Timing can be everything when it comes to new restaurants and bar concepts. Too early and people won't come because it's not yet in their comfort zone; too late and, well, been there and done that. In the two years that lapsed between the highly conceptualized idea for Pleasant Storage Room and its recent opening, its partners definitely felt the pressure of catching the wave at just the right time. With a keen, single-spirit focus – the carefree and often misunderstood rum – and a small-plate format from the kitchen, this Havana-inspired space seems to have arrived right on time for Austin's summer scene.
It all started with punch. Back when chef Paul Hargrove was cooking at East Side Show Room, he clicked with then-bar manager John Kelly O'Hare, who kept coming into the kitchen with wild concoctions to try. "He blew my mind. His punches were so culinary," says Hargrove. "I really wanted to see the punch stand on its own." And so began a concept based on rum. When O'Hare ultimately took a job offer in Los Angeles, eyes fell upon Alfonso Hernandez, also a Show Room veteran, to take up the task of creating the bar and the cocktail program. "It's his show," says Hargrove.
Perfecting Pleasant Storage's intricate recipes for drinks and punches was one piece of the puzzle, alongside creating the right menu and setting the decor, which was beautifully handled by Hargrove's wife, Ame Brewster. Unique, weathered pieces – from ornate lamps to working wooden shutters – are consistent with the desired "Havana haunt" feel without being overdone or flashy. The chipped, curved bathtub that serves as the staging area for ceviche tucks right into the curl of the bar. Your eye catches a little something new and beautiful every time you look around, be it adorable tiki glasses with wooden shafts or the time-worn look of the menus.
"The bar is the primary focus here," says Hargrove. "So I offered Alfonso as much access to the kitchen as he wanted. Grilled garnishes. Smoked fruits. You name it." The drink menu is an eight-page booklet, while the food menu is the front and back of a 5-by-11-inch card. With a French-focused background in New York and a stint, not surprisingly, in Florida, Hargrove is loving the creativity of exploring Caribbean spices and flavor structures, while keeping the methods sound and the plates simple and true. "When I saw the size of the kitchen," he says, "it's no bigger than a food truck. So I said, 'Let's make it feel like a food truck, and let's focus on Cuba and the islands.'" Think jerk chicken, snapper in banana leaf, grilled street corn – island street food. "There's nothing wacky here. I just made the best Cuban sandwich I could." His favorite selection? The Frita, a ground beef and chorizo burger grilled with onions and red mojo and served with thin-cut fries.
An early summer opening seems to be the perfect time for Austin, getting the wave started, so to speak. A clever campaign, the Summer of Rum, starts this week at Pleasant Storage. Look for videos of head barman Alfonso Hernandez making rum standard drinks to be released on the bar's website, Tumblr, and Facebook page, highlighting what will be that week's drink special. "This is rum," says Hargrove. "This is supposed to be fun. We want to create that experience."
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