Bar report: 12th Ave Grill

From left: Dead Man's Wallet, Cucumber + Lemon Fizz

12th Ave Grill
In Kaimuki, 1145 12th Ave.

Of the two Kevin Hanney restaurants, Salt has commanded the cocktail spotlight. And understandably so: Whereas Salt's dining space is built around the bar, 12th Ave Grill's is the size of a ship's galley and almost as invisible. In the new 12th Ave Grill, the bar will grow into a real space, but in the meantime, bar manager Mike Hall more than makes do in his space that he shares with the kitchen pass. Fitting right in with 12th Ave Grill's philosophy of seasonal and handcrafted ingredients, Hall develops his own components such as a strawberry-basil shrub (a vinegary fruit syrup made from apple cider vinegar, fresh fruit, sugar and neutral grain spirit) and aromatic bitters. While 12th Ave Grill is best known for its food, the direction of Hall's drinks makes the bar worth returning to. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, patrons can participate in the Craft Bar happy hour, with appetizers under $10, including the 12th Ave burger, and Hall's $5 cocktail special.

The Drinks
As I waited for the Dead Man's Wallet, wine-drinking bar patrons to my left and right commented on Hall's attention to detail. "It looks like he's measuring a science experiment," one commented. Another asked if what I had ordered was "really worth waiting for."  Measurement and precision are often overlooked when making drinks, I said, and I appreciate a barman who pays attention to these kinds of details. After all, what's the fun in drinking something that's inconsistent from one time to the next?   Soon, everyone was ordering cocktails, and the bar was lined with Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Dead Man's Wallets, the latter made with Rittenhouse Rye, Broadbent Madeira, Angostura, fresh lemon, Hall's Big Island cinnamon syrup and house bitters. It had an aroma befitting a Mad Men steakhouse. The Madeira was a nice choice, offering body and fruitiness where a sweet vermouth wouldn't.

Not all drinks in Hall's repertoire are as rich. His Yellow Watermelon+Mint Cooler, served in a mason jar, had all the elements of summer. Yellow watermelon tends to have sweeter and softer flesh than its pink cousin, and Hall let its flavor sing with Lillet Blanc, Koloa rum, fresh lemon juice, and local honey.

Some of his drinks tend to lean on certain crutches (not necessarily a bad thing). He likes the sweetening combination of dry vermouth, fresh citrus and honey simple syrup. Try the Strawberry Fields, which uses those ingredients plus his strawberry-basil shrub, cognac and ginger beer. His gin sidecar variation, the L'Orange, uses the same crutch; this time via Cocchi Americano and Kau oranges.

The drinks are accessible for wine and beer drinkers, and his housemade ingredients give cocktail enthusiasts something to look forward to.

To Be Improved
I like Hall's attention to process and technique. He's tuned into what ingredients might advance his drinks or tie in with what's going on in the kitchen. The quality of the restaurant and kitchen will help enforce high standards in terms of the bar. Those who prefer lighter, sweeter drinks will find a cocktail here, but I'd like to see more spirit-forward drinks and more attention to presentation. My guess is that his program will mature when 12th Ave moves into its new space and he actually has a bar to work behind.