We were driving home from work on a Wednesday & Waze started sending us in a completely bizarre direction we’d never taken before. I actually asked “Did a BOMB go off somewhere?” at one point. Traffic was a mess and I missed a few turns so I semi-jokingly told Lorri “Hey, find us a cool cocktail joint in Watertown and we’ll wait this out”.
Watertown’s a fine town but hardly the kind of Boston suburb that you’d expect to be chock-full of craft cocktail bars – in fact I was shocked to see the ghostly remains of the Arsenal Mall which had been there since 1983 but had apparently shuttered months ago (it’s being rebuilt as Arsenal Yards).
Lorri took a stab on Yelp and was surprised to see rave reviews for Ritcey East, a place we’d never heard of. A few of the cocktails sounded promisingly original and one of the reviews said the owner had a real vision for the place – that was more than enough for us to pull over like Emma Stone and Mr. Blandly Nice and Handsome Husband in the final scene of La La Land.
We didn’t magically find Seb’s jazz club or get treated to a one handed piano solo by Ryan Gosling but we did find a surprisingly full bar that magically opened up seats just a minute or two after we entered.
Our bartender Steve was low key humorous, welcoming and enthusiastic about the cocktails without treating them like precious works of art – perfect for this occasion.
One look at the menu and we knew we’d found a winner:
Witty, boldly original, and perfectly distributed across the liquor map, every option on the menu had a unique spin (Blueberry Kombucha, Chai infused Gin, etc…) but somehow sounded approachable – very, very hard to do.
Lorri went for the Indian Outlaw, which I assumed was a down & brown but was instead served up. It was somewhat reminiscent of a Manhattan but somehow less sweet, and softer/less boozy despite the fact that it consisted of rye whiskey and TWO amari (Averna and Angostura Amaro). We both liked it better than Manhattans (the one classic neither of us have ever warmed up to) – in fact I thought it wonderful enough to be a long lost classic.
I went the completely opposite direction and had the Assistant to the Regional Manager, almost because I thought it sounded like a trainwreck created during an alcoholic version of Iron Chef: “Your challenge is to use marmalada, beets, citrus, vodka, and aquavit and make something completely non-disgusting … oh, and use this Mastiha stuff made from tree resin, too”.
To my surprise, the Regional Manager did NOT taste like an homage to Dwight Schrute from the Office but a super drinkable, expertly integrated cocktail that defied its insane mix of ingredients. If I had tasted it blind and been asked what was in the drink I would have said “Errrr … Lemon … and …. other stuff”. It was bright, fresh, and complex without being an intellectual exercise. The Mastiha (I wasn’t kidding, it really is a liqueur made from the resin from a Greek tree, kind of like Ouzo without the revolting licorice/anise flavor) was smartly done as a light spritz, and finally beets were used in a cocktail that didn’t make me feel like I was drinking it for strictly research purposes.
I moved on the Rikki Tikki Tavi – seems like the third time I’ve seen a drink named after Kipling’s mongoose …. and yes, it’s usually a tiki drink but this one was explosively citrusy without being puckeringly sour. I couldn’t tell if this was because the citrus was an oleo saccharum/cordial made with citrus peel or if the falernum was a citrusy homemade concoction, but I found it intensely pleasing and an unusually memorable tiki drink.
Lorri asked for something off menu and got a favorite from one of Ritcey’s previous menus, the O Positive, a mixture of Tequila, yellow chartreuse, blood orange cordial and a touch of sherry. It was another winner, perhaps a spin on a spin on a Naked and Famous in its herbal + fruit + grape + agave formula.
Obligatory Good Food Comment: Ritcey’s excellence isn’t limited to the beverages. Being from the South, Lorri’s picky about her Shrimp and Grits (and let Steve know it) but the shrimp was fresh and juicy (and NOT overcooked) and the sausage was top notch (the grits were flavorful but denser than the fluffy grits that Lorri’s used to). It’s a huge steal at $9.
I was happy to see an Impossible Burger special (the best burger substitute we’ve found, made from plant protein and hemoglobin to mimic the iron in real beef) on the menu and even happier with its preparation. There’s no substitute for a first class super rare burger but a well done Impossible Burger is a great dish on its own merits and Ritcey’s done the best I’ve had yet – I hope it becomes a regular because at 15 minutes away from our home in Lexington this is a joint we plan on visiting often in the future.
The common thread in all of the drinks we had tonight is a deep understanding of what makes a classic work and a skillful use of uncommon ingredients to bring that classic to a new, exciting place. I especially appreciate that they’re not playing it safe – if there’s a flavor they want to highlight, they go for the kill instead of settling for the “well balanced” that often ends up being “hellishly boring”.
I don’t know where Ritcey’s cocktail expertise comes from but it’s definitely been the surprise of the year: a complete gem in the middle of Watertown that has all of the creativity, vision and style of the big boys in downtown Boston.