Kava, and a Cast of Classic New Yorkers

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James Marion Peterson talks to customers at his kava bar, BarBūla. Photo: Mark Abramson

Three Russian models played Chinese poker, perched at one end of the train-car-size bar on East 10th Street. At the other end, a retired billionaire and a United Nations ambassador sat next to some East Village teens. I was there, too, four sips into my kava. My tongue tingled, and the roof of my mouth was a tinge numb. Peaceful and content, I watched the trippy stoner video of surfers that played above the bar.

It was a recent Wednesday, and happy hour at Kavasutra, the tiki-themed kava chain headquartered in Florida, which until this month offered the only kava bars in Manhattan. I grabbed my shell, mouth still numb, and sat next to Odo Tevi, the Vanuatu ambassador to the U.N. and United States, who told me that in Vanuatu, it used to be just the elders who drank kava, while the younger members of the community were expected to work. “I first drank it when I was a teenager,” he said. “I thought it was the worst taste — but the best feeling — in the world.” He added, “We weren’t supposed to drink it because it makes you so relaxed.”

I’d been introduced to the New York kava scene by James Marion Peterson, a longtime East Village resident who has just opened BarBūla, the newest addition to a growing collection of kava bars that includes Kavasutra’s second East Village location, Ritual Kava on the Lower East Side, and Kava Social in Williamsburg; Ka-Vá and Brooklyn Kava have been long-standing in Kings County as well.

A crop of the Pacific Islands, kava has been used for hundreds of years for its low-key and slightly intoxicating effects. The root of the kava plant is crushed into powder, emulsified in warm water, strained, then chilled. The liquid kava, resembling an English-breakfast tea with milk, is served cold in a shell and garnished with a fruit wedge, usually a pineapple, to cut through the earthy taste and sometimes chalky texture.

Some folks liken kava to wine because, depending on the elevation, region, and soil, the final drink can have different nuances. From one island to the next, it changes, while some kava roots can take three to seven years to mature. (At Kava Social in Brooklyn, they offer one root from a volcanic island in Fiji, which has a darker soil and is harder to procure, lending the kava a deep, rich, full flavor.) Of course, the biggest difference between wine and kava is that only the first option contains alcohol.

Peterson, and drinks, at BarBūla. Mark Abramson.
Peterson, and drinks, at BarBūla. Mark Abramson.

I stopped drinking four years ago, while on sabbatical from downtown New York City, when I moved to Savannah, Georgia. Had I known about this earthy antidote when I was quitting booze, it would have helped ease the cravings. Now that I’ve moved back to New York, some of the people I meet at kava bars are recovering, but this isn’t the focus at the bars. For me, the kava itself isn’t so much the focus either. Instead, it’s the mix-and-match quality of the crowds. New York bars can be predictable, usually attracting folks from the same socioeconomic background, ethnicity, or sexual preference. What’s most appealing about the kava bar is that it’s always a mixed bag — the witches summit hangs with the Wall Street guys, the billionaire chats up the local teens (you need to be 18 to enter a kava bar). At kava bars, I’ve found rappers, tech guys, and dancers.

The Saturday night after New Year’s, I went to East Houston to check out BarBula, Peterson’s new place that had just opened to friends and family. BarBula, like Kavasutra, is skinny and intimate. But in marked contrast to Kavasutra’s tropical theme (borrowed from its Florida headquarters), BarBula feels like old-school East Village.

The skinny space glowed with candles, crystals, and phosphorescent bulbs; “Season of the Witch” by Al Kooper played over the speakers. Local artwork and a guitar were hanging on the walls.

I slid onto a seat at the bar, and Peterson handed me a shell of his kava, which he makes himself. It was smoother, and less earthy, than some other kavas I’ve had. You’re supposed to shoot it, but I drank it slowly. Soon, I had a warm head, and I was feeling more chatty than usual, though I was still completely alert, which is a different feeling than alcohol. I swayed with the music.

An 18-year-old named Jack Miller came in. He told me he had recently moved from Palm Beach to Clinton Hill. Miller said he’s trying to get his brother, David, who prefers alcohol, into the kava community. “I like weed, kombucha, and kava — David thinks I’m more natural.”

Not long after, a Marine and his date walked in. The Marine, 23, said the old local bars are still the hidden gems of New York, tranquil places that allow you to talk to your friends, locals, and strangers. Gentrified bars blast music and don’t give you a chance to think, but, the Marine smiled, “This kava bar gives you the chance to explore both worlds.”

Peterson took a sip of his own kava. “I want to create a friendly space — where people can hang out, be peaceful, talk, play games — that doesn’t involve alcohol,” he explained. “When people aren’t drinking, and are still coming together in a social context, amazing things can happen.”

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