Cambridge’s bygone B-Side Lounge launched Boston’s cocktail revolution in 1998, and its ethos has been spreading like virtuous crabgrass ever since. The scholarly, inventive use of historic recipes, proper technique, quality spirits, fresh juices and the correct glassware and ice is now found in scores of bars and restaurants throughout town. In this groundbreaking mold, some of our craftiest bars—like Green Street, Drink, backbar and Blossom Bar—sling high-quality Tiki drinks, trying to exorcise the ghost of crappy middlebrow purveyors. The South End’s new Shore Leave takes the task of Tiki rehabilitation a step further, re-creating the hipness and glamour that accompanied the genre’s invention in the 1930s by Don Beach at his West Hollywood bar, Don the Beachcomber. In a big, gorgeous space hidden deep in a residential building’s basement, decorated with sage-green tufted-leather banquettes, flatteringly dim lighting, bamboo and exotic woods, Shore Leave boasts a Brother Cleve soundtrack of midcentury exotica, Bollywood hits and ’60s bluebeat. The ambiance forswears easy kitsch for sumptuous good taste: think Raffles Hotel, not Margaritaville.
You’ll recognize many staffers from nearby sibling Bar Mezzana, like beverage director/ partner Ryan Lotz, whose specialty cocktails riff on the Tiki canon while preserving the Groovy Serving Vessel trope. The Air-Conditioned Eden ($13) is like a tropical Vesper: pineapple-tinged rhum agricole, gin, bianco and dry vermouths. The eponymous Shore Leave ($14) recalls Don’s Special Daiquiri via multiple rums, passionfruit, lime, molasses and Madeira. The Mexican Pearl ($14) uses tequila to update the Pearl Diver, a sweet-spiced hot buttered rum done as an icy drink. The Amaro di Cocco ($14) launches the piña colada into genuine weirdness with bitter Campari and toasted coconut, one of many culinary accents from chef de cuisine Sam Olivari, working under the aegis of executive chef/co-owner Colin Lynch. The Rule 35 ($70, serves 4-6) evokes the Fog Cutter originated by Trader Vic (Beach’s more famous, copycat rival). It’s a deadly, dinghy-sized vessel of cachaça, gin, sherry, Grand Marnier, toasted oats (!), lemon and crushed ice—and 10 minutes of melting renders it sneakily smooth. Don’t try to stump Lotz’s bartending crew by ordering Tiki classics, as they’ll whip up a fabulous Jungle Bird, Jet Pilot, Suffering Bastard or ’56-vintage Zombie ($13-$14) without batting an eyelash. Beers, ciders and wines get only a glancing nod here (10 total, maybe). No staffer will shame you for ordering a vodka soda (though we might silently tsk at you).
Boozing on an empty stomach is for rookies, so Shore Leave offers grazeable snacks and shareable plates for base-building. The menu trots around Southeast and Northeast Asia, toeing an Asia-for-beginners line: fancy, pricey and short on fermented flavors, yet with moments of greatness. Salt-and-pepper pork rinds ($7) with scallion cream cheese is perfect drinking food. Fluffy steamed bao ($6-$7), wheat-flour buns filled with shiitake, pork belly or fried clams, are outstanding. Kinilaw, the Filipino ceviche, is similarly wondrous in renditions of scallop, hamachi or sea bass ($13-$14). “Tandoori” hamachi collar roasted with Northern Indian spices is rich and meaty, a deal at $18. But salads—cucumber and seaweed ($9) and green mango ($12) topped with crisp-fried shallots—are either over- or underdressed. Dan dan wonton ($12) cleverly subs pork dumplings for noodles, but its chili/Sichuan-pepper sauce is weirdly off-balance. Char siu chicken ($32, serves 2-4) must be picked off the bone-in bird for wrapping in lettuce leaves with rice noodles and pepper vinegar, too bland to be worth the work. Thank goodness we tried Rohan duck ($80, serves 4-6), a sensational gloss on Peking duck. It’s a delectable, generous pile of sliced, roasted duck breast, some chunks of rich duck confit, mushu pancakes, fluffy baos, sliced cucumbers, pickled carrot and daikon, scallions, herbs, pineapple hoisin and housemade Sriracha—enough to make a small mountain of sweet/crisp/fatty/savory/spicy roll-ups. It’s effing brilliant.
We also ate one dinner at No Relation—the nine-seat sushi bar hidden in a back room of Shore Leave—an utterly superb tasting menu of at least 10 courses, mostly single pieces of nigiri with amazing sushi rice, plus some sashimi, a hand roll and a soup, perfectly paced over 90 minutes for $95 to $120. It’s a smashing bargain and testament to Lynch’s skill with raw fish and complementary flavors that he honed at O Ya and Bar Mezzana. It’s so distinctive and separate an experience from Shore Leave that it deserves its own Improper review that it probably won’t get. But it’s already booked out for weeks, and probably doesn’t need us to spread the word.
Meanwhile, Shore Leave dazzles with its lively yet serene atmosphere and superb drinks, bolstered by the kind of warm hospitality we have come to expect of refugees from Barbara Lynch’s empire, like front-of-house fixture/co-owner Heather Lynch. There’s a lot of it’s-about-times going on here: The South End finally getting a really cool, fun craft-cocktail bar; Boston getting a purely Tiki-focused bar with a range and sophistication on par with earlier adopters like New York; a generation of customers at last learning to give unalloyed Tiki cocktails the appreciation they deserve. Credit Lotz and the Lynches for building a rare thing: A fizzy, entertaining, slightly luxurious night out that feels like nothing else in Boston. ◆
Shore Leave cocktail
Rule 35 large-format cocktail
Classic Tiki cocktails: Jungle Bird, Jet Pilot and Zombie
All the bao buns
Tandoori fish collar
Tasting menu at
Shore Leave, 11 William E. Mullins Way, Boston (617-530-1775) shoreleaveboston.com; Hours: Daily, 5-11 pm, bar till 1 am; Liquor: Full; Reservations: Parties of 6 or more; Parking: Nearby private and public lots, limited metered street parking