Sometimes it seems like everything in Midtown is new. The light rail, the clubs, the townhouses — even the Midtown moniker barely stretches back a decade. But Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons, the co-owners of wine bar 13 Celsius, insist that the neighborhood has a connection to the past that's worth showing off and celebrating.
Six years after the duo opened 13, Rosenberg and Sammons are taking on a new challenge, planning a new craft beer and spirits bar in an historic space just a few blocks from their original concept. Dubbed Mongoose versus Cobra, the bar is taking shape in an ivy-covered building on McGowen across the street from Leon's Lounge with an opening set for March.
Dubbed Mongoose versus Cobra, the bar is taking shape in an ivy-covered building on McGowen across the street from Leon's Lounge with an opening set for March.
"There's no sign on here and there never will be," says Rosenberg. "There's a reason we make sure the signs here stay Jenning's Cleaners and Dye Shop. We want people to know the building has been here a really long time. There's history there. We're just trying not to screw things up. The building tells us what it wants to be."
According to Rosenberg, what the building wants to be is a more masculine take on their pared-down aesthetic, with walls of exposed brick that date back to 1915 and stately wood beams crisscrossing the 20-foot ceiling. Though the space is still a construction zone, the addition of a 20-foot bar and banquette and community seating should do nothing to dampen the drama of the cavernous open space.
Sammons is designing the drinks program and bringing in his long-time friend Shafer Hall, who has a decade of experience manning New York bars, to run the bar day-to-day.
Mongoose versus Cobra will feature about 40 taps, including a couple hand taps, plus "small batch production bourbon, whiskeys from all around the world," and liquors like grappa and Aqua Vit. The craft beer program will be focused on variety and quality, with one foot in the past, as well.
"It used to be, back in the day, that every settlement, every small village, every city in Europe and then in America had at least one brewery," says Sammons, "all of them producing beer with the recipe of wherever they came from. In America it was largely German lagers. So you have all these different recipes, and as markets changed or as these small breweries had to close down for Prohibition, it all sort of blended into one style. A lot of the old recipes are lost now. The concept is to create an 'ark' with our beer program to save some of these recipes.
"So that's our program here, we want to get a good representation of every style of beer we can possibly find — that we like. So here you can come in and find beers that maybe you wouldn't find anywhere else."
"In the late '70s, American home brewers decided to recreate some of these recipes because they weren't available. Altbier is a good example. Somebody wanted to experience an Altbier, well, you couldn't buy an Altbier, so you buy the right malt, you buy the right yeast, you make your own Altbier. So those small home brewers evolved into microbreweries or brewpubs and were creating their own beer with these old recipes but in really small quantites, driven by their passion to experience these old recipes.
"So they created a repository for these old styles that are sort of dying away. So that's our program here, we want to get a good representation of every style of beer we can possibly find — that we like. So here you can come in and find beers that maybe you wouldn't find anywhere else."
On the spirits side of the menu, Rosenberg and Sammons stress that while they will be serving cocktails, that's not the primary focus.
"If you want a Negroni, which has three spirits, we can definitely do that," says Sammons. "But if you want a Mojito or a pineapple whatever, we probably won't be doing that.
"A great whiskey or a great Scotch, somebody has labored intensely over that product for 100 years and figured out a way to create the most beautiful aspect of that product and I don't want to fuck that up," he continues. "I want to put it in a glass and give it to you just as it's supposed to be. I don't want to mix it with some syrups and put a flaming orange on it or something. I want you to have it as it was intended."
The story behind the name
And the story behind the unconventional name? Rosenberg says the partners liked how the analogy worked on several levels, starting with his personal connection dating back to reading Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi daily as a child.
Sammons references the craft beer they'll be serving as a mongoose and the hard liquor as the bar's "snakebite." But more than anything both partners talk about Mongoose versus Cobra as the tale of a victorious, scrappy underdog, a role they understand as small, local business owners.
But more than anything both partners talk about Mongoose versus Cobra as the tale of a victorious, scrappy underdog, a role they understand as small, local business owners.
"The mongoose kills the cobra every single time," says Sammons. "It's adapted specifically for that. It's the cobra's only natural predator besides man. Even if the mongoose is bit, its quills have adapted to fend off the cobra's fangs. It'll get bit and pass out for a while and wake up.
"I think that a craft brewer will always win, too, in the long run. I'll bet on the guy with the passion every time. I guess this bar is an expirement to test that hypothesis."
Like 13 Celsius, Mongoose versus Cobra won't have a formal kitchen, so the food offerings will be similar to the current selections — breads, cheeses, meats and partnerships with local chefs to create sweet and savory options. There will be a small private room installed in a lofted space for small gatherings and meetings.
And while Rosenberg is fond of thinking of the concept as part of the historic tradition of community gathering spaces — he references both the traditional castle hall and the casual biergardens — he's also quick to celebrate the growing urban lifestyle of Midtown.
"It's right there in the middle of everything," he says. "I see people going there from Reef either before dinner or after dinner. I see, after work, people getting off the rail and having a drink on their way home."
"We want to become part of the fabric of this area of town and to be here forever," adds Sammons. "To become like La Carafe or Warren's, places that have been here for 50 years. But we also want to help this city negotiate its way further up to international status as being a dynamic wine and food and cocktail city."