One for the Road – Pangea Lounge

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Craft cocktails are by no means new to Florida, but the popularity of bars devoted to serving innovative drinks with fresh ingredients and small-batch spirits has been somewhat slow to develop. Modern cocktail lounges are sparsely distributed throughout the state but generally confined to cosmopolitan cities like Miami. Bars serving light beer and neon-hued, slushy rum drinks seem to vastly outnumber those that are up on the latest cocktail trends. I suppose it makes sense. Manhattans probably aren’t big sellers at beachside bars, and given the scope of Florida’s tourist industry, catering to an audience that favors quantity over quality is just smart business. But that’s not to say that Floridians are cool to the latest cocktail trends; you just have to look a little harder to find a bar that specializes in them. And in the case of Pangea Lounge, you might have to look really hard.

One of a handful of cocktail bars in Sarasota, Pangea Lounge embodies all the best characteristics of a speakeasy (like a hidden entrance and a sense of novelty) and none of the worst (like toxic liquor and the possibility of arrest). To get inside, you enter the Monkey Business sandwich shop and walk to the back of the room, past the counter.

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Right when you expect someone to reprimand you for stumbling into the kitchen, you’ll discover a pair of black curtains, beyond which is a spartan but stylish two-room space that looks like it was built in the sandwich shop’s storage area. Just beyond a dining area is a small, six-seat bar with circular shelving behind it. Bottles lying unevenly upon the shelves give it a deliberately makeshift appearance.

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With its unfinished concrete floor, low lighting, and dark blue walls, Pangea captures the look and feel of a bar that prefers to fly under the radar. While the speakeasy trend may have played itself out a bit in other parts of the country, here it still feels fresh and fun.

The cocktail program, meanwhile, embraces some contemporary mixology practices with its original concoctions and clever ingredient choices. Bartender Brad Coburn, who took care of my brother and sister-in-law (both of whom are new to Sarasota) and me when we visited last week, has won a number of regional cocktail competitions and been involved with national cocktail events as well. It’s fair to assume that he’s picked up a few ideas along the way.

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One of those, which I wish we could have here in Boston, is the practice of pouring your guests a complimentary glass of punch when they arrive. It sets a casual, welcoming tone, and it’s nice to have something to sip and chat about while perusing the drink list.

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The drinks are grouped by character in categories such as “Rich & Calming,” “Fruity & Exciting,” and “Tart & Invigorating,” and the cocktails live up to their descriptions. The Great Scot combines Great King Street scotch, Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur, fresh lime, tangerine syrup, and beet water, and is topped with a hibiscus foam. Although I have long disdained beets, I’ll admit the drink was balanced and complex, with a soft, floral sweetness from the hibiscus foam.

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The Chupacabra – Spanish for “goat sucker” – is named after a spiny, reptilian creature that is alleged to attack goats under the cover of night and drain them of their blood. First spotted in Puerto Rico but reportedly sighted throughout the world, the creepy chupacabra is largely dismissed as legend…but its existence hasn’t been completely disproved. The cocktail of the same name is far less terrifying. Made with pisco, habañero honey, fresh lemon, watermelon water, and – for the chupacabra in all of us – a goat cheese garnish, there’s a lot going on in this one. The big glob of goat cheese adds a funky essence to the proceedings.

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I personally wasn’t sold on the Chupacabra (by which I mean the drink; when it comes to the creature, I want to believe) until our deviled eggs showed up. Served on a bed of kale with a balsamic vinaigrette, the dressing was a perfect match for the goat cheese, giving the drink a different flavor profile. The bacon in the deviled eggs didn’t hurt, either.

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Speaking of eggs, this was my first experience with pickled eggs. Cured in vinegar and seasoned with spices like clove, these intriguing puppies make for an offbeat, tangy snack.

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Pangea doesn’t actually have a kitchen, but you can order this stuff from the neighboring restaurant Melange. They offer an eclectic menu (as evidenced by the pickled eggs), with plenty of late-night treats like krab rangoons. Aside from the enigmatic “k” spelling of crab, these dollops of deep-fried cream cheese are faithful to that celebrated but completely inauthentic staple of Americanized Polynesian cuisine. A guava habañero dipping sauce adds a spicy bite.

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Inspired perhaps by the rangoons, my next choice was a Mai Tai. It wasn’t on the menu, but Brad seemed happy to whip one up, even giving me a choice of the Trader Vic Mai Tai version or the Don the Beachcomber version. I opted for the former, with aged rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime, orgeat, and simple syrup. Fruity but not too sweet, it’s a tribute to the original recipe.

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Similarly, the Old Fashioned is made exactly as it should be. No graveyard of pulverized fruit or unnecessary soda water, Brad’s version combines Redemption rye, simple syrup, and a lemon peel.

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Brad also offered to concoct something original if we didn’t see what we wanted on the menu, so my brother helpfully requested “something mojito-ish.” With only those vague instructions to work from, Brad mixed up a complex variation of the classic rum drink, swapping rum for whiskey and adding grapefruit, mint, demerara sugar, lime, sparkling wine, and angostura bitters. My brother deemed it “exceptional.”

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But for all the complex and creative drinks on Pangea’s menu, it was one of the simplest that truly won the three of us over. The Salty Sailor combines Papa’s Pilar blonde rum, fresh grapefruit juice, and falernum syrup. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s exploits in Florida and the Caribbean, Papa’s Pilar is a fantastic rum with a rich, creamy flavor; pairing it with the sour grapefruit and the sweet, spicy syrup makes for a wonderfully refreshing, tiki-style cocktail with depth and complexity.

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Served in a bowl-like glass coated with salt, which further enhances the flavors, it’s a simple drink that allows a few very basic ingredients to shine. And that’s the sort of thing that works as well in a sunny, beachside bar as it does in a clandestine speakeasy.

Address: 1564 Main Street, Sarasota, Florida

Website: http://pangealounge.com/

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