The escapist's bar
Saturn Room brings the Tiki lounge back to Tulsa
Noah Bush laughs and points at his Mai Tai.
“Look at this stupid drink! There’s a flamingo in there.”
One of the more understated drinks at Saturn Room, the Mai Tai is the original Tiki cocktail. It’s served in a lowball glass, as opposed to the hollowed-out coconuts or Tiki tumblers found elsewhere on the menu, but with a pink paper flamingo and a stylish garnish of lime and mint. Many of us land-locked Tulsans have come to associate colorful, fruit-laden cocktails with the garish excesses of low-rent chain restaurants: high-fructose corn syrup, powdered sweet ‘n’ sour mix, a sickly sweet concoction with a vaguely chemical finish. But these drinks are different.
“I take what I drink seriously, but I’ve never really taken myself seriously,” Bush tells me as we sip the rum drinks under grass thatch, surrounded by bamboo, totem poles and spherical multicolored lamps. We’re not in the Caribbean, but it’s easy to pretend.
Saturn Room, Bush’s latest project with partners Jeremy Reed and John Gaberino, is a collision of the serious and the trivial. Sophisticated, nuanced cocktails garnished with florid, unwieldy arrangements of fruit and mini umbrellas are crafted by talented professionals who happen to be wearing Hawaiian shirts in a room made to feel like a hut on the beach of some exotic island.
The concept for the bar was born from Bush’s and Reed’s mutual love of Tiki bars.
“The Tiki bar is all about escapism,” Bush says. “If you look around here, there are barely any windows. We have the swim-up bar over there”—he motions to a single large window connecting the bar to the outside patio, where guests can order drinks without setting foot inside—“but the idea is that you come in here, and you forget that you’re in Tulsa.”
Bush, who also owns Hodges Bend with Gaberino, says his first experience with a Tiki bar was Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.
“I remember walking in the door and thinking to myself—‘I don’t get it,” he says. “Martin Denny Exotica jazz was playing, and I was like, this is so odd. I looked at the cocktail menu, and nothing was of interest to me, but I still ordered a drink. I took a sip of it, and it was boozy, it was bracing with citrus and then it had that underlying sweetness to it. I absolutely, instantaneously fell in love with the place. I got it. I was transported to an island. And that’s when I started seeking out Tiki bars.”
Reed, who also owns Bar 46, says the craft cocktail movement first intrigued him several years ago, when Hodges Bend and Valkyrie opened downtown.
“The more I studied craft cocktails, the more I enjoyed drinking them and learning the recipes, the more I fell in love with it,” Reed says. “However, I’m just never going to be the guy to wear a bowtie and denim shirt to work. I work in shorts and a polo or Hawaiian shirt.”
The Tiki ethos of complex drinks served in a casual, vacation-like atmosphere suited Reed.
“This fits perfectly with my personality and my sense of dress.”
Bush and Reed wrote Saturn Room’s menu together. It’s a combination of new creations and Tiki classics, occasionally tweaked to suit the owners’ personalities (Bush prefers a dryer cocktail).
“I think that these are serious cocktails, but I want to take the pretense away from what a serious cocktail is,” Bush says. “I also think that a lot of people have never really had a well-made Tiki drink, and as soon as they do, whether they be vodka soda drinkers or people that appreciate Scotch and high-end cocktails, their mind is kind of blown.”
Indeed, this particular Mai Tai (my first ever) is an elegant multi-sensory experience. A blend of Rhum Clement V.S.O.P., Myers’s Dark Rum and lime juice form the base, and it’s fleshed out with orgeat (an almond syrup), dry curacao (a traditional French triple sec) and simple syrup. Besides looking pretty, the mint and lime garnishes’ pronounced aromas contribute to the composition of each sip.
Saturn Room’s juices are fresh-squeezed daily, and the various syrups are made in-house. In the future, they plan to add a full-service food menu and some sort of water feature—a staple of Tiki bars.
I drain the dregs of my drink and make my way to the exit. As I push the door open and step onto the concrete, I’m assaulted by a blast of midwestern heat as my eyes adjust to the blinding light. Though a view of the downtown skyline greets me, I’m hit with the overwhelming desire to duck back into Saturn Room and continue pretending that the beach and a palm tree are just a few feet away.
Saturn Room // 209 N. Boulder Ave. // 918.794.9422 // saturnroom.com // OPEN DAILY 4 p.m.-2 a.m.