First, Do No Harm
"Look, Rhumba was never a restaurant that I was fully, culinarily happy with."
That's Dave Query telling me this. Dave Query, owner of the now defunct Rhumba (above), of the very much funct Lola and Jax and West End Tavern and Zolo Grill. Dave Query, who I took to task years ago for what I saw as the failings of Rhumba -- a sort of quasi-Caribbean bar and restaurant at 950 Pearl Street in Boulder that was ridiculously popular among a certain segment of that town's drinking and dining demographic but served food which I felt was being done...less than perfectly.
"For a place that bills itself as a Caribbean restaurant," I wrote in my review, "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."
Query took issue with that review, and references it again now. "And you know, some of the criticisms you made -- and some that other people have made? We were never really able to fix those..." he pauses. "We had to make a choice between, like, making little changes, little improvements that no one noticed or making one big change."
Query chose the big change. He's called to tell me that Rhumba is closed -- has been closed, actually, since February 7 (the day after Bob Marley's birthday, for which Rhumba threw one last big party). And I think it might speak to how far Rhumba had slipped off the culinary radar that I hadn't even heard the place had been closed for almost a week and a half. No one had.
"I guess we're owning our culinary shortcomings," Query says, laughing. "People were all like, 'Fuck, dude! Why'd you close Rhumba?' They'd say it was their favorite restaurant and whatever. And I'd ask, 'Yeah, well when's the last time you ate there?' and they'd all realize how long it'd been. Sometimes you gotta just ask those questions."
According to Query, Rhumba was still doing good business. It was still making money. But most of that money was coming from the bar. "And I don't wanna own a bar, man," he says. "I want to own a restaurant. If it's a restaurant that's doing a huge bar business, all the better, but I don't wanna own a bar. You know, when we first opened, we had the first mojito in town. Maybe in the state. Now you can get mojitos out of a fucking Slushee machine."
Mojitos. On its busiest nights, Query says the bar was pouring 600 of them. Six hundred mojitos. That's not counting margs, beers, all the other drinks. Just mojitos. And on the worst nights, the guys in the kitchen were just standing around doing nothing.
"If there's a silver lining to this at all, " Query adds, "it's that the food was getting better before we closed it."
But I disagree. If there's a silver lining to this, it's that Query -- a serious veteran owner who somehow managed to be, at the same time, the owner of some of my favorite restaurants in the area and one of my least -- is one of those guys who never gives up. He's smart, he knows food, he knows the business. He can read trends probably better than any other multi-unit owner in the area and, most important, he knows what people like. Hence, the new concept scheduled to open in the former Rhumba space on Monday, April 2:
"Centro Latin Kitchen and Refreshment Palace," he tells me, giggling like a kid trying to get through a dirty joke without blowing the punchline. "You like that? Yeah, we decided let's have some fuckin' fun this time."
To that end, he's done something strange for a guy who claims not to want to own a bar. He brought in Jim Meehan, the bar manager from Gramercy Tavern in New York who just finished writing a whole book on nothing but the art of mixing cocktails, and had the guy hang out for three days to do nothing but inspire the bar staff. His mission? To teach the bartenders to think like cooks, to explain to them the importance of creativity, integrity of ingredients and "the old art of really crafting a cocktail," according to Query.
"It's not enough to knock fifty cents off a glass of pinot grigio and call that a special anymore," he notes. "There's got to be something more."
And now, there will be. Query bought a special ice machine for the new Centro bar that'll make him big, old-fashioned ice cubes—an inch-and-a-half by an inch-and-a-half. "Real rocks," Query says. There'll be a focus on classic cocktails, a return to jiggers and perfect pours, juices hand-squeezed to order—which is just flat-out fucking insane in a place that will, once again, have the potential to do, say, 600 mojitos in a night, but Query gets that and insists that he and his staff are excited by the opportunity to do something not just quickly, but well.
And the menu? Seven days a week, lunch and dinner, with a focus on simple Latin and Central American fare with a heavy accent on the Mexican tradition. He's got Ian Clark in the kitchen -- the chef who closed Rhumba, a former sous at Jax, ex of Q's, already all up in chef Jamey Fader's business at Lola, picking his brain and (hopefully) stealing all his best tricks—and a plan for revamping the feel of Latino cuisine.
"Soulful Mexican," Query says, explaining that there will be no weird fusions, no cheating, no trying to cram luxe ingredients into peasant dishes (no lobster tostadas, no enchiladas with truffle sauce). Also, nothing over fourteen bucks. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.... He keeps hitting that note, over and over again. A return to what's best about south-of-the-border cuisines. And when he starts talking about the food, I can hear the passion rising in his voice, the belief (finally) in what can be done in this space, with this kitchen, for Boulder and Query's own legions of fans. At the West End (where the food was always simple, honest and good and might, looking back, represent the genesis of the change that's come over Query's thinking), the bartenders are hyping a return to the art of the classic cocktail. He's got Clark on board and Fader at Lola singing the same tune on the new menu that just dropped there Thursday night.
"There's all this shit with, like, trying to make a relleno better," Query says. "But why do that? Fuck, let's just make it good and stop right there."
Hallelujah. That's the smartest thing I've heard a chef say all year. -- Jason Sheehan