BACK IN THE NEW YORK GROOVE

Tiki Monday

Since Ace Frehley sang those immortal words in 1978, Exotica has has been in and out of the New York groove. The lowest blow, of course, was the closing of the storied Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel. Both Stanley Kubrick and Bob Fosse were fans (Fosse took his mistresses there; Kubrick took Arthur C. Clarke), but when Donald Trump bought the Plaza in 1989 he pronounced Vic’s “tacky” and shut it down. More recently, Manhattan Tiki suffered another blow when the Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai bar — home to “Tiki Monday,” Brian Miller’s weekly bacchanal of outstanding rum drinks and uplifting aloha spirit — closed shop in September. Nevertheless, exotic drinks are still alive and well on the island.

For one thing, as of January 7th Tiki Monday has a new home at GoldBar, whose wall of gold-plated skulls should mesh nicely with Brian’s “Tiki Pirate” wardrobe (pictured above). For another, you don’t have to wait till Monday for an artisanal exotic cocktail in New York. You can get one any night of the week at PKNY, Mayahuel, Pegu Club, PDT, or the Experimental Cocktail Club.

Of these, only PKNY is an actual Tiki bar. Granted, the decor — a mashup of Dinkins-era Lower East Side grit and bamboo beach bar — owes more to The Warriors than to Eli Hedly. But the music, at least on the nights DJs Jack Fetterman and Gina Of The Jungle control the playlist, is authentic. So’s the menu, a treasure-trove of old-school Tiki drinks and new-school artisanal craft cocktail twists on the classics. Each is lovingly made from scratch, with no ingredient uninvigorated: the house coconut cream mix, to take one example, was subjected to constant experimentation that dragged on for months — resulting in the only Piña Colada the Beachbum (who normally hates Piña Coladas even more than he hates that song about them) has ever ordered twice.

pkny

After following these with a Nui Nui, Jet Pilot, and Jungle Bird (all from the Beachbum Berry books, and all improved by canny rum substitutions) the Bum slurred his compliments to PKNY barman Valentin Gonzalez. A word of advice: don’t over-compliment Val or he’s likely to lift you off the floor in one of his signature bear hugs. When the Bum’s feet again touched terra firma, Val confided that not every PKNY drink is the result of a long gestation period. Some hatch spontaneously: “One night a drunk lady came in and said, ‘I wanna Piña Colada and a Mai Tai. But I want it together.’ We put them both in the same glass, and it actually worked. So we called it the Happy Ending.”

Curious about where else in town we could find a good exotic, we enlisted our local spirit guides, Martin Doudoroff and Sandy Rosin. They marched us to Mayahuel, Phil Ward’s catedral of agave-based cocktails. The downstairs bar is beautifully and elegantly themed, with late 19th-century Mexican decor accented by chiaroscuro lighting that would do Zurbaran proud (try to score a seat here rather than the upstairs dining room, which lacks the dreamlike atmosphere of the lower level). Naturally our first drink choice was the On The Bum, an intriguing mix of pineapple-infused mescal, Jamaican rum, lime, orgeat, and Phil’s “Medley #2” spiced syrup; next came a revelatory Smoked Pisco Sour, followed by the imaginative and transformative Change Agent (sotol blanco, granny apple, ginger, lime, and salt).

After Mayahuel we hit the Experimental Cocktail Club, whose host CoCo Prochorowski (imported from Stagger Lee in Berlin, where he’d seriously juleped the Bum two years ago) recommended an ECC specialty called the Kinkakuji, by Nicolas DeSoto. It was as good as it was complicated — and it was very complicated, incorporating Japanese whiskey, Trinidad rum, Batavia arrack, clarified milk, coconut water, green tea, and a house mix of eight Asian spices.

