Death & Co.
Please Don't Tell
It used to be that if you wanted a drink in the East Village it would be served by a beefy Slavs with meat hooks for hands and was invariably a shot of something from the well, chased by a soapy domestic beer. Later on, the bartenders become pretty tattooed girls or aging singers from punk rock bands, and the liquor options widened, featuring offerings from a higher shelf and beers from foreign countries. Somewhere along the line the bartender morphed into the mixologist—now young men in tight waist coats sling exotic cocktails in dimly lit bars.
You can still find the first type of bar in the East Village, but to experience the truly avante garde you need to seek out the new breed of cocktail lounge that have sprung as of late. Death & Co. and Please Don't Tell (PDT) are two of the best example of these, and coincidentally they both serve food. Even better, both of their menus feature hamburgers.
Death & Co.
Located on East 6th Street, Death & Co. operates on a first-come, first-served basis and accepts no reservations. Assuming that there is room, you will be led through the heavy wooden door and through the heavy drapes leading into the dark, wood-paneled confines of the room that is not unlike the interior of a coffin. I am sure that the mid-20 to 30-year-old hipsters that frequent the joint have no problem reading the menu in the candlelight, but to my aging eyes the fine print is hard to decipher. When I have to pull out my mobile phone and bathe the menu in its blue glow to read it properly, I begin to feel like one of those geezers in the Owl Wallet Light infomercial.
The menu has some interesting options such as short rib empanadas, lamb quesadilla, bacon-wrapped filet mignon (a waste of good bacon in my opinion) and Kobe Sliders 2 Ways. I asked the bartender—I mean mixologist—for the most milkshake-like cocktail to go with the Kobe sliders that I order and he recommends something from the flips section: cocktails blended with organic egg. I expect to like the Pit Stop Flip the best, a frothy concoction featuring Lairds bonded applejack and maple syrup spiked with nutmeg, but find the cinnamon-infused Jack Sparrow more to my liking.
When you read "Kobe" and "Slider" in the same sentence you have some expectations that are entirely warranted. By using the term Kobe there is an implicit understanding that the beef will be ethereally luxurious and have an overabundance of juiciness and flavor. The term "slider" is evocative of greasy little bite-size burgers that are deeply satisfying, especially when under the influence of alcohol (or other substances), and "Kobe slider" in particular sounds like a great combination.
Unfortunately, the execution leaves much to be desired. The four little burgers are served on brioche buns, which is generally my least favorite type of burger bread, but the one employed here is not too sweet. It also has a pleasing greasiness that sort of mimics sliders cooked with the traditional griddle-steaming method.
Two of the burgers come topped with caramelized onions, making them look like a miniature version of the Minetta Tavern Black Label burger, while the other two are served with Affinée blue cheese and pancetta, two ingredients that I think are excellent in almost every application—except hamburgers. Curiously I don't find the cheese, pancetta, nor even the brioche the most offensive ingredient in the sandwich: the "Kobe" beef was simply not good enough. The burgers would have been unacceptable even if the menu had made no mention of the provenance of the beef and if it were priced at $6 instead of $12, but to call these mealy, desiccated patties "Kobe" borders on fraud. I actually ordered them twice, the second time making sure to request them rare, but the result was the same: overcooked, dry, lifeless.
While the cocktails that flow at Death & Co. are superb—indeed I drown my burger sorrow with a Strange Brew (Tanqueray Ten Gin, Velvet Falernum, Fresh Pineapple and Lemon Juice, IPA Hop Devil)—the sliders leave much to be desired. If only they received the care and attention that the cocktails at Death & Co. do.
Please Don't Tell
My wanton lust for hamburgers and cocktails unassuaged, I head over to the semi-secret cocktail spot Please Don't Tell, an exhortation which I am about to completely disregard. PDT is secreted in a manner wholly evocative of a speakeasy behind a vintage telephone booth in Crif Dogs, one of my favorite hot dog spots. Getting into PDT is tricky, especially if you want to sit at the bar (which, believe me, is were you want to be). You can reserve a spot in advance via the telephone (the one in your pocket, not the one in the phone booth), but only for the handful of tables that line the front of the room. Once you squeeze yourself into the aforementioned telephone booth and pick up the receiver contained therein you will, depending on the crowd, be either admitted or have your name taken for the waiting list. The bar is small and justifiably popular, so wait times even at off hours can be long. You could always pop down to Death & Co. for a cocktail while you wait (just don't order the sliders) or just relax in the company of a few hot dogs and rounds of Spy Hunter at Crif Dog's.
Once you finally gain admittance to PDT's hallowed room and are shown to the bar by the hostess with the impossibly brilliant eyes, a sense of nostalgia might just wash over you. Of course, it is nostalgia for a fictitious time, a contemporary construct of what a speakeasy might be. The soundtrack is Amy Winehouse rather than Ella Fitzgerald, and the cocktails are new age twists on old classics. Perhaps the most celebrated is the Benton's bacon-infused old fashion created by cocktail wunderkind Don Lee, who fears that he will never live down its creation. (Lee, late of PDT now plies his trade over at Momofuku Ssam Bar, one of my favorite non-burger restaurants.)
The food menu is sparse: a handful of hot dogs, a burger, and some sides. The food is delivered through a tiny little steel trap door that leads to the adjacent Crif Dog kitchen, but the menu at PDT is unique and you cannot order it next door. Before I am harangued "for missing the point" of PDT, I did eat my way through the hot dog menu in addition to the hamburger I am about to tell you about (Chang Dog: too salty; Wylie Dog: too sweet by virtue of the molasses; The John Deragon Dog strewn with bagel toppings: absolutely perfect, intensely evocative of an everything bagel, but with the decidedly non-Kosher addition of pork sausage).
The burger, very reasonably priced at $7, comes impressively stacked with a mound of rabbit food, choice of cheese (predictably I went for American), and some crispy bacon underneath a white seeded bun. The latter was a commendable choice, but was a little past its sell-by date. Although it tasted fine, the top cracked and fractured and fell apart a bit, unable to contain the generous and perfectly rare patty.
The beef had a pure flavor and was nicely seasoned. The cheese blanketed it in a gooey mass, and the lettuce and slivers of whole pickles added a pleasing synthesis, no condiments needed. The only component that threatened to cause disunion was the bacon. I never eat bacon on burgers—I find that it generally obscures the flavor of the beef and the jarring crunch of biting into it masks the textural distinction of the patty itself. Although the bacon at PDT is perfectly crisp, it curiously tastes like hot dogs. It is no secret that Crif Dogs wraps a number of their custom dogs in bacon and deep fries them; the oil seems to have picked up the flavor of the dogs. I recommend skipping the bacon, leave it for the hot dogs if you must.
But aside from the bacon, the burger at PDT is a thing of beauty—texturally balanced, a pleasing layering of flavors that left me wanting for nothing, not even a chihuahua dog from next door. I polish off the burger and order a Rust Belt for dessert, a dreamy, creamy mix of Barbancourt rum, vanilla liqueur, and egg white infused with almond and rose water. Also deeply satisfying.
While I found the cocktails at both establishments very pleasing, the burger at PDT is the only one that I would recommend. The dry, overcooked sliders at Death & Co. were a disappointment, especially considering the $12 price tag. By comparison you could get a cheeseburger and a hot dog at PDT for the same price, and be infinitely happier.
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