Authenticity can be a fraught notion in the dining world, with so many different and subjective standards, but it can seem almost antithetical when applied to Tiki.
An all-American, midcentury mash-up of South Seas imagery, souped-up Caribbean rum punches and quasi-Cantonese cooking, from the start Tiki had about as much reverence for cultural fidelity as a B movie or a theme park ride.
But that doesn’t mean Tiki can’t have standards, and with Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, New Orleans is now home to a treasure chest of the tastes and attitude that first made Tiki so popular, curated by someone uniquely qualified for the task.
Beachbum Berry is author and historian Jeff Berry, whose research into Tiki’s golden eras enabled the current revival for the style now playing out across the country.
He and his wife, Annene Kaye, opened their own bar and restaurant in the French Quarter’s Bienville House hotel with an approach that is high-concept, though not highfalutin, playful, but still anchored by a pride of craft.
That starts before your first whiff of rum. The design at Latitude 29 is a mosaic of carved wood, bamboo, thatch, hut-shaped booths and hanging glass floats, an essential act of Tiki scene-setting that draws a line in the sand between the outside world and this created one.
If Tiki originally channeled an island fantasy that never existed, today’s wave adds the wistfulness of those who really did experience its earlier glory days.
It’s a unique backdrop for Latitude 29, one simultaneously loaded with nostalgia and wide open for invention.
So the bartenders, led by Steve Yamada, work recipes from Berry’s historic repertoire and present new iterations for field trials during happy hour (3 p.m.-6 p.m. daily). And for a modern take on Tiki food, Berry tapped Chris Shortall, a chef who came up through fine dining — though he made his name serving barbecue at the Mid-City bar Twelve Mile Limit.
His Latitude 29 menu is Asian-inflected, starting with an array of dumplings but then moving immediately into oddities like his dumpling burger ($8), with a patty made from a loosely ground pork dumpling filling on a crusty bun imbued with seaweed for a mild-roasted, nutty flavor. Bite into the Pang wings ($12) and under the panko crust and first taste of chicken there’s a buttery stuffing of chicken thigh meat as rich as pâté.
The duck ($29), beautifully crisp, has Southern-seeming sides of grits and mustard greens, though miso cuts through those grits and ginger duels with garlic in the greens. Loco moco ($15) is hamburger steak with an egg over rice with a dark, thin, salty sauce, which sounds plain but delivers an intense flavor thanks to slivered shiitake mushrooms amping up the umami factor.
The changeable steak frites — a rare, well-crusted rib eye cap when I tried it ($32) — gets a dose of “black magic sauce” that looks like gravy but tastes like black pepper and garlic steeped in soy sauce.
Pork ribs, cut into short nuggets for an appetizer ($12), glisten and stick to your teeth for a sweet, fatty chew. When it all seems too heavy there’s raw vegetable poke ($8), a meatless carpaccio of peppers and corn over a bed of pistachio whipped into a creamy-tasting, hummus-like puree.
The menu’s shortage of seafood is disappointing and defers a lot of potential given local resources and the creativity of this kitchen. As it stands, there’s a sort of shrimp Rangoon, what amounts to a basic Caesar salad with fried calamari and not much else.
The dessert list is short and straightforward (chocolate wontons, a key lime pie crossed with almondy Mai Tai flavor) though you might just save your sweet tooth for another run at the drinks list. Most cocktails here are at least mildly sweet, but not overtly sugary, and the flavors are layered, oftentimes changing from first sip to finish.
Presentations and recipes are equally elaborate, as seen with the Hawaii 504, sweetened with honey steeped in Chinese five spice, or the navy grog, aromatic with allspice, chilled with a molded ice cone and flying a toothpick Union Jack. These cocktails have historical precedent, and the bartenders can share the back stories. But mostly they are tasty, potent and fun.
Take the Lapu Lapu, one of the bar’s oversized “communal drinks.” It’s named for a warrior chief of the Philippines and based on a 1960s-era recipe from the Tiki pioneer Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach, but really it’s a tidal pool worth of rums tamed by passion fruit and citrus and festooned with flowers, plastic monkeys, paper umbrellas and straws as long as opera gloves.
It’s hard to keep a straight face with a drink like this, but that’s Tiki all over. Approaching it any other way would just feel inauthentic.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.