June offers unusual opportunities for celebrating our Caribbean connection through festivals featuring reggae and related music. In order to get the full benefit of all this, June is also a good time to check out this city’s Caribbean restaurants as well, if you haven’t already. A trip to any of these restaurants will surely heighten your enjoyment—or as a famous foodie once said many centuries ago: “Food makes it better.” This seems especially appropriate in reference to Louisiana festivals.
Caribbean cuisine is the fare of the West Indies islands spanning from Cuba to Trinidad. To regard them as one entity would be doing a disservice to these diverse island cultures—there are some constants in the foods, but the differences are perhaps even greater than the similarities.
Some common ingredients include tomatoes and hot peppers. In fact, the islands are given credit for originally introducing these two items to western European cooking.
Ethnic influences in Caribbean cooking are notable, especially East Indian, Spanish, African, English, and French, among others simmering in this culinary melting pot. While Americans continue to “discover” and enjoy international types of cooking, Caribbean fare remains relatively overlooked. New Orleanians in particular should appreciate that it has much in common with our own Creole cuisine. Caribbean and Creole cooking are similar in that they were both influenced by many of the same cooking styles. In fact, Palmer’s Jamaican Restaurant on North Carrollton bills itself as specializing both in Jamaican and Creole dishes.
If the national trends that are now being identified continue to develop, Caribbean cooking will soon be in the spotlight. In a recent survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association measuring the popularity of ethnic foods, Caribbean was listed number eight out of 19 categories. In a similar survey conducted six years earlier, Caribbean food wasn’t even mentioned (two old mainstays, Chinese and Italian, topped the list each year and will probably continue to do so). Recent surveys indicate dining preferences are moving towards healthier and more casual culinary experiences, which also bodes well for Caribbean cuisine.
One particular type—Jamaican—is dominated by the use of seafood, fresh vegetables and exotic spices. Jamaican cooks marinate much of their food prior to its final preparation. Some of the more common seafood dishes that are prepared in this manner include Escovitched Fish (vinegar marinade) and Jerked Fish (slightly smoked and also marinated). Other culinary contributions include Curried Goat and chicken cooked any number of ways. Jamaican food has been characterized as being the ultimate marriage between bitter and sweet flavors. The use of indigenous herbs and spices helps the marriage succeed. Also, it seems that no single cooking method is predominant—probably a result of the various cultural influences. Jamaican foods are at once a study in the subtle and the complex.
The two Jamaican restaurants that we visited fit under both the healthy and casual categories. Palmer’s Jamaican Restaurant and Islander’s Paradise are both fairly typical New Orleans “neighborhood” restaurants. But as the locals know, these are exactly the kinds of places where one should start when searching for inexpensive, high quality food.
Palmer’s, at 135 North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City, is a plainly decorated, no-frills establishment that serves great food. Wisely, the restaurant’s management decided to limit the number of offerings on the menu. A restaurant cannot be all things to all people. The menu consists of five starters, nine entrees, and three desserts. The lunch and dinner menus at Palmer’s are identical except for prices. Lunch entrees average about two dollars less than the same items on the dinner menu.
The menu offers a combination of Creole and Jamaican dishes. It centers around chicken and seafood with the obligatory onions, hot peppers and fresh lime in the preparation. Many of the items are traditional Jamaican dishes. Preparation methods range from sauteing to braising and other methods of moist cooking. Several entrees, like Jerked Fish, Roast Pork and Jamaican Chicken, are marinated prior to cooking. For starters, try the Seviche (marinated fish) or either of the soups—Jamaican Pepperpot or Bahamian Chowder. Soups are a traditional part of the Jamaican meal and Palmer’s does both of their soups justice. Both soups are almost stew-like, and the chowder tastes like a distant relative of a New Orleans gumbo.
Palmer’s serves many of the traditional dishes mentioned earlier, including Escovitched Fish and Curried Goat. The Escovitched Fish is pickled, sauted and simmered. The Curried Goat, although we didn’t try it here, is served with rice and is a good example of the Indian influence in Jamaican cooking. Both of these dishes would be good introductions to Jamaican cooking.
For diners looking for milder tasting entrees, we recommend the Shrimp Joanne (fried eggplant and shrimp with a mild mousseline sauce) or Melange de Rebecca (mild chicken dish served over fettucine with a light cream sauce).
In the survey mentioned earlier, one of the criticisms that consumers mentioned most was the limited choice of desserts that many ethnic restaurants tend to offer. Normally, the choice of three desserts is inadequate, particularly for a sugar craver like myself, but Palmer’s dessert choices offer enough variation. Of the three that are offered, be sure to try the Sweet Potato Pudding.
Palmer’s, which has only been open since January, does a good job of providing the total experience of good food, relaxed service, and very reasonable prices.
Islander’s Paradise Restaurant and Bar, 2112 Elysian Fields Avenue, is an entirely different experience altogether. As the name implies, they do much more than just serve food. There is a bar adjacent to the dining room and a dance floor upstairs. In addition, they have scheduled events and specials. Call in advance to find out what they have planned for that day. When we were there they had scheduled a crawfish boil in the parking lot.
The menu is a bit more eclectic than the menu at Palmer’s. It combines Jamaican with Latin and New Orleans cuisines. They also have po-boys and daily specials. Whatever you order, you will have difficulty spending more than about six dollars a person. Most of the entrees are priced between four and five dollars and include salad and starch. What a bargain! Place your order at the window. Then you can sit and the staff will deliver your meal to your table. If you want something from the bar, you have to order it separately. If you are a beer drinker, be sure to try the Jamaican Red Stripe (named after the stripes on the police uniforms). Red Stripe is a very light, unobtrusive lager that goes well with the food, whether it is Jamaican or something else on the menu.
For dessert, there are a variety of cakes, breads and custards. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend any of them since we were not able to try them. We were told that they sold out of them the previous night. I guess that is one of the hazards of keeping your kitchen open so late. A sign in the window makes it clear that the kitchen positively closes at 3:00 a.m. Try it on one of those late nights out on the town.
There are other restaurants in the city that specialize in Caribbean food other than Jamaican, but were not reviewed. These include Miramar Restaurant on St. Claude Avenue (Honduran, Caribbean and Creole), Liborio’s on Magazine Street (Cuban), Cafe Florida on Jefferson Highway (Cuban), and Garee’s on D’Hemecourt in Mid-City, which also serves Cuban food.
Use the month of June and the Reggae Festival as your cue to visit some of these restaurants. Your eyes will be opened to a different style of cooking. Who knows? Maybe New Orleans will be responsible for introducing yet another cuisine to the rest of the country.