It’s a weird feeling to sit down to write a somewhat negative review. I know several bloggers and vloggers who won’t do it. If a product is bad, or falls beneath a certain threshold, they won’t review it. I can respect that. Especially when it comes to restaurants and such, a bad review can really damage a reputation, and if it is based on only one visit, maybe it’s not even representative. I distinctly remember a very lack luster evening at one of Montreal’s perennial best restaurants. It might have been unfair to judge them on that one off night, though the argument could be made that when you demand a certain (very hefty) price from your customers, you really can’t afford off nights, but I digress. So yeah, speaking ill isn’t chill and all that, plus it feels like trashing somebody else’s dream. That being said, it would not be doing you a favour (all eight of you), to pretend the Snowbird doesn’t have substantial woes to work out, or in corporate-speak “significant opportunity for improvement”. This is all according to my own tastes, of course, most people seem to love the place and it currently rates a 4.6 out of 5 on google. Kids these days…
The D&C crew was pretty excited when news broke during the winter that a new tiki bar would be opening in Little Italy. Some people consider Le Mal Nécéssaire a tiki bar, but it really is more of a speakeasy serving (very good) tropical drinks, it’s tiki-ish. So a full blown, no holds barred tiki establishment, with glass floats and bamboo and drinks hailing from the fake south seas invented by Donn Beach and Trader Vic sounded fantastic. We went in with high expectations, always a dangerous proposition.
The décor is alright but not wow, it has most of the classic tiki accoutrements, just not enough of them, and there are some false notes. Speaking of which the music was, well, not wisely chosen. Not a hint of exotica (Martin Denny, look him up), very little surf rock (the Ventures showed up once) and way too much hippie rock from the sixties. Which was a little ironic, since the argument could be made that tiki’s decline and eventual demise, was brought on by the cultural movement most closely associated with said music. I got the feeling that the place was put together by people with only a very superficial acquaintance with tiki. The Snowbird feels more like a business case, than the passionate statement, an aficionado’s vision of a great tiki bar.
However, ultimately what makes or breaks a tiki bar is the drinks. It was the reason for Don the Beachcomber’s success in 1933 and it basically fueled Victor Bergeron’s empire. Cocktails were so important to the popularity of tiki bars, that recipes were kept secret, often from the staff themselves, to keep competitors (and ex-staff members) from replicating them. If you wanted a “real” zombie you had to go to the Beachcomber. Of course this secrecy also worked against the tiki drinkskultur. Since no one knew what was in a drink, you could easily half-ass it. If you had never had the original, your first mai-tai became what a mai-tai was supposed to be. Then, as tiki bars started closing, a lot of the recipes were simply lost. It took years of detective work by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry to unearth the actual secrets of many tiki drinks. Thank you, sir.
There are two fundamental tiki cocktails, the zombie and the mai-tai. I’m currently working on a reproduction of the original zombie recipe (again, thank you mister Berry), but some ingredients are either hard to find (falernum) or I need to make them myself (real grenadine and also cinnamon syrup). BTW, a post is coming soon about that endeavour. As to drinking, since I’m quite familiar with mai-tai’s, I ordered this one first.
It was prepared promptly and served with a smile by an obviously able bartender in the requisite Hawaiian shirt. The drink, though decent, was light on rum and on orgeat, it felt a touch unbalanced and over diluted. Yes, I am super picky, you knew that. I still drank the whole thing though.
My second drink was the zombie, the cocktail that pretty much launched the tiki movement. It fared better and came with a flame, which though non-traditional in that drink was a pleasant touch. I’m not sure you can call yourself a tiki bar, if something somewhere isn’t on fire. A point for the Snowbird there, I’m sure their insurance is several points higher than it would be if they didn’t set high proof rum on fire, I respect the commitment.
The rum content was closer to my expectations (or maybe I just make and like overly stiff drinks) and the taste profile more balanced. It was not however, the original recipe (very few people know what “Don’s mix is anyways) but it was not sold as such, so no complaints. Easily the best drink of the night, I would have it again, even if I found it was a touch heavy on the ice, something I thought for most drinks. Tiki cocktails typically come on quite a bit of crushed ice, so maybe that was legit, it just felt like there was a lot of ice in respect to the amount of good stuff. Possibly though, theses are just my iffy life choices showing through.
At that point, and having tasted my companions’ drinks as well, I have to be honest and say I felt a little tepid about the Snowbird’s cocktails. Nothing was poorly made, but nothing really stood out either. As a final sample (the point was not to get shit faced, so the limit was set at three drinks), I opted for another cocktail I know well, the daiquiri. It is not strictly speaking from the tiki répertoire, but I certainly wasn’t above trying one of my favourite drinks at a new bar.
It has been said that the daiquiri is one of those drinks by which you can gauge a bartender’s skill. It’s deceptively simple, so its execution and its ingredients must be flawless. Alas this was not the case. The bartender was out of my line of sight while making it so I can’t tell what happened, but the result was unbalanced towards tartness, a touch over diluted and weak-ish on rum.
The Snowbird is a newly opened establishment and no doubt they are still getting their (south) sea legs. Though we did not eat, the food offerings looked promising and even held that vintage tiki classic, crab Rangoon. The proper menus still have to be printed and the drinks menu clearly stated it was the opening menu, I imagine they will be figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the coolest bits of glassware, big tiki mugs, were not used. It looks like too many customers were enjoying the five fingers discount and walking away with them. Kids these days…
The place was very busy when we arrived around 20:30 and absolutely packed when we left around 23:00. Clearly the crowd was enjoying the place, even if I felt underwhelmed.
I plan to give the place another go in the near future, and maybe sit in front of a bartender’s station to see more clearly what is going on, or maybe just to enjoy the zombie in pleasant company. In the meantime, I raise my cocktail glass in the hope that the Snowbird will work out its kinks and that Montreal will finally have a proper tiki bar.
See you soon.