Middle Branch NYC Review

After opening several successful bars including Milk & Honey and Little Branch, Sasha Petraske, has taken his show further uptown into Murray Hill.

Knowing what great reputations that his bars have and reading the article on Seriouseats.com I knew I had to give this place a try. So my wife and I decided to stop by during opening week to check it out.

I must say that unfortunately given the high hopes we had for the place we were sorely disappointed. My wife was so disappointed that she felt compelled to right up the majority of this review. Here are her thoughts and feelings:

“For starters I went with my husband and it took us a second to figure out where the place was. All we saw were two open windows and people sitting inside from what seemed to be a shut door to an apartment, and if it wasn’t for the woman coming out from some obscure basement door we might not have figured out our way in. Once inside there is a stair case leading upstairs and to the left some high tables no chairs and small menus on the table.

Okay so what do we do now? The only person here is the bartender behind the bar. Hmmmm maybe upstairs? We go upstairs and there is seating room only, a bartender behind the bar and a waiter running back and forth. Waiting….no one comes up to us so we go back downstairs, wait another 20 min, and decide that since we came all this way we might as well have at least one drink so we walk up behind 2 couples standing at the bar. After waiting maybe another 10mins a woman comes up to us and states that she will take our orders and we can wait at our table.

This was absolutely the wrong move because after taking our order it was another 20mins or so before we got our order. We stood at our table as the bartender continued to make the drinks of other people as they walked up to the bar as the waitress runs around providing water to everyone waiting.

In the meantime a waitress from upstairs comes down to collect some people to sit upstairs so I approach and ask him how long the wait is for seating upstairs. He states that its about 30 mins so we put our names down.

Finally our drinks arrive. I ordered a Queens Park Swizzle which looks appetizing and taste pretty good but not good enough for close to a 50min wait and utter confusion. My husband ordered the Island Old Fashion which was great.

Now that I have my drink I am taking in the ambiance. It has a very old school feel to it with the brick walls and the frosted glass and dim lights, but all that cool underground jazz feel is totaly overwhelmed by the loud music playing. I have to keep leaning in to hear my husband speak despite him standing right next to me.

It’s now our turn to move upstairs and have a seat as there are no seats downtairs and we have been standing now for more than an hour. Upstairs is just as cool and relaxed in its decor, with brick walls, a marble fire place, and two long open windows leading to a little balcony allowing a gentle breeze to float in.

The waiter comes to take my order and I go with the bartenders choice asking for something strong, complex, and sweet over crushed ice, any spirit will do. He says ok. I am not very picky normally but I will admit I have slightly higher expectations as far as drinks due to my husbands spirit blogging, my love of Death and Co. and the tequila shrine that is Mayheul.

In any case I watch the waiter go over and give my request to the bartender and his reaction is not promising. He rubs his hands over his face and grabs the top of his nose as if he was trying to warn off a headache from thinking to hard. REALLY?! I didnt even give you a spirit and your getting a headache. After this riveting performance our waiter returns with a, (insert drum roll)… a Whiskey Smash. Strong yes but defiantly not complex and clearly not crushed ice. At this point I am ready to go but my husband wants to give him another shot so he askes for a bartenders choice with rum, chartreuse, and crushed ice. The waiter replied stating something about the crushed ice but with the loud music and conversation it was impossible to hear what was actually said but it appeared he stated something to the affect the crushed ice was not possible. Nevertheless we saw and continued to see several people receiving and drinking long and short drinks over crushed ice.

So he returns with a Daisy de Santiago which is essentially a rum daisy with chartreuse. While it was light and refreshing it still wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Added to this, I can look around and see other people who are drinking more creative cocktails, one with orange and ginger another with muddled blueberries and sparkling soda (was suppose to be champagne but they were all out).

All in all the place looks great, although I don’t agree with the standing room only downstairs, but it does set a relaxed mood if you can block out the loud music downstairs and the loud people upstairs. The drinks we had did not live up to the expectations and skill that the establishment has the potential to distribute. The service, even once we had any, was lacking. Provided this is opening week I will go back in a month or two, because despite my totally lackluster experience I find myself wanting to believe in this place as it can be so much more but it currently falls short.”

My thoughts on the place:
My main problem with the place, at least so far, was its lack of direction/service and uninviting feel. While I have no problem with the faux speakeasy or underground feel, I at least want to have some direction upon entering the establishment. Its one thing if I am entering a dive bar and I am offered no direction but completely different for this type of bar. A simple sign on the wall or at the bottom of the menu would have been better than nothing. In fact during our time spent getting our bearings several (4-7) people walked in and walked out of the establishment after receiving no assistance. Now this lack of service could be due to the fact that they were short staffed or because the bar is new. Either way it is something that should be remedied.

Instead of the drinks that are currently on the menu, I think they should list the drinks that were featured in the article from serious eats like the Island Old Fashioned, the Gentle Persuasion, or even the simple Pisco Sour. Despite the much hyped interaction with the bartender or waiter this was severely lacking. As indicated by my wife above after she gave the waiter her order of, strong, complex, and slightly sweet, he didn’t ask any further questions. He didn’t try to understand the exact taste and drink she wanted, instead he returned with a simple Whiskey Smash. He also never returned to gauge our response to the drink and further learn our tastes. I personally come to a speakeasy to have my taste buds amazed, challenged, even perplexed and this simply did not happen. Only the Island Old Fashioned was truly worthy of mention as I always enjoy a fresh take on the Old Fashioned.

All in all, this is not the place I expected or hoped for, a place that prides itself on catering to the customer with skill and kindness. I am willing to give this place another chance and I will be back, I just hope that the service is vastly improved.

Middle Branch is located at 154 East 33rd St. in a nondescript brownstone. Walk down the short flight of steps behind the black gate. They are open daily from 5pm-2am. Despite the shortcomings that presented themselves during our visit it has great potential and is the easiest bar to get into out of the Sasha Petraske lineup.

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Sample provided by represenatives of Pink Pigeon.

Menu – All Drinks $12
Bennett
Gin, lime, simple syrup, Angostura bitters

Queen’s Park Swizzle
Rum, mint, lime, simple syrup, bitters, swizzled and served in a tall glass

Star Daisy
Applejack, gin, curacao, lemon, shaken and served straight up with a dash of soda

Sazerac
Rye whiskey with dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe served neat

Whiskey Fix
Bourbon, lemon and simple syrup served over crushed ice

Bartender’s Choice