November 1, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Hurricane Club: We’ll Always Have Tiki, Baby.

Peking pork to stuff with hoisin, scallion and cucumber into steamed buns. Photo: Steven Richter.
Peking pork to stuff with hoisin, scallion and cucumber into steamed buns. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I was a Trader Vic’s girl in the glory days: Vic Bergeron’s and mine. Great date spot, especially for old guys supposedly separated from their wives. The pupu platter was a Technicolor gathering of grease and salt and sugar. Sweet tropical cocktails came with tiny paper parasols, pretty in pink and turquoise. Something not too exotic sautéed with almonds followed. And I could order a second drink and stick the little parasol behind my ear and pretend the reason I was so seducible was because I was clearly tipsy.

Tiki fans hang out at the bar in the dimmed, soaring room. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Was our town primed for a Tiki revival? I was eager to explore The Hurricane Club, mouth ready for fruity booze, crunchy spring rolls, and anything piggy. Surprisingly, I can’t sneak a peek from the sidewalk. It’s all draped in billowy silk shades and the revolving door is paint-covered. A veiled vestibule leads to big, studded wooden doors. Once inside, it’s beyond Trader Vic’s Polynesian tent camp dreams. AvroKO’s 270-seat tropical fantasy soars majestically, like a vintage bank on spiced rum shots, with a net of crystal beading over the bar. And the clamor hits like a surfer’s wave.

        Hostesses in stilettos and slinky black frocks wear matching necklaces. There is a sexy lounge with velvet and a floor fashioned with marble zig-zags. Even the powder room sports a major chandelier. White dinner jackets transform the waiters – a few Cesar Romeros, a Humphrey Bogart or two, Tyrone Power (if he’d ever been to the gym) and hapless Woody Allens - the jacket wearing them. Follow the red neon downstairs for a shoeshine or a shot from the rum fountain.

Fruity frozen pisco with strawberries and Chef Leach’s mai-tai. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I expected kitsch and fun and tiny parasols, but I didn’t anticipate the food to be so wonderful.That I’d swoon over Royal Miyagi Oysters with pineapple and yuzu, Peking duck tea sandwiches, and crisp-skinned chunks of Peking pig to stuff with hoisin and scallion into Chinese steamed biscuits.

Pupu on parade: Sticky rice sticks, Peking duck sandwiches, Samoan deviled eggs. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Unlike Michael Stillman, the designated fantasist here, Vic didn’t grow up with a dad like Alan Stillman, the marketing genius who created T.G.I. Friday’s, and graduated to upscale meat stands like Smith & Wollensky, Maloney & Porcelli, then waltzed with David Burke doing shtick to full houses at Park Avenue Café. Bergeron thrived before the dawning of young American chef-stars, so there was no one of Chef Craig Koketsu’s class glazing the ribs, no towering pastry star like Richard Leach designing cocktails like #73, Knob Creek bourbon with lime juice, jicama and cayenne in a red pepper shell, or my choice tonight, #55, Don Q Cristal rum with sour cherries and red chilies. Young Stillman is already visualizing King Kamehameha brunches to come in January with chocolate fountains, dim sum carts and scattered food stations.

It’s dark and sexy with hot and cold running guys in white dinner jackets. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Pupu gets exceptional respect here: each item comes in multiples on its own board or platter. It’s ridiculously dark in our small alcove – okay, sexily dim – but a spotlight above reveals hamachi and avocado in yuzu and dashi broth vinaigrette with a tuft of salad on top in what look like hobnailed votive candle holders. “Crate and Barrel is my guilty pleasure,” Chef Koketsu tells me later. The yolks of Samoan deviled eggs are mashed with sriracha for heat, then piled into the whites over pickled daikon. On top sits a tangle of fried taro root and Thai basil dressed with sweet chili sauce, fish sauce and lime juice.

Honey-glazed baby back ribs with Thai basil and lotus root. Photo: Steven Richter.

