Monday, July 30, 2018

Jayme vs. Latitude 29

I beg your forgiveness for the tardiness of this post. We took a trip to New Orleans some months back, and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's tiki bar in the French Quarter, Latitude 29, was a significant destination for us. Alas, in the interim other projects demanded my attention, and I failed to write of my experience in a timely manner. I rectify that now.

First impression: Latitude 29 is a clean, well-mannered tiki bar. There are Bosko carvings on the wall. There are cabinets will all manner of tiki mugs from throughout history. Above the table we sat at were a pair of Disneyland Enchanted Tiki Room Drummers, which often go for several thousand on Ebay. The Bum has invested significant resources into this venture. Which is all fine and dandy, but what about the drinks? A bar is ultimately judged on its cocktails, and the Bum is primarily responsible for the tiki revival with his sleuthing and publishing of so many "lost" tiki recipes. I opted to start with their eponymous Latitude 29 cocktail, a mix of demerara rum, passion fruit and vanilla with orange, pineapple and lemon juices. The drink presented very nicely, wrapped in a banana leaf. I ordered it because I'm a sucker for passion fruit, and the drink didn't disappoint. It was sweet and fruity, but not cloyingly so. I liked it. It went down quite easily.

The Wife went straight for the souvenir mug and ordered a Banshee, a blend of coconut milk and banana with Jamaican rum. I'm not a huge fan of banana in cocktail, so I left it to her. She liked it quite a bit. It was elaborately garnished, the standout being a frozen coconut milk moai. For real! We've decided to totally steal that touch for the Lagoon of Mystery--I have several cocktails that would be perfect for.

I'd been fascinated by the old Pearl Diver drink for a while, and Latitude 29 offered their own take on this vintage libation with the Ponchatrain Pearl Diver. I had to try it. It came in the classic Pearl Diver glass! That was pretty cool. Less cool, I soon discovered, was the huge, spherical ice ball in the middle of the cocktail, obscured by the foamy meringue on top. The long and short of it is that there's significantly less drink here than it appears. The upside is that this is a rich and creamy drink with a very nice mouthfeel. It's a substantive drink--not too boozy, but it has a lot of body.

Confession time: I'm not a fan of the ultimate tiki cocktail, the Mai Tai. I'll drink it, but almost orgeat syrup isn't terribly appealing to my palate. Not so for The Wife. We judge tiki bars on their Mai Tai (as do many others) and she is the ultimate arbiter. The Latitude 29 Mai Tai turned out to be satisfactory in every way.

Finally, I wrapped up our visit with the original Hawaii 504 cocoktail, described as "Chinese five-spice suspended in honey and shaken with Virgin Islands rum, ginger liqueur, lime and orange." This one reminded me a little of the Three Dots and a Dash cocktail, in that it was spice-forward and not terribly sweet. It had a different flavor profile, of course, exchanging Spanish-style Virgin Islands rum for the French agricole rhum that forms the backbone of the Dash. And the Chinese spice is an exotic addition as well. But I'm a sucker for spicy cocktails, and I nursed this one for a while trying to get a handle on it.

While imbibing the beverages, we ordered the Rumaki from the menu: bacon-wrapped jalapeño, chicken liver mousse, water chestnut and sweet soy. I have to say, the chicken liver mousse was not really our culinary delight, but we picked it for the jalapeño, which almost, but not quite, overcame the bitterness of the mousse. While the cocktails were uniformly top-notch, the food menu came across as somewhat pretentious. And that brings us to the bar itself.

When I go to a tiki bar, I'm looking for an immersive experience. Latitude 29 fell short in that category. It had all the right touches, they were just... spare. There were windows that opened onto a fountain courtyard. The entire escapist fantasy element that defines tiki bars was lacking. I don't necessarily blame the Beachbum for this. From what I understand, he was trying to open a tiki bar in NOLA for years, and faced constant frustration by not being able to secure the desired location, or necessary permits, or necessary investment backing. When he secured this prime location in an upscale hotel essentially at the entrance to the French Quarter, well, he had to make some concessions. I won't dismiss it as "tiki lite," but really, it feels like a tiki bar that is designed to appeal to a non-tiki clientele. And that's what they have. Our server launched into a spiel explaining what tiki is, and the role Beachbum Berry had in its revival before realizing we were tiki people and were already well-versed in the history of the culture. We watched other people come in over the next few hours, and none of them had any clue about tiki. That's the thing--it can't be a purist tiki bar because that's not the people it attracts. It has to cater to random tourists that come in from the French Quarter and maybe, just maybe, introduce them to the historical predecessor to the craft cocktail scene. Financially, with the rent they must be paying, it didn't make a lot of sense to invest a hundred thousand dollars into a cluttered, enveloping aesthetic when a spare, tiki modern approach would serve just as well. And it does. Latitude 29 isn't the tiki bar I'd aspire to open were I someone intent on opening a tiki bar. At the same time, it is authentic, and the service and cocktails are all top-notch. It was good enough for us to scratch our plans to check out Tiki Tolteca around the corner in order to hang out a while longer, so they must be doing something right.

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