Drink: Get ready for tiki puka puka
The trendiest bar in New York is opening a branch here. But why the hula girls?
Saturday 19 September 1998
Trends then are, ultimately, silly. Ten, five, three, two years later, if that, you simply can't believe you were there, with him/her/them and consumed that. We just never learn. The New York Times recently reported to the world that public gum-chewing is the thing. (The New York Times for Chrissakes!) "A badge of insouciance," it called it.
What may be next (and next in New York is the only thing that matters) is rum. As of now, rum is still comfortably ahead of the curve but may, sooner rather than later, become part of the citywide vernacular (thus spoiled forever). A new bar, Asia de Cuba, is leading the quiet rum revolucin, although what rum has to do with Asian cuisine is unclear. Its rum list is more impressive than its wine list, which describes the whites with rubrics such as "herbaceous and citrusy" and the reds with "fiery and racy" (whatever those mean).
With 34 rums from 15 Caribbean-rim nations, the list reads like a travel agent's offerings: Haiti, Barbados, Jamaica, West Indies. Sampling can get quite expensive; shots range from $6 to $12.50 (and are more evocative of cognac than you'd imagine). So most opt for mixed concoctions with embarrassing names: rumba-bumba, scorpion and tiki puka puka, the latter selected as one of the Top 25 Summer Cocktails by Time Out New York.
Tiki puka puka (Latin? Caribbean? Asian? South Pacific?) is made with three rums, Cointreau, lime juice and grenadine, is served in a bowl and made, as a spokeswoman for Asia de Cuba says, "for an orgy". An all-girl one at that. What man, in his right mind, is going to sip out of a bowl with pastel umbrellas and hula girls engraved on the side?
In Asia de Cuba, a large, ebullient two-level space designed by Philippe Starck, all participate. In its unapologetic go-go nod to the Eighties - seamless orange tans, attitude at the door, no socks, mobile phones - it works. "People just want to have fun," says one of the managers, Mark Wood, who will help launch a Covent Garden version of this multi-ethnic paradise next May.
What Asia de Cuba doesn't carry is Cuban rum, which is, supposedly, like its cigars, the best in the world, but is banned in the States. Not even for Michael Jordan, DiCaprio, Denzel et al who are known to frequent the place (Moomba being past it, apparently)? "No," says Wood. "Really, it's against the law."
Maybe the (impending) trend towards rum is the residual effect of the Cuban renaissance happening in America and especially New York: the cigars (despite being illegal), the music (the Buena Vista Social Club selling out Carnegie Hall), the dance, the baseball players. The Bacardi family, remember, was actually Cuban before they resettled in Puerto Rico, and the real name for a rum and coke is Cuba Libre.
Not that rum is anything new, of course. New York has always had large Hispanic and Caribbean communities, if not necessarily Cuban. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum has for years advertised on the New York City subway system: 10 years ago with the randy, slightly maniacal Captain simply posted by himself; now with African-Americans in various blaxploitative dance steps with the sayings "get spicy" and "your nights need flava" emblazoned across them.
Most bars and restaurants, even Latino and Caribbean, carry just the basic rums: the Bacardis, Captain Morgan, Myers, Mount Gay (nice with tonic). The less pretentious needle in the haystack is Negrill, a Jamaican spot in New York's Chelsea. There, manager Peter Best, a gracious Trinidadian, knows all the rums, all their nuances. Best has hand-picked the stock himself: he's a connoisseur. In fact, Negrill has every rum that Asia de Cuba has (except those from St Croix - "they're terrible," Best says) and then some, including Westerhall from Grenada, his personal favourite, and Forres Park, a 150 proof Trinidadian white rum, that, well, stands out. It's this that he, or rather his grandmother, recommends for a highly effective cold cure: a very high-proof white rum, fresh lime juice, honey and salt.
But Best is not ethnocentric, dismissing most rums from his homeland (and Jamaica) as "loud", preferring the virtues (smoothness, elegance, bouquet) of the Martinican (keep an eye out for Kaniche), Grenadan and Guyanese rums. He is currently planning a business trip to island-hop and acquire new rums for Negrill. Well, someone has to do it.
East across town, in the Flatiron district, on the ephemeral restaurant row of Park Avenue South, is Patria, where they come for nuevo Latino cuisine and the Mojito, which is like a mint julep but made with rum instead of bourbon. It's a refreshing drink, served in a tumbler, with a rod of sugar cane sticking out. It's the kind of drink that attracts attention without being silly. Before you know it everyone at the bar is sucking down Mojitos.
There is a dearth of rums at Patria, though, and on a recent night, they didn't even have Mount Gay. The Mojitos, needless to say, kept going down. And who knows, maybe the Mojito will become a modern classic. Westerhall, drunk neat, already sounds tried-and-true
Asia de Cuba, 237 Madison Ave (between 37th and 38th Street) 212 726 7755; Negrill, 362 West 23rd Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue) 212 807 6411; Patria, 250 Park Avenue South (on 20th Street) 212 777 6211
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