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Don Lee Does More Than Just Seventies Cocktails at Golden Cadillac in NYC
The priorities of 1970s bartenders were, at least by contemporary standards, pretty problematic. Either goosed by too much sweetener or buffeted by heavy-handed pours of shelf-stable fruit juice, drinks that came out of that decade—like the Harvey Wallbanger and Hot Buttery Nipple (it's cloying even to type)—offered little by way of complexity, unless you're talking about the nature of tomorrow's headache. But what '70s cocktail culture lacked in refinement, it made up for in fun factor.
Part of the mission of Golden Cadillac, the newish East Village cocktail bar, is to dust off many of the drinks we commonly associate with the era, reexamine them, and, by using quality ingredients and applying modern techniques, bring them up to code for today's more demanding and knowledgeable cocktail drinker. And from the looks of the place, part of Golden Cadillac's intent is to eschew the usual cocktail-bar tropes (preciousness, neo-speakeasy looks) in favor of a more grounded, light-hearted atmosphere. In that respect Golden Cadillac succeeds: As drinkers tire of the (sometimes faux) gravitas that weighs down haute cocktailing, places like this make more and more sense. Whether or not the cocktail program is successful is a more complicated question.
The bar is the brainchild of owner Greg Boehm, who also runs the barware supplier and imprint Cocktail Kingdom and is well-versed in drinks history. Boehm's debut beverage director, Giuseppe Gonzalez, didn't stick around very long after Golden Cadillac's November opening. Since December—and quietly at first—the place has been overseen by Don Lee, a well-known bartender who has presided over the bars at PDT and Momofuku and works with Boehm at Cocktail Kingdom.
Nostalgia for the bygone doesn't just inform the cocktail program; in style the bar is meant to evoke the disco-grit of 1970s New York City: fat, horizontal racing stripes color the back bar; dimpled, dark-vinyl bench seating encircles the room; burnt-toast mirrors line the ceiling; and tiny tables for two, skewered by stripper poles, help to break up the space. In what may be a nod to more hard-knock nights at New York bars, a baseball bat has been displayed on a high-up overhang. And the soundtrack on a recent visit didn't seem to include anything minted after '79. It's a fun place to get a drink.
Once Lee took the helm following Gonzalez's departure, the menu underwent a sizable yet subtle overhaul. Many of the drinks were reformulated, while a few brand-new ones joined the menu. Modern techniques like juice clarification have been introduced into the daily prep work. More recently, Lee debuted a set of four Jell-O shots based on the bar's existing cocktails.
So where do things stand after all this change? I was a little concerned that a lot of fuss had been made over a bunch of unsalvageable cocktails after I tried the Tequila Sunrise ($13/$8 during happy hour). The combination of Siete Leguas reposado tequila, orange juice, passion fruit, and pomegranate over crushed ice was undeniably pleasant and perky, thanks to the sweet-tart one-two of orange and passion fruit; but probing for depth here, or at least a hint of the tequila's personality, was rather hopeless. It pointed out that the bad reputations of some '70s cocktails can't be blamed solely on the era's bartenders' settling for bad ingredients—the recipes themselves lack resolution. In other words, drowning tequila in fruit juices and hoping for magic may be a flawed concept from the start.
Where the cocktail menu is a little less beholden to the bar's theme is, I think, where it really excels. The Benton's Old Fashioned ($13), a cocktail Lee created in 2007 at PDT and re-presents here, is damn good. It features Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon that has soaked up the smokiness of Benton's bacon. With support from maple syrup and bitters, this cocktail knows how to be rich and round and seductive in a way a Tequila Sunrise can only dream to be.
Similarly, there's no denying the complexity of the El Guapo ($13), a drink created by Golden Cadillac bartender Lulu Martinez that blends lime juice, cucumber, sugar, Worcestershire, and hot sauce with the 86 Co.'s Tequila Cabeza. The dueling elements of delicate, melony cucumber and peppery spice work wonders together. Each component is resonant and in balance.
When I reached Lee by phone recently, he told me additional updates to the menu are on the horizon. More original drinks are coming. He also wants to install a centrifuge in the kitchen, which will help to refine certain ingredients. (Much of this 21st-century technical proficiency will remain invisible to the customer, though; Golden Cadillac wants to be known as an approachable neighborhood bar with great drinks, not a science lab masquerading as one.)
With more evolution in store, I'll be curious to see how the bar continues to balance its nostalgia for the old against what fuels practically every cocktail bar (and bartender) out there: a charge to innovate. Succeeding at the latter seems well in hand for Lee and his team. The greater challenge for them is to make that Tequila Sunrise into something special.
About the Author: Roger Kamholz is a food journalist living in New York City. Before moving to NYC he covered the Chicago food and drinks scene for four years. In addition to Serious Eats, Roger's writing and photography has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Refinery 29, Grub Street, and Chicagoist. Check out more of his work at rogerkamholz.com.