My first visit to Young American felt akin to playing an extra in a Wes Anderson whodunnit set inside a painstakingly sweet diner. A friend and I lounged on wooden stadium seats beneath the pink glow of a neon sign, checking our hair in the wall-length mirror as we sipped precious cocktails and ate lamb tartare glossed with fragrant chile oil.
Long after the bar’s spell faded, there were a few things I couldn’t shake. While I appreciated that Young American’s cooks double as servers (it makes staff-wide pay more equitable and helps diners really delve into the menu), it created long gaps in service. And then there was the ubiquity of so many health-preserving elixirs, which frankly bummed me out. More than once, the menu sacrificed pleasure in the name of creativity.
Director of food Nick Jirasek is undoubtedly one of the city’s most exciting chefs. I first tasted his bold, nostalgic Midwestern-Filipino cooking at Leisure Activities’ sibling spot Ludlow Liquors, where he helms the permanent food installment. At Young American he applies cerebral artistry to protein-rich vegan fundamentals like Bragg's aminos (soy protein concentrate) and trendy cure-alls like activated charcoal and CBD, the non-psychoactive compound in marijuana with purported calming effects.
His creativity sometimes yields magic, as was the case with the habit-forming bar snack Calmonds, nuts coated in lemongrassy CBD oil, honeyed chamomile and savory chicken salt. The savory, quietly funky brandade may as well have been crafted by merfolk. Kombu-boiled potatoes are whipped till supple with butter-steeped smoked dulse (seaweed) and fermented black beans, then draped with herbaceous dried seaweed and paired with inky nori crackers.
The already Instagram-famous Goth Bread matched its visual drama in substance, though a little goes a long way (I’d suggest four share a loaf). We sawed into the toothsome bread blackened with activated charcoal, puncturing its duck yolk topper and exposing its indulgent butterkase heart. A roasted tomato crown and caramelized edges were reminiscent of Chicago-style pan pizza.
Other dishes bordered on self-punishing. The Nighttime Sisig—Jirasek’s riff on the magnetic, crispy Filipino pig-head skillet—was a slippery melange of fatty braised pork bits in need of a crunchy contrast. Wine-braised “edamame in the style of mussels” was a fun idea that fell flat on execution. We fished out the encased soybeans from the sea of soft fennel and tangy liquid with our fingers, finding that their starchy centers absorbed little flavor.
Drinkwise, beverage director Julia McKinley (Lonesome Rose) presides over a thought-provoking lineup of diminutively portioned sips. Spaceface was a revelatory minty margarita, with tequila, herbaceous blanco vermouth, lime and creme de menthe, with an overripe sweetness owing to pineapple and honey. The spiritless, CBD powder-infused No New Friends gets some heat from peppercorn-infused turmeric tea; aquafaba (starchy chickpea water) lends a velvety texture to the drink. Creature of Love, a sherry-and-bourbon cocktail imbued with lemon and tart cherry liqueur, tasted so overwhelmingly sour that it was hard to identify any other flavors.
It was all enough to make my date and me revert to the familiar with two glasses of zippy-fresh Austrian gruner veltliner, having reached our self-betterment thresholds for the evening. Three 20-somethings slid into the barstools next to us—faces aglow in phone light—and each ordered a boozeless CBD-infused cocktail.
Man, I’m getting old, I thought.
Atmosphere: This edgy neighborhood barstaurant from Leisure Activities offers a high-concept menu filled with trending elixirs to match its modern-abstract digs.
What to eat: Stick to snackish bites like the ambrosial lamb tartare, the lusciously oceanic brandade and the indulgent Goth Bread.
What to drink: Botanical, bittersweet and spiritless cocktails shine brightest on this tight menu. The citrusy Hey High Hello, with gin, Pineau de Charentes and sherry, is bright and bitter, with gently oxidized sweetness.
Where to sit: The best seats in the house are at the roomy L-shaped bar. Groups will dig the stadium-style seating in the adjacent room.