I’m crazy about all things Tiki and its accompanying kitsch… which is why I’ve long been a fan of Alameda’s Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge. Martin Cate helped make that bar great with his cocktails, going beyond the usual too-sweet, one-note swill often paired with such a setting. Though he departed Forbidden Island awhile back, we’ve been holding our breath for his first bar right here in Hayes Valley in the former, tri-level Jade Bar space.
I had the privilege of attending a media preview last Thursday of Smugglers’ Cove, which officially opens tomorrow (Tue/8). As I entered the tinted storefront, it was as I hoped: a full-on themed bar, transporting me to another world… but with a heavy degree of taste, even refinement. There is (thankfully!) the occasional puffer fish lamp, or bamboo and thatched awnings in the inviting upstairs perch overlooking the main floor bar, keeping the Tiki torch burning. There’s also a strong maritime, pirate-like presence with a ship wheel, barrels, skulls and weaponry. Dark wood walls give the small space warmth, while under a vaulted ceiling lies knick knacks and treasures rife with stories: Tiki legends have their own little shrines tucked into the walls, with a couple lamps from the original Trader Vic’s emitting a soft glow. In the basement, dubbed the Boathouse, there’s another bar, across from a cascading waterfall. Much care has gone into the decor, with touches like unique punch bowls, making this a playful, campy space; part Tiki bar dream, part sophisticated, nautical rum bar.
With more than 200 premium rums and a gorgeous 80+ cocktail menu that actually made me a little giddy to read through, drink is the real star here and Cate does not disappoint with his expertly-chosen selection. I’m eager to try many of these cocktails, my preview night favorites being a WWII classic, “Three Dots and a Dash“, a spiced refresher of aged Martinique rhum, private reserve rum, lime, orange, honey, falernum, allspice, bitters; and… “The Chadburn“, a complex mix of private reserve rum, tawny port, pear liqueur and a dash of chocolate mole bitters. A fascinating Calibogus, made with Zirbenz Stone Pine liqueur, spruce tincture, molasses, seltzer, Private Reserve rum, tastes almost like it would be in the root beer family – a bright, unique soda. Or just go for a rum flight (I like $16 Refinement flight) and taste the variety and complexity of rum.
The menu is intriguingly grouped in sections like “Classic Libations of Prohibition Era Havana“, “Exotic Rum Cocktails from Legendary Tiki Bars“, even “Exotic Cocktails without (Gasp!) Rum“. There’s going to be a “Rumbustion Society“, a rum school, if you will, where working your way through a 20-chapter study on the many styles and complexities of rum (punch card included), initiates you as a “disciple” with access to rare tastings from their vault. You can attempt to try all 80 cocktails on the menu to become a “Voyager” (tempting!), with its own privileges. Bountiful possibilities for interaction and tasting adventures.
Thankfully, music is also an ideal fit (something I always pay attention to). It’s certainly the kind of soundtrack where I might hear my Exotica favorites like Yma Sumac or Martin Denny. As I took a restroom break, “Bali Ha’i” serenaded me and I knew… I’ll gladly escape to the Cove over and over again.
— From my 12/7/09 SF Guardian Appetite column: http://www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision/2009/12/appetite_smugglers_cove_shangh.html
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