Jamaican without the tourist touch

March 23, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,Special to the Sun

Like many of our favorite restaurants, Carolyn's Cafe in Ridgely's Delight is tiny. Open just a month, the Jamaican restaurant brings an authentic taste of the Caribbean to downtown Baltimore.

But tourists beware: Carolyn's cuisine is not the homogenized "island" fare served up by chains like Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, but a menu of flavorful and unpretentious Jamaican home-style meals.

If your tastes run to, or are open to, sorrel-flavored iced tea, spicy jerk chicken and "rice and peas," Carolyn's is for you. Just don't go looking for umbrella drinks.

Did we say small? There is room for 25 or so at tables, another six or seven at the bar. And on a recent night, all seats were reserved for dinner. We were a little crowded, but the atmosphere is convivial and festive, helped along by the energy of Mrs. Linton, the hostess. She enthusiastically reviewed the menu for us (a must), got the drinks, set up the tables, served, chatted us up and DJ'ed the reggae tunes. Mr. Linton, a.k.a. Ras Doobie the chef, occasionally appeared at the Dutch door of the kitchen to scan the dining room. He was a vision himself with massive dreadlocks, very gently rocking to the rhythms of the music.

We were afraid that the rush of patrons would overwhelm the restaurant's staff (there is only one other person in the kitchen), but we got drinks instantly and dinner, which comes all at once, a few minutes later.

Dinner comes in two sizes, big and bigger. For $7 we got to choose an item from the "earth" group, proteins like fish, tofu, goat or chicken, and two items from the "fire" group, side dishes like steamed greens, rice and peas (spicy rice and beans, really), black beans, Ital veggie medley or cole slaw.

Ten dollars gets you an extra earth-group selection. The smaller size is more than enough for most people, but the four of us wanted to try as much as possible, so we got one $10 meal. Selections change according to availability and the chef's tastes, which is why Mrs. Linton explains the menu so carefully before you order.

Here's what we had: jerk chicken, chicken fricassee, steamed fish, curried chicken and curried goat. For sides, we had Ital veggie medley, steamed greens, plantains, rice and peas, black beans, rice and more plantains. Here's what is on the menu that we hope to have next time: fried chicken, jerk fish, curried tofu, ox-tail stew, pan-fried fish, orange chips with marmalade sauce, fish tea and mannish waters.

What? Fish tea? Well, that's a recipe that makes a good introduction to Jamaica's cuisine, as it combines the island's African, Spanish, English, Trinidadian and indigenous influences and ingredients. It's a fish broth with fish, green bananas, tomatoes, scallions and Scotch Bonnet pepper. It's rich, piquant and has plenty of heat. Mannish water is another soup, deeper, richer and featuring a wide selection of goat, ahem, parts. (We didn't learn that either soup was available until after we'd dined.)

The jerk of jerk chicken (or fish or pork, for that matter) is, first, a paste marinade of allspice, scallions, hot chilies, cinnamon (or bay) leaves and pepper, and second, a kind of barbecue process that steams and grills the banana leaf-wrapped meat all day over a kind of grid, preferably constructed from clove branches. The result is moist, fiery hot and immensely savory.

Chicken fricassee is a cousin of sweet-and-sour chicken, except with high-intensity chili peppers. Ours was delicious. The steamed fish sounded and even appeared a little colorless but was remarkably brawny, even requiring mouthfuls of rice and peas to modulate the heat.

Curried chicken at Carolyn's Cafe is a rich, complex translation of the Indian standard, with enough chili power to require all the rice or beer you can get your hands on. Our last entree was curried goat. It was mouth-watering, with an intense, earthy juiciness.

We enjoyed all the sides, particularly the plantains, which were sauteed but still firm and moist. The Ital veggie medley contained, that night at least, carrots, onions, broccoli, greens and a medley of herbs and spices.

We finished the meal with "Jus Plain Good Cake," which was a spiced chocolate layer cake (wonderful), as well as mango and double-chocolate ice creams (also wonderful). We drank spiced iced teas, Jamaican soft drinks and Red Stripe beers all through dinner. Water was help yourself, a good system for all the mouths on fire at our table.

We like Carolyn's Cafe. A lot. If you feel moved to try it yourself, keep in mind a few things: The Lintons may change the name (it's a leftover); most of the restaurant's business is carryout, lunch and breakfast for the neighborhood; it's open for dinner only on Fridays and Saturdays, and you need reservations; and finally, Irish Moss is not the restaurant's only whiskey selection -- it is a Jamaican soft drink, made from seaweed and sugar.

Carolyn's Cafe

213 Penn St.

413 Penn St. 410-752-3896

Hours: Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays for a themed brunch (Note: The restaurant will stay open later on Fridays and Saturdays if reservations are requested.)

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Prices: $7 or $10 for lunch or dinner; $5 to $15 for breakfast

Food: * * * 1/2

Service: * * 1/2

Atmosphere: * * 1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: * * * *; Good * * *; Fair or uneven * *; Poor *

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