Prohibition spawned an amazing institution known as the speakeasy. These secretive sanctuaries were often hidden away under mom n’ pop hardware stores, or down the darkest alley. If you knew where to look, and ran in the right circles, you could have a grand old time downing as much rot gut as you pleased, all while dancing until the sun came up. While the constant need to hide from the law in order to imbibe has disappeared, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the hey day of the speakeasy is long gone. Or are they? Unfortunately for us Floridians, real speakeasies require a basement or some other dark subterranean space to really achieve the correct atmosphere. Up north however, practically ever building has a basement. One lucky structure in downtown Bethlehem, PA happens to contain in its depths, a cozy little establishment straight out of the 20’s, The Bookstore.
Even though the space used to house an Italian joint, I wouldn’t fault you for thinking they’ve been there for decades, what with the entire space being lit with candles, a pre-war piano lazing in the corner waiting for the weekly jazz night, and a rich wood bar lining the wall where the barman is mixing old school drinks like a champ. Speaking of which, my cousin and I took full advantage of the extensive cocktail menu, all with names to evoke some sort of whimsy for a bygone era. The Brown Derby (or “The Derb” as the waiter referred to it) called my name, twice, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, honey syrup and a grapefruit twist. My supper mate chose the aptly named Violet Tendencies, a diabolic concoction of four different kinds of alcohol including absinthe. Neither of us had the stones to try the Shirley Temple of Doom, possibly because of the disclaimer limiting it to one per person or maybe it was the requirement of “a strong constitution, backbone, courage and a dash of chutzpah”.
With drinks in hand, we plotted our course through the menus half-dozen sections. Agent M showed this hardened carnivore that even vegetarian courses can satisfy. Wild mushroom toast with fine herbs, goat cheese and leeks was meaty and full of luxurious flavor. I’m sure a healthy slab of butter helped things along. For me, it was sweet potato crisps with a smoked onion dip. Not too sweet, as these sometimes tend to be, they were a perfect match for the savory dip, of which I ordered a second cup. I’ve never been good at rationing my sauces. It was reminiscent of the dip we tried at Garde Manger.
As starters go, the toast and crisps were great, but I wasn’t finished with the appetizers yet. Seeing as we were in Bethlehem, PA, where a large population from Eastern Europe settled decades ago, I felt it was only proper to spring for the smoked yukon pierogis with duck confit and brandied date gastrique. I’m human, I make mistakes, but this wasn’t one of them. They were tender on the outside, and creamy at the center, perfectly seasoned. My Baba would be proud. The duck confit-date mixture acting as a chaise for the trio of pierogis reminded me of the slowly braised beef dishes that my grandmother’s family mastered in the Ukraine, albeit with duck instead of some oft discarded piece of beef.
M kept it light for her entrée with the watermelon salad with walnuts, feta and a honey lemon vinaigrette. The dressing tied this dish together. I’m not sure of the ingredients, but despite its sugary demeanor, it ironically managed to tame the sweetness. I’m not usually a fan of watermelon, but in this application paired with the tangy feta, it was a hit.
I decided to keep it light as well (as light as any option I choose can ever be) with the Belgian mussels surrounded by bacon, shallots, garlic and a beer cream sauce. Sadly, I was informed that they had run out! So I forgot about being light and went with another Eastern European type dish, braised short ribs with red skinned potatoes and demi-glace. You’d think we had walked in out of a blizzard by the selections I’d made. I guess the Bookstore has that effect on you. The short ribs were definitely warming as they bathed in a bowl of brown liquid. There was nothing cute or fancy about this dish, it was all about showcasing the beef as simply and deliciously as possible. They were fork tender as you’d expect and über rich.
It’s the last paragraph, that can only mean one thing, dessert. We left our waiter with the choice and he promptly returned with the vanilla-orange crème brulée. It reminded me of a fancy orange julius, topped with strawberries. It was wonderfully creamy, just firm enough to require a touch of force from the spoon to scoop out a mouthful. It was only my second visit, but The Bookstore will always be an automatic visit when I can make it to Bethlehem. Here’s hoping the speakeasy can make its way farther south. If anyone needs a dark hole in the ground to enjoy a good meal and a stiff drink, its us sun drunk Floridians.