You probably wouldn’t expect to find a lounge like Chez Zou in Manhattan West, the new retail and residential development located just east of Hudson Yards. But that’s exactly what makes this new cocktail lounge from the team behind Mediterranean restaurant Zou Zou’s so special. The moment you step into this bar, you’ll feel like you’re someplace else, with its lush, verdant greenery, intimate chaise lounges, and sexy mood lighting.
Bar director Joey Smith, formerly of the NoMad, says Chez Zou’s appeal comes from a combination of “New York cocktail-styling sensibility, the air and vibe of a relaxed French café, some beautiful tropical décor” to create “a new version of a place that I haven’t seen anywhere else.” And because Chez Zou can’t be put in a box, Smith says he’s created a cocktail program that can’t be boxed in, either.
Both Chez Zou and its sister restaurant, Zou Zou’s, located below, focus on the flavors of the Mediterranean, but both are distinctly different in terms of their respective dining experiences. For now, there are only four food items on Chez Zou’s menu, although Smith says there may be additional items added in the future; he notes patrons can order off-menu burgers and fries, if they like. “In my opinion we have a world-class Mediterranean restaurant downstairs, and chef Maddie [Sperling]’s food is the star of the show there,” Smith says.
At Chez Zou, however, cocktails are the focus. “The story we’re trying to tell here has a lot to do with escapism, in the role that cocktails play when in the daily life of New Yorkers.” Smith says he’s giving people the chance to explore flavors they may not have previously experienced, from a region that doesn’t typically have a large drinking culture. And he adds that Chez Zou’s association with The Pendry Manhattan West hotel is a natural fit. “The Pendry is very much about creating a quiet, relaxing atmosphere for travelers; and Chez Zou is also meant to offer an escape from the city’s streets; the transformation is immediate when you walk through the threshold.”
Here’s a closer look at Chez Zou’s bar program, in Smith’s own words.
1. The Dirty Zou
(Olive Oil Vodka and Grape Leaf Brine, Shankleesh Olives)
“I absolutely think this is our signature cocktail. When I got into the cocktail world, I found there wasn’t a lot of respect for the Dirty Martini. It’s always been a guilty pleasure of mine — it takes me back to when I was 19 and would sneak my parents’ alcohol and all they had were vodka and olives.
People love blue cheese olives, so the first step to the cocktail is Shankleesh olives. We use a Turkish variety of olives and then hand pipe them with a mixture of Shankleesh cheese, labneh, and feta. The cheese on its own is very sharp, tangy, and even a little funky, and has a crumbly texture. The labneh and feta give the cheese a creamier consistency and milder flavor.
The thing about dirty martinis is that people always order them in different ways, and it’s almost impossible for bartenders to decipher what they really want. We cut out that communication problem in our presentation. We serve the cocktail in a Jarra, an Arabic word for a serving vessel. It’s a jar with an inner and an outer chamber. In the inner chamber, we have our house grape leaf brine, which is made with grape leaves and a combination of Spanish vermouth, balsamic vinegar, salt, and water. We let that infuse and then pull out the grape leaves. The outer chamber is filled with an olive oil-washed Ketel One vodka. We mix the olive oil and vodka, put it in the freezer, let the olive oil solidify, and then skim off the top so only a small amount of olive oil is left. We keep those at freezer temperature and we pull them out to order. This allows customers to control how much brine they want in their cocktail.
We knew in this area we’d get an after-work crowd who would be ordering martinis. It’s become one of our top sellers — it’s really a beautiful serve.”
2. Haifa Vice
(Mango Colada Milk Punch, Pomegranate Jungle Bird Float)
“This drink is meant to be shared by two people, but you can have it on your own; we don’t judge. The presentation is quite elaborate. The Jarra comes out in an ice bath in a copper bowl with garnish around the edges. This is another drink customers mix at their discretion.
In one chamber is our mango colada milk punch. That’s our house toasted coconut syrup, a blend of rums, mango puree, lime, and pineapple. We do a milk wash on that; we add milk so it curdles, let it sit, and then we strain out the milk solids so all the pulp and dissolved solids get pulled up. You end up with a really silky, smooth, and flavorful piña colada. The interior chamber of this cocktail is our pomegranate Jungle Bird float, made of Aperol, pomegranate juice, and a little bit of rum. The customer pours some of the mango colada in their glass and layers it with the pomegranate Jungle Bird.