        That first night there were too many pieces of paper requiring study: menus, checklists. It took a while to figure out how to open the cocktail roster, much less read it. Our server patiently guided us through the Styxian points. And I got a giggle seeing my knife stuck to the menu magnet. I was alone in our foursome in liking the Chinese sausage sticks. But we wallowed in enough cubes of Peking pork for an army, finished the sticky baby back ribs with fried lotus chips and devoured the four oversize shrimp stuffed with a fiery hot paste, but not the too sweet coconut sauce they came with. Don’t let me forget the Road Food Warrior’s splendid black bean lamb chops, another step too far.

Giant spice-crusted shrimp with coconut cream. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Yes, I’d been recognized, and at one point, proud Père Stillman strolled by, beaming. That was just after I’d burned my hand on the kitchen’s gift of Hawaiian fried rice in a hot stone bowl. “Be careful, this is really hot,” the waiter had warned. My fingers were cooling in a glass of ice water.

         “I’ve burned myself too,” son Michael confided.

Royal Miyagi Oysters with pineapple and yuzu-dashi broth. Photo: Steven Richter.

        “Maybe you should give up the fiery hot bowl,” I suggested. Critics are not supposed to comment but I couldn’t control myself. (Critics don’t sue but someone else might.) Steven thought the food was too spicy. But he was outvoted three to one. I couldn’t wait to come back and try more. So I was surprised to read Steve Cuozzo’s scathing slam in the Post. He and I often agree. Had our quartet possibly ordered the only good dishes? Maybe he had a hornet’s nest in his pocket that night. He seemed in an uncharacteristically bad mood. Or had the place fallen apart since our Dionysian evening?

These sweet sticky wings could become an addiction. Photo: Gael Greene.

        Back with a new band of tasters two weeks later, I am just as rapturous and there are a few less papers to look at – the menu is simplified – and pupu prices have crept up (justified in the house’s estimation, but not mine, by adding one item to each.)

         Ava and I are sharing cocktail #89, Knob Creek bourbon with apricot and cardamom, so no way are my taste-buds bamboozled by alcohol even though it’s listed as “strong.” Everyone at my table is raving over the half-foot long Korean fire chilies filled with homemade pork sausage, and the sticky (our server warned us) three-pepper wings, a big bowlful  – portions are generous here – to dip into cilantro yogurt. I grant that peanut butter and guava jelly open face sandwiches wrapped with prosciutto are perhaps more amusing than essential. I had two.

         “Where do you get these ideas?” I ask Koketsu.

         “To dream up new dishes for this menu, I just had to get drunk and decide…what do I want to eat right now?”

         Perhaps he wasn’t drunk enough when he designed calamari salad “for the table.” It seems like a prudent option and I admire the meticulously fried squid rings, but once it’s tossed, the taste is mostly boring Napa cabbage. A not-so-prudent side of sweet potato waffle fries is instantly distracting. Not even Ms. South Beach Diet can resist.

Hurricane beef rib is a meaty monolith: juicy, fatty, sweetly caramelized. Photo: Gael Greene.

        Soon all of us are tearing into The Hurricane Rib – short rib on the long bone. It hits the table looking as big as a gorilla thigh, with slivered scallion punctuating its sweetly caramelized meat – juicy, fatty, delicious, enough for four, or maybe five. I’m still searching for one more bite when all that is left is a too chewy piece from the back of the bone.

        Two of my friends have run downstairs to take advantage of their get-a-free-shoeshine card, leaving me to choose one dessert. After all, even though we’ve indulged beyond elastic waistbands, these are Richard Leach desserts.

Masterwork in chocolate, mascarpone and banana by Chef Leach. Photo: Gael Greene.

        “You want the chocolate kill-devil’s food cake,” says our server (she’s our psychic now). Oh yes, we do. It’s a long and lush rectangle of classic devil’s food made with mascarpone, frosted in bitter chocolate glaze, wearing two chocolate tuiles and studded with chocolate rice crunch BBs. Even the caramelized banana riding sidesaddle with a swatch of caramel rum sauce disappears.

         The four of us sit there stunned and quite pleased with ourselves. “Next time I’ll wear my leather boots so I can get a shine too,” Ava promises.

         360 Park Avenue South corner of 26th Street. 211 951 7111. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Sunday 5:30 to midnight. Bar with “light pupu” open till 2 am.

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene

Patina Restaurant Group