Bar Review: A Tiki Master Goes for Broke

Brian Miller and Major Food Group’s king-size tiki bar, The Polynesian, aims to be the best in the world.

To get to The Polynesian, New York’s grandest tiki palace in generations, you must run the grimmest of gauntlets. The block and a half of 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue, the nearest subway stop and the Pod hotel, where the bar is nestled, is a gritty diorama of urban dystopia punctuated by Port Authority. Call it colorful, call it appalling—Sutton Place, it ain’t.

The Polynesian represents two firsts: it’s Major Food Group’s first stand-alone bar, and the first bar headed up by tiki guru Brian Miller. What might have been a disaster location for another restaurant or bar could end up proving savvy as hell in this instance. Once you traverse the hawkers, panhandlers, scaffolding, traffic and exhaust fumes and are deposited on the third floor by the Pod’s elevator, The Polynesian meets your eyes as an honest-to-goodness urban oasis. And isn’t that the mystique that every tiki bar is after?

A hostess takes your name and ushers you into an A-frame, timbered room with a giant South Seas mural hanging above a room-length banquette, through a curtain to a long turquoise bar made of painted lava stone and into a dining area lined by booths on one side and tables throughout. A feeling of “Wait, there’s more?” comes over you as you pass through a set of doors to the left and land on an L-shaped outdoor deck as big as the inside, populated with wicker bucket chairs, a second bar and a forest of foliage. True to its name, The Polynesian is an archipelago of drinking coves.

This is no surprise given the taste of Major Food Group (Carbone, The Grill, The Pool, etc.) for the grandiose. It is, however, when you consider Miller. One of a handful of America’s acknowledged tiki masters, before landing in Midtown he unsheathed his mini-umbrellas in the smallest of Manhattan’s watering holes, from Death & Co. and Pouring Ribbons to ZZ’s Clam Bar, where he met the Major Food Group team. The concept behind The Polynesian may be all Miller, but the scale is 100-percent MFG. One of the group’s partners, Jeff Zalaznick, has boasted of no less than “making the Polynesian the best tiki bar in the world.”

Best in the world would be nice, but just creating a good New York tiki bar would be accomplishment enough. Modern attempts to plant a palm tree in Manhattan (Painkiller, Lani Kai, Hurricane Club) have withered quickly. It’s almost as if Fun City isn’t really interested in fun. But maybe a bar this big, with MFG muscle behind it, is exactly what’s needed to beat a bully market like New York.

For now, however, The Polynesian and its staff seem to be struggling with what they want to be: A very extra hotel bar? An urbane pleasure dome? A craft cocktail temple? A loving throwback? All of the above? While they work out those identity issues, there is more than enough compensation to be found in the stylish décor, the fineness of many of the drinks and the food.

These are all listed on a laminated, fold-out menu evocative of Trader Vic’s, complete with whimsical descriptions (“You’ll be lucky to tread water after sippin’ this rum rhapsody”) and artistic renderings of the drinks. In classic tiki-bar tradition, the bar’s name is on everything—plates, napkins, umbrellas, coasters, custom tiki mugs—and each bit of paraphernalia is as handsomely designed and pilfer-worthy as the next. A-plus for presentation.

In terms of taste, Miller scores some of his best hits when he keeps it simple, giving the customers what they want, like the bar’s luxurious take on the Rum and Coke, called Gone Rummin’ ($15). Made of four rums, with a frozen mini of Bacardi resting upside-down, Bulldog-style, at the top, it relays soothing layers of vanilla and caramel. (Pro tip: finish it quickly; the Bacardi mini is filled with ice and, as it melts, the drink worsens.)

The Jungle Booby ($15) is Miller’s way of answering two unavoidable public demands: for a mezcal drink and a Jungle Bird variation. The pink mélange—frothy, creamy and smoky, served over crushed ice—improbably succeeds on both counts, while also standing up as a unique drink in its own right.

Miller is good at wedging unfamiliar spirits into the tiki format. His justly celebrated Double Barrel Winchester ($24) blends four kinds of gin with elderflower, grenadine, ginger syrup and lime and grapefruit juices. It tastes like a juniper rainbow, candied and tangy. It’s a great drink.

Inside The Polynesian

I had some of these cocktails on the outer deck, which, as long as summer lasts, may be the best way to enjoy The Polynesian. The dirty glitter of Times Square, barely visible to the east, and the slanting ramps that feed buses into Port Authority, make you better appreciate the fish bowl filled with blue liquid and long straws in front of you. The contrast highlights the amusement that’s being served up.

Whether the staff is in on the fun yet is hard to tell. On one Sunday afternoon visit, I would have needed one of those straws to pry a smile from any of their faces; the bartenders went so mirthlessly about their work they could have been making license plates. Perhaps it’s unfair of me, but I hold tiki bartenders to a different standard. I expect them to be show folk, full of personality. When you top a brightly colored sarong and a Hawaiian shirt with a frown, it makes for a disconcerting contrast. (The space could also do with more of Miller, who is an engaging host and goes all-out in terms of piratical regalia.)

On another, busier night, the staff were in much better spirits. Somehow, when the place is bustling, the drinks came faster and the servers had more time to chat. Mine told me the Hokule’a Punch ($38), intended for two, had recently been given a new presentation. Plastic seamen now steered a giant conch shell, propelled by a bamboo-leaf sail. The rum the shell-ship had taken in was less dramatic; it tasted mainly of raspberries and cinnamon—tiki with training wheels.

Better, if more curious, was the Potions of French Polynesia ($23), made of Cognac, two kinds of rum, sarsaparilla, falernum, grenadine, absinthe, spices and lime and lemon juices served in a chemistry beaker. This one kept me guessing. It alternately tasted like a tikified Long Island Iced Tea, Dr. Pepper and grandma’s candy dish. It ultimately made me long for Miller’s more straightforward efforts, like the Kamehameha ($15), an excellent rum-based Manhattan variation, with a core coffee note owing to coconut-coffee-infused house vermouth.

Ballast for all these drinks was provided by The Polynesian’s food program, which takes inspiration from old tiki bars (coconut shrimp, spring rolls, baby back ribs). Instead of smacking of the freezer and the deep-fryer, they taste like what you always hoped they would: good. The bite-size coconut shrimp ($17) come out hot and moist and salty. The Crab Rangoon ($18), which MFG boasted would be “world class,” is just that: the creamy hot filling releasing a panoply of flavors, added to by a dipping sauce made of Thai vinaigrette and miso mustard. Crinkle-cut French Fries spiced with aonori, white sesame seeds, shichimi tōgarashi and Korean chili flakes ($9), were downright addictive. We ordered two bowls in quick succession.

The Polynesian still has some kinks to work out, service and persona-wise. I’m inclined to give them time to do it. After all, they’re not just trying to succeed where other Manhattan tiki bars have failed recently. They’re actually attempting what no one’s tried in New York for 30 years: to construct a tiki island-within-an-island, a place befitting the nation’s largest city. Even in its fitful beginning, The Polynesian merits big crowds and, moreover, would benefit from them. A half-empty tiki bar can feel like the loneliest place in the world, but—as I’ve learned at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, the only other modern tiki bar of a similar magnitude—few places pulsate with pure fun more than a king-size tiki temple crammed with humanity. And the suffering clump of humanity that is compelled to frequent Midtown has needed something like The Polynesian for a long time.

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