And Forty Bottles of Rum
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.
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.
Credit also goes to the restaurant for offering such a balanced wine list. The selection of thirty-plus bottles priced between $21 and $38 (with $5 off on Sundays and Mondays) is nicely split between giving the people what they want (Shale Ridge Merlot and Lockwood Chardonnay, both $25), giving the people something to go with jerk chicken (Conde de Valdemar Rioja, $22, and white Mittnacht-Klack Gewürztraminer, $24) and giving the people something novel--like the aforementioned Viognier ($33), an acidic white from Gigondas, an area in the western Rhône Valley very near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which offered a fascinating contrast of velvety texture and mineral taste.
I can think of a few minor adjustments that would nearly perfect Chez Bananas, and those mostly have to do with the been-there done-that rice and bean side dishes--the black beans are merely starchy and dry, and both rice sides are flinty, underseasoned, and odious. Another tip: If servers could taste the specials, they could speak of them authoritatively. Instead, the ones I asked merely volunteered that the dishes sounded good. Lastly, it would be nice to see some variation in the pork-tenderloin-and-chicken-breast sameness that pervades both the regular menu and the daily specials. If so much can be done with the one white meat and the other white meat, imagine the heights duck, halibut, or squash could climb to.
The kitchen is certainly capable of scaling those heights: I will forevermore maintain that the greatest glory a banana can hope to achieve is to be fried in dark rum and butter à la Chez Bananas, making it as rich and utterly seductive as a fireside featherbed. Come to think of it, I bet that if Paul Revere had indulged in a couple of these lush desserts ($4) instead of straight-up rum, he'd have fallen asleep in the saddle and we'd all be using pounds sterling.
PARKING UP THE WRONG TREE: Well, frost my doughnut and call me snookered: There's no Table of Contents opening in southwest Minneapolis after all. Tablehopping aficionados will remember that a few months ago I wrote that we could expect a third ToC somewhere between Lyndale Avenue and the Edina city line before the calendar clicked 2000, but no dice. "It's not happening--not there, no chance," says Bill Coy, general manager of the downtown Minneapolis location. "We had the storefront, we had everything, we were ready to invest and put in everything you need for a restaurant--the kitchen, the venting, the refrigeration--but the city did everything they could to make it not happen."
Turns out that ToC had everything in place except the wine-and-beer license it wanted, and that in order to serve you a glass of Riesling with your duck breast, the restaurant would have needed more parking than the storefront at 50th and Ewing would allow. No accommodation could be made, so now southwesters find themselves possessed of another furniture store! There are cities where people gather in their neighborhoods to eat great meals prepared by talented chefs, glad to see their friendly local waitstaff, happy to have a joint to call their own. And then there are cities where people lie on their deathbed and thank God they never had to walk a block to park. Guess where you live.
SPEAKING OF PARKING: I passed an evening recently at Redstone American Grill, the newest brainchild of the folks who brought you Champp's. And when I get done shuddering I'll tell you a little about it. Okay. But only very little. Suffice it to say that there is a large restaurant with valet parking, and it is stuffed beyond capacity with fans who sup on the saltiest, over-brined rotisserie chicken I've ever puckered through while watching sports on flat-panel televisions cantilevered over the bar. I saw one big spender perform a feat I'll not soon forget: He ponied up to the bar, laid down his cash, and insisted the barkeep fill up a couple of pint glasses with Ketel One, Bombay Sapphire, you get the point, for a top-shelf Long Island Iced Tea. Who's shuddering now?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.