In his recent kitchen memoir, Heat, writer Bill Buford confirmed what loner dudes have long suspected: that the moment we park our companionless asses on a barstool at a restaurant and ask for a menu, we're pegged. In Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo in New York City, where Buford apprenticed, we're called "bar losers." We pull out a book or magazine, order a cocktail, a glass of wine and a nice dinner. We're not talkers, don't care much for sports. We get lost in thought for an hour, then pay and vanish into the night. It's almost like we're spies, or ghosts.
Last night we appeared at Eleven Eleven Mississippi's bar. Ordered a glass of Fleur de California vin gris, a 2005 pinot noir rose and a frickin' awesome barbecue-rubbed pork chop with tomato-molasses chutney and garlic mashed potatoes. We cracked open a back issue of Gourmet. This weird song called "Black Cab" by Jens Lekman has been stuck in our head all week. It's about mysterious black taxis that pick up fares and drive them away. As the flat-screen TV above showed Law & Order reruns, we ate, read, drank, then left to walk down the street to Lafayette Square's newest addition, Vin de Set.
The sun was nearly gone, its remnants casting an otherworldly pink over the people socializing on Vin de Set's glorious rooftop deck. But tonight the dozens of outdoor tables made us think not of laughter and chit-chat, but about that one Raymond Carver story, "Why Don't You Dance?," where the guy in the middle of a divorce loses his head during a morning bender. One of the great first sentences in American literature: "In the kitchen, he poured himself another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard."
Vin de Set consumes the whole third floor of a huge former warehouse space; it's all exposed beams and brick. A man could get lost in here. We park our keister at the inside bar and order a sidecar. Outside on the deck, couples and four-tops celebrate companionship. In here, we sit, as bar manager William Kunderman explains that when constructing his ace cocktail list, he looked for classics that recalled the early twentieth century. Thus, among others: French 75, old-fashioned, kir royale, Sazerac, Manhattan and this fantastic sidecar: brandy (or cognac), lemon juice and cointreau.
Kunderman says that the drink originated in Paris after World War I, and was made for a guy who used to drive up in a motorcycle with a sidecar (probably just in case he met someone). It's a sturdy, well-balanced drink, with enough lemon to offset the brandy's sweetness but not so much as to kill it.
This Vin de Set place is great, we think as that Jens Lekman song pokes melodically along in our head. The bartender's nice; the people are friendly. We could get lost in here. Lekman strums along and sings in his flat, Jonathan Richman-inspired baritone about missing the last train home after a night with friends: "Oh no goddamn I missed the last tram/I killed the party again, goddamn, goddamn/I want to sleep in my bed, I want to clean out my head/Don't want to look this dead, don't want to feel this dread/I killed the party again, I ruined it for my friends/'You're so silent, Jens.' Well maybe I am, maybe I am."
The song continues on in our head as the singer, lost late at night, contemplates his options. Soon, a black cab pulls up. He's heard about them. "If you take a ride with him, you might not come back alive." But he doesn't care, and he gets in: "Turn up the music, take me home or take me anywhere/Black cab." Got a drink suggestion?