ALABAMA LIFE & CULTURE, By Shauna Stuart
Cayo Coco Rum Bar & Restaurante, the highly anticipated Cuban rum bar from Andrew Collins and Josh Schaff, the proprietor and general manager of The Collins, is now open in Founder’s Station.
Named after the island off central Cuba, the rum bar’s design is a nod to pre-revolution Cuban high life, a period when tourism was taking off and the country’s capital city was a playground for socialites and celebrities.
While the rich on the island indulged in luxury — social clubs, parties, drinking cocktails and dancing at Havana night clubs– there was also a rift brewing between Cuba’s haves and have-nots. That disparity between the country’s wealthy and poor classes, combined with accusations of corruption within the government of President Fulgencio Batista, laid the foundation for political resistance, fueling both the Cuban Revolution and Cuban art’s coming of age.
“Cayo Coco is kind of based in the fantastic realm of 1930s and ‘40s Cuba,” says Schaff, who now splits his duties between The Collins and helming the beverage program at Cayo Coco. “And what I mean by that is, it was a time when people had a lot of political unrest. And with that, there was a lot of artistic expression.”
For Schaff, the concept of high life didn’t automatically equate to lavish frills, and he made sure to quiet any rumblings that the upcoming rum bar was a tiki bar.
“With [tiki bars] there’s this insane extravagance,” says Schaff. “An extravagance of garnishes. Of mint, pineapples, and oranges. Dancers and things.”
While tiki bars also focus on rum cocktails, Schaff explains, rum bars like Cayo Coco focus on building simpler, refreshing craft cocktails with less emphasis on super sweet, juicy layers with tons of spices and bitters.
“We do have a tropical and exotic section on our menu, because we’re not afraid to do that. But we didn’t want that to be our identity.”
Schaff readily admits that neither he nor Collins have Cuban heritage (Collins is the son of well-known Greek parents who helmed one of Birmingham’s most famous hot dog stands). But he’s confident in the rum bar’s ability to pay appropriate homage to Cuba’s inspiring architecture.
For Cayo Coco, Schaff says he and Collins wanted to design a concept different from an image of Old Havana with pastels and vintage cars.
Cayo Coco is the fruition of a two-and-a half-year, sometimes painstaking, process.
“We were the first tenants in Founder’s Station. And it basically took us the longest because there were so many details that we had to have and that we didn’t want to miss out on,” says Schaff. “So we waited for the right light bulbs for the pendant lights. We waited for the right chairs to come in. We had so many furniture samples that came in and we had to sit on (literally) to make sure that they were comfortable.”
Outside, they planted Alabama-grown palm trees. For the bar and dining room, they opted for an interior awash in teal and brass.
“Brass is kind of a sign of affluence and elegance toward the patrons that would come into a Cuban bar,” says Schaff. Schaff also chose brass to complement the elegant style of the bar’s crystal glassware, selected for its similarity to Cuban Art deco accents.
Even the menus and branding, designed by BIG Communications, incorporate a font inspired by a Cuban Art deco design.
For Cayo Coco’s interior, Collins brought in Jeremy and Anna Erdreich of Metropolitan LLC (the firm behind the development of Morris Avenue’s Row 5 luxury housing), who drew the architectural plans and selected the furniture options.
Schaff and Collins chose vintage-style couches reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s and, for accents, woven basket chandeliers and pendant lights. Mirrors, the top and back of the bar, and brass tables were acid washed to create a vintage look.
The original building’s bricks were painted teal, and Schaff brought in BILT architecture and design firm ( the design firm behind Row 5) to laser cut brass overlays for Cayo Coco’s dining room walls.
To create a colorful and romantic high-end dinner experience, the designers also mounted the walls with fresh bird of paradise flowers.
Cayo Coco opened with 60 rums on its spirits list, and there are more to come. For over a year, Collins and Schaff worked with vendors in Alabama and spirits representatives to track down the rums. It was no easy task, especially in a control state like Alabama.
Schaff is particularly enthusiastic about one selection: Cayo Coco features the entire line of Ron Matusalem Spanish-style rums. Founded by brothers Benjamin and Eduardo Camp, the Matusalem brand went into exile after the Cuban revolution, but relaunched in 2002 in the Dominican Republic.
“When it comes to Spanish-style rum cocktails, there’s very few better substitutes,” says Schaff.
Cayo Coco’s beverage program is an opportunity to introduce Birmingham to a wealth of rums, both neat and in cocktail form– a fitting project for Andrew Collins, the proprietor widely credited for ushering in Birmingham’s modern cocktail culture.
