TNT Diner

Tea-infused whiskey, sherry and handmade pasta on menu at En Rama, from former owner of Hilltop Kitchen

The Number 1 at downtown Tacoma’s En Rama is a tiki-esque drink made with two kinds of rum.
The Number 1 at downtown Tacoma’s En Rama is a tiki-esque drink made with two kinds of rum.

It’s easy to miss En Rama, Tacoma’s newest cocktail lounge.

The intimate 25-seat space lacks a sign. To find it, look for the door marked 220 just beyond the A Street entrance of Court House Square (it used to be called the Old Post Office building).

The latest project of Chris Keil overlaps with his former cocktail haunt, Hilltop Kitchen, which also existed without a sign and also offered a clever assortment of cocktails and cocktail nibbles aimed at the 21-and-older crowd.

Keil was ahead of today’s cocktail trend nearly 10 years ago when he started blurring the lines between kitchen and bar. He created tinctures, housemade sodas, drinking vinegars and botanical syrups for his flavor-drenched drinks.

His latest endeavor opened April 27 and sinks into unknown territory in Tacoma — sherry, which is quite fitting considering the restaurant name is a nod to a style of sherry. It’s not the only focus of the menu, but a number of the drinks on the opening menu feature the fortified wine as one (of many) components, plus an abbreviated list of sherry by the glass. There’s mezcal and gin, two of Keil’s expertise areas. Botanicals and teas play a role on the menu, as they always have in Keil’s cocktails.

Keil hired a chef, known in Seattle food circles, and Tacoma’s best pastry chef to produce the cocktail and dessert menus. That’s reason alone to get me in there.

Here’s a first-bite look at En Rama. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month.

The space: Tacoma has no shortage of great, old buildings and Court House Square fits that mold. Wood paneling winds around the room with its tall ceiling and oversized windows that flood the space with daylight. At night, pendant lighting casts a moodier haze. A kitchen is tucked behind a half wall at the rear of the space. Two- and four-top tables crowd the L-shaped nook opposite the bar seating. A few high- and low-top tables flank the entry.

The cocktail menu: Expect drinks to change with the season or Keil’s whim, but the opening specialty menu included eight cocktails ($10-$12) listed by number rather than the lavish names of his former Hilltop Kitchen and Marrow.

The names might be simple, but cocktails are the same complicated alchemy: mezcal, manzanilla sherry with yerba mate (a South American botanical brewed as a tea), sal de gusano (agave worm salt) and lime comprise the Number 2 ($10). The Number 5 listed Keil’s housemade tonic, pisco, sparkling rosé and absinthe ($10).

The Number 6 looked slightly more simple with gin, orange bitters and genmaicha (brown rice green tea). Notice a theme? Wine, sherry and botanicals play well with the flavors.

The sherry: Find sherry on tap, Aurora manzanilla sherry ($4) and others by the glass, including Valdespino and moscatel sherry ($6-$10).

Happy hour: A handful of simpler cocktails priced $6, including an Old-Fashioned, daiquiri and “gin and juice.”

No booze: Always appreciated, a menu of drinking vinegars, house sodas and other non-alcoholic drinks that go well beyond boring club soda ($4).

Drink: The Number 1, a tiki-esque rum drink (heavy on the rum) with a mix of overproof and brown-butter-infused Jamaican rum, butter cordial, amontillado sherry, lemon, grated nutmeg and a bit of aquafaba, which is, strangely enough, the leftover liquid from canned beans that lends a frothy fluff to the drink (don’t ask questions, just drink it), served in a rocks glass with chunky ice ($10).

The Number 7 combined Keil’s famous slap-you-in-the-face-strength house ginger beer, Earl Grey-infused bourbon, orgeat (almond-rose syrup), and Czech fernet (herbal bitters) over ice in a tall glass ($10).

Number 9 was vigorously shaken over ice and served strained with a slightly frothy texture from egg white and intensely flavored with sesame-infused whiskey, maple, oloroso sherry and the surprising, but delicious, addition of coffee ($10).

Eat: Fresh pasta made in house by chef Nina McCracken, formerly of Seattle’s Spur Gastropub. The polenta, served on a wooden board with a constantly changing assortment of sides ($12). My visit found a pool of rich, buttery polenta flanked by marinara, chopped anchovies, pickled vegetables and fried capers.

The gnocchi was a small plate of dumplings in a grassy nettle pesto and threaded with toasted hazelnuts ($12). The rest of the menu featured more handmade pasta dishes, such as capellini with anchovies, chiles and lemon ($12), and cavatappi with charred cauliflower, chard, black olive bread crumbs and sultanas ($12). Small plates included charcuterie or cheese selections ( $12), and jars of marinated vegetables and other snacks ($3-$8).

Dessert: Keep your eye on the dessert menu to see what Erin Powell comes up with. She’s the former pastry chef at Pacific Grill, who recently has been working at Dirty Oscar’s Annex.

En Rama

Where: 1102 A St., Suite 220, Tacoma;

Hours: Open at 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. 21 and older only.