Colin Hampden-White meets Tommy Tardie to discuss his exciting new adventure: Fine and Rare.
Tommy Tardie is a delightfully engaging and relaxed man, utterly passionate about whisky specifically, and booze generally. He’s the kind of chap with whom it would be a pleasure to spend the afternoon – talking, tasting and kicking back.
He is not an hotelier or mixologist by background, but personal experience of eating and drinking in fine establishments has stood him in good stead with latest venture: Fine & Rare.
Tommy’s earlier career was as a Creative Director in the advertising world. Bored by the increasing bureaucracy the higher he rose, he sought new avenues and joined the world of “knowledge-based hospitality”.
Qualities that made him successful in advertising – including a remarkable eye for crafting a visual feast – certainly translate into his new milieu. He excels at creating an inviting atmosphere that is haute qualité without being starchy or clinical.
Tommy’s earlier creation, the Flatiron Room in New York’s Midtown, is a stone’s throw from its namesake. The cradle of its newly-born sister, Fine & Rare, is further up midtown, a short walk from the Empire State Building. The Flatiron Room opened in September 2012; Fine & Rare came into the world early in 2017.
Tommy splits his time between the two establishments, though of course he’s been spending more time at Fine & Rare in its early stages. “It’s like a new-born child: it needs all the attention at the beginning. You’ve got to shape it, make sure it’s doing all the right things and developing properly”. Perhaps the fact that he’s a family man, married with two children, is why Tommy is rooted in reality. I think this helps him create engaging human spaces.
Tommy certainly has the skill of selecting the right people for a job. The general managers of both establishments complement his leadership beautifully. Ask for Dacha at Fine & Rare and David Garcia at the Flatiron Room; they will look after you as you deserve.
The Flatiron Room boasts 1,200 bottles of whisky and is very whisky-centric, though they certainly offer other spirits. One might say it’s part of the Speakeasy style prevalent in New York’s bars. It is certainly very theatrical, with its jazz musicians and singers. It reminded me of the scene in Moulin Rouge – in a good way – where Nicole Kidman descends on her swing singing diamonds are a girl’s best friend. With a dancer’s lightness of foot servers pirouette, balancing trays and guests enjoy a spot-lit floor show.
As a European, I perceive the American pioneering spirit keenly in Fine & Rare. Tommy took not just a blank canvas but a concrete hole, with no walls and a pockmarked floor on which they walked “very cautiously”. “It was a big raw space. It was a challenge to make it feel authentic.”
Along with his team, he has achieved a trick that’s very difficult to pull off – to create character from a void. Everything has been chosen with great care and is either antique, reclaimed or custom-made, from Italian marble fireplaces to original teller windows from Grand Central Station. “I wanted to go more for a 1950s feel, bring in some of the feel of the Explorers’ Club on the Upper East Side”. Slices of agate, ostrich eggs and other objets sit atop vintage leather-bound books. Part of an old New York post office has been turned into a table, the top of an ancient holds its position against one wall. Investor names are branded into the reclaimed polished-wood floor
Part of that trick’s success lies in fashioning distinct areas with flow, whilst avoiding them feeling separate from one another. Tommy says “we played around with the elevation to give it some dimension. It has a rich feeling as though we had recovered it; a feeling of timelessness”.
There are many types of show going on here, from the evening’s jazz musicians to the ladders that bar staff ascend to access bottles in shelves set high above your head. “We decided to incorporate our product into the architecture” chuckles Tommy. “With Manhattan real estate, you’ve got to go up!” There is an interesting use of mirrors, some slightly occluded, that bring light delicately. The stainless-steel ceilings are reclaimed from part of a still.
Fine & Rare attracts a well-heeled, sophisticated yet un-flashy crowd. “In New York there are many places that exclude – from bars to shoe shops. The value and the experience have to be there. This is luxury brand without pretention.”