Audrey Saunders’s venerable Pegu Club (a proving ground for many now prominent NYC bartenders) has also gone exotic of late, offering drinks to match its decor, which recalls Burma under the British Raj. Pegu bartist Kenta Goto combines lemon, cucumber, apple, and artichoke-infused gin into his Cucumber Apple Fizz; we also enjoyed a Honeydew Daiquiri co-created by Kenta and his fellow Pegu mixologist Raul Flores (rum, lime, lemon, melon nectar, and absinthe).

The Shark

We’ve covered Please Don’t Tell elsewhere in these pages, but that was before John deBary hired on there. John’s done something that would have been unthinkable in haute Manhattan speakeasies like PDT even a short time ago: put a blue drink on the menu. A tasty one, too, as befits PDT. The Shark (pictured above) compounds butter-infused Nicaraguan rum, Jamaican overproof rum, Frangelico, blue curacao, lemon, pineapple, cream, and Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters — and comes complete with a paper parasol garnish.

We also noticed paper parasols as far afield as the Hurricane Club on Park Avenue and Otto’s Shrunken Head in the East Village. Apparently what goes around does indeed come around: the umbrella drink is back … if not in the mainstream, at least in the New York groove.

PKNY

MAYAHUEL

EXPERIMENTAL COCKTAIL CLUB

PEGU CLUB

PLEASE DON’T TELL

 

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MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIVES

Drinking played a huge part in “Papa” Hemingway’s life — and death.  But while Hemingway biographies have become a cottage industry over the years, no Hemingway scholar has seen fit to write a book on the subject (although Tom Dardis devoted a chapter to Papa’s binges in his classic 1991 treatise on alcoholic writers, The Thirsty Muse).

Now Philip Greene, a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, has filled this void with his entertaining book To Have and Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion.  Even if your youthful ardor for Papa’s quien es mas macho work has dimmed over the years (as ours has), you have to admire Philip’s obsessive thoroughness.  After over two decades of research, he’s come up with recipes and backstory not only for every cocktail that Hemingway’s fictional characters ever drank, but also Hemingway himself.  No small feat, considering that Papa approached drinking the same way he approached boxing:  as a competitive sport, with the winner the last man standing.

Hemingway also fancied himself something of a mixologist, and Philip doesn’t miss a beat here either.  He’s even tracked down an original tropical drink by Papa, the Tomini, which the novelist fashioned from coconuts and limes growing in the back yard of his Key West home.  (Recipe:  2 ounces gin, 4 ounces fresh coconut water, juice of one lime, and Angostura bitters to taste, shaken with ice.)

Papa killed himself with a rifle blast to the head 51 years ago.  He was a better shot than the movie industry, which shot itself in the head over 30 years ago, but is still with us:  brain-dead, incapable of meaningful work, but obstinately clinging to a culturally irrelevant existence.  Which brings us to another book by and for obsessives.

The movie industry’s self-inflicted wound was Jaws — a good film, but one which made so much money that Hollywood’s corporate overlords decreed that thenceforth all movies would take after the titular shark of Spielberg’s blockbuster:  they would become relentless marketing machines that chased not intelligent adult audiences but their own tails, “miring every multiplex in spectral repetitions of former success,” as Joshua Cohen put it in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, “franchises with recurring casts acting out recursive plots; sequels becoming threequels; do-overs; reenactments.”

What’s an alienated aesthete to do?  Just as Papaphiles now have Philip’s handbook, cinephiles now have the American Library Association’s Queue Tips:  Discovering Your Next Great Movie.  Chicago-based critic Rob Christopher asked ten writers from different disciplines for lists of their pet films to rent or stream.  (Rob himself contributes the best lists, including “Nine Westerns That Aren’t Westerns” and “Flops That Aren’t Actually Half Bad.”)  The resulting syllabus is heavy on the work of late lamented visual artists who wouldn’t stand a chance of getting their now classic films made today (Welles, Penn, Tarkovsky), as well as recent titles by the few contemporary American filmmakers (Malick, Lynch) who still joust at the windmills of Hollywood, Inc., stubbornly refusing to let go of the now downright quaint notion that movies are not just market-driven digital content, but an art form.

All well and good, you say, but what’s Queue Tips doing in a blog about Tiki drinks?  As it happens, the Beachbum penned one of the book’s lists, “Tropical Cocktails at the Movies,” an expanded version of his 2008 Grog Blog post.

And speaking of tropical cocktails:  apparently they’re not just for rum anymore.  Of all things, a Tiki moonshine recipe appears in this month’s Whisky Advocate magazine.  What Philip Greene is to Hemingwayiana and Rob Christopher to movie trivia, Matthew Rowley is to white dog.  In 2007 he wrote the definitive book on the subject (Moonshine!:  Recipes * Tall Tales * Drinking Songs * Historical Stuff * Knee-Slappers * How to Make It * How to Drink It * Pleasin’ the Law * Recoverin’ the Next Day), but five years later he’s still on a quest to quaff the spirit wherever it’s found, from illegal hillbilly stills to high-end boutique hipster distilleries — all of which he explores in his Advocate article “It’s a Nice Day For a White Whiskey.”  You can download a PDF of the piece over at his Rowley’s Whiskey Forge blog.

TO HAVE AND HAVE ANOTHER

QUEUE TIPS

MOONSHINE

 

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GHOST WORLDS

“The past is a foreign country,” L.P.Hartley famously wrote, “they do things differently there.” Thanks to two Tiki DVDs, now we can see for ourselves.

A mostly silent, at times hypnotically Herzogian, compilation of amateur vacation footage from the 1950s through the 1970s, Hawaii Home Movies is an eerie experience — a video seance. Vanished tourist Edens flicker back to life in faded color and fuzzy focus, among them the Coco Palms Resort, the Willows restaurant, Ulu Mau Village, even a glimpse of Don The Beachcomber’s outdoor Dagger Bar on Waikiki.

More compelling than the long dead places are the long dead people, often caught unknowingly on camera. A group of fat Middle American ladies breaks into an impromptu hula in a shopping center parking lot; WWII vets in aloha shirts disembark from an endless line of buses at the Punchbowl cemetery; a bored tour guide takes a cigarette break. In one Super-8 sound-camera clip of surfers on the North Shore, the cameraman’s off-screen wife can be heard carping, “It’s better’n San Diego, but it’s still nothin’ spectacular, Bob.”

The footage all comes from the collection of Rohan Pugh, an Australian Tikiphile who culled an hour’s worth of the 8mm and 16mm reels he found at yard sales over the years. He added no contextualizing voice-over narration; as he freely admits in the liner notes, he also did “very little editing. Unless it was edited at the time, this is as it came out of the camera.” There are the inevitable longueurs: we could have done with fewer Kodak Hula Show moments, or shaky pans of empty beaches. But on the whole, the DVD benefits from Rohan’s decision to let the archivist in him win out over the entertainer. Giving the amateur footage a professional gloss would have stripped it of its ghostly affect.

Professional gloss is on abundant display in The DVD of Tiki, Volume 1: Paradise Lost (pictured at top of post), an artfully directed documentary about the rise and fall of “Backyard Polynesia,” the midcentury pop-culture lifestyle trend first documented by Sven Kirsten in his 2003 tome The Book Of Tiki. Sven is one of the film’s many on-camera interviews (full disclosure: your humble Bum is among them), and Sven’s sound bites, interwoven with rare vintage footage and new sequences shot in the South Pacific and at the surviving Tiki meccas of North America, help director Jochen Hirschfeld condense 40 years of Poly-Pop history into 95 sharp, satisfying minutes.

It took Jochen, who directs TV commercials in his native Germany, eight years to complete this first volume of his Tiki opus. Since he began in the nascent stage of the Tiki Revival, he was able to accrue a wealth of material — including a visit with Martin Denny and a session with one of postwar Tahiti’s legendary Bali Hai Boys — that a filmmaker setting out today couldn’t hope to capture, since more than a few of Jochen’s interview subjects are now dead. But more important than possessing exclusive footage, Jochen possesses the narrative gifts to put the ghosts of Tiki’s past into a crisp and cohesive story. Here’s hoping Volume Two doesn’t take another eight years.

DVD OF TIKI

HAWAII HOME MOVIES

 

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MISSION TO MOSCOW

Recently the Beachbum was invited to the Moscow Bar Show (pictured above) to help spread Tiki in Russia. On arrival, he discovered that he was a day late and a rouble short: Tiki has already taken root in Russia.

At the show we made the acquaintance of Ignat Samsona, who’s introduced Mai Tais to his clientele at Restaurant Famous in Rostov-On-Don; Yuriy Sokiryan, who’s started a Tiki drink program at the Grand Hotel in Kiev; and Andrii Kosachov, who’s gene-splicing Russo-Tiki drinks in the Ukraine (such as his Russian Kiss, which swirls lemon juice and honey syrup with horseradish and red basil). We also caught up with our pal Alexey Shaposnikov, who told us he’s been teaching Tiki classes to his fellow bartenders in Saint Petersburg. As if that weren’t enough, we learned that Moscow now boasts not one but two Tiki bars, the Aloha and the Kon-Tiki.

We must confess that we failed to visit either of them. “How could this be?” you ask. “You lazy bum, how could you travel halfway around the world and not go to the Tiki bars there?” Well, as it happens, getting halfway around the world is much easier than getting halfway around Moscow.

Russia’s capital is a traffic jam in search of a city. It’s as if Houston fell on top of Los Angeles. On even the shortest cab ride you will encounter ambulances hopscotching through the gridlock to the scene of multiple traffic accidents. Which is puzzling, because traffic rarely flows long enough to enable an accident. Add to this a nine-million-passenger-a-day Metro that makes Tokyo’s seem depopulated, and you have a situation where getting anywhere is a major commitment. Especially for a commitment-phobic сачок (which, the Moscow Times informed us, is us: “сачок is a goof off, loafer or slacker.”)

Not that we had to go far to get a good drink: the Bar Show itself offered lots of them, from Nikka Whiskey ambassador Stanislav Vadrna’s artful swizzles to British barsmith Samantha Fish’s muscular Manhattans. Anton Marychev of Moscow’s fine Time Out Bar (which we did manage to visit) pointed us to the best homegrown show booth, where a local cocktail collective known as the Bartender Brothers conducted a food-pairing demo that proved vodka isn’t all bad — especially when you chase it with oysters and caviar.

TIME OUT BAR

MOSCOW BAR SHOW

 

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TIKITALIA

Shortly after the Beachbum’s arrival in Italy, he knew he was in the right country. “Work is a sacrifice for the Romans,” said his tour guide Leo Leuci. “In Naples they don’t say ‘We’re going to work,’ they say ‘Andiamo a fatiguare’ — ‘we’re going to be tired.’”

Leo is “Il Commodoro” of Rome’s Jerry Thomas Project, a cocktail collective obsessed with historic mixological arcana and devoted to converting Italy’s aperitif culture into a cocktail culture — which they do with religious zeal, even if it means flying the Bum overseas to help Tikify the bartenders of Rome and Milan. Leo’s fellow evangelists include Roberto Artusio, Luca “Freschello” Baioni, Antonio Parlapiano, and Alessandro Procoli (that’s Antonio and Alessandro pictured above left and right); in addition to conducting cocktail seminars throughout Italy, they all operate Rome’s Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, a bar which allows them to practice what they preach.

“The Speakeasy was born as a cry for help,” says Antonio: “Every bar we went into in the 1990s I found the same drinks, the same things.” Since 2009, the Speakeasy has countered this inertia with a menu of 10 bespoke drinks that changes every 15 days — over 200 different drinks a year, most with experimental ingredients hatched downstairs in what Alessandro calls “the batcave,” a basement lab carved out of bedrock circa 600 A.D. (former tenants included Benvenuto Cellini). On our visit, shelves lining the ancient stone walls groaned with vials of home-made bergamot bitters, elderflower extract, pomegranate shrub, peach-mango falernum, and the house “Vermouth Del Professore.”

Upstairs in the Roaring Twenties-themed saloon, Project members rotate as bartenders and hosts, with two behind the bar and another two taking orders on the floor — by far the more difficult job, as it entails explaining the ambitious, esoteric menu to a clientele more accustomed to Campari and soda than to Tiki drinks made with Bois Bandè-infused Guatemalan rum, or smoked camomile tea syrup, or Abbozzo Bitters.

We had to admit, we were also in the dark when it came to that last ingredient. Was it named after a bitter Italian clown? “Abbott’s bitters were declared unsafe by the 1906 pure food and drink act,” explained Alessandro. “This is our image of this extinct product: 17 different herbs and spices and flavor extracts.” And the name? “Abbozzo means ‘to be comfortably disappointed.’ When your friends make something better than you, you say ‘Ah. Abbozzo.’ You are happy — not envious.”

Such was our state of mind after sampling an homage to Don The Beachcomber by Antonio called Don’s Speakslow Swizzle. Recipe: in a tall glass muddle 6 mint leaves, then fill glass 2/3 to top with chopped ice. Add 1 ounce lime juice, 1/2 ounce each orgeat and passion fruit syrup, a little over 3/4 ounce each aged Martinique rum and Havana Club 3-year rum, 1/3 ounce dark overproof rum, and swizzle. Top with more ice and 1/6 ounce Angostura bitters. Garnish with mint and lime shell.

The Speakeasy wasn’t the only place in Rome where we found first-rate tropicals. In the bohemian Trastevere district, a former auto repair shop now houses a congenial neighborhood bar called Freni E Frizioni, where barman Christian Bugiada has six tiki drinks on the menu. He made us a textbook Missionary’s Downfall, followed by a sterling Mai Tai with a rum mix of Zacapa 23 and J. Bally Vieux.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, in the high-rent district between the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo, the Hotel de Russie’s tony Stravinsky Bar also offers great tropicals. The delicious Rosemary Daiquiri by Gianluca Amato (pictured above) will set you back almost $30, but that price includes a parade of hot and cold gourmet canapés that could easily serve as your evening’s meal.

Milan, the second stop on the Bum’s seminar schedule, also showed signs of tropification. There were several tiki mugs on the bar top of Ristorante Lacerba, where head barman Umberto Consiglio made us pitch-perfect Daiquiris; at Luca E Andrea, a cafe fronting the Naviglio Grande canal, barman Luca Vezzali’s drink special proved even more interesting than the people-watching: a 1934 Zombie, faithfully re-created — right down to the housemade Don’s Mix.

This fortified us for a hike into Nottingham Forest, Milan’s most curious cocktail bar. The interior is even more of a non sequitur than the name: wall-mounted primitive African, East Asian, Oceanic, Caribbean, and Amazonian artifacts all contribute to the pan-exotic vibe of the small, narrow, wood-paneled room, which opened in 1970. Owner Dario Comino’s avant-garde drink menu is as off-the-wall as what’s on the walls. One drink contains detoxified curare leaves, while another features a venus flytrap garnish; a habanero-infused Daiquiri comes with an amuse-bouche of barbecued mezcal worms. This may sound like an outtake from Mondo Cane, but the anything-goes aesthetic is infectious, especially when it comes to hat-tricks like “The Thing”: a drink served in a specially made mug with two ear-like spouts (think Shrek’s head in porcelain). The Thing is two drinks in one: it tastes entirely different depending on which spout you drink from. (We’re not sure how, but we suspect it has something to do with misting the inside of each spout with a different tincture.)

