The New Three Dots And A Dash Menu Is An Overpriced Disappointment
By Rob Christopher in Food on May 11, 2016 3:06PM
By Rob Christopher and Anthony Todd
While Three Dots and a Dash has been open for several years now, they just announced a new bartender and a whole new menu. We sent our food editor (and cocktail nerd) Anthony Todd and our resident tiki expert, Rob Christopher, to investigate.
Rob: In Morse code, three dots and dash indicates the letter V, which during WWII symbolized "victory." So what's Morse code for "defeat"?
As I entered with my friends via the bar's familiar alleyway door, we were greeted by the familiar sight of a wall of glowing skulls. All was well. This was, by my own count, my sixtieth visit to Chicago's tiki renaissance temple. After hearing what new beverage director Julian Cox had to say about his plans to rethink the menu, I was eager to try the new drinks. And it had also been several months since my last visit, so I figured that going in with fresh eyes would be the ideal way to jump into it.
Anthony: While I haven't been to Three Dots 60 times (what a lush, Rob!), I've made plenty of visits and tried every drink on the original menu. I was excited to try Cox's new drinks, and especially intrigued by his promise that the drinks would be a bit dryer. I've had way too many tiki headaches.
Rob: Everything still looks fantastic, from the sensual, low-level lighting that practically germinates romance to the elaborate drink garnishes, promising a special experience that also doesn't take itself too seriously. The design of the new menu, which pairs whimsical illustrations with cheeky descriptions of the drinks, is seriously charming. But wait. As we slipped into our booth, what was that I heard coming over the sound system? Could it be Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"? Followed by Chic, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Jackson?
That's right. On our visit, the languorous melodies of the islands, so crucial to conjuring up the chill atmosphere that's the raison d'etre of the tiki bar experience, had been replaced by a Spotify playlist better suited to Happy Hour at a Clark/Division bar. As much as I love old school soul jams, they are not conducive to the tiki atmosphere (unless, perhaps, you're on Spring Break in Daytona Beach). The room's decor was entreating me to relax, but the room's soundtrack was urging me to get down. Seriously schizophrenic.
Anthony: Yeah, Three Dots, what the heck? When the bar first opened, you could generally count on Island Exotica from about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., while later in the evening the soundtrack would shift to a more bumpin,' club vibe as the River North people arrived. I would have preferred it to stay tiki-themed all night, but I understood the need to compromise. Now, there's no hint of that deep, intense cool that you feel when you walk into a tiki bar.
Rob: My next disappointment occurred as soon as I sipped my first drink, the bar's house tipple Three Dots and a Dash. Reformulated, according to our server, to be more "spirit forward," it instead tasted watery and insipid. In fact, had I sampled it wearing a blindfold I might not have identified it as a Three Dots and a Dash cocktail at all. In the review of my first visit back in 2013, I wrote, "the bar's namesake cocktail is actually rather a more hard-hitting rendition than we prefer. [Paul] McGee has opted to sub the orange juice from the original with orange curaçao, erasing some of the mellow softness we so enjoy."
But with every subsequent swallow I was yearning for that curaçao a little bit more. The new iteration has put the orange juice back in with such a heavy hand that instead of an artful balance between multiple rums and spices, you're left with a beverage that tastes like boring fruit punch. The new "skull wall" mug is a thing of beauty, but the drink it holds (which now costs $14!) wouldn't pass muster even at Chicago's last Trader Vic's.
The new presentation of the signature Three Dots and a Dash (Photos Courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You)
Don the Beachcomber, creator of the drink Three Dots and a Dash and all around tiki godfather, famously said, "What one rum can’t do, three rums can." Whether of the tropical variety or not, that exquisite layering of flavors and textures which results from the mixture of multiple spirits, spices, and syrups is what makes a well crafted cocktail so alluring. Unfortunately, many of the nine cocktails my friends and I sampled during our visit were alarmingly one-dimensional. (The exceptions being the Dead Reckoning, a toothsome port/maple/cognac/rum mixture, and the Diver Down, which convincingly hitches rum and lime to Campari and strawberry.) Case in point: even the old standby Mai Tai seems to have lost its luster in the current iteration, little more than a rich blast of rhum agricole which quickly peters out. Where's the heavy bottom from the dark Jamaican rum, and the subtle notes of orange and almond that lie at the heart of the classic recipe?
