NEW YORK – Sugar Monk Lounge, 2292 Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Manhattan, is one of those things that make life in New York worth living. It is a speakeasy bar inspired entirely by the Harlem Renaissance era, a place that adores art and where the alchemy of drinks is triumphant.
The existence of Sugar Monk is by no means accidental. It is a result of a thoughtful move by its Greek creators, Ektoras Binikos, a visual artist and mixologist, and Simon Jutras, a photographer and interior designer with two decades of international experience who now call Harlem home.
As I enter, Binikos and Jutras greet me and at the same time I realize both how cozy the space is and how much attention has been paid to detail. "Everyone is welcomed and accepted but you will not see people standing. We only accept as many as can sit in the lounge or at the bar and enjoy their drinks. The nature of our program is that cocktail mixology is complicated. It takes about two to three minutes for a cocktail and the bartender needs to concentrate,” Binikos said.
The windows at the speakeasy face west and the space is quickly flooded with the last sunlight of the day while a patron is served a drink that fills the room with the aroma of rosemary.
Binikos said of his background, "I come from Ikaria and came to New York to study at age 21. My parents back in Ikaria made homemade liqueurs, wine, and grappa. The distillery and winery were in my blood and while I started as a busboy, I quickly ended up working behind the bar."
One thing led to another and soon Binikos found himself working behind the bar of a restaurant on the Upper East Side where he could put all his imagination and creativity into practice. So when one of the best restaurant-bars in town offered him a job, it was only a natural consequence, and it was the abundance of new ingredients he found there and his experiments that made him a mixologist.
Other notable moments in his career include running the bar at the Livanos family’s Oceana and a "hidden" bar on the Lower East Side, where he was a partner and manager. Reasonably, after so many years of experience, he realized that the time had come to take the leap and open his own business. New York's newfound interest in the Harlem area convinced him that it was the right place for his business. "The community here is thrilled with Sugar Monk and proud of its uniqueness and its being an open, warm, and hospitable place," said Binikos.
In Sugar Monk's illustrated menu all cocktails are separated according to their theme and divided into eight different chapters. What can someone say about a menu with literary, musical, and artistic titles such as Thelonious, Monk's Dream, Ugly Beauty, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and William Blake?
While chatting with Binikos and Jutras, I have a Blue Moon ($13) whose creamy texture includes the freshness of lime and tones of Arabian jasmine. Also on the table are trays with traditional cheeses and baked baguette ($16) and organic pate with mushrooms and pomegranate jam ($14).
"We named it Sugar Monk as a tribute to jazz pianist Thelonius Monk but also to the monks and the history of distillation," Binikos explained. "We are also working together on a book whose inspiration comes from artists whose work is important and essential to our lives. Our goal is to 'translate' an artist's vision into a cocktail and photograph it without copying the original work of the artist but expressing our own vision of how we perceive these works of art,” Simon Jutras explained.
When asked which cocktail is their favorite and which they would offer to a guest they would like to impress, Jutras answered, “Potter's Field,” most notably because it is visually perfect, served with a real rose encased in the ice cube in the glass.
After finishing with a second cocktail (Nutty, $15), I decide it's time to head home. I have concluded that places like Sugar Monk are here to refresh and stimulate our faith and interest in New York. If you are looking for the same, Harlem and Sugar Monk is where you should go.