At Nyammin's, The Heat Is On


October 25, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Nyammin's Karibe Kafe, 322 N. Charles St., (410) 783-1533. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, closed Sundays. MC, V. No-smoking section: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no.

When Deborah Reed moved to the States six years ago, she came as a diplomat to the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, not as a chef. But she had a dream of one day opening her own restaurant. (Am I the only person in America who would as soon slit my wrists as open my own restaurant?)

Last year she got married to a Baltimorean; her husband, Michael, loved the idea of their owning a West Indian cafe. She moved to Reisterstown to be with him (he's a senior manager for Federal Express) and started to look in earnest for the perfect spot -- at first around the embassy in D.C., then finally settling on 322 N. Charles, where restaurants Pacifica and the Bistro had come and gone.

Baltimore has a couple of other places where you can get Caribbean food: Braznell's on East Baltimore Street, which specializes in Trinidadian cuisine, and the Caribbean Cafe near the Cross Street Market, which has a few tables but does mostly a carryout business. Nyammin's Karibe Kafe is the most ambitious of the three, with a splashy decor, full bar and live reggae music Saturday nights. Mrs. Reed basically runs the restaurant; her husband has kept his job with Federal Express and helps out in the evenings.

The dining room and bar in back have been painted from floor to ceiling in a riot of tropical colors -- bold reds, yellows, oranges, blues and greens. Lively West Indian murals, paintings, posters and a collection of bright ceramic plates jazz up the walls (as if they needed any jazzing up!). The restaurant looks great, but it's not at all slick: You get the feeling the interior design was done on a shoestring.

The food is as explosive as the decor. The current menu is verJamaican, although Mrs. Reed plans to expand it to include other Caribbean cuisines. Many of the dishes can't be modified to suit timid taste buds -- this is the kind of food that needs to cook for long hours to mellow the spicing. Exceptions are an oxtail stew, saffron shrimp and a few dishes that are made to order: reggae rice, a stir-fry and the vegetarian rasta pasta.

But why go to a Jamaican restaurant if you can't stand the heat? Try the Boston jerk pork ($7.25) -- spicy, fork-tender chunks of meat served with vegetables and rice with red beans. It was about as spicy as I can handle, but my asbestos-tongued friend ate every bit of Nyammin's chicken ($7.25), which made the pork taste bland in comparison. She loved the flavor; we both thought the bony chunks of chicken hard to manage.

Snapper Palisadoes ($9.95), a whole fish stuffed with callaloo (Caribbean greens) was impeccably fresh, and if it had been cooked just a little shorter time it would have been perfect. The sliced peppers, onions and carrots arranged over it made for a very pretty dish.

You almost have to order a side dish or two to put out the fire, perhaps fried plantain ($2) or bammie ($2), a fried corn bread. Expect lots of flavor and lots of grease with both. Or cool your taste buds with a Jamaican beer like Red Stripe or one of the fancy tropical drinks.

Do the prices so far seem cheap? They did to us: We ended up ordering a little bit of everything and still spent under $50 for three. And dinner prices include soup and a salad (not a very exciting salad, to be sure) with a curry-mayonnaise dressing. The soup that evening was red pea, as thick as stew, with loads of beef and bursting with flavor. Too bad it wasn't served hot.

We didn't need more food, but we ordered a couple of first courses just to try them. A vegetable pattie ($1.50) had flaky pastry stuffed with cooked carrots, eggplants, mushrooms and other things I couldn't identify. I liked it a lot better than the stamp an' go ($3.50) -- although I would order the latter again just for the name. They were supposed to be codfish balls, but ended up being not much more than fried batter.

The waiter stared when we asked for decaf coffee with dessert; we backed down and had the good Jamaican blue mountain Nyammin's is proud of serving. Dessert was homemade bread pudding ($2.75), moist and plump with raisins, and dripping with a sugary, buttery sauce.

"Nyammin" means to eat heartily. "It means for you to really get down to it," Deborah Reed explains with a laugh. That's exactly what everybody was doing. This isn't fancy food, just good, hearty dishes with spicing that packs a wallop and a minuscule price tag by today's standards.

Next: The Desert Cafe

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