It’s a really comfortable space so I can see why its clientele range from couples and private parties enjoying a great night out, to corporate and educational events. Their knowledgeable staff welcome guests, whether connoisseur or novice, and talk through everything that’s on offer. That range encompasses tasting flights, cocktails and exclusive über-taste bottlings such as the 1990 grand vintage Glenmorangie.
The doors to the tasting room come from masonic temple, as does the chandelier, and it has a dividable table. To soften the room, the walls are covered with hundreds of small format photos that create a panorama evocative of David Hockney’s landscapes.
A focal point here, as in the Flatiron Room, is the mini booths that house privately-owned individual bottles. Whole booths are also available, many corporately-owned. William Grant & Sons, for example, occupy two. The booths are a minimum six bottle purchase and occupancy must never fall below four bottles. Perish the thought. Hand-stamped metal tags adorn the necks of owners’ bottles.
There is an encouragingly vast amount of whisky here. It is joined by a range of other spirits including fine tequila, brandies, agave and rum. Tommy describes it as a “carefully curated selection. I do it all myself.” Special favourites include Laphroaig Cairdeas, Glenfarclas 1966, privately bottled for Mahesh Patel, founder of the Nth Whisky Experience Vegas, Kelpie – the most recent Ardbeg Committee release, Bunnahabhain 1968, Rosebank 21. He is also a big fan of Pappy Van Winkle expressions.
The Smoking Rye Old Fashioned tickles all the senses. On lifting the wooden lid, curls of smoke are released, a forerunner to the taste itself. This is achieved through firing wood chips in tehri smoker before introducing that smoke on top of the liquid in the glass. The effect is to impart a light smoky flavour to this Knob Creek rye-based cocktail. It is your choice of wood selection – hickory, Applewood, mesquite or Cherrywood.
The Triumph and the Fine & Rare Cloud both feature their privately-bottled barrels of Elijah Craig; the Cloud is topped by homemade maple foam that gives a deliciously creamy feel. The Triumph is a multi-layered creation; the Pedro Ximénez sherry is balanced by chocolate bitters and a lightness from orange peel twisted over the top.
Brenne whisky, aged in cognac barrels, is the star of the Ginger-Brenne House. A cute play on words, the ginger liqueur and candied ginger – balanced by lemon peel – impart warmth and seduction.
The Garden of Eden is a properly grown-up G&T, with juniper berries frozen into the ice cube that emerge as the ice melts. The Mediterranean aromatics of thyme, basil, rosemary, green olive, dehydrated lemon just jump out of the glass. Bitterness from the green olive brine is reminiscent of a Dirty Martini.
It might sound geeky but I had the strong sense that the temperature of each cocktail had been very carefully considered. Of course, that’s as it should be; but nowadays too many drinks are served much colder than suits them. I want to taste the drink properly, not get frostbite off the glass. The subtle temperature variations enhance one’s experience of these properly spirits-driven cocktails allowing you to appreciate each distinctive taste quality.
The “F” of “Fine & Rare” is the food. The concept is “clean upscale American food”. Colin tried to muscle in on the intense, yet delicate, duck prosciutto with candied and pickled walnuts. I slapped his fork away.
Now this is the States; it’s New York. So it’s got to be a hamburger. If the devil were considering the most effective way to tempt you through food, this would be it. I’m not exaggerating. If that hamburger weren’t naughty enough, there are truffle-oil fries. Trust me, for a dish of this stuff, your soul is a pretty good trade. The truffle wafts toward you from the plate and gives a little zing as you bite into them. Finish with the Greek-inspired orange cake with ice cream. It’s light, fragrant and divine – and big enough to share, especially after the burger.
Asking Tommy about future plans, a glint in his eye tells me that the Flatiron Room and Fine & Rare will enjoy the company of another sibling at some point. For now, his cards are very close to his chest.
If I have one complaint, it’s that in Manhattan Fine & Rare is quite a long way from our home in London. All the more reason to plan the next trip to the Big Apple.
By Colin Hampden-White