Bookended by a nail salon and a pickle store, a tiki bar makes an unexpected appearance at the storefront of 49 Essex Street in the Lower East Side. A tiki bar, furthermore, is not where you'd expect to find painstakingly composed drinks of transcendent tastiness, not to mention potency and expense. Naturally this place is called Painkiller, which is all of these things at once: a free-form riff on the classic tiki bar, a rare opportunity to order ace versions of bygone cocktail classics (daiquiri, anyone?) and, frankly, a decent place to get sloshed.
Named for a volatile Caribbean drink that involves coconut cream and dark rum, Painkiller is narrower than a ship's galley. The bar is run by Giuseppe Gonzalez and Richard Boccato, veteran mixologists who prepare a version of the namesake drink with fresh pineapple juice, muddled orange wedges and nutmeg. The windowless space incorporates some kitschy Polynesian touches (tribal masks, bamboo) while jettisoning others (fake palms, grass skirts), and throws graffiti murals into the mix in a nod to the surrounding neighbourhood.
When More Intelligent Life stopped by on a recent weeknight to sample the menu, a waitress wisely recommended a frozen dark & stormy and a piña colada. Both arrived in oversized goblets with a jumble of garnishes, including a flamingo-themed swizzle stick that so delighted MIL that a handful of sticks was immediately offered (and accepted) as a party favour. The dark & stormy proved an icy ginger beer-and-rum concoction with a spice and subtlety that blew the average Canada Dry iteration out of the water, while the piña colada was fragrant and delicate despite a heavy slug of alcohol. Next up was the zombie, a cocktail composed of several varieties of rum, lime and grapefruit juices and a handful of secret ingredients. The verdict? Mellow on the tongue and scorching on the oesophagus, just the way a zombie should be.
The fact that Painkiller produces ingredients like coconut cream and almond syrup in-house somewhat mitigates the ungenerous pours (don't be fooled by the goblets-most of each drink is ice) and startling prices, with cocktails priced between $12 and $16 dollars. Still, the bartenders exude expertise and the recessed sunset-hued lighting glimmers nicely from glass fishing floats suspended from the ceiling. Air-conditioning is on full blast during the warm months, and one can only imagine the bar would make a revitalising mid-winter escape venue. For the time being, Painkiller surpasses novelty status without quite reaching candidacy for inclusion in one's regular bar rotation. Where the piña coladas are concerned, it is potentially unbeatable. For pu pu platters you'll have to look elsewhere.
Painkiller is at 49 Essex Street (near Grand Street) in Manhattan.
Picture Credit: Randy Son Of Robert (via Flickr)