If any place can make you forget about the frigid winter for a few hours, it's Lani Kai, the "modern tropical" bar recently opened by cocktail impresario Julie Reiner (Clover Club, Flatiron Lounge). Simply order up a Liquid Luau of Gold Coast Punch—aged rum, pineapple, lime, allspice and Champagne—for the group and embark on a tour of the island-inspired menu by chef Craig Rivard.
It all starts with SPAM®, a food icon so celebrated in the Aloha State that Hawaiians host the Wakiki Spam Jam in its honor. At Lani Kai, the famed mystery meat is lovingly recreated in-house with what the waitress calls "pig parts... the good kind." The homemade spam serves as a salty complement to a baked mac & cheese ($12) made with white cheddar and Gruyere. Easily shared by two or three people, the dish is an excellent foil to the bar's fruity libations.
Lani Kai's version of tuna poke ($15) combines cubed ahi tuna with chilies, sesame, soy, macadamia nuts and cucumber. The flavors were on target for this classic Hawaiian dish, though a hint of acid would have brightened up the tuna. The taro root chips served with the poke are appealing enough to order on their own, and the bar has smartly put them on the menu as Crisps ($6), a mix of taro root and Hawaiian sweet potato chips served with a truffle crème fraiche.
Only one dessert is served at the bar, and fittingly it involves poi, a Hawaiian staple made from mashed taro. Poi doughnuts ($8), dense balls of poi deep-fried to a crisp golden brown, are dusted with powdered sugar and served with a warm caramel and rum dipping sauce. It's a starchy finish perfect for soaking up a night's worth of Mai Tais and Bermuda Triangles—though we admit that stepping outside into the biting cold should be enough to sober up.