The ritual is so predictable: Go to a St. Louis bar, order a drink, drink it, order another, drink it. The cocktail is either good, so-so or bland, and ditto the crowd, whose sole purpose, it seems, is to cruise, get drunk and roar. The same goes for bars. Proprietors judge the success of their venture based on maximum capacity. Drinks take a back burner to buzz.
We recently had one of the most striking experiences we've ever had at a bar. It was an epiphany. Our only point of reference was the first time we heard the Sex Pistols, and immediately our Kiss records sounded pathetic.
Unfortunately for St. Louisans, this place is in New York City. The establishment is called Milk and Honey, and it's a semi-private club. You can find it, but it'll take work.
Sound snobby? It's actually not. It's wonderfully democratic: You secure the number, call it, leave a message indicating your desire to make an appointment, and you're in. There's no velvet rope. One of the eight rules, posted on the bathroom wall, is: "No name-dropping, no star-fucking." Other rules: Men must remove their hats. No hooting or hollering. Gentlemen may not approach ladies. Ladies may approach gentlemen, or request an introduction from the bartender.
Milk and Honey is disguised as a tailor's shop. Ring the bell, pass through one velvet curtain, then another, and immediately it's as if you've entered another world. The darkened room, lit only by candles, seems frozen in about 1924. The speakers play old jazz, blues and torch songs. Proprietor/bartender Sasha Patraske, who looks like an exotic Paul Reubens character with a gold hoop in each ear, welcomes, and then utters his standard invitation: "What are you in the mood for?" He then lists the day's fresh juices: pineapple, apple, ginger and grapefruit.
At this point, you can make a request, or place your trust in Patraske. We informed him we were curious about a tequila drink. He indexed his brain for a moment, then suggested a paloma: tequila (El Jimador), fresh grapefruit juice, lemon and sugar. Our date was in the mood for a dessert drink, perhaps a flip of some sort? Yes, he replied, a New York flip -- egg yolk, simple syrup, cream, bourbon, tawny port and nutmeg.
He returned with a highball and a cocktail glass. Our paloma was perfect. The tequila was obviously present but not overwhelming. The grapefruit complemented the alcohol, and vice versa. The lemon was a mere hint, and the sugar existed to ground the drink. And the New York flip! What a miracle: rich but not gluttonous, dynamic, velvety. It delivered a subtle punch, a velvet glove cast in iron.
That Milk and Honey, a quiet bar that holds perhaps 40 patrons and has strict rules of behavior, can exist in high-rent New York is a shocker. Think of what a good bartender with brains and passion could do in St. Louis, where the low cost of operation seems tailor-made for such an idea. Who's brave enough to attempt it? Who cares so much about cocktails that he or she will forego the buzz for the sake of atmosphere?