return visit last Friday night, we waited a good 25 minutes before sitting at a two-top table. We sampled a few of their specialties, including the Palma Fizz (vodka, lime, ginger, rose water, and seltzer), which was artfully made. First, he poured a yellowish liquid into a tall glass, then he appeared to light something on fire, drizzling its contents inside (fairy dust? magic? love potion number nine?), before delicately adding the other ingredients. It was more gingery than I’d anticipated — my cohort liked the ginger beer qualities of the drink — but I was looking for something a little less tangy.

Our waitress suggested I try something so secret it wasn’t even on the menu: The Penicillin. She returned with a golden drink swallowing a giant, uncut slab of ice — a signature detail at the Varnish. It had lemon, ginger, honey, and Laphroaig. It was just the right mix of tart and sweet, a balance that the Varnish seems to strive for. Those sickly sweet drinks of your youthful indiscretions — the rum and cokes, the vodka-crans, the gin and sodas — they ruined your cocktail palate.

“I think we’re trying to bring back classic recipes, where there’s a bit more care involved, a bit more of a culinary craft.” said Alperin. “There’s not a lot of prefab ingredients or mixers.”

And there are even some ingredients that might raise your eyebrows. “People would think egg whites would be weird,” said Alperin. “I don’t find it strange … I think we have things that definitely wow the pants off of people, and that’s great.” (The egg white drink is called Eagle’s Dream, in case you’re feeling adventurous.)

My hardier friend braved a drink called Remember the Maine (rye, vermouth, heering, absinthe). I knew just by smelling it that it would grow hair on my chest. I took a sip, and though I initially thought it’d be too intense, the finish shifted and softened as our bellies warmed from the rye. It was quite pleasant, actually. She drained her glass.

Thanks to my generous friend, we’d taken a cab from Culver City ($60 round trip!) and were free to drink as much as our much-diminished tolerances could hold.

Which brings me to the awkward problem of the “new cocktailian” movement, as LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold has dubbed the influx of high-toned bars encroaching upon Los Angeles: How do you create a cocktail culture in a city where everyone has to drive?

“Move downtown,” laughed Alperin.

Another answer? One expertly made drink at a time.

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