One of my dearest friends, David, is haunted by what I consider to be one of the stranger of the freaky phobias. He suffers from Tristadekaphobia, a fear of pickles. I don't mean a simple aversion to pickles. No, a legitimate crippling fear of pickles. He cannot see them, smell them, and certainly never taste them, without tragic effects. If a sandwich is delivered with a spear, wedge, or slice, it is immediately sent back to the kitchen unless a friend promptly transfers it to his own plate.
When David first opened up to me about his phobia, I couldn't resist calling his bluff. I purchased a rather hearty gherkin from the bodega, and upon arriving at the piano bar where our friends had gathered, inconspicuously slipped the green giant to our waitress, and whispered, "can you put this in a pint glass, and give it to the guy over there in the argyle cardigan when you deliver his drink?" She snickered, but played along.
When his gimlet was followed by a pickle pint, I was appalled by his reaction. Before it even hit the table, he leapt from his chair, and stormed out of the bar. The pickle had literally evoked fear and anger. David hadn't been kidding me. He was actually afraid of pickles! Sound absurd? Watch the following clip from Maury Povich...
That having been said, this past week my dear friend finally faced his fear. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that it took nothing short of a miracle. That miracle was Sweet Afton, one of the newest additions to the Astoria scene, and quite possibly one of my favorite pubs anywhere in any of the five boroughs.
Only open since late last summer, Sweet Afton already buzzes like a longtime favorite neighborhood watering hole. Created by the owners of Wilfie & Nell in the West Village, Sweet Afton simply hits the mark from every angle. The pub is named partially after a poem about the Afton Water in Scotland, written and set to music by Robert Burns (performed below by Nickel Creek, featuring images of the actual Aftom Water).
Coincidentally, Sweet Aftons were also a brand of Irish cigarettes... which is only appropriate, considering the previous manifestation of this Astoria location was a tobacconist.
Upon entering, don't wait for a hostess to escort you (although the extremely welcoming staff will help you find a suitable spot to settle if you ask them). There are no reservations, no formal waiting list, and primarily communal seating. We were immediately struck by the decor of exposed brick, minimal exposed dim light bulbs, all reclaimed wood, a bar that runs the span of most of the front room (yes, they have a back dining room and patio, as well), but best of all... no televisions. Truly a place to gather with old friends and meet new ones without distractions.
The 2009 Best of Astoria Awards gave Sweet Afton top honors in three categories: Best Bar Food, Best Looking Staff, and Best New Addition. It was literally a combination of all three that led to the initial stages of David's recovery.
We first sat a table in the back dining room for dinner, and instantly developed a crush on our waitress. She was supermodel stunning, sweet, sincere, helpful, and clearly loves her job at Sweet Afton.
The menu is extremely simple, and is built from ingredients sourced entirely from local purveyors. Other than the cheese plate (at a whopping $12), nothing on the menu is more than $8!!! We started with the Irish Sausage Rolls, which were three hearty and tender sausages baked in a flaky, buttery pastry, accompanied by HP sauce (known as brown sauce in the UK). Both David and I agreed that these blew any other pigs-in-a-blanket entirely out of the water. We came back for them the next night, as a matter of fact...
Next, we enjoyed an absolutely divine Mac & Cheese with doubled smoked Brooklyn bacon. It was a cast iron skillet of macaroni blanketed in Irish cheddar, Muenster, and Gruyere (from Murray's Cheese Shop on the Lower East Side).
For the following course, we shared a Sweet Afton burger on country white bun... and yes, David absolutely squirmed at the pickles, which I had to immediately remove and hide from sight.
You can tell from the photo just how fresh and perfect each component was... It was, hands down, the best pub food we have enjoyed in awhile. And the hand cut french fries with malt vinegar would be nearly impossible to improve.
We settled our tab, but had fallen so in love with our newest discovery that we weren't quite yet ready to part ways. Two seats had opened at the bar, and so we plopped down for a post-grub pint. That's when we met the bartender. I previously mentioned that we were already infatuated with our waitress, and now we were in a conundrum, as our bartender was one of the most handsome, kind, and simply sexy guys we have met (and that's a word I don't really use to describe men).
He asked if we needed menus, and we explained that we had just enjoyed the food, but simply wanted to wash it down.
"Oh, did you love the fried pickles?"
David and I laughed, but sparing him any embarrassment of explanation, we simply said we hadn't tried them.
"Well, then you absolutely have to try the pickle back shot!"
Upon noticing that David had neither flinched nor flown from the bar, I decided to seize the opportunity.
"You really recommend it?" I asked.
"Oh, yeh... I thought I'd hate it, but it's my absolute favorite... You have to try it."
He smiled, we melted, and well...
That's a shot of whiskey with a chaser of spiced pickle juice from McClure's Pickles in Brooklyn. And though David didn't order a second round of shots, he did finish the one... and without too much of a fuss.
"Let's go for it," I laughed. "Give us an order of the fried pickles!"
While we waited for the basket of beer-battered pickle slices, I sent text messages to all of our friends, and even proclaimed the miracle on my Facebook status update. Anyone who knew David in any capacity most certainly knew of his phobia, and would be shocked beyond belief by the news.
To David's credit, he did try one fried pickle (they were absolutely delicious, salty, and smoky). While neither I nor the dreamy bartender could convince him to try the Dirty Pickle Martini, I was immeasurably proud of his growth that night (though I most wholeheartedly recommend the martini, which David at least tasted).
It sounds corny, but when it was time to leave we had shared some incredible pub food, delicious drinks, and felt like we had really discovered an Astoria gem. And it hadn't cost us very much at all. We thanked the bartender, and went back to find the waitress to say goodbye, where we found her rolling silverware.
Over the span of a few hours and only a few drinks, not only had David tried a pickle for the first time, but he loved the service so much that he was voluntarily helping with the sidework!
A truly unique and welcome addition to the neighborhood, Sweet Afton is located at the corner of 30th Ave and 34th St a few blocks off of the N or W train.