ZZ’s Clam Bar will appeal to people who like secrets. Darkly recessed on Thompson Street, the industrial facade is elusive; it’s only indication is the blue, double Z neon burning in the bottom window. Inside is a paradise the size of a studio apartment. A low-lit crystal chandelier glows over the dining room: one rail bar with four stools to the right, and, opposite, a line of marble-topped tables–ten seats total–along a leather banquette.
A wall of wood paneling frames the bar, the one-man stage decked with carafes of fresh juices on crushed ice, tropical flowers in bloom beside them. The bartender wears a white dinner jacket and bolo tie. His bottles are shelved along the exposed brick wall to the left; a raw bar display is illuminated behind him.
“Are you Elizabeth?” A woman asks. She ushers me to a barstool along the rail. The external world melts into the darkness surrounding. ZZ’s Clam Bar isn’t an escape, it’s an exclusive experience I’ve found access to.
The menu of 20 specialty cocktails are each named for the sensations they represent: Banana, Almond, Iced Coffee, etc. A vague trio of ingredients summarizes every option. Each is $20.
Without hesitation, I order the Sarsaparilla (Spanish rum, derelict spices, amontillado sherry). Alas, they are missing a key ingredient, the server tells me. She takes me through other rum-based options, elaborating on the nuances of ingredients, preparations, theory, calling out the ones she really loves. She last mentions the Coconut, describing it as “Very ZZ’s.” She says, “It’s served in a coconut.” Of course it is.
It takes me a long time to decide. I consider the antics of having something “very” like the place that I am drinking, but am ultimately lured to a light aperitif. Pear (white rum, ano sherry, green tea) is a like a rum martini, lightly aromatic. My guide had described it as “a stirred rum drink, with a little bit of pear liqueur.” Initially fragile, the fruit starts to shine as the central flavor midway through the drink.
Cardamom (gin, vanilla, VEP chartreuse) holds true to it’s name from the first sip. The gin’s botanicals are ramped up by the aged chartreuse, mingling spice, and eased by the vanilla. “We’re having a weird couple of days,” the server says. She is pretty, and in command of her dining room, the interpreter of this delusively simple menu. “[The Cardamom] normally comes in a Buddha, but the last Buddha broke, so tonight it comes in a fish.” The fish is ceramic and swooping, upright on his tail.
Deceitfully simple, each cocktail reveals itself complex. The pistachio cocktail (Plymouth gin, kumquat, honey) is a real end-of-the-meal treat (yes, the crudos and sashimi are good, too). It’s almost like a milkshake–raw egg gives body and texture to this sweet-and-savory drink. It has all the wholesomeness of pistachios; I wonder if one of these will fill me up, or knock me off my feet. Are there actual pistachios in this? I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell.