Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Mixology: Bar Review – Lani Kai

Posted on: April 2, 2011

Julie Reiner is the force behind cocktail cathedrals Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club. Her new venture, Lani Kai, is all over the map — intentionally so, with one foot in Hawaii and the other in New York.  With its self-described “modern tropical ambience” it is riding the tiki wave, although it takes pains not to identify itself as a tiki bar, although you’ll find plenty of tiki-style drinks.  The other side of its personality is focused on classic cocktails made with whiskies and gins, a real plus, I think.  Mai Tais and Manhattans — interesting, and so I had to give it a try.  Plus, this guy likes it.

Located on a slightly desolate mini-block in Soho by the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, my friends and I got there on the earlier side, and were set up in a comfortable booth.  (They have a happy hour menu on weekdays until 7pm.)  If you care about decor, there are other reviews addressing that.  It’s a muted, upscale vibe, I guess.  So long as I can sit down, I’m happy.  I was there for the drinks, after all.

The cocktail menu is, as you would hope and expect, extensive.  The taxonomy of its selections includes such categories as “Boozy and Stirred,” “Another Day in Paradise,” and “The Island of Manhattan.”  Started with a Sugarhill Gang, which is attributed to Brian Miller of Death & Co.  Suffice it to say, it was not the name that enticed me.  Rather, it was the ingredients: aged rum, calvados, orgeat (an almond syrup prevalent in tiki drinks), cinnamon syrup, orange and lemon juices.  It was served up in a cocktail glass, and was a great drink.  Not too sweet — although getting perilously close — the cinnamon was very pleasant, and played well with the rum.

For a second, I sought advice.  The waitress was pretty knowledgeable about their drinks, and helpful with suggestions.  For example, I next asked her for something boozy, bitter, and served up.  She suggested a Martinez, which certainly hit my criteria.  I had been hoping for more, however.  A minute later, she came back and said that the bartender had reconsidered, and came up with an Astoria.  Nice. Essentially a wet Martini from the Savoy cocktail book, it had Old Tom gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, and a splash of grapefruit juice.  It sat pretty well with me, although it clashed a bit with my previous drink.  My friend got a Hotel California, which was dried apricot-infused Old Tom gin, pisco, lime, pineapple juice, toasted almond orgeat, and Peychaud’s bitters.  It wasn’t bad, but was too sweet for my taste.  My sense with some of the drinks on the menu was that they needed to have some that were crowd-pleasers, which tend to be on the sweeter side.  Raines Law Room does the same thing.  Fine with me, too, a menu just of drinks I like would be boring anyway.  I regret that I didn’t get a classic Mai Tai — the most famous tiki drink, it would have allowed me to really take the place’s measure.  Next time, I guess.

In the end, there’s much to be said for and against tiki.  Indeed, there seems to be a backlash developing already, and Lani Kai is part of that as well, given its reluctance to even mention tiki.  What I do like about tiki, however, is the use of different rums, particularly some of the more flavorful dark and Jamaica-style rums – and Lani Kai has taken up these elements.  That’s why I really like the Sugarhill Gang, it took tiki signatures — dark rum, orgeat, cinnamon — but used them in the guise of a classic daquiri, and which was, I thought, quite successful.  The name Lani Kai, however, may signal too strongly of the tiki trend.

Final note, we did get some of the small plates of food, and it was really, really good. The pork bun and chicken wings were both winners.

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