The Iberian Rooster, a newish restaurant in St. Petersburg, bills itself as "colonial Portuguese fusion," and those three words, strung together and without proper historical context, appear to have been lifted from a Portlandia sketch.
I've never brushed up on my Portuguese history, but now I know that Portugal once held colonies in three continents. That explains the menu at Iberian Rooster, which, as the restaurant's website explains, is based on "the culinary cultures of Mozambique, Macau, Brazil and Goa."
It's unquestionably interesting stuff, and the menu — compiled by owner/opera singer Russell Andrade and chef/ska band Magadog frontman Ed Lowery (still not a Portlandia sketch) — is entirely unlike any other in town.
But the food is only part of the story. Iberian Rooster also has an inspired cocktail menu, as well as a basement-level lounge setting in which to enjoy it.
While the upstairs dining area and bar have the benefit of an expanded menu — including several barrel-aged cocktails and a handful of hilariously described "extreme" cocktails for the shameless drinkers among us — the downstairs lounge, or Sub-Central, has a great late-night speakeasy vibe, with the advantage of being literally underground.
Sub-Central is open until 3 a.m. nightly, and even with this knowledge, it feels seedy walking through a clearly closed restaurant after-hours and descending a staircase into a lively room of antique furniture, live music and flowing cocktails.
Many familiar cocktail bar accessories are present: caged-up Edison bulbs, row upon row of exotic amari and liqueurs, house-infused syrups in funky vessels (Erlenmeyer flasks, in this case). There's a small stage near the foot of the stairs, with a baby grand sitting beside it. I'm told the intent is to have piano accompaniment to the occasional silent film screening.
It's all very romantic, but let's get down to business. There is a small but reasonable selection of beers to choose from, as well as a very nice wine selection. The cocktails include many classics, as well as several house creations, which have no trouble standing out.
Example: Lemongrass Is for Lovers, which features lemongrass, Thai chili-infused Absolut Elyx, charred plum and colonial spice syrup, lime and a lemongrass lime wheel garnish. If you had any expectation of the cocktail menu as an afterthought to the food menu, forget it.
I don't want to focus too much on the specifics of the cocktail list because I'm going to insist that you go and see it yourself, if just for the absolutely over-the-top copy that accompanies the house drinks. This is Seinfeld's J. Peterman catalog, but for drinks (I mean that in a good way), and you really should have a look at it.
If that's not enough for you, Sub-Central even stocks a Vaportini, which is a device that allows one to vaporize spirits and inhale them, rather than drink them. By bypassing the liver, you feel the effects of the alcohol much more quickly, and it also wears off in similar fashion. Is it healthy? Who knows!
Iberian Rooster is a unique entry into St. Petersburg's dining scene, but the drinks upstairs and in Sub-Central deserve their share of the spotlight. Heck, I'd go just for the underground gin joint feel of the latter, but the fact that the cocktail program is just downright killer makes it a no-brainer.
As a final note, you may have seen Iberian Rooster in the news recently for signs in the women's restrooms regarding an "angel shot." If a woman feels unsafe or in danger (during a bad date, for example), she can order one of these at the bar. Neat gets a bartender escort to her car, rocks gets her a taxi, and with lime gets a call to the police. Hopefully no one will need to order such a drink, but good on Iberian Rooster for offering them.