A palpable passion for art, design, and surprising ingredients separates Sugar Monk from the pack of new NYC speakeasies, carrying forth the creative legacy of a neighborhood known for its rich cultural history.
OUR ARTICLEBY: Katherine Barton Contributing writer
Thelonius Monk: the name itself is an incantation from a bygone era, conjuring sultry visions of smoke-filled lounges, swinging bands & dapper suits. Style and swagger incarnate; a melodious upswing and a hard, percussive downstroke. In the Harlem jazz scene of the 1940s-1960s, Monk was something of a mythic figure known for his improvisational piano compositions and such hits as “Round Midnight” and, fittingly, “Straight, No Chaser.”
The myth lives on at Sugar Monk, a transporting fever dream of a bar, which pays homage to its inimitable muse while carrying forth the creative legacy of Harlem. A reverent fusion of fine art and craft cocktails explodes in a lush, atomic display of Henri Rousseau-esque jungle murals, plush jewel-toned velvet, and the decadent incense of smoky herbs and aromatic tinctures. Like all good dreams, it improbably hangs together in a shimmering suspension of reality, begging interpretation while simultaneously eluding it.
Located in the heart of Harlem, around the corner from the legendary Apollo Theater and Minton’s Playhouse, Sugar Monk lives up to the neighborhood reputation for outsized personality and presence. The men behind the magic are Ektoras Binikos, an accomplished mixologist and visual artist, and Simon Jutras, a photographer and designer of interiors & furniture. Their collaboration started with a shared desire to revive the tradition of the Harlem speakeasy as a place for creative escape.
the whole shebang is then served up in a wabi-sabi wooden box with a single round ice cube and a garnish of spruce pollen. It’s the alcoholic equivalent of a long soak in a cedar hot-tub somewhere in the mountains of Japan on a snowy morning
The duo envisioned a space at once welcoming and a bit aloof. Entry to Sugar Monk is gained by ringing the buzzer on an inscrutable metal door and the interior is hidden from the street by heavy blackout curtains, but once inside the care taken towards hospitality is evident. Coat racks appear just where needed at the edges of banquettes, service is gracious and prompt, and the forty-seat maximum will happily accommodate a party of ten (if you don’t mind squeezing).
The well of inspiration runs deep at Sugar Monk. In addition to the aforementioned ties to Thelonious and the legacy of jazz music, the art, design and menu themes pull from such varied sources as contemporary photography, classical sculpture, the botanical studies of Jesuit monks, and a cryptic iconography all its own.
But of course, you want to hear about the drinks. The cocktail list is broken down into chapters, thematically tied to Sugar Monk’s lineage & progressively increasing in strength. One of particular note (and one of Binkos’ personal favorites) is the “Samurai Midnight Pig,” a tribute to Japanese flavors conceived in partnership with Whistle Pig upon the launch of their koji-fermented Rye “The Boss Hog.” The Rye is offset by Umeshu, Yuzu, Lime, Eucalyptus, Zirbenz, Mastiha & Bergamot Bitters; the whole shebang is then served up in a wabi-sabi wooden box with a single round ice cube and a garnish of spruce pollen. It’s the alcoholic equivalent of a long soak in a cedar hot-tub somewhere in the mountains of Japan on a snowy morning—transporting, to say the least.
A lab downstairs is responsible for producing house-made Amaro, liqueur infusions, and a full array of purified ice cubes and spheres, some encasing still-pink rosebuds or fresh herbs. There is also a kitchen on-site offering a welcome selection of solid foods, should the liquor go to your head, and a very serviceable wine and beer selection.
Just as a great jazz composition doesn’t happen by accident, the dreamlike alchemy of Sugar Monk is in the seemingly effortless mingling of two seasoned hospitality and design minds at the height of their game. Sugar Monk is a place to lose yourself and your cares: in conversation, in cocktails, in the sounds of Billie Holiday or maybe even Thelonious Monk.
Check out Bitter Mondays, a weekly event devoted to a mashup of Hip-Hop and Opera music and house-made Amaro
Don’t be intimidated by the doorbell—you don’t need a reservation for entry, it’s purely ceremonial
Off the menu is encouraged, just tell them what you’re in the mood for