Monday, September 8, 2008

Lewers Lounge = Nom Nom Nom

Nevermind that Josh was already belting Shanandoah loud enough for every darkened corner of Lewer’s Lounge before even a sip of alcohol (Nightly gusto quota: filled).

Lest we forget that Lewers Lounge is a place of class. At one of Hawaii’s fanciest, schmaciest five-star hotels, the jazz bar at the Halekulani promises evenings of smooth piano tones, over-stuffed chairs, candlelight and people who don’t wear shorts (note dress code: slacks and collared shirts for men! Evening resort attire for women!).

We’re all for upping our classiness. So Josh and I thought we’d give it a try. We liked it so much that we went there not once, not twice, but three times during the three weeks Josh was in Hawaii.

Why do we like it so much?

1. The drinks are delish!

About four years ago, the Halekulani called on the talents of Dale Degroff, the celebrated father of the cocktail revival, to create a special menu for the upscale hotel. Mr. Degroff delivered with a tasty lineup of drinks that drew on the accessibility of local fresh fruits. Some of these drinks, like the lychee ginger caipirissima, can still be found on the menu today.

Mr. Degroff also pushed the standard of bartending to a new level. He brought the lounge quality ice of crushed and block varieties. He introduced fresh juices—no sour mixes. He entrusted the bartenders with the proper techniques of shaking and stirring. Thanks to Mr. Degroff, our humble island just got a little bigger.

But seasons change. So do cocktail menus. Just this summer, the Halekulani invited a new mixologist, Francesco Lafranconi, a Las Vegas wizard who is actually protégé of Mr. Degroff.

Today it seems the Halekulani has ended its contract with Mr. Degroff. Accordingly, some of his old recipes have been bumped off and now Mr. Degroff shares the spotlight with Mr. Lafranconi.

(Tip of the hat to my wonderful friend Derek—and the Lewers Lounge bartenders--for all of this info.)

Poor timing on my part. I discovered Lewers Lounge only after Mr. Degroff’s reigning days. Derek introduced me to the place in July, while Mr. Lafranconi was guest bartending this summer, making his transition to the permanent menu. Nuts!

I’ve tried some of both men’s drinks. I have to say I prefer Dale’s a bit more—they’re better balanced and not quite so mouth-puckeringly sweet.

Selections from my hit list, over the last five times I've gone (*blush*):

- the old fashioned
Tim, the bartender, makes a pretty mean old fashioned, my favorite in Hawaii. He uses soda water and muddled orange in addition to the maraschino cherry—it’s a popular recipe, but usually not one I prefer. I just like the straight up liquor with simple syrup, a few dashes of angostura, and maybe a muddled cherry, depending on the weather. But Tim does a great job of balancing the flavors just right. The muddled cherry tastes almost floral in the drink and kills some of the whiskey’s burn, leaving the round bourbon flavors in my mouth.

- the amante picante
A Lafranconi creation that includes the spicy notes of tabasco sauce! Cool and unusual.

- the Manhattan
The sole drink I did not enjoy as much as I should have. For some reason it had an awful lot of burn that night. And as a matter of personal preference, I don’t care to much for the bitterness of Maker’s Mark, something I often forget when ordering old fashions and the like.

- Kalihi grapes
Shhhhh. Rico, one of the bartenders, shared this favorite with us. I think it's actually a caipirinha de uva, which I believe is a Degroff creation that is no longer on the menu. It's a great cachaca drink with muddled limes and grapes. It carries a real fruit punch, a real refreshing drink, perfect for summertime. So if you go to Lewers and Rico is working, you gotta order this one. Thanks so much, Rico!!!!

- Lychee ginger caipirissima
I can never say caipirissima right, which is frustrating because it's one of my favorite drinks on the menu. Sister to the caipirinha, the caipirissima has similar drink proportions, only you muddle lychee and ginger instead of grapes and lime. You also use rum instead of cachaca. It's a great drink if you're trying to catch some island flavors.

One of Mr. Lafranconi’s great contributions? Egg white substitute! Mr. Lafranconi likes to add a bit of texture to his sours with a bit of meringue, so now the bar carries some of the powder to use in drinks such as the pisco sour. This also makes it possible for the bartenders to now make Ramos Gin Fizzes—they even have the orange flower water to do it! I have not yet tried this, though, and I do not think it is commonly ordered.

2. The bartenders are awesome!!!

Almost every time I’ve gone to Lewers, I’ve had the pleasure of being served by Tim. I love Tim not only because he makes good drinks. I love Tim because he somehow manages to embody the class of Lewers Lounge while maintaining complete earnestness and humility. When a drink isn’t to his liking, he’s not afraid to say it. He’ll also tell fun stories about what it’s like to bartend and share about the different flavors he’s been experimenting with. He’ll let you smell the different liquors behind the bars to get a sense of the flavors in their pure form. One night I was particularly excited about a new drink I had tried at school. I told him everything that was in an Aviation, and he whipped it up right there! On lucky nights, he’ll give you a taste of his original creations.

Rico is the other cool bartender there that works there. He seems to be the most senior of the bar staff and also the most adventurous. During late afternoons you can find Rico at the nearby House without a Key, and then he transitions over to help Tim during the evenings. Rico showed us the recipe he had submitted to the Grand Marnier contest. It was a fun mix of pineapple juice, crème de menthe and Grand Marnier (of course). Not a cup that’ll knock you out, but it would surely lift some of your woes by means of its carefree, fruity taste and colorful presentation. It was layered with the crème de menthe on the bottom to cleanse your mouth.

We met one other nice bartender there, but apparently he doesn’t know what the drinks taste like because he’s decided not to drink alcohol anymore. Fully support you, brah, but I gotta admit it’s a bit unusual for a bartender.

3. The atmosphere is kind of a big deal

When you hear "lounge" in Hawaii, it usually refers to the Friday night sweat fest that is Wunderlounge at the W.

That is not Lewers Lounge.

The mahogany, plush chairs, and smooth jazz tunes might make you think you smell cigar smoke and hear old bearded men. Actually, I think that’s just the sensation of pleasantness, which is sadly hard to come by at bars in Hawaii (or, really, in any state).

Lewers is the perfect place to relax--and really, what else do you look for in a bar?

Lewers Lounge
The Halekulani Hotel
Open nightly from 7:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Entertainment runs from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Attire: Collared shirts and slacks for gentlemen, evening attire for ladies.
Price: $12-13
Happy hour? No. But you can go outside to House without a Key for a pleasant sunset experience, albeit at very much non-happy hour prices.

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