Paul McGee's Three Dots And A Dash Is A Genuine Tiki Paradise
By Rob Christopher in Food on Aug 7, 2013 6:20PM
The main bar at Three Dots and a Dash; image via Facebook
After the debacle that was Chicago's latest Trader Vic's, we wrote, "Chicago has been slow to join the tiki-nova trend, but that could be changing soon. Anyone who's been to The Whistler's bi-monthly tiki nights, which are invariably crowded with enthusiastic drinkers, knows that there's a pent up demand waiting to be met." That the newest rebirth of Chicago tiki should be a product of Paul McGee's imagination, the very mastermind who dreamed up those evenings at the Whistler, makes perfect sense. When McGee moved to Lettuce Entertain You early last year, and a hitherto unidentified "special project" was revealed to be a tiki bar, we were excited. And anxious. And slightly dubious. Would the pathetic mistakes of the Gold Coast Trader Vic's be avoided? Would the sometimes heavy hand of the Melman Brothers' organization spoil everything? Would the bro-tastic, celeb-friendly River North location tempt McGee into watering down the spirit of tiki?
We're not old enough to have experienced Don the Beachcomber's old Chicago outpost on Walton. But based on our first impressions, aside from a few quibbles, we're happy to report that Three Dots and a Dash easily measures up to the classic Palmer House location of Trader Vic's (1957–2005) and then ups the ante. In a big way. Allow us to act as your tour guide and show you what we mean.
But first, what is tiki exactly? Well, if tiki had a soundtrack it would be a genre of music known as exotica; so what RJ Smith writes in his liner notes for the album Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1 acts as a perfect description: "Exotica was a round-trip ticket departing everyday for something more fabulous. It had the feel of distant places, but it took you to spots never before trekked by man ... All this cultural production promised a world more primitive and less mediated than life in the burgeoning white collar states. Exotica was more than a sound, it was design movement, and a pop art reaction to a Cold War paradigm that said all that was evil lurked barely outside our sacred borders. 'Let's cross over!," exotica replied."
The speakeasyish entrance for Three Dots and a Dash is in the alley at Clark and Hubbard. Just inside the door, the exposed brick walls morph into rounded stone blocks, and as you turn the corner you commence your descent to the basement level where the bar is located. You immediately begin to notice the amazing interior design evident throughout. Above the stairwell, bathed in an eerie blue light, is a wonderfully creepy pile of skulls. At the bottom of the stairs, to the right of a large floor-standing tiki, is a bamboo-screened room designed to accommodate private parties of 20–25: leopard print seating, a black velvet painting of a topless native girl, and plenty of other evocative touches in evidence. You walk down a short hallway to a carved host's stand; it, along with a number of stand-alone tikis, the barstools, carved wood panels, hanging colored glass lamps, and more, was salvaged from Trader Vic's.
The hostess, wearing a dress with a slit cut halfway to Winnetka, greets you, hands you an oversized menu (complete with charming illustrations and a short history of tiki), and leads you into the main room. Your first thought: this is a big place. The bar alone seats around 25, and the rest of the space is filled out with cozy booths, spacious banquettes, low tables for four, and drink rails for standing customers. All told, between the main area, an "invite only" section in the back near the service bar, and the private Bamboo Room, the establishment has a capacity of 240. Big!
Regardless of where you sit, whether under the thatched roof at the gorgeous onyx-topped bar, giving you a view of the nearly 200 bottles of rum on the shelves, or elsewhere, you're in for quite a show. Among the many lessons McGee and his team have learned from tiki pioneers such as Donn Beach, Vic Bergeron, and Stephen Crane is this: always entertain. Several of the original bars were outfitted by Hollywood set designers, and though McGee's space is firmly on the tasteful Art Deco end of the tiki spectrum, it's atmospheric as hell. Wall sconces, hanging colored glass lamps, miniature sand- and seashell-filled tealight terrariums, and candles (so realistic you'd hardly guess they're artificial) lend moody illumination to the wood carvings and numerous other artifacts tastefully arranged throughout the space. Best of all, a soft spotlight is trained on each tabletop, inviting you to marvel at the tropical libations before you.
The beautiful menu at Three Dots.
And you will, because even before you take that first sip the drinks at Three Dots and a Dash begin to cast their spell. Served in a variety of different vessels, including several custom mugs made by Tiki Farm and CheekyTiki, each drink is festooned with multiple garnishes. You might find a humorous swizzle stick, one or more edible flowers, a pineapple frond, speared cherries, a fat curl of cinnamon, sprigs of mint, or a citrus shell carved into a skull or a boat. Simply put, the drinks all look marvelous.
