A couple of months ago, I lamented some of my frustrations with visiting one of the world’s great cities, Honolulu, and coming up dry in the craft cocktail arena. While I had enjoyed by culinary experiences at Moana Surfrider, Roy’s and Doraku restaurant, none of them offered particularly competitive cocktail menus. In fact, I rarely ordered from the cocktail menu and often had to revert to my third or fourth choice, due to lack of ingredients. After doing some more research, my second trip was certainly more successful, but still fell short of expectations. My reviews are as follows.
Mai Tai Bar @ The Royal Hawaiian
Of all the places I’ve visited so far in Honolulu, the Mai Tai Bar definitely offers the best combination of setting and menu. Staged behind the Royal Hawaiian and resting 20 feet off the public beach, the Mai Tai Bar is a great place to hide from the afternoon sun, watch the sun set, or just hang out and talk during evening hours. While their cocktails stay true to the Hawai’ian theme they differentiate themselves from other drinking establishments by taking away the sugary edge inherent in so many of the fruity drinks.
I actually prefer this to the Mai Tai as far as pre-dinner drinks go. Served in a cocktail glass, this is as close to classic as anything I’ve seen on the beach. It’s still pretty darn fruity, but the pear and lemon balance each other nicely and make room for the complimentary spice. Were all the bars in Honolulu to fall in line behind a drier, more classical signature cocktail like they have with the Mai Tai, this would be a good town to drink in.
Probably the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had; not entirely sure, I’ve had some good ones with Clement Schrubb and various exotic, hard-to-find rums, but for bars, this has to be the best. And it’s definitely the best in Honolulu. And you can’t beat sinking your toes into the Pacific sand while you enjoy one any hour of the day. Whereas the Rum Fire premium Mai Tai leans toward ginger to make it stand out, the Mai Tai bar seeks perfect balance, and gets it. The classic Mai Tai works anytime of day, but preferably when the sun is still hot, but just before it sets, say 3:00 to 4:00.
I can’t say that sports bars are my thing, especially with different colored lights bearing down on you. But Rivals has to be the most interesting bar in Waikiki, despite it’s tiny footprint. Three Sazeracs on the menu and none of them are authentic. I tried the one called “Classic Recipe” which is the pretty standard rye edition with one major difference (all 3 recipes include this difference), a half shot of Carpano Antica. My only complaint is that the vermouth (and possibly the simple syrup) made the concoction a little too sweet. But it was nothing short of delicious and worthy of honorable mention. Rivals is only a few months old (opened in August 2011) and sits across the street from the Courtyard Marriott on Kuhio. In addition, they have perhaps the largest collection of Signatory bottlings I’ve ever seen in a drinking establishment. Other than perhaps toning down the sports bar image, they could benefit from a larger menu and a considerable expansion of their base spirits. Not sure how they plan to have craft cocktails without Maraschino or Chartreuse. The third problem, and perhaps the largest, is their consistency. On two out of three occasions, I arrived to find out that they didn’t even have Peychaud bitters in stock (the grocery store across the street sells it for $7). This from a bar with 30% of their published cocktail menu is Sazeracs.
Rum Fire is located in the Sheraton hotel, just behind the Royal Hawai’ian Shopping Center. I was reluctant to try a corporate bar, but location is everything. And having one of Oahu’s best sunset views, I found myself there on more than one occasion. Seating is first come first served, but reservations can be made. Rum Fire offers a good selection of drinks and a food menu best described as heavy snacks. The food is great for what it is, but Rum Fire is not a restaurant so entrees are not available. It seems they’re on a ginger kick with nearly everything on the cocktail menu containing it. But it’s better than your typical NW pizza joint where every drink has peach schnapps as its base. Among the drinks I sampled:
Made with Momokawa Sake, fresh muddled cucumber, lime, and Stirrings ginger liqueur, the Sexy Wahine was light, but interesting. The way the Sake and cucumber played off each other certainly made the drink. The ginger rounds things out a little bit, but might be slightly overdone.
Old Man’s Surf Break
Ron Matusalem Classico Rum, Stirrings ginger, muddled orange slice and maraschino with a splash of angostura bitters makes this drink taste very similar to an old fashioned, albeit sweeter. While a great idea for a drink, I believe this will do much better should they decide to swap out the rum with Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. A nice cross between Jamaican and Martinique, Sammy’s rum would actually do well with this receipe. And it would taste considerably fresher (versus sweeter).
High-Maka Mai Tai
Second only to the Mai Tai Bar, this drink made with Ron Zacapa centenario 23 yr old rum combines falernum and ginger to produce a very good and distinct Mai Tai. I’ve used falernum in my Mai Tais for years, but never really thought about how a ginger liqueur might benefit the ginger already in the falernum. I find Stirring’s to be a bit too sweet, compared to Domain de Canton, but given it’s also about 75% cheaper, I under any bar’s preference towards it.
I don’t think I would have ever gone to this restaurant were we not with the children. From the street, it looks like a tacky, overdone, concept restaurant based on a Tiki theme. And maybe it is, but I was just fooled. But once I sat down and looked at the menu, I found myself in the Hawai’ian version of McMenamins, a simple but diverse menu of regional and classical dining. The food menu is not pretentious, nor overly priced and nor is it superb (and nor does it need to be). This was the only restaurant of those I visited whose cocktail menu exceeded one page and it was clear that Tiki drinks were a specialty that had some craft behind it. Of all the places I drank, this was the only one to serve drinks in Tiki mugs (available to go, of course) and the menu read like something out of Beach Dog Barry. The 1944 Mai Tai is on par with Rum Fire and Mai Tai bar and even features cocktail foam. Of all the places I visited, Tiki’s had the most knowledgable waitstaff in regards to cocktails.
