Who Took My Bar Munchies?

by Brian on March 22, 2015

in Just For Fun,Reviews

Butterball in IrelandWho ever heard of a bar without bar munchies? But that’s exactly what happened to us recently when my wife and I mustered up the courage to head out with friends on a cold Jerusalem night to check out Gatsby’s, a much talked about new cocktail lounge in downtown Jerusalem.

The first thing to know about me is that I’m not much of a barfly. I can count on one hand the times I’ve gotten rip-roaringly drunk, and most of those were over the last few years at the Jerusalem Wine Festival, held at the Israel Museum every summer. I was a resolute teetotaler in high school; when drinking was de rigueur, I was de nerd. I preferred geometry to Guinness. I never developed a taste for beer, which made fitting in at parties a challenge: I don’t recall my suburban high school classmates decoratively sipping Daiquiris while they banged on the provincial bong.

But I loosened up a bit as I got looser with my years and, while beer still doesn’t do it for me, I do appreciate a well made cocktail. Gatsby’s is the latest in what has become an international trend – high-end bars creating their own mixed drinks. The son of good friends of ours is one of Gatsby’s mixologists. He worked in a classy cocktail bar in New York City before returning to Israel, and the cocktails he’s made for us at his parent’s house were well considered, painstakingly planned, and delicious. Imagine what he could do with a whole bar behind him!

Gatsby’s trick is that it’s supposed to mimic a 1920s style speakeasy. The bartenders all wear bowties and suspenders. The entrance is through a “secret” wall of books that slides open (no door handle to give away what’s inside). There’s no sign outside to let guests know they’ve found the right address. And even so, they’re sold out nearly every night. (We made reservations the week before.) About the only 20’s touch missing was the music; I expected some Dixieland or Swing, at least some soft jazz. But the speakers were blasting trance and pop hits that would have made Duke Ellington jelly roll over.

Gatsby’s has a two-for-one happy hour and we’d heard their bar munchies were to die for – both creative and cheap. The Jerusalem Post gave Gatsby’s a glowing review that included not just the drinks but the bar menu. So we skipped dinner and planned to ply ourselves with starters. But when we were seated at our corner table, our waiter apologized but there would be no bar munchies tonight.

Unbeknownst to us when we reserved, there were two special chefs cooking up some rather gourmet sounding (and expensive) delights for the evening. OK, but maybe they could bring out some nuts or chips, a little cheese platter? I was already somewhere on the border between puckish and ravenous and I didn’t relish the thought of this lightweight drinking on an entirely empty stomach.

Our waiter checked with the kitchen and said he could bring us out some starters…in about 20 minutes. Which got me wondering: can you drink first and then eat, so that the food soaks up the alcohol retroactively? That didn’t sound particularly likely.

But what choice did I have? So I ordered the most kosher sounding starter and hoped service on the drinks would be slow. The menu was all in Hebrew and the waiter spoke like a contractor trying to explain the source of a water leak: gushingly fast and with little to hold onto except a few keywords. I heard “fish” and “labeneh” (a yogurt like cheese) and “grapefruit.” Bring it on, and fast.

But there was another problem: the fish was fine for me, but nothing on the menu was vegan and my wife is. So, even though I might be able to fill up on cheesy fish with grapefruit garnish, or whatever I’d just ordered, what would she do? “Maybe I can bring in a sandwich from the Aroma next door?” she asked. “Let me check,” our waiter replied but the answer was quickly no.

The first round of drinks was too prompt, arriving well before the fish mix. We were obliged to begin.

Now here’s the thing: they were really good. I mean, like Eric Clapton cocktails from heaven good. I ordered the “Fitzgerald,” a classic drink made with imported Angostura bitters, gin, sugar, lemon and egg whites. It went down smooth as an oyster (or so I’ve been told) and was, as our more alcoholically experienced drinking companion opined, very “adult” in flavor. My wife’s drink was equally unique – a local creation called the “Painkiller” which included rum, pineapple and coconut and was served in what looked like a real coconut. “It’s just a coconut shaped glass,” our waiter said, deflecting our expectations, but not much, as the alcohol was quickly working its way through our empty bellies.

The fish eventually arrived – at NIS 42 – it was tiny but fabulous. The conversation flowed, we ordered a second round (it was Happy Hour after all and, despite the lack of food, what, were we going to turn down a free drink?) and then an old friend walked in. I turned my head to say hello and the room spun. Ah, I remember that feeling: I once had a virus that turned into vertigo and I felt like throwing up for a week. If cocktails were software, I’d be asking: is that a feature or a bug?

Eventually, it was time to go. As we got up, somehow, the table, with all of our mostly drained drinks, flipped onto its side, spilling in slow motion what was left onto the couch, the floor, the guests at the next table over, but miraculously not breaking anything. Bow ties swooped in to mop things up. We sheepishly made our way out. I turned to my wife and asked, in all seriousness, “How did that happen? I think it just fell over by itself. That is so weird.” That maybe we’d knocked it over never occurred to us in the strange state we now found ourselves in.

That state included a rather stupid decision we’d made earlier in the evening when we decided to drive to Gatsby’s rather than take the bus. I didn’t anticipate getting this drunk – after all we were supposed to be supping on those famous bar munchies that weren’t. Now what were we going to do? We couldn’t drive home safely. We’d trashed the bar. And my wife was far beyond famished.

And there it was, shining like a beacon from sobriety: “The Vegan Schwarma,” a fast food restaurant where my wife could choose from a full menu of no meat, no fish, no dairy options: vegan schwarma, vegan burgers, vegan schnitzel, vegan pizza, vegan falafel (OK, that’s already vegan).

We split a burger. It cost all of NIS 30. Maybe it was because of the alcohol, but it was the best dang lentil, rice and nut patty I ever ate. No wonder the McDonald’s across the street closed.

In time, the inebriation subsided and we were able to drive home, me at the wheel, my wife spotting for oncoming traffic. When we told our story to the kids at home, they rolled their eyes big time. There’s nothing they like less than seeing their parents get stupid.

But I did feel stupid. The whole idea of drinking made even less sense now than it had when I was in high school. The truth is, as good as the drinks were, we enjoyed that fast food vegan burger far more than the cocktails. In the days to follow, we kept coming back to it as the “peak moment” from the evening. Our cocktails plus the frou-frou fish starter cost us over NIS 150. We could have bought five vegan burgers for that price!

I’m not dissing Gatsby’s – if you eat first or pick a night without any guest chefs experimenting in the kitchen, it’s a top-notch establishment that makes by far the tastiest drinks I’ve ever had. But still…

Two days later, it was Purim. Friends invited us for a lavish seudah – the traditional afternoon meal for the holiday – in which they promised the booze would be endless and everyone would leave totally plastered.

We gracefully declined. Even if they had munchies, my drinking days are over. That is, if they ever really started.

I first wrote about drinking and vegan burgers at The Jerusalem Post.

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