When news broke that New York City nightlife hitmaker Ravi DeRossi, of Death & Co., Mayahuel and Amor y Amargo fame, was transforming his literally sinking Gin Palace into a tiki-inspired bar, the expectation of umbrella-festooned Mai Tais and Scorpion Bowls was high. And with its billowing curtains, curvy booths tricked out in bird-patterned upholstery and slow-waving wall fans, DeRossi’s Mother of Pearl is certainly a sultry, tropical hideaway in the East Village. As patrons who hoist themselves on the bar-stool-topped totem poles soon realize, however, this is not just another faux thatched-hut paradise.
“We wanted to incorporate elements of tiki presentation, design and garnish, but move beyond serving just juicy rum-centric drinks with orgeat over crushed ice. We didn’t want to open a tiki bar,” says bar manager Austin Hennelly, illuminating the libations list dreamed up by Jane Danger. “The cocktails are playful, but the service is also elevated and refined.” After all, Hennelly is an alum of such notable watering holes as Booker and Dax and Maison Premiere, and Danger comes from the NoMad.
During tiki’s circa-1940s and ’50s heyday, fruity cocktails and excessive palm fronds came to the rescue of suburban malaise. America’s fascination with this era of historic, escapist Polynesian concoctions has surged in recent years, and interest shows no signs of waning. With such lauded newcomers as Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans and Paul McGee’s Lost Lake in Chicago, as well as Flask & Cannon in Jacksonville, Florida, and End of the Century in an off-the-radar stretch of Queens, we are deeply entrenched in a modern-day tiki revival.
While all these lairs have distinctive personalities, what they share is the power to conjure fantasy, and with its dreamy mix of white neon, pops of green and menus graced with its iridescent namesake, Mother of Pearl pulls this part off with equal aplomb. “We wanted to bring back the wow factor and a sense of wonder to the bar,” says Hennelly. “We want you to feel transported.”
Guests certainly do. With a playlist roving from Beach House to David Bowie to Drake, they contemplate such decidedly sans-rum libations as the vegetal Indus Valley (bell pepper, jalapeño, sesame, pineapple, lime, gin) or the extremely quenching Mexican Summer (tequila, watermelon, lime, cold-pressed wheatgrass), which also features smoked paprika that does time in an iSi whipper. It’s currently the bar’s best-seller “because it’s 90 degrees out and it has watermelon,” Hennelly points out.
Tiki’s essential kitsch factor also manifests itself in a few of Mother of Pearl’s more theatrical creations. Consider the Imperial Bulldog (raspberry, pineapple, lime, cachaça, aquavit, Underburg), in which an upside-down bottle of the German bitters is inserted — much like the Corona “bulldog” that sits in a margarita.
There is also the Shark Eye (passion fruit, lemon, maraschino, curaçao, bourbon), served in a clever open-mouthed shark vessel with bright red dashes of Peychaud’s bitters standing in for blood.
By offering plate after plate of such treats as corned beef spring rolls and whole black bass with lime-sriracha vinaigrette, Andrew D’Ambrosi, also the impressive chef at Bergen Hill in Carroll Gardens, ensures that one need not be in any rush to vanish from this retro utopia.