Ah yes. The drinks. The initial menu has about 20 of them, divided into three categories: Classic, For Sharing, and Modern. Thus far we've sampled more than half of them; there isn't a dud in the bunch, though of course some we like better than others. We're happy to report that the Mai Tai is rock-solid, offering a beautiful rendition of the lime/orange/orgeat trinity so crucial to the tiki mainstay while adding a subtle, intriguing hint of macadamia. On the other hand the bar's namesake cocktail is actually rather a more hard-hitting rendition than we prefer. McGee has opted to sub the orange juice from the original with orange curaçao, erasing some of the mellow softness we so enjoy. It's certainly still delicious, but all told we prefer the lethal and unabashedly spice-forward Jet Pilot (one of several offerings to feature a skull asterisk, signifying "drinks of impressive strength; please sip delicately.") Here's a drink that'll sneak you into the stratosphere before you know what's happened. Two other outstandingly bittersweet cocktails from the Classics division are the earthy Pago Pago (The How and When, c. 1947), resplendent with green Chartreuse and pineapple, and the Campari-spiked Jungle Bird (Kuala Lumpur Hilton, c. 1978), fruity but dry. All the classics on the menu include their provenance, by the way, a lovely touch that encourages the drinker to time-travel back to the era of the drink's creation.
The shareable menu consists of drinks intended for 3–12 people, served in big shells, a giant glass skull, or an actual treasure chest. Yes: Treasure Chest No. 1 comes out in a full-sized chest, bubbling over with dry ice, and includes an entire bottle of Dom Perignon. At $385, it's hard to imagine a more decadent (or just plain fun) form of bottle service for you and eleven of your closest friends. The smooth, delicately spiced Christmas in July is a bit more approachable. It's an original creation, which brings us to the last part of the drink menu: Modern.
The originals, some of which date back to McGee's tenure at the Whistler, are serious meditations on the severely neglected legacy of tiki in the mixology pantheon. They bend the whimsy and innovative flavor combinations of the style to new ends. Any cocktail snobs still unconvinced that tiki can be "culinary" or genuinely surprising on the palate need to fasten their yaps around a straw dipped into a gruesome skull mug filled with Tall as a Tree and Twice as Shady, and then suck it up. A wholly convincing mixture of Scotch (!), Batavia Arrack, and various fruit juices, it's like nothing we've ever tasted, fruity smooth but vigorous, pungent, and slightly smoky. Just as singular are the Tropic of Thistle, which proves that artichoke liqueur can wear a lei and Hawaiian shirt, and A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea (named after a line in the song "Bali Hai"), a coffee-noted concoction that no one would mistake for a girly drink. The Rum River Mystic, a sort of Manhattan/Old Fashioned variation featuring both rum and bourbon, improves as the lump of ice it's served with begins to melt.
About the ice. In most cocktails, from the martini to the manhattan, dilution is treated like a cardinal sin. But in the world of tiki, melting ice handily serves multiple functions. Firstly, it keeps the drink cold longer, allowing you to slow down and savor each sip. This is important when each drink has at least three ounces of liquor! And, as the ice melts, the flavor of the drink changes, opens up; you end up with a different, no less delightful drink, containing the essence of the flavors you've just enjoyed. Tropical drinks call for a slow-melting ice, a "precise" ice if you will, and here McGee has really gone above and beyond. The drinks that call for crushed ice actually use ice pellets: Tic Tac-sized ice the ideal shape for keeping a drink properly chilled while melting at just the right speed. It's a tiny thing, but it illustrates that very few details have been overlooked.
Very few details, but not none. At the top of this screed we mentioned a few qualms. Here they are.
We sincerely hope that the food menu, consisting of a half dozen small bites, is still being tweaked. The Thai Fried Chicken, insanely addictive crispy chunks of poultry tossed in a sweet/spicy glaze, and melt-in-your-mouth Crab Rangoon are both fine accompaniments to McGee's libations. But the rest of the food we've sampled thus far, such as the Crispy Tuna (tuna tartare and crispy fried wonton scoops) and Luau Chips (served with pineapple guacamole) is less than enthralling. What's more, it's all too delicate. It's downright underwhelming compared to what's in your mug. Fact is, when you're downing multiple rounds of stiff rum drinks you need some solid fare to soak up the booze, and the characterless minisliders labeled as Pork Belly Buns don't cut it. In terms of quality and value, the drinks are priced fairly—most are $13. The food is not. As it stands you're better off dropping in at Three Dots and A Dash either before or after dinner.
Also in need of some fine tuning: the music. On our visits we've noticed how the room's soundtrack of classic vintage exotica, played at a moderate level, gradually morphs into a too-loud mishmash of pop, rock, and hiphop that seriously kills the vibe. We're not saying that Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman, and Esquivel need to play on an endless loop. But there's a way to be lively without being obnoxious. And we remain unconvinced that Outkast will get us into that tropical island mood.
But, seriously, these are minor points, for Three Dots and a Dash is absolutely the tiki establishment that Chicago has been waiting for, as well as the one that will convince tiki skeptics to take the style seriously. Every drink we've had to this point has been absolutely top-notch; the servers and bartenders are all knowledgeable and enthusiastic; the decor and atmosphere are spot on. And though it's brand new, the level of overall quality already measures up comfortably to a benchmark like Smuggler's Cove. We're definitely looking forward to spending a great deal of elbow-bending time at this genuine tiki paradise. (As well as collecting all their incredible mugs, which are available to buy as souvenirs for $15 each.)
Oh, and the name? The original Three Dots and a Dash cocktail was named for the Morse code for V, as in V for Victory. A perfect name for an almost-perfect bar.
Three Dots and a Dash is at 435 N. Clark; look for the strips of blue light in the alley off Hubbard