Somewhere, sometime, chances are somebody served you a tropical cocktail. Chances are, that person said "Aloha" and the drink was strong and smelled of fruits inured to hurricanes, hot Christmases, and giant insects. Maybe it was named for one: Scorpion. Stinger. For that matter, Hurricane.
It frothed in a coconut shell or a cup shaped like a tiki or a pineapple. Strong, but unlike workaday drinks it did not go down harshly, like a scold. It was sweet, like Hawaiian Punch, maybe because Hawaiian Punch was in it.
Chances are, the scene was festive, with surf or the soft blue of a swimming pool, the plangent wheen of slide guitar, the plonk of steel drums. Torches. Fried won ton skewered with sunset-colored toothpicks.
It was on your honeymoon or at a frat house or at an ambitious theme party back in the days before hostesses knew that doing the limbo and serving pupu platters were imperialist acts. Now the tropical cocktail is cartoon fodder: a cliché that signifies escape from freezing nights and steel and glass to those pikake-perfumed thrashings on hot sand that are, to dreamers worldwide, what the tropics mean. More than a gin-and-tonic or a gimlet, whose associations are too disparate and too lifelong to lead you anywhere, a Mai Tai or a Zombie grabs you by the lei and hurls you south and, hello, you're a castaway. The real world has been left behind, which is what drinking is all about.
I forget about drinking for months at a time. Earthquakes and the chance of finding diamond rings under park benches, I think of these daily, but drinking only crosses my mind every hundred days or so, with the same frequency as, say, Bavaria or jellyfish.
It strikes at times of generalized desperation, the way you'd think religion ought to. Psst, it whispers, blurred vision. And as for whether to drink at home or go out for it, let's be real: this is a world in which a single nip costs as much as a big burrito or a toy boat or a hairbrush.
So if I am actually to buy a drink, it better, by God, come with a paper umbrella.
Thus it was good news when I learned that this spring Xanadu had remodeled its central lounge and bar and installed a new Asian tapas menu to augment its exotic cocktails. Tuffy and I headed for the West Berkeley restaurant on a cold night as unseasonable rain swept across the bay like gray silk scarves. Trade winds these were not.
In the train-track-hugging edifice that long housed China Station, and formerly housed an actual train station where Tuffy, as a child, was taken to meet his visiting grandfather, Xanadu consistently wins critical nods for its bold pan-Asian menu. Malaysian-born Executive Chef Alexander Ong, formerly of Stars, calls Xanadu's fare "RestorAsian"; it bespeaks Bangkok and Bombay and beyond with the aid of galanga, mahi-mahi, and miso. The menu tells you which ingredients are yang and which are yin, and what may or may not heal what, though I'm not sure a menu is where I want to read the word "cancer." Anyway, that night the drinks were the thing.
Beyond the front door with its stained-glass "X," the lounge's huge overstuffed sofas, loveseats, and banquette looked so soft, so deep, so welcoming that I was ashamed we had only walked there from the bus stop instead of sailing down the sacred river that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his 1797 poem "Kubla Khan," described as "five miles meandering with a mazy motion" till it reached Kubla's "stately pleasure-dome" at Xanadu.
Upholstery the colors of peacocks and jam were dotted with fat throw pillows whose embroidered yellow satin matched a certain Chinoise gown Nicole Kidman wore to the Academy Awards a few years back. Faux-finish walls affected burnished copper. A dark wooden wall-plaque bore chiseled Chinese characters in an archaic style; the candles on our table looked like lengths of bamboo. Every now and then, another Amtrak train sped past the window.
Don Quixote would spin in his fictional grave if he could see tapas, those small dishes so popular in late-night Spain, suddenly popping up everywhere in international garb like automated figures in It's a Small World. Skipping the Shrimp Chips ($2.50) and Pickled Green Papaya ($3), we ordered Edamame with Ginger Salt ($2.50) and Potatoes with Paprika and Roasted Garlic Aioli ($4.50) to soak up our drinks: a Yin-Yang ($5.25) and a Mango Cosmopolitan ($5.50).
I was sorely tempted by the Khan-Cubine, whose promise of Amaretto and pineapple juice was seductive, but whose cranberry juice would remind me, I feared, too strongly of Oregon. And the Mandarin Mojito's blend of rum and Kaffir lime had a grown-up ring about it, but grown-up is the last way I want to feel in bars.
Which is why, as we waited for the friendly young server to fill our order, I kept shuffling my feet and looking around and waiting for the limbo to start.
But it wasn't going to. Ever.
Bamboo-motif noren swung gently in a doorway; blond ceiling fans whirled overhead. Staffers slipped in and out wearing Nehru-style jackets. A kimono hung on a wall as lovely and still as a pinned butterfly. It was all exotic. But not kick-off-your-sandals fun. Not in a Hilo Hattie way.
The effect is very Shanghai Triad, with Zen-temple underpinnings and a dash of the Raffles Hotel. Elegant, a yearner's dream of Asia. A pastiche that some might say reflects America's new demographic, but which Tuffy compares to combining rodeos and alpenhorns and saying, "That's the West."
What was hip in the era of Hawaii Five-0 is unthinkable today. So this is what that now-forbidden spirit wrought: a mood as cool and understated as our cocktails: candlelight throbbing through Tuffy's golden one and my turquoise one in their sleek glasses. A Maraschino cherry, a sugarcane spear. No umbrella. No tiny plastic monkey.
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