12.01.10 by Shirley
Julie Reiner gives New Yorkers an escape from Gotham’s frenetic pace at Lani Kai, a bar that’s a tropical paradise retreat.
If you’re unable to get away from the winter cold that’s hit North America this season but are still craving an island-vibe, get yourself over to Lani Kai. Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club fame and team have created a tropical escape complete with hand-crafted cocktails and Asian-inspired bar bites.
served raw: tell us about your newest bar, Lani Kai, and where you found inspiration to create the tropical paradise.
Julie Reiner: The whole idea was to do a modern, contemporary take on a tropical lounge. I grew up in Hawaii, so that was definitely my inspiration, but the bar wasn’t meant to be authentic Hawaiian, but more tropical. The cocktail list is all over the place as far as spirits go, with gin, vodka, whiskey, lots of rum. We cross the spectrum and incorporate a lot of ingredients that you’d find in tropical regions, ingredients I reached for when I first started mixing cocktails, like lemongrass and toasted macadamias.
let’s talk about tropical drink classics. Why do they have such staying power?
I have a house daiquiri recipe that we use in all of my bars. It’s one of the greatest cocktails ever created, it’s so simple. A couple bartenders came in to Clover Club one night and said that the daiquiri is the drink you order when you’re thinking about what you want to drink. It’s neutral, versatile.
The mai tai is a very famous rum cocktail, a Trader Vic drink, and though it’s not as old as the drinks we refer to as classic cocktails, it’s still a famous tropical drink and it’s the most popular one on the menu at Lani Kai.
you’ve crafted some stand-out signature cocktails specifically for Lani Kai …
Most of the menu are original creations — it’s been a collaboration between myself and my head bartender. About 13 years ago, I found my personal style with mixing cocktails was definitely new age tropical, incorporating tropical ingredients with newer drink concepts. The Leilani’s Fizz, for example, where Tanqueray gin is mixed with lychee, lemongrass and fresh lime. Gin wasn’t ever a common or traditional ingredient in tropical drinks.
are there certain spirits that work better than others for tropical cocktails?
You’ll see rum, most often. Even spirits that you wouldn’t think of work really well. I have a scotch drink with passion fruit and coconut liqueur and it’s delicious. Tequila is one of my favorites. It has so much character, you have to really think about the flavors that you’re using. It’s about how well you mix the spirit.
do glasses change the drink experience?
With glassware I really wanted to stay away from the kitschy tiki thing, and people equating that all things tropical must be tiki — I wanted a more elegant feel. I stayed away from ceramics and went more for all glass vessels. The punches come in very large glass hurricane glasses, and we put a bunch of straws in so people can share them, which is fun and elegant at the same time.
what are some tips on making a unique tropical cocktail presentation?
The Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii garnishes their mai tais with fresh sugar cane sticks. I was able to source those from Hawaii and put them into our mai tais as well — they’re really cool and tasty. Grilled pineapple on the scotch drinks. We use lots of flowers as garnishes, like orchids and pansies, as well as candied ginger.
what techniques are you using to distinguish your cocktails?
I’m doing one frozen cocktail at Lani Kai, the Bermuda Triangle. We are using a top of the line frozen drink machine, and putting all the fresh ingredients into it: Leblon cachaça, coconut, kalamansi — a filipino lime — and lychee juice. It’s really delicious and has a little funk to it.
you’ve got bar bites, how are you incorporating a tropical feel into them too?
The food is Asian-inspired, but really just great cocktail bites. Some of my favorites are the tuna poke, a Hawaiian-style tuna tartare that’s really great. We’re also doing a grilled chili squid dish that’s delicious. The chef’s making duck potsickers that are really tasty as well. We’ve got a pupu platter where you choose four items from our small plates menu so you can mix and match. As far as pairing cocktails with food, Asian and Mexican foods have a spice that holds up to cocktails as opposed to French or Italian which cry for wine. The spice level really works well with cocktails.
Julie Reiner uses gin as the base spirit in this tropical drink served at Lani Kai, NYC.
- 2 lychee nuts
- 2 ounces Tanqueray Gin
- ½ ounce lime juice
- ¾ ounce lemongrass syrup
- ½ ounce lychee juice
- 1 ounce club soda
- Lemongrass stick and lime wheel, for garnish.
- Muddle lychees in a mixing glass, add gin, lime, lemongrass syrup and lychee juice. Shake and fine strain over fresh ice in a collins glass. Top with club soda and add garnish.
- 1 quart puréed lemon grass (in food processor, use the base of the lemon grass as that is where the flavor is, not the tops)
- 2 quarts water
- Place on stove over medium heat. Reduce by half, fine strain.
- Add sugar 1:1 (equal parts sugar to the lemongrass-infused water).
- Store for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.