Note: Lani Kai closed in September 2012. It has been replaced by The Dalloway, a Lesbian-themed bar and lounge.
When the Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai opened eighteen months ago in the old Tailor space, it got plenty of publicity, but the major critics ignored it. I dropped in for cocktails in late 2010, but never felt like going back for dinner. A favorable Times review last week made me wonder what I had missed.
Julie Reiner, the owner, is known mainly for a couple of excellent cocktail spots, Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club. But she is from Hawaii, so this seemed like the obvious choice for her first restaurant.
I gather it has been a struggle: the restaurant is routinely available on OpenTable, practically any day, any time. It’s on a dull block in Soho’s southwest corner that doesn’t attract a lot of foot traffic. The cocktails, naturally, are first-rate, but that isn’t enough, especially with a rather large bi-level space to fill.
I suspect that, to most people, Hawaiian cuisine doesn’t set the pulse racing. The image that comes to mind is the luau, often an over-priced, mediocre tourist trap.
Ms. Reiner hired a new chef recently, Japanese native Sawako Okochi, who worked previously as a sous-chef at Annisa. Her challenge is to make the food relevant, while staying within a fairly tight price point: appetizers and sharing plates are $7–15, entrées $19–26.
Cocktails are $13, a good $2–3 less than many locations get away with these days. During Happy Hour they’re even less. The Bearded Lady (below left) was just $10, the 808 State (below center) just $6. Both of these seemed like cruise-ship cocktails to me. I liked the Flatiron Martini (no photo) a lot better.
The wine list is pretty bare-bones. A Pouilly-Fuissé was $29; it came in a decorative wooden ice bucket (above right).
The Pu-Pu platter plus a side order of pork buns was enough for the three of us to eat. There’s a choice of seven items that can go on the platter, of which you choose four, but they all have a different à la carte price. The crab wantons ($8) were the best of these. Baby back ribs ($13) were thick and meaty. Chicken wings ($10) and Chicken yakitori skewers ($8) were just fine, as were the pork buns ($8 for two). The platter also comes with a mound of chips (which dominate the front of the photo).
But for the most part, this has the distinct feel of beach-resort food, prepared with a bit more care, but ultimately not very memorable. I say this without having sampled the entrées, but The Times thought that those were even less exciting.
We had a quite early reservation on a Tuesday evening and had the place mostly to ourselves, except for a rather loud group taking up most of the communal table. I spotted Ms. Reiner briefly, but she was working mostly out of sight.
The space has been remodeled slightly, but the bones of the old Tailor space are quite apparent. There is now a small bar on the ground floor at the back of the dining room, and as before, a large cocktail lounge downstairs. I assume that this space gets a lot busier later in the evening and on weekends.
I might drop in again one of these days, more for the cocktails than the food, although there is plenty to snack on if you don’t want to drink on an empty stomach.
Lani Kai (525 Broome Street between Sixth Avenue & Thompson Street, SoHo)
Food: Populist Hawaiian cuisine that transports you to a Honululu beach
Cocktails: The real reason for coming here, but I’d avoid the cruise-ship ones
Ambiance: Upscale Club-Med
Rating: Neighborhood Spot
Why? Good for cocktails — but so are a lot of places