Aloha, N.Y.C.

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Bringing The Beach To Soho

By Drew Limsky

WHEN JULIE REINER WAS GROWING up on O’ahu’s Waialae Iki Ridge, her family spent weekends going to Lanikai Beach. And while it’s a long way from powdery sand and the Mokuluas to Manhattan’s chic Soho neighborhood, it’s where Reiner’s new tropical cocktail lounge, Lani Kai, has found a home.

Reiner landed in New York in 1997 after stints in Florida and San Francisco, and since then has opened and co-owns four prominent cocktail venues in the Big Apple: Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, Clover Club and now Lani Kai. Her newest venture is the first to invoke her Hawai’i roots; appropriately, it is here that she works doubly hard to ensure a sense of authenticity and quality.

“I’ve focused on a culinary approach to the 25 cocktails on the menu at Lani Kai,” says Reiner. “Most of them utilize tropical flavors such as lemongrass, kalamansi, lychee and passion fruit. And we pair these flavors with many spirits, not just rum.”

Reiner finds that America’s culinary world has finally come around to taking cocktails seriously.

“I think that the need for quality cocktails made with fresh ingredients is finally hitting smaller cities,” she notes. “It was really something that you saw in major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, L.A. and Boston over the past 10 years. Now, restaurants that didn’t have cocktail menus suddenly have them, and are hiring professionals to create them.”

Reiner is quick to make the distinction between Lani Kai and the precious tiki-bar trend she’s observed in New York and elsewhere.

“Lani Kai is more indicative of present-day Hawai’i; the hotels and homes you find there now, like the Halekulani. I call it modern tropical.”

The esthetic owes a bit to mid-century modernist design, with a sleekness and angularity married with natural textures like wood and stone. There are the occasional flourishes: Her brother, artist Chris Reiner, created for Lani Kai a delicate and dramatic chandelier composed of 16,000 capiz shells.

But how does her well-heeled 30-something clientele react to the mix of haute and Hawai’i in a dish like Mac & Cheese-made with “spam?”

“We decided that it was a must,” Reiner says. “Our chef, Craig Rivard, created his own house-made “spam.” So far, they are adventurous enough to try it. We just started serving brunch, complete with kalua pork and grits.”

The island girl-who once stood crying in Times Square because she was so cold-has acquired some downtown steel.

“I’ve had everyone from Hawai’i who now lives in New York come into the lounge,” she says, “and they get what I’m doing here.”

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