Dominican Cocina Serves Up Simple, Tasty Fare
Island II Bar and Grill joins Highlandtown's Domenicano Internacional Restaurant (Cheap Eats April 26, 2006) in bringing Dominican food to Baltimore. Island II is a dark and modest affair, as much a bar as a restaurant, but with four tables set up along the window. The floors are tile and the décor is minimal. It's the kind of place that, if the food turns out to be really good, could be a find and, considering the relative obscurity of the food it serves, a new drug. The location's former resident--the Islander, which served homemade Greek food--was something of a neighborhood insider's joint, a place to decamp to after a round of bowling at the Patterson.
If everything here was as good and as interesting as a few appetizers, Island II would be irresistible. Best of all is the longaniza Dominicana, a coarse sausage fried up into dark reddish-brown little nubs. The casing is rough and crackling and it's a pleasure to eat, with the texture of chorizo and the spicy-sweet flavoring of merguez. There could never be enough of it. The kitchen is willing to add this sausage into its version of picadera, the traditional Dominican snack platter, which here include two varieties of thinly sliced chorizo, an impressive pile of serrano ham, and manchego cheese. It comes with pan tostado, light and porous bread, for making hearty little open-faced sandwiches. Awesome bar food for the carnivore, and with the television tuned into the Caribbean Series, the place starts to feel hidden gem-like.
The kitchen does a good job, too, with an appetizer of garlic shrimp ($7.95). Served with a pile of plain white rice, the shrimp are large, firm, and sweet, set off nicely by a light, straightforward garlic sauce, much milder than what Baltimoreans are accustomed to from Spanish restaurants. Impressions of Dominican cuisine, or at least as it is served at Island II, accumulate. Preparations and presentations are very, very simple. Food is mildly spiced, prepared basically, and served without garnish or other fuss.
This approach satisfied more with the appetizers than the entrées, when the food began to feel bland. Sometimes, as with a fried fish entree ($8.75), the simplicity was almost disarming. Just a good big piece of what looked and tasted like flounder, fried very directly, unadorned by so much as a lemon wedge. But it tasted fresh, and the breading was crispy and mild. The New York steak ($9.25 for eight ounces/$13.75 for 16 ounces) was similarly unadorned, but this time something did feel missing--not a sauce necessarily but some evidence of marinade or basting, something to make you want to see it again.
Two other entrées have the quality of something considered differently going for them. Here, fried chicken ($7.75) means hacked-up pieces of dark meat that are fried in oil without appreciable breading. These gnarly bits taste good, though, and fat is taken as a flavorful given. An entrée called La Costumbre ($4.75/$7.75) is the classic Dominican stew of meat (a choice of either beef or chicken), rice, and beans. It's really more like stewed meat--and this time the chicken's fattiness was off-putting--mixed with other ingredients. Sides numbered three--french fries, a soupy and mild variation of rice and beans, and thinly sliced and lightly fried plantains.
Real and rewarding adventures in Dominican dining, if they're going to happen at Island II, are probably going to happen on the specials page. The restaurant prepares one special every day but Tuesday--beef stew on Monday, goat meat on Wednesday, catfish on Thursday, pig feet on Friday, beef tripe on Saturday, and sancocho, a rustic main-dish soup, on Sunday.
No regrets, though. The prices are low and the service is sweet. Island II was minding its own business when we wandered in, and it appears to be a vital gathering space for not only a bar crowd but also for families celebrating kids' birthdays and friends catching up. That it didn't ultimately convert over a group of first-time visitors to its understated take on Dominican cuisine feels blameless. For now, it's perfect for a round of Medallas and the picadera platter with Dominican sausage.