If you must know, rum is not — by any extent of the imagination — my drink of choice. Whether one blames the aggressively sweet quality or its uncanny ability to wreak havoc on the following morning, I usually give the sugar cane-based spirit a pretty wide berth. That said, and to my utmost surprise, Cane Rhum Bar & Caribbean Kitchen is working a special kind of cocktail magic that threatens to change all that.
Take, for example, the Instant Vacation ($12). Tasting exactly like those Gin Gins chewy ginger candies you can get at Trader Joe's, it's sweet and spicy with house-made ginger beer and a zippy finish. Imperceptibly alcoholic, plan to have a spotter cut you off as this could prove a slippery slope.
The same cannot be said for the Zombie ($12), which is strong. How strong? Well, as a word to the wise, do not allow the straw to dredge from the bottom of the glass lest your eyeballs roll back into your head and you question what is in your mouth. Name-wise I'd say they nailed it. The limit on catatonia is one per person, which sounds about right.
The Mojito ($12) sticks with refreshing tradition, but it's made with both fresh mint and a mint bitter, which adds a delightfully crisp Peppermint Patty-esque finish to each sip. These are rhum masters, indeed.
The bones of the former Big John's Tavern are still recognizable, yet the space has undergone a stylish remodel. Relentlessly festive and fun, this is no kitschy tiki bar. Tropical, yet polished there's also a low-key dining area with a beachy seating. The vibe is easy breezy and the smooth-drinking cocktails only help matters along: It's hard to imagine Cane Rhum Bar developing anything but an instant fan base.
But what about the Caribbean Kitchen part of the name? Well, that depends. With 11 plates, five side dishes, and three desserts hailing from almost as many cuisines, there's a bit of a gimmicky, Epcot-style "Caribbean's greatest hits" feel to the menu.
Case in point, the stamp 'n' go ($10). A traditional Jamaican salt cod fritter, the hushpuppy-like appearance may not prepare you for the fact that the bready balls also contain red and green bell peppers, onions, and a notable punch of fiery hot pepper. Heavily drizzled with what the waiter described as "Creole tartar" (which tastes like curry mayonnaise), they're somehow both bland and punishing. Scotch bonnet enthusiasts need only apply.
At the same time, the mighty jerk chicken ($12) was expertly done and the star of the items sampled. Yes, it's also quite spicy, but here the fiery heat is balanced by the moist meat, sweet glaze, and savory char flavor. Served on a banana leaf, it's accompanied by a tart raisin chutney that further compliments the flavors.
The fried plantains ($4) appear as a garnish on a few of the dishes or can be purchased as a side. Although certainly palatable, the plantain I received was under-ripe and had been sweetened with granulated sugar. It can't be easy getting perfectly ripe plantains year-round and you gotta do what you gotta do, but maybe consider cooking them in brown sugar and forgoing the jarring sugar cube crunch?
Service is swift and competent, with the right balance of stopovers and space. The ambiance is occasionally marred by the top-volume intonations of Sean Paul, but just when things get complaint-worthy, the sound simmers back down.
Although it's good to see spicy Jamaican beef patties ($10) on the menu, this iteration needs work. The ground hamburger filling is typically soft and a little bit spicy, but the orange crust lacks flavor and features a suspiciously perfect "straight from the freezer" appearance. Accompanied by a simple green salad, some tweaks to the crust's crispness and flavor could change everything.
The coffee and brown sugar-rubbed steak ($14) needs no adjustment. Served sliced and cooked to order, this was one of the most successful dishes on the menu. The Charleston hots ($10) find three small pieces of cornmeal-breaded Mahi Mahi on a pile of yuca fries. Served with an excellent banana ketchup, this is another near-miss. The thick wedges of starchy yuca cook up to a dry, grainy texture and are then liberally drizzled in more of the creole (curry) mayo. Foam-like and about as tasteless, this could be easily addressed by a frite-sized cut and a little more time in the fryer. And while I'm doling out unsolicited advice, please consider sending the Creole mayo on the side, as the powerful turmeric flavor tends to linger.
Let's talk about my almost-favorite dish, the jumbo garlic prawns ($15). Delicious? Absolutely. "Biggest ones we could find"? Uh. Look harder. For $5 a shrimp, I expect one of those monsters that makes you vaguely worry about GMOs. Don't get me wrong, the rich, garlicky marinade pairs perfectly with the juicy crustacean. And when it arrives, the decorative magenta orchid bloom is a nice tropical touch. But it still isn't making up for the sticker shock and is maybe even part of driving prices up. Personally, you can leave the flowers off, so long as there's some kind of adjustment to the price point or quantity.
In short, Cane is a hip, charming space with great rum-based cocktails and a genial vibe. Stop in for an inspired drink and a creative plate or two, but maybe hold off on making a whole meal of it just yet.