If Dario Comini has a spiritual son, it’s Dennis Zoppi (pictured above). In the northern industrial town of Turin, across from the 11th-century Church of Our Lady of Consolation, Dennis offers an alternative form of consolation at his Smile Tree Bar. Here bottles hang from ceiling-mounted bungee cords, and the drink menu is an iPad with photos of his creations. The photos are necessary because it would take the proverbial thousand words to describe Smile Tree’s garnishes, which make Jean Cocteau and Max Reinhardt look like minimalists. The Gialisco (an ambrosial combination of mezcal, lime, cherry tomato juice and agave syrup) arrives nestled in a bed of emerald green moss, surrounded by hollowed-out cacao pods aglow with the aromatic embers of torched tobacco and mint leaves. It’s all artistically arranged on a long wooden board, from which rises a two-foot-high tree branch laden with ripe red lingonberries.

Our second drink, a pisco and Fernet Branca potion called the Cilenó, was served on a thick round of pine trunk, on which tiny zombies made from peanut shells were posed in an epic battle around the glass. With Smile Tree’s “too much is not enough” philosophy, we wondered aloud, might the bar also embrace the fire and ice theatrics of Donn Beach and Trader Vic? Dennis and his collaborators, Lorenzo Scaglia and Antonio Masi, were preoccupied with arranging a surrealistic cocktail tableau on a white marble plank, but Smile Tree hostess Manuela Albertelli responded by flashing an electric grin: on their next menu, she said, “Expect Tiki.”

You might not expect Tiki as you enter Bologna’s Portico Della Morte — the “Plaza of Death” where plague victims were bought to die in the 12th century — but Tiki you will find at Nu Lounge Bar, the sprawling restaurant that now takes up most of the Portico’s real estate. “Tiki is serenity, Tiki is freedom, Tiki is to do what you want,” offers Nu Lounge co-owner and mixologist Daniele Dalla Polla (pictured above). If what you want is a vodka and red bull, so be it, Daniele will serve you one. But you will miss out on some of the best tropical drinks this side of paradise, painstakingly prepared and artfully presented.

Like the Jerry Thomas Project crew, Daniele and his bartenders (Matteo Palladino, who sports a moai tiki tattoo; Gianni Zottola, who favors tiki-print ties; and Gianfranco “Tutto Bene,” whose apron features vintage Hawaiian menu graphics) make many of their own ingredients. They employ 15 different kinds of sugar in their syrups, and draw from a voluminous spice rack for infusions.

The result is a a tonka bean Daiquiri accented with essence of white peeled licorice, a ginger-vanilla Ti Punch served in a frosted mini-decanter for one, a Spiced Piña Colada poured into a glass that’s been smoked with burnt cinnamon and clove, a Maori Sour sweetened with green tea-aromatized sugar, and a Moscow Mule topped with a sorbet of cucumber and pink peppercorn. On festival weekends Nu Lounge serves 1,000 covers a night, but even at the height of such pandemonium your drink will be meticulously presented, perhaps in a crystal skull, or accompanied by an animatronic chirping toucan, or half-hidden in a cloud of dry-ice vapor. “Smoke, flame, we do all the cinema,” says Daniele, who thinks nothing of serving customers drinks in valuable vintage Tiki mugs from his personal collection (we were gobsmacked when our Pukka Punch arrived in a rare, well-nigh irreplaceable 1950s St. Louis Mainlander mug).

But for sheer “cinema,” nothing tops Nu Lounge’s signature Aqua de Mai Tai (pictured above). When you order it you are presented with a large leather-bound book. When you open the book, you find a corked perfume bottle resting inside. And inside the bottle is your Mai Tai, which you pour into two antique glasses. Recipe: 1 1/2 ounces white Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce Añejo rum, 1 ounce lime juice, 1 ounce fresh pineapple juice, 1/2 ounce falernum, 1/2 ounce Cointreau, 2 dashes rhubarb bitters and 1 dash Brooklyn Hemispherical bitters.

“Ah,” we thought after our first sip. “Abbozzo.”

JERRY THOMAS SPEAKEASY

FRENI E FRIZIONI

STRAVINSKY BAR

RISTORANTE LACERBA

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

NU LOUNGE BAR

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