Fifty Dollar Dinner


photos/Hannah Joyce McCain

Rhum Food + Grog
98 Cross St., Portland

When Rhum opened in Portland two years ago, the downtown Tiki bar’s focus was on cocktails, but the food was hard to ignore: towers of raw seafood, kimchi croque monsieurs, the Big Kahuna Burger (pork patty, pineapple, crispy onions, mayo and American cheese on a brioche bun). With local celebrity chefs Jason Loring (Nosh, Slab) and Mike Fraser (Bramhall) calling the shots, big dishes prepared with quirky flair were to be expected, and they delivered — for awhile.

These days, Rhum is decidedly more about the grog than the grub (and will remain so for the foreseeable future, I was told), though a fun and filling dining experience can still be had.

Designed by a third partner, builder Nat Towl, the subterranean lounge eschews the kitschiest trappings of the style in favor of a colorful and classy vibe: Tiki-chic. But all bets are off when it comes to designing the drinks. Rhum’s cocktails aren’t complete unless there’s a crazy straw, an umbrella, plastic mermaids and/or real flowers sticking out of a vessel shaped like a skull or a statue of Polynesian gods.

On a warm weekday evening last month, Rhum’s dimly lit interior was almost empty — most of the patrons were relaxing on the bar’s small patio, the only reasonable place to be on a late-summer night. During Rhum’s weekday “Hours of Happiness” (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.), the very tasty house-style oysters (lightly dressed with daubs of pickled ginger, horseradish and white soy) are just $1 each. My companion and I split six and washed ’em down with a Mai Tai ($6) and a Sledgehammer ($7). The drinks are icy and strong, sweet but not cloyingly so, and dressed to impress. “The flower is edible,” the waiter reassured us. “I’ve seen enough people eat them to figure that out.”

Our next choice was easy. It was pretty much the only choice on the menu: the Pu Pu Platter ($24; serves two; elements also sold separately). Rhum’s version of the classic sampler plate includes hot mango chicken wings, veggie eggrolls, General Tso’s chicken skewers, short rib skewers, and a deconstructed take on crab Rangoon: crispy fried wontons with a side of crab Rangoon dip. This ingenious innovation allows you to finally get the perfect filling-to-wonton ratio with every bite!

The service at Rhum is conducted on island time. The chatty waiter took his sweet time, by which I mean he was genuinely sweet, so much so that when he finally got around to taking our order — after chatting with a middle-aged couple, seated a few feet away, about the charms of Portland’s waterfront for, like, 10 minutes — his earnest friendliness helped dispel our annoyance, and the cocktails soon did the rest.

— Hannah Joyce McCain