“I wanted to make you something from my heritage,” says bartender Jairo Taveras of Poción Lounge in Washington Heights, handing me a dark-rum-based cocktail garnished with a flaming stick of palo santo bark. “It’s Dominican mixology.” The richly sweet beverage is a theatrical take on Mama Juana, in which rum, red wine, and honey soak with tree bark and herbs. For a young woman sitting with a date at the bar, Taveras makes another drink special — this one, in the spirit of Halloween, a beet-red vodka number poured into a skull-shaped glass. She’s charmed.
You have to be looking for Poción to discover its delights, or you might just stumble in because the wine bar next door, Kazza, is too packed. The vegan tapas spot, open since June, is accented with lime-green light and sits right off Broadway on 177th Street, past the spinning rotisserie chickens at Malecon and a few brightly lit slice joints. The wall off to the side of the bar bears the words, “We serve booze with nutritious boosters.”
Whether or not those additions actually work, the drinks, at least, mostly do. A ginger elixir made with Jameson whiskey, demerara syrup, lime juice, pressed ginger, bitters, a tincture of avocado leaf and cloves, and sparkling water tastes fresh — indeed, almost good for you. More akin to a botanical soda is the flor de uva, composed of cava, elderflower liqueur, and a lily and hibiscus flower infusion; it’s pretty, and comes served in a Champagne flute. The Pachamama, meanwhile, which combines gin, mezcal, agave, lime and kale juice, and guanabana tincture, is a rare misstep: The smoky mezcal and bitter kale fight for dominance on your palate.
As for the tapas offerings (hot and cold plates are around $8 apiece), opt for the avocado and pineapple ceviche, which is nicely acidic. Skip the “hummus trilogy”: The blend of turmeric, chipotle, and spinach variations beats a tub of Sabra, but the portions are small. Both dishes are served with tortilla chips and a scattering of excellent brown and blistered yucca fries that will make you want a full order. (Unfortunately, they’re not on the menu.)
Of the hot dishes, the two baked empanadas are flaky and filling: must-orders. One is filled with a curried mushroom and tofu, while the other (and better) is stuffed with tofu cooked in a traditional sofrito. Another classic Dominican dish, the pastelón de plátano maduro, would benefit from a seasoning adjustment; usually made with cheese and beef, the sweet plantain mash here lacks the depth of those flavors.
When it comes to dessert, the chia crème brûlée is a surprising win. Creamy vegan desserts made with soy milk often have a gritty texture thanks to too much agar or starch, but this one is smooth; the burnt sugar crust and rich custard base are rounded out by the freshness of a strawberry-pineapple compote. There’s no way this treat is medicinal — but it’s the indulgence itself that just might be good for you.
704 West 177th Street