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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Shine on, you crazy Diamond

    Owner Dave Pollack, center, talks with Jeff and Bobbi Seger, of Belton, Texas, at the bar of The Diamond. The Diamond is a new restaurant/bar on Bank Street in downtown New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Chef Daniel Cook makes pizzas Wednesday, April 18, 2024, in the open kitchen of The Diamond, a new restaurant/bar, on Bank Street in downtown New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Back in the Florida of his youth, Dan Cook went to college to study poetry, threw in a minor in philosophy, and then managed a Cuban sandwich shop. Now 34, he’s STILL a poet, but right now he’s not finding much time to write.

    Wilton, Conn, native Dave Pollack went to James Madison University, traveled the world as a craft beer expert, and played the role of David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth in the now-defunct, Brooklyn-based Van Halen tribute band hilariously called Van Heusen — as in the corny Dad Shirts of yore. Pollack, 49, doesn’t do mid-air splits from a towering drum riser anymore, though it’s probable he could still warble a fine “Hot for Teacher” if you asked him.

    These cherry-picked biographical details are accurately reflective of the whimsical personalities of this seemingly unlikely pair. They were seated last week at a front table in the Diamond, a newly opened bar/pizza restaurant on Bank Street in New London. The location is very familiar to anyone with roots in the city. For over four decades, it housed Ernie’s Café, a wild and wildly popular bar that closed almost nine years ago and has remained vacant till now.

    “Yeah, everyone has a story about Ernie’s,” laughed Pollack, who owns The Diamond. “We’re in a place with some history.”

    Other than the same street number, there’s little resemblance to the décor and layout of the former tenant. The Diamond is split into two narrow sections divided by a central serving counter for a tiny dining area on the right, and a larger, curved bar area to the left. The latter has dark blue and exposed brick walls and dim lighting; it’s brighter in the former area with a line of red and white booths and long tables — and an open view of the kitchen and the massive, dome-shaped pizza oven — the dancing, wood-flamed interior of which beckons like a pepperoni-infused hell where the devil is fun and there is no punishment other than eating too much.

    Throughout the restaurant are vintage video and pinball games, a gargantuan shuffleboard table and a peculiar array of décor that makes no thematic sense other than it’s interesting: a painting of Rush’s Geddy Lee standing on top of an Opal GT; a framed portrait of Michael Landon (?!), an illustration of a cub one might find on an infant’s wall, and a massive, multi-colored lightboard that, well, it glows in rainbow hues.

    “All the artwork comes from my Brooklyn bar,” Pollack said. He glanced around, possibly trying to see it from a new perspective. He brightened and said, “Well, maybe it seemed less random there, but we still like it, so…”

    A long day’s journey into pizza

    How and why, though, did Pollack and Cook, the Diamond’s chef, come to be sitting here? What brought them to New London?

    Well, sourdough!

    It seems these dudes are experts at crafting distinctive sourdough pizza — and that’s one of the unifying threads of their partnership.

    “We were just having fun making pizza and trying to come up with new ideas, and sourdough came into play,” Cook said. “It’s a process with natural fermentation and a little more involved. It’s essentially my child. I get here at 7 in the morning and get started.” So THAT’S why he doesn’t have much time for poetry — although the names he comes up with for his pizzas are pretty clever.

    Examples of this sourdough-ian poetry include The Joy of Buttafuoco (sausage, caramelized onions and Mike’s hot honey) and A Real Fun Guy (roasted mushrooms, chives, caramelized onions and mozzarella).

    There are over 20 toppings to choose from, and don’t be surprised to see, in addition to such things as sausage and onion, imaginatively used items like celery or small, pig-in-a-blanket-style hot dog slices.

    Similar creativity is applied to a wine and cocktails list utilizing independent distilleries and vintners. The taps will always boast eight curated craft beers with a selection of canned beers including — yes! — 16-ounce containers of Hamms.

    Neighborhood bar in a new neighborhood

    Another shared affection to Pollack and Cook’s partnership is a love of neighborhood bars with personality and character — not quite dives but not ultra conceptual or consciously “hipster,” either.

