We are going on a voyage that begins in the belly of a pirate ship at the UnderTow bar and ends in the warm glow of an Italian oven at Nook Kitchen, a short walk across the street. It’s a food and drink adventure, and you’re invited.
We begin at the UnderTow, and I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything like this – unless you were of drinking age in the 70s. One of the things that makes this tiki bar special is its location underground, in what used to be an auto repair garage turned restaurant. Beneath Sip Coffee and Garage Beer is a reconstructed, Disney-esque, 19th Century clipper ship complete with special effects – like the sound of waves crashing and the ocean drifting by out the portholes. The other thing that makes this place great is the assortment of imaginative cocktails that await.
I think of rum as the candy of all liquors, and why shouldn’t I? Rums are usually sugar cane, honey, or molasses based and aged in wooden casks, which help to give it a caramel color and flavor. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of varieties ranging from light to dark, and from spiced to flavored. They also serve “rhum” an abbreviation for rhum agricole, a type of rum that can only come from Martinique and is made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. Working your way through the different tastes is half the fun. Their drink menu is divided into original and classic concoctions with an acknowledgement to the inventor of the drink. I think that’s cool.
The UnderTow is tiny and popular. Reservations are highly encouraged. I can’t imagine it seating more than 30 people at a time, and there is a 90-minute maximum time rule if there is a line waiting to get in. It’s all very friendly, and how could it be anything else when you’re immersed in a Caribbean dream. I’ve only been once, but here is what I had and thoroughly enjoyed:
Pirate’s Remorse $12
(Galliano, guava, aged rhum of Martinique, honey, vanilla, mace, lime and nutmeg served over crushed ice with freshly grated nutmeg on top and garnished with fresh mint)
All of the cocktails are made with very fresh, and very fine ingredients, and all of the drinks are strong, and I’m not complaining. I like the taste of alcohol and love the taste of rum so bring it on. This drink came in a tall, vintage tiki glass and tasted of the islands. The mace and nutmeg gave it sort of a holiday flavor, and the mint added a refreshing coolness.
Shark’s Tooth $12
(Aged Barbadian rum, pineapple and lime served over crushed ice with a float of aged Jamaican rum, fresh mint and cherries)
This lovely cocktail was delivered in a shorter glass, but it still packed a punch. The float of rum on the top of the already rum-filled drink gave it the extra kick. The cherries, however, were the real surprise. I believe they had been soaking in some rum as well and they were deliciously sweet. The menu said this cocktail was invented in the 60s and that the creator was unknown.
First Mates Delight $14
(Butter-washed 12-year-old Nicaraguan rum, blend of aged island rums, allspice dram, sweetened condensed milk, Don’s #2 mix and gardenias spices served over crushed ice with a pineapple leaf and an orchid)
This was the prettiest of the drinks served, also the creamiest. It was like having dessert. Don’t let the pretty looks fool you though, still a stiffly made cocktail and very delicious.The UnderTow is a great place to Uber or Lyft to for a couple of reasons. The parking lot is small and the other, well, is obvious. Besides, you won’t need a car when you go to dinner after your visit, as there are great places within steps of the UnderTow.
Just across Indian School Road is an establishment called the Nook Kitchen. Ages ago it was a Long Wong’s for those in the know, but like the remake of the UnderTow it too has been reimagined and become what they call modern American cuisine with Italian roots.
Although the layout of the restaurant hasn’t changed one bit, it is no longer held together with duct tape, like its predecessor. Instead, there is a cool, modern vibe, kind of chic meets neighborhood comfort. The long-shaped restaurant is lined by half-moon booths on one side and a long bar on the other. They are proud to talk about their Italian oven brought over from the “old country,” and how dedicated they are to focusing primarily on neighborhood customers all in the same breath. Because we came straight from the UnderTow, we skipped the cocktails and dug right into the menu.
Here is what we had:
Seasonal Grilled Artichoke $12
(Olive oil, parmesan, lemon aioli)
It was a little guy, halved, but what it lacked in size it made up for in flavor. It was perfectly cooked with a lovely smoky char. The lemon aioli was a delightful accompaniment, and best of all, the choke had been removed making the journey to the best part of the artichoke, the heart, effortless. This appetizer was a great beginning.
(House-pulled mozzarella, fontina, parmesan, sherry mushrooms, arugula, truffle oil)
After hearing the story of the Italian oven, we set our hearts on pizza, although there were a dozen other entrees we could have chosen. Out came a fabulous looking pie and we started in on, what I was about to find out, one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. It’s a thin crust pizza made with an awesome dough, and on top, wildly fresh cheeses and some amazing mushrooms. How amazing? My friend doesn’t eat mushrooms and had said she was going to pick them off – but she didn’t! Perhaps because they were sautéed in sherry, perhaps it was the rum from our first stop, but there she was, mushroom hater, plowing through slices of mushroom pizza like there was no tomorrow.
Crack Pie ($10)
(No menu description)
Perhaps “crack” refers to a candy making technique but in this case, I think the name implies you’re about to become addicted to this dessert. Crack Pie was offered as a special that evening (hence no menu description) made by the near famous pastry chef Tracey Dempsey, and as
luck would have it, we were there on the right night. I would describe it as a peanut butter and chocolate crumble crunch on top of a peanut butter and chocolate pie filling, with roasted banana ice cream on top and drizzled with peanut butter caramel sauce. Now you see why they call it Crack Pie? I love banana ice cream, and it is so hard to find a good one as most contain some artificial ingredient that kills it for me, but wow, this was spiritual. Tracey Dempsey, in addition to pastries, also makes ice cream and she nailed this. She put it on top of a lump of peanut butter and chocolate heaven and created a premium dessert. This is a must-have.
The UnderTow and Nook Kitchen made for a truly fun adventure and yet another winning combo for the Arcadia neighborhood. The cocktails can get pricey ($35 for Mallory’s Treasure), but they are so well made it’s like having two or three in one glass. It’s unique, it’s fun, there are some rules (check the website), and it is not for large groups, but if you bring a friend or two, they will thank you forever. As for the experience at the Nook, I would just have to say they really know what they are doing and have created a place that not only serves great food but has some wonderfully addicting surprises as well. Look both ways before crossing Indian School and cross at the light mateys!