Montrose Bar is Offering an Inviting Tropical Refuge for The Summer

The Floridita sign at Refuge is decorated for Tropic Summer.

When Bobby Heugel and Tommy Ho decided to close Tongue-Cut Sparrow, making room for a new concept, Houston arguably lost its best cocktail bar. At first, the new bar, Refuge, didn’t sit quite right with me, but two years later, the space has become my go-to place when looking to take… refuge (ba dum tsss). Refuge has undergone an extensive makeover and debuted a tropical-themed menu, giving Houstonians a summer-long staycation spot.

Heugel was not exaggerating when he said, “We kind of overdid it, to be honest.” In three days, Refuge’s transformation was complete. The minimalist walls of the cocktail bar are now covered from top to bottom with either bamboo panels or greenery, and space around the iconic Floridita sign is adorned with a floral arrangement. Thatched roofing hangs overhead throughout the space. There are new thematic light fixtures, including eye-catching, ostrich-feathered ones that line the bar top, and every bulb in the room now has a red tint. New glassware has been handpicked for each cocktail. However, the most interesting detail might be the return of the sound system from the original Tongue-Cut Sparrow location, which plays music to match the new theme.

Macadamian Rhapsody at Refuge.
Macadamian Rhapsody at Refuge. Photo by Ryan Baker.

The first impression may feel like a tiki bar, but it is more than that, “I think it’s a more personal reflection of the work I’m doing to help Jessey Qi, our former Anvil GM, open a bar in the Philippines called Last Chance and working in that tropical climate, in addition to traveling to areas like Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean to visit producers. All these experiences are in tropical regions, so that feels like the best way to describe them,” said Heugel.

While discussing the changes, bartender Julia Miles explained, “We are still Refugee… just going on vacation.” And, that is true. Between the fun and knowledgeable cast of characters behind the bar and the drinks they are producing, you are getting the same high-quality experience.

The cocktails do a great job distinguishing the temporary Refuge rebrand from tiki with drinks like the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai, a Cafe Sua Da, Mango Lassi, and, because it is an Anvil-related place, a unique Martini

Ti Punch at Refuge.
Ti Punch at Refuge.

As is the case with the regular Refuge menu, there are a few luxury cocktails, called Excessives, which replace typical ingredients with high-end spirits. This section of the menu will cost between $26 and $32, and the uniqueness and quality of r(h)um selections alone make up for the cost. The previously mentioned Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai was my favorite cocktail. It is made with Rhum JM 2008 (an agricole rhum that will run you between $130 and $150 for a bottle, if you can find it) and an above-the-top-shelf 151. The first sip informs you that this is a high ABV beverage, but never in an overpowering way. The juices (particularly the pineapple) mellow out the cocktail, making for a boozy fruit punch.

The Ti Punch, a traditional Caribbean cocktail that is somewhat niche in the United States, typically uses daiquiri (rum, sugar and lime) ingredients, but with proportions closer to an Old-Fashioned. It is the perfect addition to the Excessives menu. At Refuge, you can choose one of the rums (typically Rhum agricole) for your Ti Punch, and the cocktail is served with a side of seasonal fruit. On the day of my visit, the options were Père Labat Single Plot and Rhum JM 2008. Each offers completely different experiences and are well worth the $32 price tag. Interestingly, Better Luck Tomorrow serves a deconstructed version in which the components are presented in separate glasses, allowing you to sample the rum on its own and assemble the drink as desired. That may work even better with such high-priced spirits. Additionally, there is a Mojito that I didn’t get the chance to try (I’m not rich), but based on the other two drinks, it seems like a safe bet if that is your drink of choice.

Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai at Refuge.
Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai at Refuge. Photo by Ryan Baker.

The not-so-excessive part of the cocktail menu has a dozen drinks, all priced at $16. A few of the favorites include the Durian Swizzle, which is currently catching the most buzz. If you are unfamiliar with durian, it is a Southeast-Asian fruit with a custardy texture and a potent aroma that can fill an entire room. It tends to inspire either love or hate. This cocktail is one of the best ways to find out how you feel about the divisive fruit. Initially, the durian flavor punches you in the face, but as the ice melts and mingles with the fruit, rum and absinthe, the flavors become exponentially milder. 

The electric-purple martini, Water Lily, with prickly pear gin, Americano Rosa and honeysuckle, is one of Refuge’s most visually appealing drinks. Slightly sweet and floral, it is also one of the simpler drinks on the menu.

Water Lily at Refuge
Water Lily at Refuge. Photo by Ryan Baker.

According to one of the bartenders, the Macadamian Rhapsody is a staff favorite. While it is one of the sweeter drinks, it has a comforting, almost velvety texture. The patron seated next to me raved about the White Lotus (I’ve only got one liver), which is like a French-Caribbean 75. The last stand out, Scotch & Coconut, is so well-executed that I wish I liked coconut. The pandan infusion takes the savory aspects of the Scotch down a few notches, and the coconut creates a smooth sensation when it hits your tongue. Also, the Scotch & Coconut has unique visual appeal thanks to a pandan leaf bowtie wrapped around a large ice cube. It also gives the drink a green hue under the red lights.

There were a few hiccups. Ca Fe Sua Da, is always a classic but, as a cocktail, it didn’t quite hit like the others. Usually, condensed milk is the perfect accompaniment to the bitter, earthy combination of chicory and coffee, but the vodka thins out both the feel and flavor, adding nothing other than alcohol content. That being said, the wooden serving tray and metal utensils add enough style that brings it on par with the other drinks.

While the drinks are great, the staff at Refuge makes the bar stand out.
While the drinks are great, the staff at Refuge makes the bar stand out. Photo by Ryan Baker.

The volume of the bar fluctuates immensely. At times it can be so loud that it becomes impossible to ask questions or speak with people near you. Also, if seated in the middle of the bar, the ostrich plumes create a barrier, making ordering a bit of a task when the middle well is not being used. Between the noise and visual obstructions, I had a situation where a bartender, after discussing a drink, never heard my order. I waited 20-plus minutes to find out they never started making the drink. 

The reimagining will last throughout the summer, allowing for plenty of time to try out all of the concoctions. While not everything is perfect, the staff works hard to get as close to it as possible. With the tropical transformation Refuge might be Houston’s best cocktail bar since Tongue-Cut Sparrow. 

Refuge is open Tuesday through Wednesday from 5 p.m. to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations are available on Resy.

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