    The concept is rooted in Pollack’s 15-year tenure running a bar in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Said pub was called the Diamond — and if you suspect a recurrent motif and that it might have a connection with Pollack’s status as a Diamond Dave Roth replicator, you’re on the right track. The Brooklyn Diamond, a few blocks from the East River, was small and sufficiently noteworthy — a loyal and eccentric clientele, quality draft beer selection, a devotion to vintage video games, in-house slot-car races, karaoke and improvised chicanery — to be written up in the New Yorker.

    Unfortunately, post pandemic, Pollack suspected the neighborhood would “never be the same,” and he and his wife Alex, with two children, began to think about other options. Alex Pollack’s mom is a hairdresser and resident on Fishers Island. Over the years, the family made dozens of visits from Brooklyn to Fishers Island via New London.

    “Going back to the early 2000s, I’d take the ferry out of New London, and I just thought, ‘What’s going on here? This seems like a pretty cool town.’ But I never really got to explore because I was always racing to catch the ferry,” Pollack said.

    After closing the Brooklyn Diamond, the Pollacks decided to live year-round on Fishers Island, where David ran a seasonal bar and restaurant called the Pequot.

    Meanwhile, Cook was lured north from St. Petersburg by a colleague who tempted him with an offer to “go to New York and make pizza.” Whatever visions of the Big City might have persuaded Cook to leave Florida, the new gig, it turned out, was on Fishers Island.

    “I’d never made pizza before, and I quickly realized where I was going wasn’t THE New York, but I found out I loved making pizza and Fishers Island was an interesting place,” Cook said. Turned out he’d be working at the Pequot, where he and Pollack hit it off and began crafting very popular sourdough pizzas. Over three years there, in the months-long off season, they started lugging their wood-burning over to the Fishers Island American Legion #1045 post and crafting pies there. Their creations grew in popularity, and Cook and Pollack realized they were onto something that could work in a larger scenario..

    Bound for the Whaling City

    At the same time, the limitations of living on a small island, where commerce is largely reliant on a short warm-weather season, became problematic.

    “Alex and I had started to think more and more about the New London thing,” Pollack said, “and we graduated to actually looking at different spots. I really wanted to buy something downtown but wasn’t finding anything I felt I could afford. But the lease here was something we could work with. And we’re really excited about being in New London. It seems like great things are happening.”

    Cook and Pollack are both appreciative of the support and hospitality of their new neighbors on Bank Street and nearby, name-checking the Blue Duck, 33 Golden Street, the Telegraph Autonomous Zone and the Dutch Tavern as just a few of the folks who’ve reached out.

    “And the city — the fire marshal, the building inspectors — everyone made it as easy as they could for us,” Pollack said.

    “We’re glad to have them here,” said Sal D’Angelo, owner of the Blue Duck. “They’re good guys and they’ve got a nice place. It’s been nice getting to know them and having the Diamond on Bank Street is just another indication that New London’s going in the right direction.”

    Early on a rainy Wednesday night, two days after the interview, both sides of the Diamond were busy with a wide demographic of locals. There was a dapper gentleman in a suit and hat, drinking a glass of wine and eating his pie at the bar; several artsy types who’d wandered over from the artist-in-residence apartment at the Hygienic; a father and daughter sharing a small pizza; and three generations of the Silva family.

    “It’s always a blast having the Silva’s together. We’re big pinball and pizza fans so the Diamond warms our hearts,” said Jay Silva, holding a pint of ale as various members of his family indeed played various games. “Believe it or not, my good friend Kevin Hodge (a local guitarist in Slyne & the Family Stoned), was a bartender at the Diamond in Brooklyn and worked with David on Fishers Island.”

    “To be honest, we came in here as outsiders and we were pretty nervous about it,” Pollack said. “I guess I still am. We’ve promoted ourselves as a pizzeria and the product is dynamite. The bar side is going to be a little slower to grow.

    “We’ll recycle some of the fun from the Brooklyn bar and come up with new stuff as well. We’re looking forward to a weekly MTV Video Request Night, starting soon, and, basically, we feel really good about being here.”

    “This is a fun neighborhood bar that happens to have killer pizza and beer,” Cook added. “And if you ever come in here and see someone wearing one of those artisinal chef’s aprons with pockets and stuff, you’ll know we’ve lost it.”

    if you go

    What: The Diamond, a bar and pizzeria

    Where: 53-55 Bank St., New London

    Hours: Open 4-9 p.m. daily, bar hours later

    For more information: (959) 716-4009

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