Cuba itself has long been overlooked in cocktail history, despite being the home of Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, the renowned bartender well known for crafting Ernest Hermingway’s favorite daiquiri when the esteemed journalist and novelist drank at the El Floridita bar in Havana. Known to locals in Cuba as “El Rey de los Coteleros,” (the Cocktail King of Cuba) Ribalaigua’s intricate mastery of the cocktail would make El Floridita world known.
The rum bar’s beverage menu boasts 20 cocktails, divided by style– cocktails served tall, crisp and tart daiquiris, house daiquiris, tropical tiki exotic, booze forward, and temperance, or non-alcoholic.
Cayo Coco, aptly, has a daiquiri called El Floridita– a mix of Cuban-style white rum, fresh lime, and Maraschino liqueur, blended with raw sugar until completely dissolved, and served shaken or frozen.
Another highlight on the menu– the Sandia Fresca, a blend of Spanish and French rums, shaken with fresh lime and cucumber (for the cucumber, think Cucumber Gimlet, but without the gin) and strained over frozen watermelon.
“We’ve got drinks like the Old Cuban, which French 75 drinkers will love,” says Schaff. “It’s dark rum and mint and bitters. And then we top it with sparkling champagne and it’s very elegant.”
Schaff and Collins believe elegant drinking spaces shouldn’t only be reserved for those who indulge in spirits. For the temperance cocktails, they crafted beverages such as the Red Flower– hibiscus tea folded in crisp soda water and lemon, and Lime in the Coconut– caramelized coconut cream with mint and soda.
“I feel like to be social these days, it doesn’t always have to involve imbibing. So, we’re going to be building some drinks here that have no alcohol in them but still capture the essence of what it means to live in that area and the culture,” says Schaff.
For those wondering, vodka and gin cocktails are also on the beverage list.
“We’re not picky,” says Schaff. “There is actually a vodka drink on the menu that is Cuban based– the Atabey Especial. I would think of this like a Moscow Mule with cacao pomegranate, and ginger beer. It’s delicious, and it’s a true Cuban drink that is vodka. It’s a Cuban drink without using rum.”
There is also a full selection of South American and Spanish-style wines and beers, as well as hot cocktails (think Rum Toddy) and Spanish-style fortified wines on the dessert menu.
Executive chef Haller Magee, formerly of the Elyton Hotel and Satterfield’s is behind the Cayo Coco menu, which is his take on Latin-American food with a Southern twist.
To create the fare, Magee, who previously worked with Schaff at Satterfield’s, combined research, Schaff and Collins’ vision, and his own personal connections.
“My mom is from Honduras” says Magee. “So I can get some good information.”
When asked why he chose to incorporate a Southern spin, the chef doesn’t mince words.
“Because I’m from here,” he says. “I took some recipes you would normally see in Latin American cuisine and I put what I think would be a different spin on them. Not too far off the mark, but (dishes) with a different flavor profile, just to put a little bit of a Southern stamp on it.”
Drawing from his past experience fusing Southern and French cooking techniques and flavors, Magee crafted a Latin-American inspired menu of small plates, sandwiches, entrees, and three desserts.
For a seafood option, Magee created the grilled octopus: basil, marinated summer squash, and arugula, topped with lemon vinaigrette.
His signature dish on the small plates, Magee says, may be his twist on mofongo, called mofongo balls– balls of mashed plantain, fried and served with sofrito, avocado puree, and braised pork belly.
“I’ve gotten some good feedback on it from everyone that has had mofongo (before). This is my way to find a spin on it and make it look sexy and flavorful. And the pork is an addition to the dish. I like working with pig products.”
Out of the three sandwiches, only one stays close to the original Latin-American recipe: the media noche, prepared with cured ham, roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles, and yellow mustard.
Magee says eventually, he’d like to make the sandwiches– the media noche, the pollo, and the ropa vieja– available for order after the kitchen closes at 10:00 p.m. to complement the late bar hours. He is also working on creating bar snacks, such as empanadas.
Of the entrees, Magee’s most outstanding dishes might be the pescado en salsa de coco and the adobo pork chop.
Magee says the pescado, or roasted fish, leans toward more flaky white fish.
“What we’re doing right now is snapper and gulf reds. The fish is on black beans and rice, set with mango pico de gallo. That goes on top of the fish, served with an enriched coconut sauce that goes on the plate”
The most Southern-inspired entree is the adobo pork chop, served with sweet potato chili relleno, mole, and avocado corn salsa.
“The mole sauce on the base of the plate, it’s really nice. More of an Oaxacan- style red mole. And then avocado corn salsa goes on top of the chili relleno, which is finished with a little bit of queso fresco. The pork has been done in a brine,” says Magee. “And then we do a pretty spicy adobo sauce. This dish has some heat.”
Cayo Coco Rum Bar and Restaurante
2015 1st Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203