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Bar Review: The Petraske School Evolves

In Robert Simonson's "Bar Review," he offers a look at some of today’s most notable new venues. Here, he considers the loosened sense of formality at LA’s Bar Clacson and Brooklyn’s Diamond Reef.

The most popular drink at Diamond Reef, a new Brooklyn bar, is a frozen cocktail made of blended Scotch, honey, ginger and lemon, with a float of smoky Islay single malt. The cocktail curious will recognize those ingredients as the components of the Penicillin, one of the most well-traveled of modern classics. It’s called the Penichillin.

The Penichillin might just as well be a Bat-Signal for Diamond Reef, telling the world the kind of bar it wants to be. The owners include Sam Ross (the inventor of the Penicillin); Michael McIlroy, co-owner with Ross of Attaboy, the wildly popular Lower East Side cocktail bar; and Dan Greenbaum, a former Attaboy bartender.

Attaboy, of course, occupies hallowed ground in cocktail history. In 2013, it took over the original address of Milk & Honey, the ur-speakeasy opened in 1999 by Sasha Petraske. Ross and McIlroy know that any new bar they open is going to be viewed through that historical prism, and they are more than content to upend expectations. The entrance to Diamond Reef—on a dusty, industrial strip of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue—may be marked by a cryptic neon diamond, but the bar’s name is also painted in large letters on the nearby wall. No speakeasy is this.

Ross and McIlroy are among the more prominent of Petraske disciples to open new bars following the latter’s untimely death in 2015, at the age of 42. Two others, Richard Boccato and Eric Alperin, recently unveiled Bar Clacson in downtown Los Angeles. Alperin is the reigning force behind The Varnish, which Petraske opened in Los Angeles in 2009, and Boccato collaborated with Petraske on Dutch Kills in Long Island City, Queens, that same year. (Cedd Moses, the phantom force behind many of Los Angeles’ best cocktail bars, is a co-owner of Clacson, as is Eric Needleman.)

Both bars represent a move toward loosened formality that has been a prevailing trend in modern cocktailing for the last few years. It took time for bartenders to restore their craft to respectability and reintroduce the drinking public to the joys of mixed drinks as they once were—before vodka, sour mix and Tom Cruise took control of the backbar. Once those goals were achieved, however, some bartenders seemed particularly stung by accusations of elitism. Determined to prove their fun-times bonafides, they began to open more democratic joints, taking the aesthetic from diva to dive.

As such, this isn’t a terribly surprising move for the Diamond Reef and Bar Clacson bartenders. Ross and McIlroy are from Australia and Ireland, respectively, and are known to customers for their devil-may-care camaraderie. Boccato and Alperin have acting backgrounds and a relaxed roguishness about them. All four are more comfortable in a T-shirt and jeans than was the naturally formal Petraske. That shows in these bars, where one can see them strain to prove that they’re capable of tricks that don’t involve candlelight, cucumber water and jazz.

Physically, both spaces are repudiations of the Petraske model. Whereas Attaboy, Dutch Kills and The Varnish are all small, darkened and sequestered, Clacson and Diamond Reef are large and airy, with high ceilings and long bars. Not only is standing at the bar allowed (it wasn’t at Milk & Honey), there’s ample space to do it. Both spaces take it further—unbuttoning that third or fourth button—Clacson by way of a foosball table and an indoor pétanque court, and Diamond Reef both in design (sloping banquettes and bar stools are splattered in turquoise, furnishing a quasi-tropical vibe that wouldn’t be out of place in Miami) and a back courtyard, to open in warmer weather, complete with a food truck.

“A lot of the inspiration for the bar came from the space,” says Greenbaum. “It was an old auto-repair shop with dirt floors and no back wall, on an industrial block. We wanted to turn it into something that felt like a break from that when you walk in.”

Diamond Reef Brooklyn

There is always a risk with the Petraske children that, if they stray too far into the casual we may forget why we’re following them. But, for the time being, Bar Clacson and Diamond Reef are striking the right balance.

Of the two, Clacson puts on more airs, but only slightly. There’s a vaguely European atmosphere (note the French and Italian flags on the wall) in keeping with the bar’s aperitivo-hour aspirations. And the opening menu features plenty of sherry, vermouth, bitters and amari in the cocktails, alongside a short menu of Italian snacks like panini, bruschette and charcuterie. The quiet rigor of the cocktails and the easygoing Eurocentric menus lend Clacson enough of a distinct persona to keep it from just being another big and affable addition to the downtown LA scene.

