Saturday, May 19, 2012

Suburban Tiki

Adam Kolesar has come a long way in a short time. A couple years ago, he was a fairly well kept Brooklyn secret known as "Tiki Adam," a cocktail enthusiast who hung out at Prime Meats and invited tiki-oriented mixologists over to his apartment for geeky mix-a-thons. Then my colleague at the Times, Frank Bruni, discovered him and wrote a profile. (I grind my teeth even now at the thought that he beat me to the punch.) Now, Kolesar is selling his homemade orgeat to bars around town and sometimes tending bar at Lani Kai.

This month, Kolesar co-hosted one of the more invited events at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a bus tour of two suburban tiki relics. The bus was late, and the air-conditioning a disaster. But it was still a fun trip back into the 1970s, the death throe years of the original tiki era.

Here's is my write-up in the Times:
Leaving Manhattan for a Taste of the Tiki
When tiki and tiki-esque bars like PKNY, the Hurricane Club and Lani Kai opened in New York in the last couple years, they had no living Manhattan models to emulate. The Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room was long gone. And Donald Trump shut down the Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel in 1993.
To find tiki continuity in the greater metropolitan area you have to head over the bridges. That was the aim of A Suburban Tiki Safari, a Manhattan Cocktail Classicevent held on Saturday. Led by Brian Miller, the bartender in charge of Lani Kai’s Tiki Mondays series, and Adam Kolesar, a Brooklyn-based tiki drink enthusiast, a group of 20 or so budding rummies boarded a bus headed for Chan’s Dragon Inn in Ridgefield, N.J., and Jade Island on Staten Island.
Mr. Kolesar prepared the exacting for what awaited them. “For those accustomed to fine drinks, your expectations should be modest,” he warned. “These drinks were calibrated to the food they served, which was pretty much jazzed-up Chinese.”
Inside the bus, a tropical environment was fostered in ways intentional and accidental. Speakers piped in “The Girl From Ipanema,” Louis Prima and jazzy lounge-music versions of Henry Mancini. In the back, Mr. Miller proved you can mix up a batch of Dead Bastards (a tiki standard made of gin, rum, Bourbon, brandy, lime juice and ginger beer) at the back of a moving vehicle. Meanwhile, an under-performing air-conditioning system provided an appropriately Polynesian climate.
Chan’s was the first stop. The brown, diminutive restaurant is easily lost among the surrounding housing stock. It is still run by the same family that opened it in 1965. Jade Island, born in 1972, is hidden in its own way, as one building block in a nondescript strip mall. Its next-door neighbor is a branch of the post office. (Jade Island recently survived a near-death experience, signing a lease to stay where it is for another decade.) Both restaurants were born at “the tail end of the Polynesian craze,” said Mr. Kolesar, when the exotic tiki movement was finding its way to the common man.
Inside, the two mock tropical paradises seemed to have shared the same decorator. There were colorfully painted totems, lobby water sculptures, bamboo booths with thatched roofs, fake parrots perched in the rafters, and lighting fixtures shaped like blowfish. The large-scale menus were of the sort that offer drink illustrations and food choices from column A and column B. Behind the bar at Chan’s were two plastic milk jugs, one filled with an orange liquid and labeled zombie and one with a yellow liquid labeled mai tai. A pu-pu platter of egg rolls, shrimp toast and ribs arrived without a dish of flaming liquid at its center.
At Jade Island, the majority ordered the Pineapple Paradise, a creamy drink that was served in an enormous, hollowed-out pineapple. Despite its size, it didn’t pack much of a wallop.
“I never worry about driving here,” said Mr. Kolesar, who lives in Carroll Gardens. “The drinks are not that strong.”
On the return trip through the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan, Mr. Miller made everyone a rum old-fashioned with El Dorado 12-year-old rum. That was strong.

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