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Rum House 

Rum and tacos highlight a restaurant navigating treacherous waters

click to enlarge Rum House serves casual Mexican favorites with a Caribbean - twist. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

Rum House restaurant styles itself as a Caribbean taqueria, which translates as a cantina with lots of rum punch and other tropes of an island vacation resort. If you're after a good meal rather than just a fruit-flavored buzz, the taqueria part of the equation is more important than the Caribbean one.

  Baton Rouge natives Michael Bouchert and Kelly Ponder opened Rum House in June. It's their first foray in the restaurant business, but they got an early boost from David Adjey, a Toronto-based chef and television personality starring in an upcoming Food Network series called Restaurant 101. Each show features Adjey coaching new restaurateurs, and Rum House is scheduled to appear in the premiere episode in January.

  The Restaurant 101 team was gone by the time Rum House opened Uptown. But sitting in the restaurant's colorful, window-lined dining room, the Caribbean-theme that informs this place is as easy to read as any film crew's shooting script. Corrugated steel awning and Christmas lights over the bar? Check. Reggae on the sound system? Check. Rum cocktails topped with more fruit than Carmen Miranda? Check. Making sure no one incinerates the jerk chicken? Better check that one again.

  Jerk figures prominently on the menu, but the kitchen does not have it down yet. It was bad enough chopped into dried, burnt bits for a taco, but at least then there was a corn tortilla to hide behind. In the entree version, jerk seasoning was present only in blotches that seemed patted over the badly burned bird. A cocktail umbrella stuck into the meat as garnish might as well have been a white flag signaling the poor chicken's surrender.

  I was ready to give up on the place after that, but the jerk fish on a subsequent visit made up for a lot. This was grilled drum, cooked skin-on in a winning style that retains much of its moisture. The jerk component still didn't make much of an impression, but a melting bulb of butter with lime and garlic gave the dish vivid flavor nonetheless.

  I didn't find any appetizers I can recommend: certainly not the $8 scoop of guacamole dressed up with mango chunks, and not the unforgivably bland Jamaican patties.

  But Rum House is on to something with its tacos. While tiny (three restrained bites will polish one off), the best pack a lot of flavor into small packages and do so in a different way than traditional Mexican tacos. Fried shallots topped appropriately chewy brisket on one, while puffy, fried mahi mahi with jalapeno coleslaw will give the fish tacos at Taqueria Corona a run for their money. My favorite taco here has a tiny dice of rib meat, tangy tomato sauce, fresh cilantro and smoky, charred poblano pepper.

  Rum House seems to attract a decent crowd, especially on game days when the place resembles a smoke-free sports bar substitute for people with kids. And already, Bouchert and Ponder have shown the smarts to play up their menu's bright spots, adding more seafood tacos and a line of sandwiches in the past few weeks. With luck, by the time Restaurant 101 airs this winter, Rum House will be ready for its close-up.

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