The Hukilau

If you are researching cocktail culture in the ’50s and ’60s (as one is want to do) it’s hard not to stumble upon the music of Les Baxter. His exotic orchestrations were synonymous with post World War II escapism and the formation of “Tiki” bars such as Don the Beachcomber. Tiki bars flourished throughout the United States in the ’60s, but by the time we had the opportunity to see a real tiki bar, most businesses had collapsed or had been watered down into bad Polynesian restaurants.

Today, a true tiki bar is a rare find. A bad Chinese restaurant does not make for a tiki bar. True tiki bars are pure works of fiction. They were designed by Hollywood set designers as idyllic retreats for affluent business men. Mystery and adventure are the alluring qualities of a tiki bar. Food and drink are only used to add interactive experiences in a richly intriguing environment.

The fact that there are social groups dedicated to carrying on tiki culture is… well, we didn’t know what.

Back in June The Hukilau afforded us a long weekend in Ft. Lauderdale. Worst case, we spend a few days drinking Planter’s Punch and swimming in the ocean. It turned out to be much more.

The Hukilau centers around music: Surf Punk, Popular Exotica, Rockabilly, Hawaiian, Latin Jazz. Don’t ask why these things go together. Just accept that they are the genres of a heavily tattooed group of people who like fruity drinks and dressing as if it were 1962. Add in burlesque and mermaid shows and you’ve got yourselves some real entertainment.

We are still not sure what to make of it. Many people attending are in the business of tiki. They either run bars, or they dream of running a bar. The rest compose a diverse group. Attendees came from all over. Most from the US, but several from Europe and Canada. Most had been to a tiki “meet up” before, but it was never made clear to us how they got started. Likewise, we confused people by telling them we were novices.

The event centers around one of the oldest living tiki bars, the Mai-Kai. Just being in the building was a treat. It is layered with 60 years of embellishment. Lit just bright enough for you to find the straw in your Zombie, it is the epitome of mysterious tiki goodness.

While in Ft. Lauderdale we, of course, did swim in the ocean. We also visited the soon-to-be-displaced International Swimming Hall of Fame (who knew?), took a cruise of the inland water ways, and took in several tiki-related presentations.

Overall, this was a pretty impressive affair. There were seven bands including one from Japan and one from Belgium, some of the tiki-decor discussion  panelists were from the UK, and there were several dozen vendors selling everything from shoes to dried puffer fish lamps. But will we do it again? Hard to say, but it is worth going if you have the chance.

Your time is valuable! Choose seeing The Hukilau in 2 minutes or in 4 minutes:

And because The Left Arm of Buddha were so good, here are five more videos:

New Orleans Jazz Fest

For years, friends Nonny and Ernie have been talking to us about New Orleans Jazz Fest.  While we completely intended to visit New Orleans, the idea wasn’t that appealing: crowds, sitting out in the heat, listening to music in a city full of music.

As it turns out, Jazz Fest is much more than music. It’s an experience. With 11 stages, there is constant music. You can walk all day long and never escape the music. Ever changing, diverging from rock to pop to jazz to blues, Jazz Fest tempts you to abandon your plans. Well intentioned goals for seeing a particular performance are often thwarted by the draw of music en route. And the food is crazy good.

But we just wanted to see New Orleans. The city has fantastic architecture and history, food and music.  Post Katrina it’s a bit more gentrified – and safer, but still has most of the social qualities that make New Orleans livable and fun. Any city that lets you drink on public transportation is far improved over most places. With or without a drink, the street cars were a great way to get around and there are always taxis available.

Our vacation plans were firmed-up when we attended a charity auction and bid on a package to go to New Orleans.

We recommend thinking carefully before buying a vacation package at a charity auction. We have bid on hotels and services in the past, but the air/hotel package was a first. Ultimately, it was a mistake. The reseller, Winspire, operated in bad faith. Dates that were not blacked-out were made unavailable due to cost. Ultimately, we were extorted into paying to upgrade hotel rooms and flights in order to get the dates we wanted. Our recommendation: just give the charity cash and skip the vacation package that promises a retail value double that of what it actually costs.

In actuality, we didn’t go the dates we wanted. In order to accommodate the travel restrictions we stayed later into the Jazz Fest than we planned. This meant that we could be down at the same time as Nonny and Ernie.

We spend the first half touring the Garden District, an upscale eight block area full of historic properties. It is flanked by many of the cities trendiest restaurants and stores including Cochon and Pêche. We took a great walking tour and saw the National World War II Museum.