This drink was inspired by my all-time favorite ‘disco’ cocktail, the Miami Vice, which is a piña colada and a strawberry daiquiri blended together. Drinks like that are seeing a resurgence. I think they were originally served ironically, but my philosophy now is ‘If it’s delicious we should drink it.’ You can do these drinks with integrity and fresh ingredients.
That smell of sunscreen and piña coladas — it’s hard not to associate with positive memories. I think of being on family vacation and at a swim-up bar and ordering a virgin colada. I felt like a cool adult. I’ve made it my thing to try every piña colada in New York City, so I had to have my variation of one on this menu. As the weather gets warmer, I hope to do a more elaborate version of this — maybe a blended one.”
3. Tamarind Julab
(Tequila, Tamarind, Chamomile, Apple, Lemon)
“Julab is another Arabic word, which is the root of the word julep in the American cocktail style. We wanted to draw that connection with tamarind, which is an incredible ingredient I’ve used in many cocktails. It’s very tart, somewhat herby and nutty, and I think it pairs very well with a Reposado tequila.
Another one of my favorite flavor pairings is chamomile and apple. We infuse the chamomile into Lustau Blanco Vermouth, and we use that as an aromatic to spray over the cocktail to really make sure the smell of chamomile is there. When you take a sip, you’re hit with tart tamarind, crisp green apple juice, with a little bit of lemon and Reposado tequila to back it up. It’s served on crushed ice in a really beautiful specialty glass. The technique of spraying with an atomizer allows you to get the most aromatic components without adding volume or alcohol content. You have to engage all the senses in a cocktail.
When I was very young, we would always pick chamomile off the side of the mountains and brew our own tea. [Smith grew up in Colorado where his family owned a hay farm.] So that’s a flavor that goes back a long way with me. I definitely look to find inspiration in ingredients all the time. Having been focused in bars for over a decade now when I’m out I may think ‘This is a great dessert; how would these ingredients work in a cocktail?’ You never stop learning.”
4. Banana Danse
(Bourbon, Banana, Cardamom, Chocolate, Coconut)
“This is my favorite bourbon cocktail. It’s inspired by Josephine Baker and the banana dance that made her famous. Toward the end of her life, she lived in a hotel in Morocco and we draw on inspiration from that region as well. We use Michter’s Bourbon and add banana liqueur, cardamom bitters, crème de cacao, and chilled coconut water. That essentially allows you to dilute the cocktail so there’s not so much of a burn from the straight whisky. The drink maintains a lot of its body and gets just a little bit of flavor from the coconut. What I think the coconut water adds more of is texture; I think the technique of using coconut water to dilute a cocktail is something we’ll see from more bars in the future.
In my opinion it’s a beautiful drink, and it’s also a great Old Fashioned variation; it’s very accessible. The cardamom, chocolate, and banana go together amazingly well. You see cardamom and banana paired together in desserts in the Middle East. We’re using special cardamom bitters from Fee Brothers and it’s fantastic — it’s hard not to add it to everything. And bourbon and banana go together incredibly well. Banana is one of those flavors that a well-aged bourbon has naturally, through the barrel aging process.”
5. Bekaa Highball
(Calvados, Aperitif Wine, Tonic, Champagne, Frozen Grapes)
“This drink is my secret favorite. It’s named after a wine growing region in Lebanon. One night I was out with a friend and fellow bartender and we were playing a game of ‘What’s the weirdest highball that you can work with?’ Someone ordered Calvados and tonic, which I had never heard of. After hearing it ordered I thought ‘I bet that’s delicious,’ and it absolutely is.
Calvados is a brandy made in France from a region where grapes don’t grow that well so they use apples and pears to make something that’s similar to Cognac. I wanted to build off those flavors, and reintroduce flavors of grape distillates Then we add an aperitif wine, Champagne and white grape juice. Then we force carbonate it to make it super fizzy and super cold. It’s served with frozen cotton candy grapes; they have a distinct cotton candy flavor and sweetness to them. The drink is served with a combination spoon/straw and when you bite into the grapes you get a great sorbet and cotton candy taste in your mouth.
The day before we opened, as I was being pulled in a thousand different directions and dealing with the panic and chaos of opening, somebody asked me to taste the batch of the Bekaa highball and it was the first moment where I completely felt confident that we were going to be OK. It’s the drink I have if I have time off after work, or if I come in on my day off.”
Chez Zou is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Abbe Wichman is a freelance food and drink writer based in Westchester, N.Y. She is a contributor to HuffPost Life and Westchester Magazine and her work has appeared in Spoonful and a variety of Edible publications. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.