The fervor for woodland foraging in modern cuisine—a practice pioneered by Spain’s avant-garde gastronomical mecca Mugaritz and popularized by New Nordic destinations like Denmark’s Noma—has spread like brush fire. In the U.S., it was once a pastime only for eccentrics like naturalist Steve “Wildman” Brill (famously arrested for eating a Central Park dandelion), but the movement has reached the upper echelons of New York dining, with five-star highfliers like Daniel and Eleven Madison Park employing greenery combed from forest floors. But the world has Gotham to thank for a new innovation on the fad, appropriate for the city that never sleeps: Barkeeps are going boozy with the hunter-gatherer-style ingredients, spinning them into shoots-and-leaves tipples.
Pro forager Evan Strusinski—who collects wild, edible plants for top kitchens such as Gramercy Tavern and Blanca—is jonesing to challenge the supremacy of European aperitifs with back-country tinctures. “It’s fine to use amaros and bitters from Italy,” says Strusinski. “But if we can re-create [those ideas] using ingredients from around here, it’s simply more tasty. They give drinks bold, striking new flavors.” You can taste Strusinski’s finds in a few of the imaginative quaffs at the Lounge at Atera, the mixology annex to Mugaritz alum Matthew Lightner’s inventive tasting-menu temple. In the subterranean drinkery, a syrup made from a Pennsylvanian sassafras root lends earthy sweetness to the Sass, a Sazerac-like rye cocktail, while actual pinesap gives a bright, woody character to the gin-based Sapp.
Under chef Justin Hilbert (another Mugaritz vet), the naturalist bent of Williamsburg’s Gwynnett St. extends to the bar program. In shaken aquavit concoction Fogg’s Wager, a wetland perennial called sweet flag charges yellow Chartreuse and grapefruit with grassy, gingery undertones. On the other side of the ’hood, at cool-kid Scandinavian spot Aska, partner and beverage guru Eamon Rockey mirrors chef Fredrik Berselius’s forest-to-table approach in his cocktail list: Hudson Valley tree bark—discovered while the pair was mushroom hunting—provides the arboreal base for a birch-and-whiskey decanter bitter (a type of 19th-century American sipping amaro).
Even restaurants with more mainstream ambitions have jumped on the twig-waving bandwagon: Colicchio & Sons serves the Forager—a transparently titled drink highlighting whatever handpicked ingredients are hauled in, such as wild gingerroot (made into a tea with red verjuice) and huckleberries (mixed with lambrusco for a mulled wine). While stateside toques may continue to take cues from abroad, when it comes to cocktails—an American invention, mind you—New York’s still got the edge.
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