It was a cold night in Boulder when Laura and I walked out of Rhumba, the three-year-old Caribbean stepchild of the Jax/Lola/Zolo Grill family. The sky was silvery-gray, like old steel, with clouds hanging close over the Flatirons and a mean wind whipping scraps of newspaper, cigarette butts and crushed Starbucks cups into mini- tornadoes. The weather had been edging toward ugly when we'd ducked into the casual, island-themed hot spot for a meal that we hoped would make us forget the hard skies and chill wind, and now -- with dinner done and both of us feeling stuffed -- it was downright nasty.
Laura and I held hands. She offered me her coat because I'd left mine in the car, and got a look at my face.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing," I lied.
"You've got that look again. What did you think?"
That look. After a couple of years as partners, the girl is getting pretty good at reading me. She hates talking about movies right after leaving the theater but has no such issues with food. If she loves a place, she'll start gushing almost immediately, and when she hates one, we have to rush out quickly to make sure the front door is fully closed before she starts tearing into it. With me, it's the opposite. The first words out of my mouth whenever we leave a movie theater are always "So, what did you think?" But with restaurants, I'm taciturn. I hold my tongue, because it takes me a few hours after the last plate has been cleared to fully process what went down.
"I don't know yet," I told her.
"You're going to murder them." She darted away to throw the leftovers that we'd had boxed into the trash, then came back. "That's what 'I don't know' means."
"No. Not necessarily. It wasn't all bad."
True, it had been a bad meal in a dozen ways. But it had its redeeming qualities.
For starters, I like the space. Rhumba has an unforced funkiness, with its partially bare cinderblock walls, pseudo-psychedelic art pieces and stylized prints of Fidel and Che. I like the lacquered particle-board tables and blonde-wood-on-black-iron chairs, the sinuously curvy stone bar that fronts the exhibition kitchen, where you can sit and watch the cooks doing awful things to your dinner. Actually, I liked the whole bar portion of our Rhumba evening, including the well-thought-out wine list that's far too fancy to be paired with mediocre cuisine; the house cocktail list that may be on the pricey side ($6 for a mojito or a mai tai) but offers tall drinks mixed strong; and the servers who are at least capable of smiling and efficiently delivering a cold Red Stripe to a thirsty restaurant critic, even if they can't drop off a plate of fish tacos without poking a thumb in the salsa.
And not everything coming out of the kitchen is bad: They can cook rice. The first test laid on any rookie on his first night in a new house is to make rice; if he can't do that without asking for instructions, then he lied on his resumé and will be sent packing. But if he can -- if he knows one part rice to two parts water in a hotel pan and knows to pull that pan from the oven or steamer at just the right moment -- then he's salvageable; he can be taught the rest. And somebody back in Rhumba's prep kitchen is clearly capable of cooking rice. Jasmine rice, ginger rice, cardamom rice -- didn't matter. It all hit the plate as white and fluffy and delicately flavored as rice should be.
Also, proving that there's someone in the back who can cook more than just rice, the black beans that came alongside it on almost every plate were very good, too. They were tender and nicely spiced, kicked up with a little something (considering the atmosphere, I'm guessing rum) for flavor, and given that extra bit of attention that elevated them from another throwaway side dish to the best parts of most of the dishes. The same solicitous concern had been lavished on a pair of excellent blue-crab and halibut cakes, as well as a good, sweet cornbread with compound butter that was a welcome change from the ubiquitous sliced boule. So, yeah, someone in the house can cook. It's just a shame that someone doesn't cook everything.
It was when our second appetizer -- a selection of three salsas with thick-cut plantain chips -- arrived that things started to fall apart. The ancho-tomato salsa was fine, sweet with just a little spice, but the chipotle tomatillo had no flavor at all; it was like green water with just a squeak of heat. And while the scotch bonnet/corn version was hot, as promised, the salsa itself was old and desiccated.
The main courses suffered like orphans from a lack of attention. They exhibited none of the crab cakes' care or the attentive tuning of flavors represented in the rice and beans. Every bite showed how they'd been untended and totally unloved. There was the pressed-pork sandwich -- a Rocky Mountain riff on the sea-level Cuban sandwiches I lived on in South Florida -- made with tomato, Jack cheese and tender pulled pork on Cuban bread. Trouble was, I couldn't judge the quality of the pork through the blinding fog of spices and couldn't tell if the bread was really from a solid, lard-intensive Cuban loaf, because rather than being weighted and pressed, roughly and quickly, on a hot flat grill, this bread had just been burned.
