Caribbean menu offers comfort food on island time

Caribbean Paradise serves goat and reggae

Eats: Dining Reviews, Hot Stuff

August 05, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Caribbean Paradise is a small restaurant and takeout counter serving curried goat, oxtail stew and the like. If you sawed off a wall of the restaurant and plunked what was left on a sun-soaked beach, you might feel like you were in paradise, but this restaurant occupies a rather forlorn stretch of Charles Street north of the Charles Theatre.

Even without a beach or a breeze, the 6-year-old restaurant features many of the sights and sounds of breezy beach-hut restaurants, including cheerful reggae music, brightly colored travel-to-Jamaica posters, photos of Bob Marley in all his dreadlocked glory, and a glass beverage case filled with unusual tropical drinks, including Busta sodas and a murky-looking concoction called Stud Tonic.

Yet the overall effect is not particularly sunny. The interior of the restaurant is dark, and service can be spotty, even when the place isn't crowded. I'm still trying to decide if the ultra-casual service is a charming example of a quirky Baltimore restaurant operating on "island time" or if it's just annoying. I'm leaning toward the latter, but the delicious food makes up for a lot.

The menu at Caribbean Paradise is typewritten on a single, laminated page offering 11 main-course items and seven side dishes. This is a restaurant that sticks to what it does well. The overriding theme is Caribbean comfort food, with plenty of soft textures and mellow flavors.

A good example is the curried goat, an earthy mix of fork-soft, bite-sized chunks of meat and potatoes in a mildly spicy curry.

Like all our main dishes, the goat, which tasted a lot like lamb, arrived on a ceramic plate with a plastic cover, and like everything we ordered, it had some hot spots and some cold spots, probably the result of microwaving.

The plate practically overflowed with food, since it also included a sauteed vegetable medley and a serving of rice and red beans. The medley was a tender-crisp mix of mostly cabbage and red peppers, including a slice of red pepper with the label still on. The rice and beans, also mildly flavored, would have benefited from the addition of a few more beans.

The brown fish stew wasn't a stew at all but instead a whole mid-sized snapper, head cocked to the side, cooked in some magical way that left the white flesh firm but also wonderfully moist.

Jerk chicken arrived as chunks of white-meat poultry swimming in an orange-brown sauce that tasted of pineapples and hot peppers. Though this was the spiciest dish we tried, it wasn't fiery at all. Actually, there's a good chance it was barbecue chicken, not jerk. When it arrived, our server said it was barbecue. But when we said we had ordered jerk, she changed her mind and said it was jerk. Our bill later said it was barbecue.

A sign above the bar promised rum punches, but none were available the night we were there. We were also looking forward to the chocolate bread pudding promised on a different sign, but it, too, was not available, even though it was early on a Friday night. In fact, no desserts were on hand the night we were there.

We were able to satisfy our craving for sweets with a serving of the excellent plantains, which are soft but not mushy, sweet but not achingly so. A generous plate full, costing all of $1.50, arrived steaming hot, and we gobbled them down as soon as they were cool enough to tolerate.

Also unavailable, it seems, were napkins. Each of the half-dozen or so tables sported one of those metal paper-napkin dispensers, and each dispenser was empty. When we asked for napkins, we were given a single small paper napkin each.

The restaurant also doesn't take credit cards, and our server seemed a little baffled by my request for a receipt, though she obligingly wrote one up.

A good percentage of the business at Caribbean Paradise is takeout, maybe because this is the kind of comfort food that people like to eat at home. Though the restaurant isn't quite a slice of tropical paradise on Charles Street, the curried goat and fried plantains come pretty darn close to heaven.

Caribbean Paradise

Where: 1818 N. Charles St.

Call: 410-332-8422

Open: Noon to 11 p.m., daily

Credit cards: Cash only

Prices: Appetizers $1.50-$2, entrees $7.50-$20

Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

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