A Taste of Jamaica in an Old IHOP
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Sure, I'd love a trip to Jamaica. Wouldn't you? Just hope your job pays better than mine. On a recent nippy night, I had to settle for recorded reggae and Caribbean cuisine in a remodeled IHOP. And, you know, it turned out to be a bit of a vacation after all.
C.C. and I are joined at Island Café by my pal Sandra, born and raised to her teens in Jamaica, and a new friend, Connie, whose mother hails from the island. We all sit in silence for a few minutes, studying the menu.
"You going to get the cow foot?" Connie asks Sandra.
"Heck, no," Sandra says. "It's too gummy."
C.C. shudders with relief.
"Now, cow foot jelly--that's good," Connie says.
I'm thinking otherwise, but Sandra intercepts my thought. "No, it's really good," she says. "Sweet. Like Jell-O. You'd like it."
Maybe, but it's not on the menu. Our server guides us through the possible choices, and we decide quickly. Oxtails ($11.25) for Connie, escovitch fish (red snapper tonight, $13) for Sandra, shrimp in a sweet and sour sauce for C.C. ($12.50).
I'm wavering. How hot is the jerk chicken ($10.50)?
"It's hot," our server says. Sandra and Connie give me the look--the one that says I may be too much of a wimp to handle the heat. That does it. Jerk chicken it is.
Our server returns to the kitchen, then another woman comes out to tell us the management wants to give us some soup on the house because Sandra's fish will take a little while to prepare. Cups of something described on the menu as chicken-noodle soup arrive, but it's nothing like the Campbell's you grew up with. This concoction is island-style--peppery and filled with cho-cho, a kind of squash, instead of noodles. Thyme leaves and sweet carrots float in it. It's homemade, and delicious.
Island Café has a bar, but Sandra and Connie talk C.C. into joining them for a Kola Champagne, a bottled pop similar to cream soda. They insist I try the sorrel, a drink made by brewing the blossoms of the sorrel plant, filtering, then mixing in a little wine or (in tonight's case) rum. It's very pleasant, not as sweet as soda, and the color is a deep purple.
Our entrées arrive with small sides of crisp, sautéed cabbage and fried, not-quite-ripe plantains, plus enormous bowls of rice and red beans. Wonderful aromas waft from the plates.
"I can smell that jerk sauce from here," Connie says. "It's going to be hot!"
I'm a little nervous, but I plunge right in. Immediately, my lips are tingling. But hey, your lips are supposed to tingle when you eat jerk, right? I grow used to the heat, and the rice tamps it down. In fact, the sauce is so tasty that I spoon my rice into it, to soak up the lively flavors.
Now Connie is jealous, because she doesn't have enough of the rich oxtail gravy on her plate to do the same. The meat itself is beautifully tender, with a robust, slow-simmered taste. Since she can't finish it all, she asks the server to be sure to add extra gravy with the leftovers. No doggy bag for C.C., though. Her sweet-and-sour shrimp, about 10 medium-sized crustaceans, are good and quickly gone. The sauce, enlivened with green pepper and carrots, is similar to a Chinese sweet-and-sour but not as cloying, and the shrimp are sautéed, not deep-fried.
Sandra has the prettiest plate, a whole pan-fried red snapper, topped with slivered carrots and onions. Everything sits in a slightly sweet orange sauce. Her only complaint is that this dish is usually served in a brown sauce. But she has no complaint at all about the firm white hunks of snapper that fall away from the bones.
For dessert, Sandra and Connie choose Grape Nuts ice cream ($3), which is just what it sounds like--the famed health cereal mixed with vanilla ice cream. I get mine served as part of a dessert called Island Fantasy ($6.50), the cereal-infused ice cream served over "black" cake, a dense, dark fruitcake made with a medley of island fruits and rum. C.C. wants a go at the rum-raisin ice cream ($3).
The Grape Nuts ice cream is just OK, our friends say. But I quite like my black cake; it's a bit heavy but is redeemed by a lovely citrus undertone. (Sandra, however, takes a taste and is nonplussed, sniffing, "Too much nutmeg.") The rum-raisin ice cream, alas, smells and tastes antiseptic, with a metallic aftertaste. Ugh.
Service is fine until our server departs midmeal, turning us and everyone else over to one apparently inexperienced young man. It's one thing to give yourself over to a relaxed island pace, but no one should have to wait 45 minutes for the check. Excluding that, we all like this place. The tropics may seem elusive this time of year, but you can at least get a taste of them here, any time of day.