Caribbean Paradise 

Sumptuous flavors and delightful hosts make dining at Richmond's Caribee Island Cuisine a pleasure.

Darryl Douchand never planned on opening Caribee Island Cuisine. The Trinidad-born chef, whom Berkeley diners may remember from his days at the helm of Caribbean Spice, was simply looking for a permanent kitchen space for his catering business. He finally located a corner storefront in a tiny strip mall in Richmond on the border of El Sobrante. Passersby started knocking on the door, though, asking him if he could cook something for them. Soon he had a one-item menu. Then two items. Before he knew it, he was running a restaurant again.

That was a year ago, and tiny, friendly Caribee Island Cuisine is just starting to feel settled. The restaurant is a great place to indulge your passion for goat curry and oxtail stew. Just stay away from the jerks.

Caribee's menu isn't huge (you could fit it on a postage stamp if you wrote real small), but Douchand adds to it with a couple of nightly specials, like honey-pineapple jerk ribs and saltfish and ackee. Without departing from tradition -- "Good thing this is a Caribbean restaurant, because Caribbean food is the only kind I know how to cook," he jokes -- Douchand isn't afraid to play with his food.

He comes up with New Caribbean dishes like the coconut-shrimp fritters, crusty cornmeal blobs the size of golf balls. Split them open, and the steam floats up from the pillowy yellow center, carrying with it herbs, shrimp, and the faint sweetness of shredded coconut. On night one they came with a strawberry-pepper puree that was a bit too sugary to complement the fritters; night two's tarter, spicier mango salsa worked much better. A racy little "tropical dressing," green with chopped dill, dresses the green salad. After a couple of bites you can feel the afterglow of a chile pepper or two, though you can't quite figure where they're coming from.

But there's no futzing about with the fried plantains, which accompany every entrée. If that's not enough (and it may not be), you can order them as an appetizer. Douchand fries sliced ripe plantains until they melt down and the sugars on the outside caramelize and blacken. "Nature's candy," said the menu. "Oh, I shouldn't," said each of my companions. Somehow, I had managed to take not one but three friends on low-carb diets to Caribee. Each bite of plantain left them moaning (with delight) and cringing (with guilt). "Really, I don't miss the carbs," each one said, chewing. "I'm quite satisfied on my diet." Another slice. Then, plantains gone, they assuaged their guilt by pushing their rice over to me.

Believe me, I wasn't complaining. Caribee serves three kinds of rice, all chewy and flavorful: The stewed meats come with red beans and coconut rice, the jerk meats with "reggae rice," and the fish with "sexy rice" heavily flecked with basil. Louisiana folk wouldn't recognize the dark-brown red beans and rice; there's no smoky ham hock in there, but coconut milk and red beans round out the flavor of the rice without coming to the foreground so the rice gains a rich, unassertive flavor.

And the reggae rice? Turmeric-gold, studded with chickpeas and shot through with crunchy, bright red and green bell peppers. According to Words of Wisdom, a Web site explaining biblical quotations in Reggae lyrics, the Rastafarian hallmark colors red, yellow (gold), and green come from the Ethiopian flag. "Red is a memorial to the blood shed by patriots," writes Sister Lois, the site's author. "Yellow usually stands for the wealth of treasured heritage. Green represents the forests and vegetation, without which human life would not exist."

The colors, not surprisingly, are also echoed in the minimal decor, which just underwent a renovation that closed the restaurant for a couple weeks. The canary-yellow walls produce an acute sunniness in the room, with bits of red popping out here and there in posters and table decorations. Bright-green wooden parrots hang from the ceiling, and reggae throbs from a mini stereo in the corner. There's not much to it, but there doesn't need to be. Lower the wattage of the light bulbs and light the candles on the tables, and your sexy rice might ignite a spark of romance.

The beer and wine license is still a work in progress, but in the meantime you can sip a sorrel drink (jamaica in Spanish, hibiscus in English); an herb-infused lemonade; Ting, the potent grapefruit soda; and of course, Jamaican ginger beer.

Now, about those jerks. On his six-burner stove, Douchand can fry and braise just about anything. But with no grill, Caribee's jerk chicken wings and jerk-chicken entrée just didn't match the quality of its other dishes. The chicken was coated in a dark, slightly sweet, and slightly spicy sauce, but it had little fire, no smoke, and no power to penetrate into the meat. The pineapple-honey jerk sauce covering a trio of thick pork ribs was gorgeous: Sucked off a fingertip, it started off fruity, yielding to dusky, aromatic spices and herbs, and finishing off with a slow burn. But it took work to gnaw the meat off the bones -- the ribs needed a preliminary braising or longer, low-heat roasting before being sauced.

Don't let these distract you from the glory of the oxtail stew. One bite finally confirmed it for me: There's no better cut of beef than the last two feet. Given the choice between the Caribbean restaurant's oxtail stew and a Harris Ranch dry-aged ribeye, I'd have to chase after the tail. Sure, there are properly aged steaks and substandard ones, good cooks and incinerators, but really, most of the work is done when you unwrap the butcher paper from the raw slab. There's no mystery to a twelve-ounce New York Strip. No romance, unless you're the "diamonds are a girl's best friend" kind of guy.

But oxtail? Oxtail takes time, patience, and love. In Douchand's kitchen, the bony chunks of meat spend hours on the stove, slowly melting away the fat and collagen until the meat falls apart in satiny shards, each as beefy as a bouillon cube.

And I'll gush just as readily about the goat curry, which probably spends just as much time stewing away on the stone. There's no gaminess to the pull-apart hunks of goat, just the complete marriage of meat and spice. On the lighter of the spectrum, the lambada fish (of sexy rice fame) was inlaid with basil leaves and spices, then fried just until it developed a crisp crust and steamingly moist flesh. I wouldn't have predicted it, but the basil in the fish and the pineapples and roasted red peppers in the lambada sauce called to each other, fruit to herb, sweet to fragrant, and melded together in the mouth.

Douchand and his fiancée, Rena Newell, make lovely hosts. One of my companions was so delighted with them he threw a handful of ones on the table to augment my 20 percent tip. Just as Douchand takes the time to simmer all the flavor out of the long-stewed meats, Newell makes time to chat with every table, even when the place is almost filled. Their relaxed charm makes dining at Caribee a pleasure. Maybe that's because they never expected to be doing this in the first place.

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