Friday, October 29, 2010

A Visit to Lani Kai

Saloon keeper Julie Reiner has been adamant that her new SoHo bar, Lani Kai, is not a tiki bar, but tavern evocative of the Pacific and her native Hawaii. And, indeed, the place kind of falls between two stools, landing somewhere between the sophisticated cocktail dens she's known for (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club) and the newer tiki joints (Painkiller). There are tropical touches in the decor, but they're not overdone. The menu offers a Pupu platter and poi donuts, but also pork buns, lobsters roles, chicken wings and other things you could find at many another Manhattan spot. Many of the drinks feature rum and various fruit juices, but none of them are served in tiki mugs. The glassware is, well, glass.

In my visits, I've spent my time downstairs. Upstairs, with its booths and tables, seems geared toward eating, even if there is a small service bar at the end of the room. And I'm usually there to drink. Joe Swifka is the head bartender and, as it happens, the drinks I've sampled are mainly his. The Crystal Skull is apparently an early favorite and one can see why. It's clear (hello, vodka seekers!), it goes down easy, and it's lethal. This seemingly innocent, and dangerously subtle, drink is made of jalapeno-infused tequila, mezcal, dry vermouth, arrack, maraschino liqueur, absinthe and orange bitters. Think of that combination for a moment, and see if you don't shudder a bit. Do order the drink. It's delicious and nuanced. But be careful.

Swifta's Hotel California, served up in a Martini glass, is a good starter cocktail here. Made of dried-apricot-infused Old Tom Gin, Pisco, lime and pineapple juice, toasted almond orgeat and Peychaud's bitter, its relatively simple for all its complexity of ingredients. The combination of dried apricot and toasted almond contributes the most interested taste tension in the cocktail. It reminded me of a liquid os those holiday gift trays that feature an array of dried fruit and nuts.

The Tree House drinks like a cross between a Mai Tai and a Sazerac. It's a cool, sipping cocktail made of rye whiskey, dark rum, macadamia nut orgeat and mole bitters. Reiner indicated she's still tinkering with this one, but it pleased me well enough as is. A tasty aesthetic mash-up. Other good options on the menu is the refreshing The Tides (Cachaca, Falernum, cane syrup, lime and grapefruit juice, Peychaud's bitters); the Sugarhill Gang, a guest drink from Brian Miller with aged rum, Calvados, toasted almond orgeat, cinnamon bark syrup, lemon and orange juice; and one by Brad Farran called the Green Destiny featuring gin and Shiso leaves. I didn't try any of the drink from the "Old School" section, like the Mai Tai and Queen's Park Swizzle, because, as Reiner and Swifta are pros, I assumed they would be excellent, just as they are when I order them at Flatiron or Clover.

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