The eponymous Rhumba curry (confusingly called "Rhumba Curries" on the menu, implying you get more than one, but you don't -- the kitchen makes it in several varieties and you pick one) was a disaster: a murky, yellow-gray car wreck of flavors poured over a miserly collection of rough-chopped veggies. There was onion and a chunk of what might have been a yam, a few cubed baby potatoes, one lone slice of shiitake mushroom and, inexplicably, some mango. I've got to assume that the mango was a mistake, tossed in by a sauté cook who was distracted by something shiny on his speed rack, because the alternative -- the thought that someone actually believed the flavors of curry, onion, mushroom and mango would go well together -- is too horrifying to entertain. And although we'd ordered the curry medium, the muddy mix was punishingly hot. It was like the kitchen was mad at us for something and wanted revenge. The only mercy was that after two bites, our tastebuds were too stunned to taste the mango.
We fled before the dessert menus came out.
That was a wise move, I realized as my second Rhumba meal was winding down. This time there was snow in Boulder -- lots of it -- and I'd braved the blizzard to meet my friend Sean, another ex-chef, for drinks and a coup de grace tour through those corners of Rhumba's menu that I hadn't yet explored. And I did make a surprise discovery: For a place that bills itself as a Caribbean restaurant, Rhumba can do a great job of mimicking all the worst aspects of bad Chinese food. I understand that Caribbean food is rife with culinary influences from all over the world. French, Indian, African, even Chinese cuisines have been introduced into the swirl of taste and flavor by centuries of contact and colonization. But influence is supposed to be a good thing, and unless someone wants to argue that there's some heretofore undiscovered down-island colony of itinerant strip-mall Chinese takeout cooks who are silently shaping the future of tropical cooking, this was not a good turn for Rhumba to take. Sure, the kitchen still managed to burn a few things, and the volume knob on the spice palette was still stuck on eleven, but the gloppy, sickly sweet influence of nasty Americanized Szechuan was something new and terrible that I hadn't experienced before.
We started with pork dumplings in a sweet-and-sour glaze. The perfectly done skins were soft and chewy, the pork filling savory enough to balance the light glossing of sauce, and while they would have been right at home on the Lucky Panda super buffet, they weren't exactly a tropical treat. Conch fritters came next, fried to a golden brown, slightly heavy on the bread and light on the conch meat, but comforting in their blandness. Still, that bizarre Chinese influence continued, with polka dots of hot mustard speckling the lip of the plate and a side of red-pepper sauce that might as well have come in a plastic packet alongside the soy and plum varieties. The fritters did work as bar food, however: more creative than potato skins, yet gentle enough to sit easy on a bellyful of shooters from Rhumba's artisan-rum menu.
Our waitress had vapidly described the conch chowder as conch meat in a spicy tomato broth with potatoes, calling it "yummy" in that way that lets you know she's never once tasted it. Anyway, she was wrong. It wasn't yummy, it was burnt -- a classic bottom-of-the-pot portion with a low note of char, a top note of bottled, dry herbs, starches that had gone filmy from too much time on the heat, and conch meat ground as fine as fish food.
The special that night was fish-and-shrimp tacos, which came with fat chunks of really nice marinated fish and a scattering of grilled onions and greens, all ruined by shrimp that tasted like it came out of a chlorine bath. On the side were more rice, more beans, and yet another miracle of East-meets-West fusion: a mango and blood-orange fruit salsa that the kitchen had somehow made taste like the gooey sauce you get with takeout.
Finally, we had a generously cut and otherwise well-handled fillet of Colorado Natural beef over mashed boniato (a white-fleshed Cuban sweet potato), napped with a tamarind something-or-other that was either an excellent mole, a fine hoisin, a passable chutney or the world's strangest demi-glace. The meat was topped with three undersized stalks of smoky grilled asparagus that offered both crunch and flavor, and touched by an Argentine chimichurri that gave everything a final garlic kick.
We should have quit with the fillet, but we didn't; instead, we plowed into a dessert course straight out of the pie case at Denny's. First, a slice of coconut cream that was merely ordinary, although strangely set in an Oreo crust. Second, a coffee-ice-cream-topped chocolate-macadamia-nut tart that was too dense, too stiff, too sickeningly sweet for anyone but a hyperactive toddler to enjoy. Like the coconut cream, it came on a plate that was crisscrossed with fat stripes of dark chocolate and watery caramel.
Shoemakers -- that's what Sean likes to call chefs who are simply going through the motions of cooking without displaying any of the blood, sweat and passion that make great food. And that's exactly what Rhumba's kitchen is doing: making shoes. The cooks here are more assembly-line workers than artists, more bookkeepers than poets. They've got the basic trick of kitchen work down -- they can move tables and they can cook the numbers -- but there's no love in what they do. It shows in the dining room, it shows in the disaffected service, and, most important, it shows on the plate.
By the time Sean and I waddled out after our meal -- feeling bloated, which is no way to feel after eating Caribbean food -- the snow had picked up dramatically. He took off in one direction to hitch a ride up the canyon; I walked off in the other to find a drink. And in the snow, I realized what bothered me most about Rhumba. While some places have the magic to transport you to strange latitudes -- be it the Lower Keys, the Left Bank in Paris or the banks of the Mekong River -- not once during either of my meals there did I forget for a second where I was: at the foot of the high country, with a storm blowing in.
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