New York: French Colonial Cocktails at 1534 in Nolita
At street level, there's Jacques, a French bistro with a Moroccan accent. Up here you'll find mood lighting, patio seating, and the smell of merguez—so many good reasons to stay above ground. Head downstairs to 1534, though, and the world—at least the parts that once tangled with the French—will expand before you.
The hidden, low-ceilinged room is less speakeasy than captain's quarters, a warm weather outpost where expats await exit papers. (From the next table over: "I feel like we're about to hear a mail plane.") Quilted leather booths press against walls traced with tall grass; candles flicker in mismatched votives. It's bootstrap French civility in an imagined wilderness, all at once winking and genuinely warm.
Named after the year that colonist Jacques Cartier set sail for the new world, 1534 has a drink menu (styled like a passport and divided by nation) that fuses French ingredients with those of once-exotic lands. I started in Polynesia with a Tahitian 75 ($12), a ruby twist on the gin and bubbly classic. It sounds like kitsch but in practice, it's gorgeous: Bluecoat gin and dry Champagne take a hit of lemon juice and hibiscus syrup, poured in a flute over a spidery edible bloom. The cocktail's so good, I wanted just to camp in the South Pacific, but instead of the intruigingly bizarre Colonial Holiday ($12) (Applejack, East India Sherry, lime juice, Velvet Falernum, garnished with coffee grinds and a "giant umbrella"), I opted for Asia.
The Saigon Folly ($12) starts with pepper-infused gin and builds in lemon-grass syrup, lemon juice, Creme Yvette, and soda, both in construction and in the way it unfolds when you drink it. At first it's all pepper, shockingly so, then cooling citrus and effervescence show up until the heat spreads across the back of the tongue. It's a strange stimulator that wants for food—not the cute Croque Monsieur Sticks ($8), but the serviceable Shrimp Summer Roll with Mango Sauce ($10).
In the spring, 1534 aims to lean heavier on punch and cocktail service (batch-mixed pots of any given recipe, fit for the table), and the current punches suggest that it's a smart change. The Foreign Legion Punch ($12) makes the final case for coming back. A tall glass filled with hand-carved ice gets VS Cognac, red bush chai, lemon juice, demerara syrup, and black cherry preserves, topped with a brandy cherry. On paper, this party punch seems too sweet and too clever for its own good; in practice, it walks the line, showing just enough spice and acidity to balance the sugar. It's delicious, and I'd like to order it by the bowl.
The real wonder at 1534 is how such a hefty theme comes across with such a light touch. The drink designs, though occasionally complex, are smart and well-integrated, fun without going gimmicky. That balance feels crucial to getting people to return: you can come back for the inventiveness, without risking the nausea of too much novelty.