Perhaps my favorite restaurant in Honolulu, Doraku is not particarly known for its cocktails as much as its sushi and Sake collection (which is one of the largest in the US). I was treated to a few tastes of 5 different kinds of Sake and impressed by my bartender’s ability to teach Sake appreciation like I have for cocktails to so many others. It even boasts a handful of cocktails made with Sake, my favorite being the Murasake Geisha, a chambord creation chased with Sake and finished with Gin. Very similar to the Sexy Wahine from Rum Fire, albeit more balanced among the blackberry, gin and Sake. Arguably, the blackberry was still a little too much for my liking, but within the range of tweakable.
Not ready to give up entirely, I made myself a fairly frequent patron of this establishment. My final night in Honolulu, I gave the bartender a hacked together recipe of Oxford Punch and told him I wanted the Japanese version with Lychee and Sake. (He thought in his head, “This can’t be done,” and said,) “I will have to charge you for the cognac even if you don’t like it.” I told him I trusted him and it turns out I wasn’t lying. He made an outstanding punch and surprised even himself. I told him to keep the recipe, tweak it, and put it on the menu. It was definitely the best drink I’d had in Honolulu in 7 weeks. We tried to think of some names for it. I wanted to credit the Japanese influence, but truth be told, it was more Jamaican and French than anything else. My final idea was the Tsunami, as it’s strength resembled the hurricane. We debated whether such a name was the right hat tip for the Japanese. Anyway, if you find yourself in Doraku and want to experience this punch, the recipe is a somewhat modified version of the following: 1oz Cognac (Hennessey), 1oz Jamaican Rum (Appleton White Special Label), 1/2 oz triple sec (or grand marnier or Clement Orange Shrubb), 3/4 oz Sake Hoyo Manamusume, 1 oz fresh lemon juice, and 1/4 oz Lychee puree. Sweeten to taste, but about 1/2 oz simple syrup does the trick for me.
We stopped into town on a weekend mid-afternoon; it’s located in Honolulu’s Wailalea neighborhood, within a northern view of Diamond Head. Town was recommended to me by two different bartenders in Waikiki as the place to go for craft cocktails. If that is true, then craft cocktails have already lost in Honolulu. I was deeply disappointed with the cocktail menu, featuring about 10 items, none of which challenged the palate other than maybe that of a university co-ed. That’s not to say that these were bad lookin’ drinks; many of them were ones I would make in my own home, but certainly couldn’t part with Honolulu prices to imbibe. I figured I’d test them well and ordered the Sazerac. Jim Beam rye and Pernod pastis; it was okay, but didn’t leave me dying to return. It didn’t help that the waiter took my candid feedback as an order for another round. Who drinks 2 Sazeracs in 85 degree weather at 2:30 in the afternoon? Well, I might succumb to two of three. Of the bars I’ve been to in Honolulu, Town shows the most promise, but it needs to expand the cocktail menu to really distinguish itself. It needs 20 options for those tired of beach drinks and 20 more options for those who arrived at the airport tired of beach drinks. If Town could make those changes, I see a potential growth opportunity among the locals and business men like me. They’ll never attract the tourists en masse, but they’re missing the only opportunity they have to attract tourists by limiting their menu options. No one goes to town for the girls, the beach or the party. Someone at Town needs to realize that.
Upstairs from Duke’s and often overlooked (at least during my stay), the Hula Grill is the slightly upscale sister of Duke, both for cuisine and especially for cocktails. Unfortunately, they don’t stray far from the Honolulu 8 (the eight cocktails found in every bar in Honolulu, the most dominant being the Mai Tai). Not finding anything too interesting on the menu, I went with the Wrong Island Ice Tea, humorous on so many levels. A nice combination of the four main ingredients in a Long Island (so many places drop the Tequila, which is unfortunate), the Wrong Island mixes in pineapple and passion where the sour and coke normally go. It wasn’t too sweet, but it aches my heart to see such a prime piece of real estate fall so short in the cocktail menu department. But as the bartender told me, no one oreders classic cocktails when they’re overlooking the beach. Too bad; those tourists don’t know what they’re missing.
Located in the Royal Hawaiian mall with a nice indoor/outdoor atmosphere, Il Lupino would not have attracted my attention were it not for their Carpano Antica cylinder topping their bar shelves. I ordered a Negroni with the Carpano, excited to find it anywhere in Hawaii; I was disappointed to learn it was merely a decoration, something left from long ago when the owner got crazy one day and bought a vermouth for its packaging. Despite it’s lack of a waterfront view, Il Lupino sports a nice atmosphere and the outdoor space is a great place to people watch. Unfortunately, that is where it ends. The drinks fail to impress; the wait staff (or, our waiter anyway) is rude and the food is good; but not for the price, even in Honolulu. It’s unfortunate; this looks like a good place to just hang out after a day at work, but it’s not. You’re much better off climbing two flights of stairs and visiting Doraku. While Doraku doesn’t have much better in the way of cocktails, the sushi and Sake bars are among the best in the world. And the prices are quite competitive.
Duke’s is a tough one; it feels like a meat market, but with less hamburger and more cheeks. Unfortunately, the drinks are fast poured, overly sweet, and not particularly pleasant. But as far as atmosphere goes, it doesn’t get much better. There’s a certainly vivacity at Duke’s that works for nearly every age group. And the food is decent; not great, but not overpriced either, given their slice of real estate. I reluctantly ordered the Mai Tai, asked for them to dry it down a lot, and it was still too sweet and bland. I think these guys could benefit from developing a Waikiki punch; something that contains a little pineapple and lemon juice, but still tastes predominantely like brandy and rum (and maybe a little Bourbon). Or they could pick up a copy of any of Beach Dog Barry’s Tiki books and really focus on making a premium beach drink.