Otto's in the Press
NY Daily News - May 7 2005
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Originally published on May 7, 2005
Tiki tacky

Met exhibit rides wave of interest in Polynesian culture

Otto's Shrunken Head in Alphabet City.
When you sip a fruity, rum-spiked cocktail at a tiki bar, you're simply enjoying a bit of Polynesian culture (albeit campy) that has long been a source of fascination.

Ever since Captain Cook sailed in the 1770s, the islands of the South Pacific have captured the imagination of Westerners, particularly artists and writers like Paul Gauguin, Picasso, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Today, what Americans think of as generic Pacific-island imagery - tikis, tattooed warriors, cannibal feasts - originates primarily from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.

Now, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Eric Kjellgren has organized the first exhibition of art from this remote and romanticized archipelago. Opening Tuesday, "Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands" displays nearly 80 examples of this striking, elegant and inspiring art - tiki idols, feathered headdresses, carved war clubs and coconut shell bowls - that is at once familiar and exotic.

Marquesan art was made to honor ancestral gods, adorn the human body (tattoos) and decorate everyday objects. Best-known and loved, though, are temple figures called tikis. Known to most of us through tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants, tiki has come to mean puffer-fish lights, luaus and rum-filled pineapples.

After World War II, American tiki lounges offered escape from the gray-flannel conformity of suburban life, an enticing, exotic fantasy based on strong drinks, obliging girls and palm trees. The popularity of old-school venues like Trader Vic's peaked in the 1950s, but were passť by the '70s, when most went bust. Since 9/11, however, tiki culture has been reborn, proving the Met show timely.

The Met exhibition draws attention to the gap between tiki fantasies and island realities. Check out the cute little tikis carved by Marquesan cannibals from the bones of their human victims. But today, tattooed urban hipsters sip "headhunter" cocktails from tiki-shaped mugs to the ambient sounds of bird calls and bongos.

And those tattoos, long the body art of Western sailors, now adorn celebrities just as they did the noblemen of Marquesan tribes. But you don't have to be a celebrity or a sailor to indulge your inner savage at New York's tiki-themed venues.

Enter the high kitsch of the tiki bar, and remember the words of Picasso: "Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing!"

Otto's Mai Tai

From Otto's Shrunken Head

3/4 oz. light rum
1/2 oz. Myers's rum
Dash Orgeat almond syrup
Dash Triple Sec
Dash lime juice
Sour mix
Club soda

Place all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Fill with sour mix. Shake, pour into a tall ceramic tiki mug, then top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with a slice of lime and a sprig of mint. (At Otto's they add a paper umbrella, fancy straw and plastic monkey.)

SIP THE NIGHT AWAY
AT A HIP ISLAND RETREAT

OLD SCHOOL

King Yum
181-08 Union Turnpike, Fresh Meadows, Queens; (718) 380-1918
After the Met, kick back at a different kind of museum: at King Yum, the clock stopped in 1953, when kitsch was cool. A tropical fountain flanked by a tiki god greets visitors, and the dining room boasts surfboard-size tiki masks, fake palm trees, seashell lamps and bamboo everything. Best mai tai in town.

Jade Island
2845 Richmond Ave. (at Kmart Plaza), Staten Island; (718) 761-8080
Jade Island's grass-shack booths, murals of Polynesian beaches, waterfalls, parrots and seriously big tikis provide a refuge from the landfill and retail sprawl that surrounds it. Untouched since 1972, this family-friendly restaurant serves sweet cocktails in traditional tiki mugs.

NEW SCHOOL

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 E. 14th St. (between Avenues Aand B), (212) 228-2240
Otto's is a pleasantly seedy hole filled with the requisite puffer-fish lamps and tiki carvings, but with a personality all its own. Grab a glow-in-the-dark Pang's Punch and jungle-boogie to the exotic sounds of Fisherman (Mondays from 9).

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