And Forty Bottles of Rum

Chez Bananas
129 N. Fourth St., Minneapolis; (612) 340-0032
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 9:00 p.m. Sunday-Monday

 

How many gallons of rum do you figure you put away last year? Were it 1775, and you an average American, the answer would have been four gallons. Four gallons. Four. The U.S. Navy at the time offered recruits a guaranteed half-pint of rum per sailor, per day. Those sailors then went on to try and load cannons, jig sails, sail hither and yon, and generally free us from the British yoke. Luckily, the British navy was handing out rum rations to its sailors, too.

Daniel Corrigan

It seems that if you had sniffed around the Revolution, you'd have smelled rum on the breath of every player. Historian John Mariani, in his Dictionary of American Food and Drink, relates that Americans breakfasted on rum, and Paul Revere is said to have thrown back a couple before heading out for his big night. It must have been quite a war!

Sadly, rum's been speeding downhill ever since. Nowadays the stuff is near synonymous with pirates, shoulder parrots, and painfully sweet drinks that result in hangover headaches stronger than trade winds. Rare is the American who knows that there are nearly as many rums as whiskeys; that each rum-producing region of the globe, from Java to Nicaragua, produces its own style and flavor; and that there are even single-plantation rums, which, much like single-malt whiskeys, reflect a particular area's soil, sun, climate, and native wild yeast.

I don't know whom you can blame for rum's stunning decline, though Abraham Lincoln springs to mind. (He forbade daily hooch in the armed forces, the Confederates didn't, and that was the end of that.) I do know you can't blame Chez Bananas. Because Chez Bananas, with its list of nearly 40 house rums, does more to increase the appreciation of rum than any other establishment in the Twin Cities. Where else can you sample a glass of eight-year-old Barbancourt from Haiti's fertile Plaine du Cul-de-Sac region? Where else can you find three of the distinctive rums that hail from Jamaica's Appleton Estate, a 250-year-old sugar-cane farm on the Black River in the Nassau Valley?

Not anywhere I know of. Especially not anywhere that also vends jerk chicken, bottles of 1998 Château du Trignon Viognier, and fried bananas. Recent visits to this merry, toy-filled spot showed it to be in better form than it has been in recent memory. Owner Joe Tachovsky has been back in the kitchen as head chef these past couple of months, and the quality of the food reflects his hands-on presence.

Of the many items I tried, the best was Tachovsky's special of Sugar Reef chicken breast ($14), smothered in a chutneylike sauce of chopped bananas, pineapple, and savory spices. A potent, sweet, and fiery red coconut-curry pork tenderloin ($13) was another highlight, impressive for being such a round, well-balanced version of the sometimes acrid dish. The Chez Bananas classic of ginger- and lime-heavy jerk chicken ($11) was a lighter, more elegant preparation than I've encountered in a while--little bits of ginger and sacs of lime pulp dance in the sauce in hopping harmony. Wild mushroom stew ($9.95), a vegetarian item, was equally delicious: A hearty mushroom broth united garlicky carrots, corn, onions, and more mushrooms, the mélange enhancing a generous mound of mashed potatoes. (Vegetarians pining for pot roast: Pay heed!)

I was also impressed--nay, amazed--by Chez's salads. Bibb lettuce ($5.50) in a lime-soy vinaigrette, scattered with bits of Gorgonzola, chopped toasted pecans, and chopped scallions was freshly made, and springy as May watercress: I had forgotten how good a salad like this can be. Ditto for the Caribbean Caesar ($5.25), which I ordered with no faith whatsoever. It came with zippy dressing, fresh lettuce, crisp croutons and (hallelujah!) real, buttery, just-grated Parmesan. Even if it came overdressed the second time I ordered it, this one easily entered the pantheon of the Top 10 caesars in town.

I didn't find any appetizers to love, which was lucky, since it left me with a few extra pennies to spend on rum. Black-bean nachos ($4.95) were fine, but they featured the same underseasoned, dry black beans I dreaded finding alongside most entrées. Caribbean barbecued shrimp were merely hot, sour, and overcooked. And the appetizer version of chicken in peanut sauce ($5.50) was too much like the entrée ($11), which basically hit one earthy, peanutty, beany note again and again. The coconut-banana shrimp was also one-dimensional, mostly sweet, bland, and fruity: remove the shrimp and you'd have a sauce that would go fine with pound cake.

None of those little quibbles diminished my pleasure in rediscovering a local institution. Honestly, if you had asked me what I thought of Chez Bananas a year ago, I would have said the blush was off the rose: Service was sometimes surly, sometimes diffident, and the kitchen seemed to be stumbling. But now the restaurant appears to be past whatever midlife doldrums it was going through.

I was particularly taken with the attentive service staff and the extraordinary beverage selection: In addition to the enormous rum list, the bar serves a couple of very good mixed drinks, especially the Foosie Woo Woo ($5.75), a martini glass of lime juice, sugar, and Bacardi Light that has the same brisk, unmannered air of that Brazilian staple, the Caipirinha--and the Bacardi Light makes a good substitute for that other sugar-cane spirit, cachaça, which gives the Caipirinha its kick.

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