[Editor’s note: This article appeared in our April 2020 issue, but was held for publication online amid last year’s Covid-19 shutdowns.]
If you’ve attended a show at Montclair’s Wellmont Theater, you may have discovered Pharmacie, the elegant cocktail bar adjacent to the lobby. It was probably packed with showgoers, and maybe you snarfed down a surprisingly good grilled pretzel with cheese and mustard. But on off nights, when the Wellmont is dark, Pharmacie becomes something rare—a really great neighborhood pub.
Head bartender Donny Nelson has created a deep and insightful cocktail list that may well be the best in Montclair. Chef Ken West’s menu offers a range of experiences: burgers and chicken sandwiches to enjoy with a beer; tapas for sharing; even a bit of fine dining if you opt for, say, black bass crudo as the opening act and the beautifully seared hanger steak with broccolini and forbidden fried rice as the headliner.
Owned by the Wellmont, Pharmacie is an airy cube of glass, brick, wood and tile. On busy show nights, cocktails get simplified to those requiring no more than three ingredients. The rest of the time, you can expect more adventurous yet cohesive concoctions, such as the Detox 2.0, a brilliantly green and perfectly balanced mixture of gin, ginger, cucumber juice, lemon and agave syrup. Nelson formulates his shrubs and bitters in-house. Shrubs are relatively easy to make, but bitters require a much more esoteric level of artisanship. The distinctiveness of his bitters shows itself in drinks like the mezcal old-fashioned, a burnished amber blend of mezcal, reposado, agave and grapefruit bitters. It tastes like something that might have been served in smoky, wood-paneled rooms a century ago.
West, 29, is an alum of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and the Alma cooking school in Colorno, Italy. After Alma, he cooked under chef Giovanni Ciresa at the ultra-fancy Bauer hotel in Venice. At Pharmacie, though, “we go for a bar-first feel, but a bar that just happens to have great food,” he says.
Perfect example: Buffalo chicken wings. Before being fried to order, they spend a day in a tenderizing buttermilk marinade, then luxuriate in a four-hour sous vide. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, the skin crisp and coated in a truly wild rendition of Buffalo sauce. West starts with the traditional Frank’s Red Hot sauce, then adds Indonesian sambal paste for umami, with Korean gochujang fermented chili paste taking the role usually played by vinegar. Awesome.
Another bar classic is the fried chicken sandwich, elevated with a house-made Japanese tonkatsu sauce (even if it’s a tad too sweet). Then there’s the burger: a massive, 8-ounce grilled patty of short rib, chuck and brisket, juicy and delicious. The fast food–style Pharmacie sauce of ketchup and mayo gains sophistication and punch from chopped cornichons, capers, shallots and jalapeños. The fries, hot and crisp, are neither fat nor skinny—just right.
The menu has separate columns for bar snacks and desserts, but doesn’t distinguish between appetizers and entrées. “Food doesn’t need to be categorized,” says West. “It’s just food. Having more dishes on the table gives people more to converse over.” To that end, nearly everything on the menu can be shared by at least two people.
Considering the brisk pace at which highly polished dishes emerge from the kitchen, I was surprised to learn that all the work is done by two guys, West and his assistant, on a six-burner stove, a grill and a fryer. From tenderizing octopus tentacles (by massaging them) to making rum ice cream for the root beer float, to mashing bananas for the wicked-good banana pudding, they do it all.
“When I lived in Italy,” says West, “there was a bar in our town. You could get really good drinks, but they also had great handmade agnolotti.” When asked if that place partly inspired his menu, he shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “I just want people to be happy.”
- Cuisine Type:New American
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Snacks, $5–$9; plates, $10–$28; desserts, $3–$9
- Ambience:Airy, upscale pub
- Service:Friendly and attentive
- Wine list:Full bar, excellent cocktails