Then our friends show up. We had great meals at Commander’s Palace and August, the later being our favorite. We moved to the Hotel Maison de Ville, which is a fantastic little hotel in the center of the French Quarter. Sadly, when we return to New Orleans we will not stay in the Quarter again. It’s just way too touristy – something the city is fighting (and losing). The best thing about the French Quarter today are the art galleries. We were very fortunate to buy a painting by Jamie Kirkland from Gallery Orange, taking advantage of tax free art in the Quarter.

Menton

We have wanted to visit Menton for a couple of years. There always seemed to be a barrier to going. Menton is expensive and with Boston being a city that the Michelin Guide refuses to go, there is an implicit question of value. Yes, it got a 4-star review in the Globe, but that was four years ago. We needed a special occasion to push us over the edge. Fortunately that occasion presented itself in Ruth’s birthday.

Let’s start with the atmosphere: Menton is quiet. There is a lounge, but no bar. The staff is well dressed, but not formal. Overall the room is dimly lit, but the tables have enough light to read by. We were seated immediately and offered a cocktail which we declined on anticipation of the tasting menu with wine pairing. Better to start slow.

It was restaurant week, but both the regular menu and the discounted menu were available. Not that they were honoring the restaurant week pricing. They did have a special menu starting at $58 for three courses, but we were there for the n-course tasting menu. We’ll do restaurant week next year.

Service is provided as a team. The captain did visit our table to start. She checked allergies and preferences. She should have asked if Ruth demands that her birthday dessert be made of sweet chocolate, but we’ll get to that later. When the food started coming, each course and wine were presented by the server. The service was relaxed and absolutely top notch.

It’s a little hard to define how many courses there were. The first four plates came out rapid-fire. They are small and served as finger food and no utensils are provided. We finish up our Keller-esqe snacks and sparkling wine then move on the knife and fork food.

From here on out we are served a different wine with each course. There were a couple misses and one we couldn’t agree on, but overall the pairings were excellent. We shouldn’t have been surprised; No. 9 Park blew us away with their wine pairings, so we know Barbra Lynch has our back.

The menu is heavy on fish. As the name implies, Menton is French, but near Italy and on the coast, so that’s what you get. It gives them license to throw in a little meat and a little pasta while staying within a theme. It’s a nice rationalization.

The fish preparations were all excellent: caviar on tuna tartar in a crunchy wrapper, mussels poached in their own shell, scallop with black truffles, cobia with poached celery, and pan seared fluke all perfectly cooked. Really outstanding, as was the pasta with fava beans and sweetbreads.

We said we liked foie gras, so Ruth got seared foie and Doug got a a slab of torchon. You can’t go wrong with foie gras, but you can improve on the toast points and they needed some refinement. That’s a quibble. We made them promise that they would never take foie gras off the menu.

The only oddity in the whole meal was the chicken. Light meat, dark meat, and liver pâté. Very simple, but maybe too simple. The chicken, as it turns out, was an heirloom breed. Sadly, the thing we noticed was that the chicken breast was a little dry. It would have been good as an early course, but by this point in the meal we had consumed way too much wine to appreciate the subtlety of the special bird.

The lamb served three ways was excellent. It had Moroccan spicing and was a great end to the savory courses… or so we thought. In response to our condemnation of the chicken the chef sent out braised veal tongue and cheek. Literally. It was outstanding, but now we were getting really full.

Did we mention there would be cheese? Ruth passes. They had some really nice choices (all pasteurized) and some nice accompaniments include candied rhubarb. At this point it was getting a little hard to remember what was going on. Yes, more wine with the cheese, too.

After a palate cleanser we are into dessert. Now the trouble starts. Something not chocolate arrives at the table with a candle in it. Actually, it was a pretty nice presentation, but Ruth is ready to flip the table over in protest. Ruth explains, calmly, that all birthday desserts should be made of sweet chocolate. Without question (and there is a lot to question here) two more desserts are delivered, both chocolate. They have a really great staff.

Several more sweet nibbles and we roll out of there after four hours of outstanding service. There was never a moment that we felt like we were waiting for food or felt rushed. They are really close to Michelin three star service. The only place they failed was in not offering a black napkin to Ruth who was wearing black (white napkins can leave lint); however, they provided one when asked. Food-wise, they are a solid two-star by our estimation. With their excellent sommelier and chef willing to cater to even the most demanding birthday girl, they should welcome a Michelin review. Now all Boston needs are enough restaurants to attract the Michelin Guide.

P.S.

It did seem like the music increased in volume and tempo over the course of the evening and peaked when the room was busiest then dropped off as the dining room emptied out. We thought this was really clever, but when asked the staff said this was unintentional and that (to their irritation) the music was the same every night. It’s an important lesson: You can perceive systems at work even if there are none.