Though often considered the northern-most city of the Caribbean, New Orleans lacks in its offerings of traditional island fare. While there are several Cuban restaurants in town, we are somewhat deprived of the creole cooking representative of areas such as Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Both New Orleans creole and Caribbean creole cuisine share the heritage of European colonial and African influences applied to locally available ingredients: beans, rice, peppers and seafood find their way into heavily-seasoned and long-simmered soups and stews in both of these earthy peasant cooking traditions.
Differences stem from the particular European influence, some ingredients indigenous to the islands and not to Louisiana, and the economic development of each place.
While the French laid their permanent stamp on our culture and cuisine, the British lords of the islands were not so gastronomically inclined. As a result, Caribbean food is purer in its ethnic origins and organic essence, and retains more African influences.
It’s almost comical to think of New Orleans as economically developed, but compared to the other cities of the Caribbean, we look like an epicenter of commerce. Through trade and an economy somewhat tied to U.S. came the availability of more imported and exotic ingredients, a more highly educated population, a constant flow of outside influences, fancy restaurants and food critics. Our humble cuisine was well on its way to becoming “haute”.
Several ingredients foreign to this area show up in Caribbean food. Coconut milk, field peas rather than red beans, conch, goat, allspice, and lime juice all maintain a high profile.
Still, both are basically soul food, hearty and flavorful, and reflective of a sensual, laid-back and fun-loving culture. After all, there’s not that much difference between “Where y’at, man” and “Wha’ happen mon.”
Last month, while cruising through Woldenberg Park during the French Quarter Festival, I spotted a booth offering Jamaican jerked chicken. Thinking of the upcoming Caribbean issue of OffBeat, and surprised to find the restaurant behind this booth to be Margaritaville, I left the festival and went the few blocks down Decatur to the restaurant itself.
Housed in the former Storyville club, Margaritaville strikes one as a big airy urban beach house—doors opening to both Decatur Street and French Market Place, affording a pleasant crossbreeze, vinyl tablecloths stapled to the underside of the tablecloths to prevent them from moving around, and very sparse decor (less Jimmy Buffett presence than I had anticipated).
Unfortunately, the jerked chicken was not on the menu, just a special for the festival. Several other Caribbean items were featured, and I tried them all.
The Bahamian-Style Conch Chowder ($3.25/3.95) was passable—like a slightly peppered tomato soup with some chunks of conch and potato floating around. Another appetizer, the conch fritters (5 for $4.50), were a little more exciting. Though a little tough on the outside and a bit doughy inside, they were well-seasoned, crisp and tasty. They are served with cocktail sauce and an interesting lemony yellow mustard sauce.
Listed under sandwiches and cheeseburgers (in paradise, of course), was a conchburger billed as a Caribbean shellfish favorite. Deep-fried, greasy, salty and composed mostly of breadcrumbs, it’s served with an insipid tartar sauce and the whole thing at best is of fast food quality. Even a stiff dose of the excellent Matouk’s hot pepper sauce only rendered it marginally edible. At $5.95, you would do better ordering another Margarita.
The highlight of the island offerings here is the side order of Peas and Rice. In the Caribbean, beans (usually field peas or crowder peas) are served mixed with rice rather than having the beans served on top of the rice. The dish here was quite good, well seasoned yet not overly peppered, and served piping hot. It’s the bargain of the menu—$2.95 and almost a meal in itself.
Searching through the telephone book and every local restaurant guide I could find, Palmer’s Jamaican Restaurant was the only Caribbean restaurant to surface. Located on Carrollton Avenue near Canal Street, as soon as you walk in you know it’s an honest restaurant—its atmosphere of casual neglect renders a feeling of authenticity. Plastic tablecloths, not-quite-silk flowers, splotched sea foam green walls, and a window unit air conditioner with an unplugged cord that hangs nowhere near an outlet combine to create this U.S. mainland version of the quintessential Jamaican dive. The paintings on the wall all hang crooked and lack any coherence of theme, except for the two framed Bob Marley posters—one color, one black and white. Dim overhead lighting ties it all together.
Lunch at Palmer’s is quite reasonably priced, and the selections cover all bases. Five appetizers and nine entrees are offered. The Jamaican Pepperpot soup, at $2.20 for a substantial small serving, revealed itself as a thick, spicy, cafe au lait-colored chowder type dish based with a rich seafood stock and containing bits of fish, chicken, carrots and potatoes. Less exciting was the Shrimp Betty—sauteed shrimp in a rather sweet, relish-like sauce and served over buttered fettucine.
As an entree, the Creole Flattened Chicken ($5.20) was a boneless breast pounded flat, egg battered and sauteed. Not too spicy or distinguished, but well prepared. The Jamaican Jerked Fish ($7.50), a filet of shark marinated in a concoction of hot peppers, pimentos, allspice, and lime juice then sauteed and served in a sauce of tomatoes and onions came across as well balanced and tasty. All entrees are served with seasonal vegetables—the current melange including cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers and carrots all sauteed together and served in generous proportions.
At dinner, the menu expands to include two more appetizers and a selection of fourteen entrees, and slightly higher prices. The Bahamian Chowder far surpassed the rendition at Margaritaville, and paralleled the Jamaican Pepperpot soup, though lighter in color and more seafood oriented. It was peppery, smooth and substantial with considerable depth of flavor. Very nice. The Seviche ($3.75), mainly fish, bell peppers and onions surrounding one lonely shrimp, was very limey and heavily peppered. Undistinguished.
Escoveitched fish—what a name for a menu item. It hardly sounds appetizing, and I failed to find that adjective in the dictionary. The dish, however, I would highly recommend. Lightly sauteed, delicately seasoned, and again a most generous portion for $9.50. Also recommended, for the more adventurous, is the West Indian Curried Goat ($9.00). Lamb it’s not, neither is it a curry in the East Indian tradition, but this gamey tough meat is cooked down to tenderness like a pot roast and served over rice and peas. While this entree was certainly well prepared, the accompanying rice and peas were a disappointment. Rather dry, with no hint of coconut milk that can make this dish so unique and appealing, and small red beans instead of crowder peas.
Other entrees include several fish and chicken dishes, lamb, roast pork, and a vegetarian plate of sauteed vegetables, rice and peas, and fried plantains.
Two Caribbean-influenced desserts proved interesting. The Jamaican flan bore a caramelized-looking reddish-brown exterior, and was very sweet, dense and textural inside. The sweet potato pudding resembled carrot cake in texture and color, and for the first time a British influence was revealed: this allspice and nutmeg-flavored sweet is reminiscent of an English plum pudding.
The wine list at Palmer’s is best ignored. Beers consist of a couple of locals and Red Stripe. Several fun and potent rum drinks are also available. The overall experience of Palmer’s is that of a neighborhood Jamaican restaurant transplanted to New Orleans. And in that light, it shines.