Thursday, May 6, 2010

bethlehem's bookstore: a prohibition-era speakeasy

An unmarked address, an antique bookstore front, a gorgeous brown velvet curtain masking away the world of a gas lamp-lit library-cum-eatery? Yes, such characteristics may be standard fare these days in replicating faux speakeasies in urban settings, yet in Bethlehem?

Tucked under the multi-floored stone structure of the northern town's historic district, just a few concrete slabbed steps down to a stenciled wooden door, lies The Bookstore, an in-the-know dining "club" that pulses with the heart of a Prohibition-era pothouse.

The tone here may be nostalgic, from vintage velvet-lined thrones, dark wood finishes, hearty shelves lined with literary classics and a bartender donned in a classic bow-tie and trimmed vest shaking one's 'tails to pin-pointed perfection, but the cuisine’s flashy fare of cozy, comfort food, with subtle epicured twists, liven diners' steps saucily into the past. 

While you can explore a four-course offering the season's finest for just $35, which may contain offerings of crispy venison with mint ranch and orange zest on a fresh frizee salad, to roasted squab, grilled lamb with green curry vinaigrette and a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, what we found more alluring was their bar menu.

Swimming through classic mouthfuls of giant dill pickles, saffron-pickled eggs, kettle-cooked chips and pickled watermelon rind, The Bookstore mashes marvels of house-made munchables into their established speakeasy niche. From chickpea popcorn (lightly deep-fried beans sprinkled with herb salt) and cheese-and-fruit toasts, the secretive eatery captivates its visitors with just a few quick, first-course bites.

But, as my superb server couldn't be more blunt, that the bookstore burger was by far the best, as in, she had applied to work within the establishment just because of that gush-worthy option, I had to try it for myself.

A Kobe beef patty, plopped with a generous amount of aged cheddar, smears of bacon jam and bourbon barbecue, the gigantic chomps of this hamburger will now forever reign in my mouth's best bites. The combo-ing tastes and textures, among sweet-and-savory, easily proclaimed excellence in my experienced-burger book.

For B, his smoked, shaved duck club beautifully laid between two slices of toasted multi-grain, plucked amongst leaves of arugula, slices of tomatoes and cherry aioli, may be one of the better simple, yet snazzy sandwiches I have endured.

While the bar menu may be limited, there also is an offering of a hog burger, which will be my prize at our next visit, served with Gruyere and fried egg. The brie grilled cheese with panchetta and grape compote sounds mighty fine, too, and may even swing me slightly away from my burger obsession.

The real test for the smart-and- sophisticated, slightly-swanky spot is the cocktail and beer menu. Pasted inside the brims of olden novels, the contents of which you must wet your whistles stumbles through an extensive beer menu (all of which can be identified fully to the guests by the staff and bartenders), as well as absinthe and bitters-ridden stiff slurps. The punchbowls are a crowd-pleaser, so I hear, although B and I only experienced some 22-ouncers of suggested brews. (Also, to note, [as seen above] the adored bev list is introduced to patrons through an Ernest Hemingway quote.)

The must-visit "bookstore" is owned by youngin' Matt Scheller, who also is a partner in operating Tap and Table, another local gem up north. Both establishments entertain visitors with live music, with the locale appropriately-opting for only hip jazz outputs.

The Bookstore, 336 Adams St., Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 610-867-1100