Baltimore is a fine place to live, except for the six months each year when the weather is unbearable. At such times -- now for instance -- I'd really rather be in Jamaica, for the food, the island music and the cool blue water.
So I went to the Caribbean Cafe instead. And, well, two out of three isn't bad.
The Caribbean Cafe isn't really a restaurant. This small Federal Hill carryout offers a couple of kitchen-type tables, and you can eat there if you want, but little effort has been expended on the ambience; decor is pretty much limited to canisters of dried herbs and a map of Jamaica. And there's no set menu. A flier lists main courses, appetizers and desserts, but the day's offerings actually consist of what owner Paulette Merrills feels like cooking that day.
The pickings were pretty scanty the evening we visited. Some less-than-popular items on the flier (goat, for instance) have been exiled, most appetizers and desserts were gone for the night, and it was too hot to make soup. But we certainly got enough food for a satisfying meal, our dinners were terrific, and the price was more than reasonable.
And despite the bare-bones look of the place, it really does have an island feel. No blue water, but plenty of reggae (there is even a reggae newspaper to read while your food is being prepared), and a friendly chef with waist-length dreadlocks.
The only appetizers on hand were Jamaican beef patties ($1.25) -- not made in-house, but made in Baltimore. These consisted of a saffron-colored crust encasing a spicy blend of ground and pureed beef. These would be a good bet for an unusual picnic or ballpark nosh.
How does one describe jerk chicken ($6)? Smoky? Well, yes, but that word is too tame for the taste here. The smokiness was penetrating, almost mysterious, and had a spicy tang that takes a moment to kick in. The pieces of chicken were served with rice studded with black-eyed peas and beans, with plenty of seasoned chicken gravy to moisten the rice. A small salad, with fresh red tomatoes and a simple vinaigrette, was also included.
The steamed snapper ($7.50) featured the whole fish (minus the head) in a delicately spicy golden gravy with a curry note. The fish was firm but tender, and the seasonings accented its natural flavor. They also seeped into the potatoes, broccoli and carrots that accompanied the snapper, and vegetables have rarely been so tempting.
Although we missed the bread pudding and carrot cake, a couple of tall, refreshing glasses of "Irish Moss" satisfied the sweet tooth. This is a drink made from pineapple juice thickened by a gel actually made of sea moss. Ms. Merrills swears it's an aphrodisiac. Try it yourself; I'm not telling.
Where: 48 E. Cross St.
Hours: Open noon to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Credit Cards: No credit cards accepted.
Features: Jamaican dishes.