Rhum – Tiki to the Limit

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Rhum is the new tiki lounge in Portland, and before we get into anything else, there’s two things you need to know about it right now. The first is that it is pronounced like “rum”, not like “room”. In fact, there’s a credible rumor that if you say the name of the place while you’re there and it comes out of your mouth as room, you will be delimbed by a drunken pirate using only a spork. The second is that it’s not particularly easy to find, so here’s the best way to get there: take a right on to Free Street from the museum, when you get to Cross take a right, and if you’re walking down Cross, hug the last building on the right before you get to Spring. As you start to wrap around the building to your right, you will see a door the says “Rhum”. Yipee! You’ve made it! Now on to the story…

Portland’s only tiki bar is owned by Fifth Food Group which is comprised of Jason Loring who owns Nosh and Slab, Bramhall owner Mike Fraser, and designer/builder Nat Towl. I thought a tiki bar in Portland was an intriguing concept when I first heard it was being built, though I couldn’t decide if it would warm up the cold Maine winter or if it simply not fit in with the decidedly seasonal culture. It would be a first for this area and with nothing to compare it to, I just wasn’t totally sure it would mesh with the local bar scene.

Despite my uncertainty about the concept, I was excited to give Rhum a spin and told my wife I’d be right there after she texted me a picture of the menu she was looking at. I flew down, parked, and was able to find the place when I quite literally ran into their A-frame sign on the sidewalk. Written in chalk were the words “Welcome to Rhum. Come on in. (it’s warm)”. The combination of warmth on a frigid winter day and my wife sitting in the joint were great reasons to enter. I noticed a skull and crossbones on the floor mat at the entrance and made my way down the hall where a polite woman with a managerial manner was kind enough to card me and assure me that it truly was warm inside. After confirming that I had been 21 since nearly the dawn of time, I was allowed to enter.

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Immediately, I thought the design of entire place was ultra-inviting and cozy. The rectangular bar sat in the center of the room. The non-bar seating areas were comprised of giant U-shaped benches and comfy chairs. One bench/chair combo could easily hold 2-3 parties with probably 12-15 people total, maybe more. Within those areas were cylinder tables for each party. The upper bar trim wore a grass skirt, there were lights housed in colorful balls hanging from the ceiling, and the overall lighting was low. Seating was available, but limited; it was pretty busy for 5 pm on a Friday. I quickly found my wife and her two friends who were engaged in conversation and imbibing Banana Daqueris and Painkillers with reckless abandon. The drink containers were quite a sight to see – ceramic tiki cats and weighty metal skull barrels.

I was the driver that night, so I decided that other than trying my wife’s drinks, I would not be consuming alcohol. I relayed that much to the waitress when she approached, but still took a good look at the menu to see what was going on with the bar program. Rhum had quite a selection of cocktails available and an entire section of them were of the classic tiki bar variety. The menu quietly indicated that there were no alterations allowed to the classics. I had to agree with their stance; customizing them would be the artistic equivalent of creating a statue of Lincoln beardless and shirtless wearing a beret and shorts.

As I was looking at the drinks on the menu, I snuck a sip of my wife’s banana daqueri which was the special daqueri of the day. Sucking from the kitty container, I got some of the banana beauty. It had a dulled sweetness reminiscent of banana bread. I can’t say it was bad. I loved the subdued flavor which I imagined would make it quite possible to drink several of the fruit phenoms without feeling sugary sickness. My wife agreed and preferred that version over the ones we were more used to on vacation.

Some of Rhum’s drinks are available in bowls for sharing. As my wife and her counterparts came to the bottom of their beverages, one of them left and the two remaining drinkers considered ordering those larger concoctions. After discussion, they agreed to go with the Mai Tai for 2-3 – Mount Gay Eclipse, lime, house orgeat, rhum curaçao. The bowls were also available for 4-6 or 7+, though none of them came cheap at $32, $48, or $90. Soon, the bowl arrived and was reminiscent of the typical scorpion bowl I was used to. There was a half lime on fire in the middle and three toothpicks of pineapple and maraschino cherry garnish protruding from ceramic scorpions. I took a sip. It was a pretty standard Mai Tai – delicious and fruity – and carried a serious kick.

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With the ladies doubling-down on drinking, I was starting to get real about eating. Upon our waitress’ return, I ordered the Rhum House Salad – cabbage, carrot, ginger dressing, sesame – and we agreed to all share the Pupu Platter – chef’s inspiration of classic pupu fare – which was listed at market price. I was excited to be able to try a bunch of different foods in the platter and appreciated the Asian inspiration from which the menu was clearly created.

After what was quite a long wait, we received our pupu. We were given a brief description of what was in front of us and I immediately dug in. I started with Pork Riblets prepared pineapple char siu. I’m not a superfan of ribs, but if they’re Chinese style, I’ll dig into them without hesitation. I grabbed a sticky hunk of the boney meat and ripped off a piece. The notes of pineapple and soy sauce combined to make an excellent barbeque glaze on the tender treat with some sesame and scallion garnish adding a nice finish to the flavor.

