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The announcement came, as these things do nowadays, via Facebook. "So Pegu received a visit from the Health Dept. tonight," wrote Audrey Saunders, co-owner of Pegu Club in New York City and the recently opened The Tar Pit in Los Angeles.
Everything was in order, Saunders wrote in her Tuesday night post, until the inspector looked at the menu and took issue with one drink's list of ingredients. "[She] told us that...even with the warning we have printed on our menu about raw eggs, using raw eggs is a violation...and that we have to switch to pasteurized eggs in our cocktails."
Concerns about the hazards of consuming raw eggs are nothing new, nor are articles about their use in many classic cocktails; I wrote about the issue in 2007, as did Jason Wilson of the Washington Post.
But now, thanks to the NYC Health Department, the question of whether it's advisable, or even legal, to serve raw eggs or egg whites to a customer is being pushed into the spotlight.
The health department's choice to target Pegu Club may prove problematic. Considered one of the pioneering bars in the cocktail renaissance, not to mention Saunders is one of the more talented and influential individuals in the spirits industry.
Then there are the other questions. Does this mean the health department will begin targeting restaurants that serve raw eggs in a Caesar salad? Or a house-made mayonnaise or steak tartare?
It also questions the impact of high-proof spirits on any harmful bacteria that may be present in the egg. Saunders asserts that the inspector failed to even cite a specific law or rule that forbids the use of raw eggs.
It's not the first time the health department has created waves in the city's bars. In 2007, the New York Times reported that the department mandated that bartenders wear plastic gloves or use tongs when inserting a lime wedge in a bottle of Mexican beer, a move that was widely mocked and universally ignored.
Pegu Club is hardly alone—it's a safe bet that scores of restaurants and bars in the city and many more across the country use raw eggs in some capacity, often listing a warning on the menu regarding any potential hazards.
And without totally dismissing the risks, through proper storage and safe handling the already small danger (the Nation's Restaurant News blog cites a figure that one egg in 20,000 contains salmonella) can be all but eliminated.
This issue will no doubt play out in the coming weeks, but let's hear your thoughts.
As long as the restaurant or bar is notifying customers that a particular dish or drink contains raw eggs, should customers be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to take the risk, much as they do when ordering raw oysters or sushi? Or is the small risk of salmonella enough to require a rule that partially or completely forbids the use of raw eggs?