Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Before you get to the actual drinks on the menu at Henry, A Liquor Bar, there's a story to read, the first of a series that will continue in seasonal installments. In it a bedraggled group travels up the Hudson River and falls at the door of a Mr. Lyan, who places before them "a restorative elixir. Instantly, their senses were awoken and their spirits lifted. It was at this point they noticed a veritable cornucopia of exotic herbs, fruits, spices and flowers lying fixed in a variety of states. Mr. Lyan busied himself amongst the lab, producing exquisite concoctions and placing them in front of each of them."
Why start with a story? "We wanted to create a bit of whimsy about the new space, so that a return visit will involve the next stages," bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana explained of the newly remodeled bar in the Hudson Hotel, which premiered last week. He penned and illustrated the menu himself, hoping to bring "a bit of fun to it."
To the award-winning London-based Chetiyawardana, that story starts with the New York state produce he believes is much more impressive than anything he can get at home in the U.K. "There's a different intensity of flavors in the produce here. At home tomatoes taste like potatoes—they're firm, almost tasteless, maybe with a spiked acidity. There's variety here, with flavors unlike what I'd experienced before."
Those introductions extended to the citrus, berries, apples, and local Adirondack honey he explored through relationships the hotel's culinary staff had established with local farmers and purveyors. A sous vide circulator and rotary evaporator that were unused in the kitchen would come into use when Chetiyawardana built his menu around the ingredients he hadn't been able to play with at home.
"It's not like, 'apricots are in season so we'll do a cocktail with apricots,'" Chetiyawardana said, clarifying the role local produce plays in the 12 cocktails that will rotate seasonally. "We talked a lot about being able to preserve ingredients, so that we capture the bridge of the seasons. Autumn doesn't mean we go directly into full hibernation mode—there are still moments of warmth and sunny days. So, if cherries are at the last point of the summer, we want to carry them through like a snapshot."
To do so, he preserves fresh cherries in maraschino liqueur, which he then dilutes and re-sweetens. The final product is used in various drinks; the fruit is dropped whole into the bottom of a Champagne flute for the Jasmagne, and the residual liqueur serves as the base for the Chocolate Cocktail.
No stranger to modernist kitchen equipment—Chetiyawardana studied biology, art and philosophy while shifting his culinary training from the kitchen to the bar—he'll be just as likely to use a traditional pickling method if that's what the ingredient calls for. "We use the roto-vap and sous vide methods as a means to getting a very specific flavor, so we can change the manner of how ingredients are used. We can get the brightness of celery, instead of just using it in a cooked or fresh stage. We capture ingredients that can be used different ways to sum up the feeling of each season."
Most liqueurs and distillations are done in small batches, while preserving and pickling fruits and vegetables are done in enough quantity now to get through the upcoming changes in season.
With the current, autumnal menu, "there are some drinks which are rich and warm and others that are light and bright, because to me," says Chetiyawardana, "that kind of reflects what autumn is like. Once we transition into the wintry style of menu, some ingredients might carry through that are available now, preserved in a different manner to reflect the feeling of the season."
But, he's quick to clarify, it's more about the guest's occasion and mood than the season, and his primary goal is to fit those desires. "Even if it's cold and blustery outside you might want a drink that takes you into a different place—one that's fresher, or opposite of what the weather is or feeling is outside. So we have drinks that ride that kind of lighter, fresher, style of service."
Changing the style of service was very much the focus for Chetiyawardana and the hotel team when they chose to move away from a traditional bottle service / club atmosphere to a cocktail lounge that reflects the culinary landscape around Columbus Circle. With that in mind, reservations are recommended before 10 p.m., not only to secure seating for larger parties, but also so that staff can welcome and lead guests to their tables, then introduce them to their servers in a way reflective of a fine-dining restaurant. Wednesday evenings offer live jazz, and throughout the rest of the weekend a rotating staff of DJs takes over after 10 p.m.. For the later crowd, a nod to traditional bottle service is offered with house-made pomegranate and grapefruit juices that bartenders will mix table-side, along with cocktails that can be made in batches for large groups.