Where Soho bleeds into the jumble of Holland Tunnel on-ramps and traffic jams, where the well-heeled unwillingly cross paths with the people who actually make their food and sell them their clothes, you’ll find Lani Kai, the latest space from Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club creator Julie Reiner (and partners Susan Fedroff and Michael Brais). Thankfully, the crowd reflects something about the location. The bar isn’t nearly as stuffed with the old and the distressingly plastic as the rest of the neighborhood’s spots can be, and the crowd is young and interesting—for good reason.
Lani Kai is a bit of a mix itself, combining island charm with the sophistication of a Manhattan lounge: hanging orchids, warm woodwork, a fireplace, red leather benches and impressively fresh cocktails. Occupying the same building that once housed the famously failed Sam Mason joint Tailor, Lani Kai has kept the space largely intact. Pass the bouncers on one side of the door and the phalanx of chirpy hostesses on the other, and you’ll find roughly the same set-up: airy dining space on top and low-ceilinged bar on the lower level. Reiner and company have added that fireplace downstairs, which is supposed to evoke a beachfront fire pit, and flowers throughout, which go a long way towards cozying up a place that had previously been described as “cave-like.”
A pair of drinks at Lani Kai is guaranteed to cost about as much as dinner at most of the places you eat if you’re a New York Press reader (or writer, for that matter). Indeed, every cocktail, save the punch bowls of liquor intended for sharing with a table of friends, is at the same price point: $13. For some, like The Black Pearl (barely a few thimbles full of blended whiskey), this can seem a bit steep. For the vast majority of the menu, however, you won’t believe your luck. Drinks are concocted from the potions inside of gleaming bottles and jars and topped with fruits, flowers and other aromatic delights. They’re then slapped, swizzled and shaken by your positively professorial bartender. Our bartender (we want to use the M word here, but can’t bring ourselves) excitedly informed us about the coconutintensification process (roasting, then steeping in coconut milk), as he mixed our 8 Days A Week—a mix of Haitian, Jamican and Guyanan rums blended into a delicious adult milkshake.
Where Tailor was faulted for having more ambition than focus, Lani Kai attacks its theme with the single-mindedness of a wolverine. From the names of the cocktails (“Another Day in Paradise,” “Ohana,” “Liquid Luau”) to the décor, to the actual content of the menu, everything here aggressively evokes the combination of Manhattan and Hawaii that is the place’s organizing principle. The drinks, which feature an entire apothecary’s worth of dried fruits, juices and spices, are of course the centerpiece of the menu, but Lani Kai also has a bar menu full of satisfying snacks created by chef Craig Rivard. The crab wontons ($8) are light and crisp, filled with a creamy, molten blend of crabmeat and mascarpone cream. And while we didn’t have them, diners nearby couldn’t get enough of the juicy-looking sliders ($4–$8). Upstairs, those with hearty appetites can have their Polynesian cravings fulfilled, dining on large family-style platters, including a whole red snapper, prepared tempura-style ($65), or a sliced, 2-pound ribeye steak ($85), designed to be eaten in lettuce cups. Lani Kai could, if you’re feeling uncharitable, be called a tiki bar. For a city suffering from tiki fatigue, this might spell trouble. But Reiner and company have managed once again to be inspired by a theme without being constrained by it.
525 Broome St. (betw. Thompson & Sullivan Sts.), 646-596-8778.