To Milk & Honey: A Brief Encomium to Magic and Presence

Magic, the epigram goes, requires much preparation but little effort. I have been thinking about magic, about beauty, about creating a space in which one can be entirely present—because I’ve been thinking about Sasha Petraske, who passed away last week at the heartbreakingly young age of 42. His first bar, Milk & Honey, opened on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side of New York in December 1999. I spent much of the following year and a half there.

My friend Zoe first took me to Milk & Honey. You could only go if you had the phone number and called in advance. Zoe advised me that if Sasha thought I was cool, he might give me the number—an intimidating proposition. But when Sasha, all handsome and dapper, came over to say hi he put me instantly at ease. I wasn’t cool. Nor was I beautiful or stylish—my mien in those days could best be described as Neurotic Ragamuffin. But I was friendly and lived in the neighborhood and was clearly enraptured with his place. He gave me the number and I quickly became a regular. Every time they buzzed me in and I parted the purple velvet curtains to enter the tiny bar, I felt a thrill. Candlelight flickered off the pressed tin ceilings and small leather booths. The bar glowed like a beacon in the center of the dark space, the throbbing heart, all cut fruits and freshly squeezed juices and perfect olives and beautiful bottles of liquor. It managed to be both an overflowing bounty and neat and tidy at the same time.

Sasha reintroduced some goddamn manners into drinking society. His house rules, were posted in the bathrooms. Number one? “No name dropping, no star fucking.” Now that’s a strong opener in New York. But access to Milk & Honey was not meant to be used as that kind of currency—instead, you were directed to “not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home.” Sasha changed the number regularly to weed out the assholes. He called out macho bullshit—“no fighting, no play fighting, no talking about fighting.”

Sasha expected us to do our part. Restraint was built into the mores at Milk & Honey.   The $10 price tag—shocking then, standard now–didn’t encourage knocking back drinks. The cocktails commanded one’s full attention. Sasha and his bartenders introduced me to the Sidecar, the Ward 8, the French 75. And—so rare for New York—they shared their expertise and invited customers into the process without a hint of condescension. Through them, I witnessed for the first time how a few simple careful ingredients could be alchemized into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Milk & Honey didn’t worry about efficiency. This meant sometimes your drink took a while to show up. But then also they would surprise you with a plate of snacks—prosciutto or warmed almonds in the winter, strawberries and cream in the summer. For all its sweet pretensions—the slicked back hair and elbow garters that have spawned legions of imitators—it wasn’t gimmicky. For all the care and effort that went into the place, it wasn’t fussy.

I have to take a moment to acknowledge one particular house rule: women could initiate conversations with men, or a bartender could effect an introduction between strangers, but men were asked not to speak to women they didn’t know. I remember going in at opening and seeing a line of women sitting at the bar in their work clothes unwinding from their days with a cocktail, content that no one would bother them, knowing that this space was as much theirs as anyone else’s.

Sasha had the vision to understand how the customer co-created her own experience, and how he could help us do that in his quiet way. His overall generosity of spirit permeated Milk & Honey, which remains to me the platonic form of A Bar. Even now, fifteen years later, I easily can call up how it felt to be there—the way my heart leapt walking in, how I always left more peaceful after an hour in its island of candelight.

****

I moved away from New York in the summer of 2001, and visited more rarely after 2003. In 2004, I moved to Berkeley with my now-husband, Ben. He’s a wonderful cook, and his foodie tendencies collided with his first access to disposable income in the crucible of California cuisine. Ben’s professional community eschewed flash cars but elevated fine wines. Add to that national sea change around food culture and it was a perfect storm. Over the next few years I found myself on a whirlwind tour of restaurants and bars often on expense accounts not my own.

I saw Milk & Honey everywhere—in every “craft” cocktail menu, in every coupe glass. I felt like I could see Sasha in every exacting bartender wearing elbow garters, every square ice cube and metal straw and fresh fruit and thyme sprig garni.