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I thoroughly de-meated my rib and moved on to a Rhum Rangoon with dirty sauce, scallion, and garlic. My first bite was a moment of discovery as I immediately got the coconut chili sauce which provided a clear caramel flavor first and then a bit of the coconut with a hint of lime and spice. The rangoon itself was also unique to Rhum as they balanced the crunchy outer wonton with the creamy, crabby innards. There was no excess of cheese or fried dough as is often the case. I washed that down with some edemame which provided the expected experience and continued to move through the platter.

Next came a piece of Bak Kwa or Chinese pork jerky and prawn chips. The jerky was thin, light, and easy to chew. The dehydrated meat was not overly salty or sweet, but still provided the intense, reduced flavor that jerky lovers desire. The chips were nice and light with a mellow shrimp taste. Following those, I tried the only remaining untouched food of chicken liver toast with tamarind chutney, parsley, and black pepper. I took a slice of slightly crisped toast, dumped some of the pate and chutney on top, and took a large bite. The smooth, salty pate gave some liver flavor and was complimented perfectly by the sweet tamarind which added a fruity contrast that said “take me home tonight”. It was a great combination which I hadn’t really expected and had melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Post-pupu for three, the girls were ready for another bowl, fearing that any element of sobriety would ruin their evening. While deciding on what was next, the waitress came to get our dirty dishes and I asked the whereabouts of my salad which I hadn’t yet received. After giving a reminder that I had ordered one and that it was specifically the house salad, she assured me that it was still coming. The ladies followed my inquiry with a request for a Junglebird for 2-3 – Black Strap Rum, campari, pineapple, cherry bitters.

Again our wait was a bit lengthy, but we did eventually get our salad and bowl of booze. A quick sip of the drink proved that the Junglebird was even stronger than the Mai Tai as I gulped and let out a “Woo!” I felt the campari really stood out when I got a sweet, herbaceous flavor in my sinus region. As the women drunkenly engineered extra, extra long straws so that they could drink without leaning forward, I grabbed my salad and enjoyed it, particularly the thick ginger dressing which provided enough zing to flavorize the entire cabbage and carrot concoction.

I eventually finished my conglomeration of vegetables and was ready for additional sustenance. I noticed the alcohol consumption slowing and my wife seemed eager for some more food too. When the waitress made her way back to our table, we decided to go with a full order of the rangoons in addition to a Kimchi Croque Madame – béchamel, white American, fried egg – for me and Jackfruit “Crab” Salad Tostada – avocado mash, cucumber, black vinegar aioli – for them.

Once again, it took some time, but I got the rangoons along with my croque madame. The croque was made with two pieces of focaccia between which was the kimchi. On top were the American and egg. I sliced a piece and drove it at warp speed into my face. It was magnificent. Cheese and egg make anything better, but the soft bread and perfectly spicy veg gave me all the awesome I could handle. The egg was a little runny but not so much so that it was dripping everywhere, which was ideal. As I continued eating it, I just couldn’t get enough of the kimchi which permeated the dish with mild, but ever-present heat. It was an elevated egg and cheese sandwich with the perfect “salsa”.

With my croque finished and the big drink level barely changing, we all decided it was time to move on though we still hadn’t received the tostada that was ordered. We asked our waitress to close out the tab and she didn’t mention it, so I assumed that it was another forgotten item. The bill was presented in a Spam can, which is always a winning method of presenting anything to anyone. I quickly checked it for the damage. The total was about $170 with tax. Three regular drinks at $12 each and two bowls at $32 was a hefty bar bill, but I was curious about the cost of the “market price” pupu. I scanned the receipt and saw the pupu at $31. We were a little shocked and felt it was a $22-25 item. It’s unclear to me why the price wasn’t on the menu or why the wait staff didn’t relay that as they might a daily special, but it definitely would have tempered my reaction. We paid the bill and left.

Overall, the experience at Rhum was good and it has a lot going for it. The atmosphere was outstanding and they replicated a true tiki feel like I never could have imagined. The food was very good, and the drinks even better. The place was so popular that there was a significant line for seating before 6 pm and they stayed absolutely jammed while we were there. There were some issues which I imagine will work themselves out in time; the service was pretty slow and two items we ordered were forgotten, but those were relatively forgivable since they were so new and so busy. I felt the prices were high, but maybe patrons will like the atmosphere so much that they won’t care. Either way, they should make the price of the pupu platter clear so it’s not a surprise.

Rhum’s popularity isn’t going away any time soon. They are on to something that is clearly already a hit with a cold, shivering, and bundled up Portland population. I know I’ll be back, just maybe a little more aware of what I’m spending. Nonetheless, it is a fun location and will transport you – if only temporarily – to a warmer, sunnier place. You should probably go to take the chill off, especially since you can now both find and pronounce it.

Stay hungry.

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