Caribbean flavors that are all right, Mon
The caribbean restaurant Ripe Kitchen and Bar is a little surreal, a little funky, and a lot cool. The restaurant is located a bit past the new and brightly lit Target and Best Buy in a nondescript shopping development on a darker, more downtrodden industrial strip of Sandford Boulevard where, it seems, only locals tread. But that, if you’re not a local, is a mistake. The restaurant’s decor may live up to its self-billing as a “shabby chic hideaway”—there are potted barren trees, strings of mini Chinese lanterns, miniature candelabras, a black, low-slung ceiling and walls that blaze like a fiery orange setting Jamaican sun—but there’s nothing shabby about much that’s served by chef and owner Nigel Spence. (He previously worked at The Food Network for such gastronomic luminaries as Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and Mario Batali.)
The roasted plantain boat appetizer (stuffed with codfish and vegetables) morphs an ordinary island staple into a dish with an impressive range of flavors. And the “hardough” bread, a toasted Jamaican indulgence made with clarified butter, can bring the most disciplined eater to wild excess. One backfire is the St. Elizabeth peppered shrimp; peel-and-eat shrimp, perhaps as old as St. Elizabeth, that wasted a peppery, refill-my-water-glass-now, fiery-good scotch bonnet sauce.
Spence occasionally references other cultures in his cooking. For example, the jerk chicken quesadilla served with mango chutney and Mexican sour cream (delicious), spring rolls accompanied by a Vidalia onion dipping sauce (decent), and the colorfully titled Rasta pasta—linguine, Florida shrimp, ricotta and Parmesan cheese, porcini, and spinach in a garlic shrimp broth (also decent)—were each worthy selections.
But Spence’s heart is in Jamaica and any Kingston native would feel at home after tasting his wood-smoked jerk chicken, or the curry goat, a dish that won over my dining companion, with its tender cubes of juicy meat. Another solid entrÃ©e was the roasted red snapper, served whole in a large bowl of hearty broth and chunks of okra, corn, and carrots.
The fresh, off-the-tree-sweet fruit punch almost made up for the lack of desserts, though our server assured us that desserts such as wine-soaked cake, tiramisu, and various pudddings are offered on certain nights, usually weekends. And the spontaneous banter that took place after our plates were cleared, chatting with fellow diners and new friends Joyce, Eddie and Mehr (a number of the tables offer community-style seating, so prepare to be social), had us hanging around. A different dining experience to be sure, but sometimes different—especially with a belly full of jerk—is a good thing.
RIPE KITCHEN AND BAR
151 West Sandford St., Mount Vernon
Dinner, Mon. to Thur. and Sun. 4-12 pm, Fri. and Sat. 4 pm-2 am