The sustainability movement, one of the most visible campaigns of the current crisis-of-conscience era of the craft cocktail, crept into New York last month in the humble form of Hunky Dory. The Crown Heights café, bar and restaurant is the first business venture by former San Francisco bartender Claire Sprouse, who is one of the leading voices in the effort to decrease waste in bar operations, going well beyond the headline-grabbing bans on plastic straws.
As such, Hunky Dory, fairly or not, comes freighted with expectations that an average cocktail bar needn’t contend with. Is an environmentally sustainable bar an oxymoron? Should austerity be the bailiwick of a by-definition decadent business model? Will zero-waste efforts have a negative impact on the quality of the drinks or bar experience? Unsurprisingly, Hunky Dory doesn’t have all the answers. Nor should it. But the bar is lucid in its approach, pleasant in execution and an encouraging place to start, with plenty of room to grow.
The space is bright, with a sky-lit dining area in back, a lot of light-colored wood and overhead bar fixtures that banish shadow. Signs of social consciousness are subtly apparent. The walls are decorated with art by women artists. (Sprouse holds an art history degree.) The back bar boasts very few labels, leaning toward brands that echo Sprouse’s views on sustainability and social equity. She is, however, not completely didactic in terms of sourcing locally; Wild Turkey and Cointreau aren’t made upstate. (This is perhaps just as well. As the well-intentioned efforts of D.C.’s A Rake’s Bar recently showed, hyper-provincialism can go terribly wrong.)
“Our underlying purpose is to put sustainability in action and share our learnings, and failures, to make it a more inclusive movement in hospitality,” Sprouse told me. “We don’t want to hit people over the heads with that mission when they walk in, but there are sneaky signals.”
In its first weeks, cocktails and food share the stage in a very West Coast-like, food-drink marriage. If anything, the food, by Kirstyn Brewer, steals the show. (More on that later.) The slim list of six drinks, ranging from $9 to $14, appear on the last page of the menu, and even those drinks are what you might call light fare, many of them buoyed by mountains of pebble ice and minimally garnished. (The cocktail menu will eventually expand to twice its length.)
The Smoky Mountain Song Bird is a long mezcal and Madeira sour, gently spicy and tangy, with a turmeric syrup lending it just enough mystery. Even lighter in character is the Ooh-La-Long, a clarified milk punch made from tequila, Meyer lemon, oolong tea and whey. The flavors are delicate, and the cocktail drinks airy in a way that few do. Both are attractively simple in appeal and presentation—no fancy glassware or elaborate garnishes here—which seems to fit Hunky Dory’s thoughtfully pared-down aesthetic.
The heaviest hitter, and best drink, is the Stop and Stay, another long drink on pebble ice. It is made with unsweetened “old brew coffee” (made from used grinds from the coffee station, infused into water), Amaro Averna, a syrup made from fig leaves bought in bulk and two rums: the overproof Rum Fire and Boukman, a spiced rhum agricole from Haiti flavored with local, foraged botanicals. It’s a deep and funky drink, finding the bottom notes of the coffee, rums and amaro without getting too heavy. (If you do hanker for a stiffer drink, don’t worry. Hunky Dory can handle off-menu classics, and makes a fine rye Manhattan.)
While most of the cocktails don’t shout their allegiance to sustainable practices, the Golden Year is more overt. A bourbon drink, it replaces orgeat, which is derived from water-wasting almonds, with sunflower syrup, a flavor that’s just, well, odd—lightly nutty in a raw-peanut sort of way, and a bit mealy in texture. It demanded that I figure it out after every sip, though I eventually made my peace with the cocktail, filing it under “interesting.”
Inside Hunky Dory
There has been chatter for years among booze folks about food-cocktail pairings, most of it ill-advised wishful thinking. Spirits and wine are not interchangeable. But here the drinks and dishes actually do work together because the cocktails are, by and large, unobtrusive and light-bodied. They gently companion the food.
And what food there is. While the menu by Brewer (who is, like Sprouse, from Texas) includes carnivorous items like short ribs and schnitzel, the overall feel of it is vaguely healthful, with plenty of fish and veggies, including “beefy veggies,” “smashed cukes” and “very good side salads.” Perhaps nothing communicates this vibe more than the Celery Root Sandwich, a dish that makes you feel virtuous simply by ordering it. That feeling of noble sacrifice dissipates the moment to sink your teeth into one of the best bar bites in town. A slab of celery root is braised, breaded and fried, then topped with cabbage slaw and held between crustless slices of pain de mie toast. It’s moist, fragrant and meaty.
The lush Cod Tots are closer to potato croquettes than tater tots. Addictive orbs of smoothly blended fish, potato, cream and onion, they are sprinkled with spicy mayo, sweet soy, herbs and a togarashi spice mix. They come in orders of three; you’ll need three more.
Another standout, and the only dish that carries over from the day menu to the evening, is the fantastic Green Eggs and Ham, a mix of rice and rice beans, green chile broth, braised ham and soft boiled egg, served in a bowl. Once again, Brewer finds hidden depths of flavor in what, on its frisée-strewn surface, looks like health food, bringing forth hints of ham and eggs, rice and beans and chilaquiles in a single delicious package. (Prices are very reasonable. While the few large plates can get into the $24 to $25 range, most of the small plates, all of decent size, are $5 to $10.)
By my final visit, I had stopped thinking about Hunky Dory as a sustainability model and more as a neighborhood bar with great food and a few lessons to impart, because that’s what it feels like. And that’s probably best. It’s unreasonable and unfeasible to place the weight of the bar world’s waste problems on the narrow shoulders of one joint. Environmental advances in the food and drink world won’t, in the end, hinge on self-important destination bars. They will accrue incrementally through quietly progressive local efforts like Sprouse’s. We typically go to bars to forget our cares. But what if, by going, we subconsciously knew we were also helping to solve one of those cares, in whatever small way. Wouldn’t that be hunky dory?