Need a staycation? Newcomer Rum Social is a most intriguing destination now that the summer tourists have left Laguna Beach. The Coast Highway venue welcomes locals with some spiffy new digs, tropical island-inspired cuisine, and luscious cocktails. Open since April in the former home of Watermarc, the spot is a dapper upgrade to historic Peppertree Lane.
Enter from Coast Highway and a staircase beckons, though many diners are seated on the first floor, with a mega window open to the lively sidewalk scene. Dark-wood tables, brass sconces, etched-glass dividers, and sheer curtains over casement windows lend a whiff of pre-Castro Havana. Small tables provide most of the seating, though four plush booths accommodate larger parties. Upstairs, it’s another world of treetop tables, palm tree murals, and flatscreen loops of turquoise waters lapping at white sand beaches. A handsome square bar is where every drop of cocktail magic is conjured.
Despite the dissimilar settings, they share one menu. How nice that brunch and dinner menus boast dishes we haven’t seen. O.C. veteran chefs Jered Adams and Nick Herrera rule the kitchen and bar, and they’ve clearly traveled well beyond past gigs at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, Playground, and Taco María. “Caribbean” is the category Rum Social claims, but that label is both too narrow and too broad. Flavor profiles borrow from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Malaysia, even Japan. And what about those ingredients that are Basque, Vietnamese, and Chinese? You get the idea. “Tropical” is a better designation, though not exact.
Menu choices pretty much demand blurring boundaries. I suggest the sides best belong in the firsts section, as they’re all portioned for sharing. My first visit saw Hamachi crudo, sweet and sour duck leg, Haitian roasted chickpeas, and fried bamboo rice crowding the table. The duck, while flavorful, wasn’t crispy and wasn’t easy to share given it was on the bone and included a spoonful of Asian-type slaw. Squeaky fresh, the raw yellowtail’s brightness stood up to the tart citrus and Shark sauce—the sprinkling of crushed corn dust recalls a Peruvian ceviche.
Chickpeas were a logistical challenge, the roly-poly garbanzo beans on a flat plate defied spearing with forks. Chopsticks would help to share these, the crudo and the plantains, too. Billed as a side dish incorporating smoked sofrito, Uncle Ken’s Fried Rice lacked punch, but perhaps that’s the best way to showcase the jade-hued rice’s delicate flavor. I confess adding a touch of soy and Togarashi to polish off the leftovers.
Grilled prawns are overly salty on one visit but vibrant and fetching the next. Skip the bland garlic noodles and instead share the Brussels sprouts with XO sauce, crispy onions, and shiso. Roasted spiced heirloom carrots are flawless, if you can ignore the paltry portion. Caribbean cassolette, though typically a cool-weather short rib entree, was dish of the night one July dinner—a stew of tender pulled beef, white beans, and greens sloshing in a sublime braising jus. Jerk chicken is one of Jamaica’s hallmark dishes; here the leg is elevated with duck fat black beans, bamboo rice, and sprightly escabeche.
Chocolate worshippers take note: The chocolate pudding was more of a lovely caramel budino. Select gelato flavors come from colossally popular Gelato Paradiso across the alley. Cocktails are worthy of their own review. It’s clear much thought is behind the 18 signature drinks using top-shelf spirits. Retro stemware is a nice touch, and the bartenders never scrimp on presentation. If the rumor is true, I’m up for the rum tasting.
Service is too uneven to rate. On multiple visits, the hospitality was by turns careless, gracious, lazy, and accommodating. To be fair, many other restaurants on my circuit delivered similar results all summer.
Continual shuffling of dishes indicates Rum Social is eager to fine-tune the novel fare—a promising sign from this rookie enterprise. What isn’t changing is the tropical mindset and sultry setting, so keep your eye on this nearby retreat that could well become your back-pocket island getaway.
448 S. Coast Highway
5 BEST DISHES
- Hamachi crudo
- Crispy sweet ‘n’ sour duck
- Grilled prawns
- Caribbean cassolette
- RS Cuba Libre cocktail
Starters and sides, $7 to $24
Entrees, $24 to $60
Cocktails, $15 to $20
Paid parking available in rear garage on Glenneyre.