Death & Co.

Addendum: Eater reported on Thursday, March 1, that Death & Co. may be closed for good. We don't know yet. I am embarrassed for my delusional East Village neighbors. Death is harmless - honest!

Addendum 2, March 19, 2007: Excellent news! Death has been resurrected...for now.

You need only turn to the recent news about Death & Co. to confirm that East Villagers are really as crazy as they seem. Seems the neighbors are against renewing the place's liquor license next year not just because of people lingering outside smoking and talking, but because the exterior of Death & Co. reminds them of a Nazi train car.

Thrilled by this macabre piece of news, I rushed over to Death & Co. The exterior is indeed forbidding. There are evil iron bird wings and wooden plank slats, which I suppose, if you were Sylvia Plath, or if you were hallucinating on back pain meds and continually staring at the place from an apartment across the street, could look like a a Nazi train car, a really fancy, first-class one, say.

The velvet curtains at the door part to reveal a place that looks a lot like East Side Company Bar, Employees Only, Little Branch, or any one of a number of retro speakeasies that have opened up in the past couple years. Where was the death? I expected dinge and cobwebs, maybe the damp smell of the grave or of an East Village squat. But this place was clean and almost bright. On the bar stools, where there might have been brooding, anemic, stringy-haired rockers, there were happy clean people ordering expensive (but darn good) cocktails. My heart sank.

One recent evening, my friend and I joined the rank and file of young hipsters at the tables running along one side of the room. We compared notes on handbags with the girls at the table next to ours. We had some fancy cocktails - she the Blood & Sand, which was not on the menu, but which our waitress helpfully recommended, I the Bobby Burns, another scotch cocktail that wasn't as sweet. The ice cubes at Death & Co. are the big, satisifying kind that keep drinks colder. Though these may also remind you of Little Branch, their provenance can be traced to Flatiron and Pegu, from whence the bartenders.

The chef should get major kudos for food presentation. They really take the phrase "small bites" to a new level here: nearly everything can be consumed in one bite, without the help of a knife or fork. The fish & chips arrived as little bites of fish wrapped in tempura. My heart went out to whatever guy in back had spent hours painstakingly tying the salad bites into little nubs of lettuce. The mac & cheese arrived on large spoons, as is the fashion. The delicious jarlsburg-parmesan combination was deepened with just a trace of truffle oil. Even the filet mignon was handily served in bite-size formation, cut into rounds, padded with bacon, topped with a petite potato and skewered with a pretty bamboo stick. As an added bonus, it also tasted good.

Unfortunately, the sauces that came alongside were a problem across the board. The salad dressing was low on taste, the fish sauce too goopy and mayonnaise-y for the tempura, and several sauces just seemed to go in too many directions at once, as if the kitchen were attempting fusion in one tiny little side dish. If the focus is going to be on dipping, the dips had better be good.

But let's face it: Death & Co. isn't about the food. It's an excellent bar where drinks are prepared with TLC. To make a gin based Mig Royale, the fedora'd bartender shook up all the non-fizzy ingredients, decanted them into a martini glass, then, with much showmanship, lit a match and held it to an orange peel over the glass. He explained that it was to caramelize the orange. The result, topped with champagne, tasted like orange sour ball candy - sublime.

Though at one point beset by a large group that broadcast the vibe "I work in midtown!", the crowd here is still cool. Let's keep it that way. On another evening LeNell Smothers, the bourbon queen of Red Hook, sidled up to the bar with an entourage. (She's the one in the hat in the shadows, center, in my stealth photo above.) "They're here," the bartender said reverently. "The biggest drinkers in the city."

I was sad that this gin joint seemed disappointingly bereft of death. Alas, I found myself wondering: where are the rockers of yesteryear? In the 80's, there was a punk rock club in the East Village called "Downtown Beirut Bar," so named because it was meant to evoke a bombed-out hell hole of a place, which it truly was. Now, even death arrives in highly stylized form.

But I suppose we can all drink to that.

Death & Co.
433 East 6th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A