Nikolashka

Al Smith's Feasting Fox, 4200 South Grand Avenue; 314-352-3500.

Entering an unknown bar alone is a profound leap of faith. Drinkers are at times a provincial lot, used to their routine and uninterested in accepting intruders into their midst. There's a reason why "A stranger walks into a bar " is the prefix to so many classic punch lines. Because when one arrives, there's no telling how it'll play out.

Itching to get out of the house, and at the brilliant suggestion of our dearest, we head to Al Smith's Feasting Fox. For many years we'd passed the place on the way to the South Grand Ted Drewes. But, inexplicably, we'd never been. Sure, we'd heard stories. But the Feasting Fox was a Drink of the Week blind spot. Would it be a biker bar? Overrun with secret hipsters? Hoosiers? Latinas? Germans?

We enter the bar to sing-song happiness of "Four Leaf Clover," and before it even registers, we're standing in front of the singer, who's strumming on an acoustic guitar hung high on his torso. He's got a soft smile on his wide-open face. "I'm looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before," he sings, "one leaf is sunshine, the second is rain, third is the roses that grow in the lane." To his right, a man sits on a stool and plucks on a washtub bass — a broomstick stuck into the middle of a inverted tin washtub, with a single string plonking a deep counterpoint.

Eight or so people sit around the Fox's horseshoe bar, and over the next hour, we're treated to a novel's worth of stories. The guitarist, explains Fox owner Marty Luepker Sr., is Ron Reichard, who's been gigging around St. Louis for over 50 years. He was the toast of St. Louis in the years just before Elvis Presley hit, but when rock & roll took hold, Reichard refused to alter his style to change with the times and has been steadfastly playing the standards ever since. The bassist is Ted Madler, who, like many of these guys, is a classic car enthusiast.

Marty the Elder makes a Russian drink called a nicolashka, and it's a curious creation. First, he pours Cognac into a little cordial glass. Then he cuts a thin circle of lemon, trims the rind off of it and sets the yellow disc on top of the glass, so it's like a little citrus lid. He sprinkles a tiny mound of Folger's instant coffee on it, then an equal amount of powdered sugar on top of that. The goal, he explains, is to drop the lemon, coffee and sugar onto your tongue in one fell swoop, add a little of the Cognac into the mix and chew it all up. Be careful not to inhale, though, or the powdered sugar will make you cough. The resulting is, literally, bittersweet, as the sour mixes with the coffee, sugar and Cognac to create a little mess of flavor. Once the chewy bit is swallowed, you drink the rest of the Cognac, and the palate is cleansed and ready for another nicolashka.

"On the day of the first snow," recalls Luepker, "we used to go out with all of our fireworks and a big tray of these. We'd shoot off the fireworks and give nikolashkas to all the neighbors.

"It's a little boring here usually," says Luepker, an affable sexagenarian and born conversationalist. "But I like it that way." He adds that among his regulars are a few members of the Franciscan order, "as well a stripper from PT's who comes in because nobody hits on her here. She sits and talks to the priest."

Across the bar, two regulars have noticed a change: "Hey, they took down the pumpkins," says one.

"Yep, they sure did," confirms the other. After a brief moment of silence, he adds optimistically, "Pretty soon they'll put up the Christmas lights though."

 
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