I am feeling apprehensive, I am at 30,000 feet, flying in a metal tube. As I sit in my seat I look out the window and think “I am on my way to NYC to do a piece for some of the best in the cocktail and photography industry-what’s to be nervous about?!” I flag down the flight attendant and order another (albeit cheap) bourbon. This is somewhat ironic since I will soon be drinking the best there is once I get to my final destination.
I have been to Manhattan many times for culinary trips but never to Brooklyn. My journey takes me to an affluent neighborhood of Brooklyn called Boerum Hill. As I walk down State Street I am enamored by the beautiful brownstones. Then I see my final stop, Grand Army Bar, situated on the corner of State and Hoyt. When I walk through the doors and pass the Chilean Curtain the first thing I notice is the light. As a photographer I am always chasing light but to come here not knowing what to expect, I am ecstatic about the soft light and giddy with anticipation.
I am met by a giant in the industry, metaphorically and figuratively. At 6’4’, Damon Boelte stands behind the bar ready to sling up some of the best cocktails in the city. He is the head bar man and partner at Grand Army Bar. Originally from Oklahoma, this gentle giant is extremely versed in all things cocktail. He has a radio show and podcast covering the industry on Heritage radio network where he does not get paid. “I do it because I believe in this craft”. At present count he is closing in on his 200th episode. This milestone is a clear indication of the man’s passion and dedication to his craft.
As I sit down at the long, inviting bar the first thing I recognize is the eclectic collection of bitters in front of me. “I’ve been known to employ fernet into a lot of cocktails and even hold the record for the most fernet in a cocktail (3oz)”. Damon grabs a bitter and starts mixing up a “Zombie” then offers me one. I think better of it since it’s only 11am and the long ingredient list scares me. Instead, I order a Negroni. I notice he is using Brooklyn gin which makes me ask him, “Why Brooklyn, why choose here when there are so many great neighborhoods in New York?”. He smirks and says “Name one place better than Brooklyn, I dare you”. I don’t disagree, especially when the man is making my cocktails.
One aspect that makes Grand Army Bar so unique is the team behind it. It is the brainchild of head Bartender Damon Boelte, Julian Brizzi ( Rucola), Noah Bernamoff (Mile End) and food photographer extraordinaire Daniel Krieger. The premise behind Grand Army is to provide a neighborhood cocktail bar with upscale food but with a casual atmosphere. With a largely seafood concentric menu, the food is meant to complement the high end cocktail program. Chef Joe Bignelli is composing mostly light fare, ranging from oysters to shrimp cocktails to my favorite – the smoked octopus.
Being a classically trained chef, I appreciate the simplicity of the menu but one which has a specific approach. I ask Damon about the menu and he states “I like to snack my way through the night and that’s kind of what we do here”.
Later that night I am accompanied by Daniel and my friend and accomplished NYC food photographer, Eric Medsker. After several Negroni’s and great conversation I am left with the empty feeling of having to go back to Southern California. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love SoCal. Although I grew up on the east coast, I specifically moved to the west coast to live. But, after such a great trip, I just can’t help the way I feel – maybe I’m just in a New York state of mind.