Cox told Chicagoist during his interview that he prefers a dry flavor profile, an admirable philosophy when it comes to a category of drinks which have traditionally suffered from a surfeit of sugar. But, perhaps in his attempt to dial back the sweetness, he seems to have also stripped out a good deal of the drinks' complexity. Sometimes that's not such a big deal. The Poblano Escobar, one of the new additions, is essentially a fiery mezcal margarita; there's nothing too complicated going on, but it does taste very pleasant, especially when paired with a nibble like the crab rangoon. (As a matter of fact, I feel that the updated dining menu, which now includes more substantial options like a burger and short ribs, has finally hit its stride.) The Missionary's Downfall is another relatively straightforward and delicious option: bright citrus, not too sweet, with soft flavors of mint and peach in the finish. Tasty.
But then we get to the other end of the spectrum. Although the menu description of the Polynesian Pearl Diver promises a "medley of scotch, butter, spices, and tangerine," I'll be damned if I could taste any scotch at all. There certainly wasn't any of the smoky peat flavor that might have added depth to the drink's buttery, dessert-like mouthfeel. The Aloha Felicia tasted like your basic piña colada—nothing wrong with that, except when you're also expecting the exotic flavors of lemongrass and Thai basil as described on the menu.
Initially most promising was the Surf Report, a sort of gin gimlet crowned with a salty/savory foam. That foam is a novel touch; one doesn't often encounter that flavor profile in a bar with a thatched roof. However, once you drink past the foam, you're left with a cucumber-y gin sour that grows cloying long before you see the bottom of the glass. That's not how a $14 cocktail should be.
The Surf Report (Photos Courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You
It could be that Cox and company are still perfecting their recipes. It could be the bartenders behind the stick were just having an off night. Or it could be that Three Dots has dumbed down their drinks by cutting corners, while raising prices. Who's to say? But for the first time since the bar opened in 2013, when I walked past the wall of glowing skulls on my way out I felt dispirited (no pun intended). My unfortunate conclusion is that Three Dots and a Dash is essentially coasting on its past glories, offering up the novelty of the "tiki bar experience" to a customer base consisting largely of tourists and the River North crowd, and doing it at prices that beggar belief. If history is any guide, they'd better be careful: complacency was the main thing that helped deep-six tiki the first time around.
Anthony: Rob did a far better job of discussing the flavors of the drinks than I ever could, so I won't repeat his work. I will, however, discuss price and value. On the original Three Dots menu, cocktails cost $13. The increase to $14 per drink wouldn't necessarily bother me (if it were justified by increased quality, which it isn't), but one thing seriously does: The large format cocktails.
Large format drinks, usually served in a ridiculous and beautiful vessel, are a staple of tiki culture, and also generally a pretty decent bargain. The original Three Dots menu had four of these drinks, and setting aside the Treasure Chest, which came and still comes with a full bottle of vintage Dom, they were reasonably priced. The Christmas in July, which served 3 to 4, was $50, the Planter's Punch, which served 4 to 6, was $60, and the Zombie Punch, which served 4 to 6, was $75.
Boy, have things changed. Apparently, Three Dots realized that they weren't squeezing enough money out of these large format drinks, because the Zombie, which now serves 3 to 4, costs $65 and the Bali Bali, for 4 to 5 people, costs $85.
To add insult to financial injury came the Diver Down. This drink, while probably the best thing we drank all night, is for 3 to 4 people and was listed on the menu we got at $85, which at $21.25 a person is a pretty hefty pricetag. Then the actual bill came, and it had cost us $125! Apparently, the menu had been revised since the first printing, and we had an older one. They honored the printed price, but think about that for a second. That means that a drink that lists no particularly rare or luxurious ingredients will run you $31.25 a person, pre-tax. The diver's helmet it comes in is admittedly spectacular, but that's literally two and a half times what a large format cocktail for four people cost when the bar opened less than three years ago.