Nikai, despite being just up the stairs from the famed Momofuku , deserves to be known as more than a prequel to an amazing dinner. In terms of appetite-piquing cocktails and providing adequate waiting space, it does its job fabulously - but there's much more to it than that.
Its design is admittedly questionable. The Chesterfield couches, Jenga-esque wooden flourishes, and dim lighting are reminiscent of the bachelor pad of a playboy architect - out to seduce, but trying too hard. The prime real estate is supposedly located in the booths by the floor-to-ceiling windows, but I struggled to converse while drowning in one of those cushy leather-eggs. The space is clearly meant for intimacy, but any aspirations towards ambiance are promptly shot down by the noise from downstairs (how sexy can one be with what's essentially a cafeteria just steps away).
Despite its location in the most uptight pocket of Toronto (and area-appropriate décor), Nikai's vibe manages to remain laid-back, thanks to the bar staff. They're kind and attentive (not easy in such a highly anticipated space) and their drinks are impressive without being over-the-top. The menu changes daily, but has something for everyone. Suits, after a long day at work, have an array of no-nonsense spirits to calm the nerves.
Beer selection isn't so much limited as concise. Cocktail enthusiasts will be pleased: the EVAC (tequila-based, with yellow chartreuse, cointreau, and lemon, at $17) is a nice alternative for those who are tired of bourbon, but want a weightier cocktail, while the Hotel Georgia (with gin, almond syrup, orange blossom and egg white, at $15) is sweet but not cloying.
It's difficult to determine exactly what they had in mind for Nikai. Cocktail Bar , having begun as a step-up from the waiting area to its sibling Black Hoof , is a worthy comparison. Nikai's lack of a theme and distance from neighbouring restaurants makes it fall slightly short of being a destination on its own, though its unpretentiousness is refreshing. I liked the place, but it'll take a lot more than a good cocktail for people to know it as more than the glorified lobby to its gastronomic counterpart.