“Richard and I are of European descent: me French, him Italian,” explained Alperin. “We often revisit the memories of our respective childhood experiences in France and Italy as they presented a stark contrast to our mutual upbringing in New York City. In essence, Bar Clacson is a paean to our heritage.” The bar is intended to be, he added, “an American local with a European accent.”

The menu’s approachability begins with the Clascon Spritz, a softball mix of vodka, Aperol and lemon juice saved from mere pleasantness by a white wine syrup, which contributes a needed kick of acidity. The Quill, the house Negroni—which can be had on tap—also won’t scare anyone away: a mix of gin, Campari and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth laced with absinthe, its subtle diversion from the classic adds a few welcome grace notes to its predecessor. (All wines, beers and ciders are on tap as well, including a Lambrusco.)

A bit more hardball, conceptually, but still in the low-ABV camp, is the Greenbrier Julep. A slightly too sweet adaptation of a 1920s Harry McElhone drink, it’s a mix of Lustau oloroso sherry and Vermina red vermouth from Santa Barbara, accented by peach bitters and a thick tuft of mint.

The cocktail section of the menu is divided between low-ABV drinks and the higher-octane ones. Clacson Spritz and Greenbrier both fall under the former heading; more involving liquid pleasures are found on the page titled “Le Cocktail.” The excellent Fin de Siecle, which is the bar’s house Martini, is made of gin, Amaro CioCiaro, dry vermouth and orange bitters. It is bracing and dry with dominant bitter orange notes from both the bitters and the amaro. The ingredients of the Mezcaletti, meanwhile, are telegraphed in the name: mezcal and Amaro Meletti, built in a rocks glass over ice. Strong, nutty and buttery, it has a surprising amount of depth for such a simple drink. (A Boccato cocktail, the Mezcaletti can also be found on the menu at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar, Fresh Kills, which opened in 2016.)

Bar Clacson LA

While Clacson’s menu has enough liquid dog whistles to immediately attract the cocktail cognoscenti, Diamond Reef’s thrifty menu is so simple a child could understand it. It’s divided into highballs, rocks drinks and up drinks, with that Penichillin thrown in. The latter is as good as you might imagine, though there’s a velvet hammer hidden in all that slush; the ginger and smoke somehow hit you harder in frozen form.

Another lowbrow wild card is the Booze + Juice, which pairs fresh-pressed green-apple juice with the spirit of your choice. The drink was inspired by Ross and McIlroy’s visit to The Baxter Inn in Sydney, which goes through buckets of Granny Smiths every day. Whiskey makes for the best pairing—the drink arriving with little bits of apple floating about, adding a pleasant texture. It’s easy to love and just novel enough to keep you interested.

Sometimes the gang’s embrace of loopy fun runs off the rails, though. The Steakhouse Martini contains only “classy vodka” and a hefty ounce of “various dirty juices” (a blend of brines, including olive, onion and cornichon), garnished with olives and onions. It’s a playful rebuke of the vermouth-heavy retro-Martinis of the cocktail classicists. But it’s a dirty bridge too far. Vodka and brine is just brine with a kick.

The Nice One is offers a similar minimalism, but without the cheek. The work of Greenbaum—who is known for his affinity with sherry—it’s basically an equal parts Adonis (amontillado sherry and sweet vermouth), with a half ounce banana liqueur thrown in, garnished with a Petraske-long orange twist. It’s light and nutty, with the banana keeping respectfully to the rear. (There are sherries by the glass as well. And, should you be inclined, Krug Champagne by the bottle at $420.)

Similarly subtle work is at play with the Scorpion Kick, a Daiquiri with a touch of crème de cacao, shaken with mint leaves. Simultaneously echoing the Mojito, tiki drinks and dessert drinks, it’s a Daiquiri delicately transformed into a drink for all tastes.

The owners of both Diamond Reef and Bar Clacson—all of whom hail from destination bars—have expressed the desire that their new enterprises become neighborhood places. That may explain why, particularly with Diamond Reef, the teams seem to be purposefully punching below their weight, menu-wise. Locals are judged less by drinks than by atmosphere, service and dependability of experience. The first waves of customers will likely order from the cocktail lists. The future regulars, however, will probably stick to beer, shots, Penichillins or a draft Lambrusco. If so, what’s the harm? Every celebrated chef, it seems, eventually opens a burger or fried chicken joint, and craft cocktaildom’s luminaries may be on a similar path.

Something to ponder over a game of foosball, perhaps.

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