After awhile, it started to feel like people were copying the wrong things. First came the rash of bars pretending to be “speakeasies” with pseudo-clever hidden entrances and passwords you could get by going to a website—essentially, a regular reservation system dressed up in the frills of ersatz exclusivity. Once inside, the jig was up—you’d walk into cavernous interiors the investor-owners wanted to crowd with as many drinkers as possible. Milk & Honey was a “speakeasy” because Sasha found a small cheap spot in a residential building where his customers had to stay quiet. He wasn’t trying to cultivate some A-list clientele—he wanted to keep the douchebags to a minimum and the crowd to a manageable size.

So many cocktail menus now trumpet their fancy fresh juices, tinctures, 75 flavors of bitters and infused liqueurs. The drinks now sometimes seem a performance of excess, as opposed to a dance of restraint. It’s like American football—how can you call something a true sport that requires so many rules to function? The drink descriptions seem intended to justify inflated price tags, and more often than not, don’t lead to a good cocktail.

I’ve seen so many bars simply trying to copy Sasha’s formula before the hipness wore off, to turn it into a get rich quick scheme. Very few came close to his spirit.

To be fair, spirit is a difficult thing to recreate. Expanding it and bringing it to more people with the assistance of investor partners seemed a tricky business for Sasha himself. I remember the cynical twist in his voice as he described the initial transformation of Milk & Honey from a bar into a brand with its expansion to SoHo in London in 2002.

***

Ten years later, when I ran into him at his West Village bar Little Branch, he seemed similarly rueful. He remembered me, which surprised me after all these years—and we chatted for a bit, even though it was a busy evening and he had just ejected a wasted windbag. Sasha was running a bigger empire, working hard, describing to me the frustrations of negotiating California labor laws for his LA outpost, The Varnish. The dreamy idealist from over a decade earlier was now entirely an entrepreneur. But his values hadn’t changed—he was still trying to make it perfect for us. It was just a harder thing to do.

It’s not efficient to curate a space that encourages us to be in conversation with each other, to sit and sip and slow down. And the capitalist directive, once it has discovered it can charge you $20 for a cocktail, will always look for ways to sell you four of them as fast as possible. Perhaps if there is any money to be made from something, it will find a way to be made.

But that isn’t the cocktail Sasha would have wanted us to drink in his honor. (That cocktail, by the way, is a classic daiquiri—a simple rum, sugar and lime. Sasha’s colleagues, friends and family have requested people to drink a daiquiri in his honor next Monday, August 31 at 9pm, the time Milk & Honey opened each night.)

One night in 2007, Ben and I walked through Tsukishima, a quiet neighborhood of Tokyo: nice little two-story apartment buildings, families walking home while the kids kicked soccer balls down the street, sidewalk bodegas selling kitchen sponges. We turned our head and gasped—there, like magic, like a jewel through a window, was a tiny bar presided over by a man in a pristine white tuxedo jacket. He carved cubes out of a giant block of ice for a counter bar that sat no more than 6 people at its stools. We immediately went in and sat down. I had a perfect Brandy Alexander. Ben said, “This bartender would be here even if no one showed up”, and it was true—it felt like this man in the white tuxedo jacket stood there not to take his customers’ money, but as a last stubborn bastion of civility. I would have liked to have told Sasha about that bar.

Sasha Petraske didn’t set out to change the world, though he did. He set out the task of making a beautiful, profoundly humane place for people to escape from the rush of the city, a safe harbor (from people’s rudeness, from the male gaze). A place to slow down and be our best selves in the very moment of taking pleasure. He is gone too soon. So I will be raising a daiquiri to him, in the hopes that we find more ways to create these spaces, to slow down, to try and create the magic moment—even if they don’t last, even if they can’t, even if only a few people ever encounter them. The people who do find their way inside appreciate it. We need it. Slainte.

 

Maya Gurantz : keeps practicing



  1. January 2, 2016 @ 10:07 am Reading: Longform writing 2015

    […] To Milk & Honey (Maya Gurantz, Avidly/The Los Angeles Review of Books) […]

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