Brooklyn favorite for Jamaican cuisine beats the odds
The Islands was once a two-story restaurant on the Crown Heights side of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, near the top of the hill, within sight of the Brooklyn Museum. Upstairs was a narrow, angular, dark dining room with a few tables under a ceiling so low that tall people leaned over. Downstairs was a narrow, angular, dark kitchen where oxtails, goat curry, and other Jamaican dishes were cooked and sold.
To the right of the door, behind a counter, was the restaurant’s only stove. There were three burners which almost always worked. No matter when I went, it seemed like about a quarter of the items on the menu weren’t done cooking, but complaining would have been rude, both because capacity limits were obvious and because everything what was finished had to be both nuanced and powerful.
The whole operation was one of those precarious wonders of adaptive survival, like a pine tree growing out of a crack in the side of a cliff. So the outlook was bleak when news came two summers ago that the structures housing the islands and another business were being demolished so that a new apartment building could be built. This neighborhood and those south between Flatbush and Ralph Avenues owe much of their character to businesses owned by blacks and immigrants, including a large number of Caribbean restaurants such as the Islands. With the developers sniffing out this part of Brooklyn, a lot of them are in danger.
Marilyn Reid, who owns the islands with Shuon Letchford, had other ideas. She had had other ideas since 2001, when she opened the restaurant. “We were still looking because we had passed it on the second day,” she said in a telephone interview. “We knew.”
Before closing the original space in March 2017, she and Ms Letchford had found a much larger one going downhill on Washington Avenue. Preparation took a few months longer than expected, but the Islands’ second incarnation has been operational since January.
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The new kitchen has two stoves and 10 burners. Nonetheless, what is available when I have left has always been several courses below the full menu. Okra cooked with cod is particularly difficult to pin down. At the same time, the comfort of the larger dining room and table service, an impossibility in the first space, encouraged me to branch out beyond my usual favorites.
The islands are best known for their slow-cooked stews, but the kitchen knows a thing or two about deep-frying as well. The flattened salt cod fritters seasoned with fresh hot peppers, known as stamp and go, were crunchy and golden. Some Caribbean cooks fry fish and fall into oblivion, according to the theory that spicy vinegar heals all wounds. The escovitch I had on the islands was a whole snapper, obviously fresh and fried until firm. The dressing, on the other hand, was seasoned not only with hot peppers, but also pickled peppers, carrots and cucumbers, making this escovitch more interesting than usual.
Since ancient times, I knew that curried goat cheese would be very tender and richly seasoned, although like most island dishes, it was never tangy on the scalp. Now I have found a new alternative in curried vegetables – a very different thing, of course, but golden raisins, turmeric, and allspice can do even more for cabbage and carrots than they do. do it for goat meat.
The barbecue chicken was ordered in a panicky rush because everything I wanted first wasn’t ready yet. The sauce is nothing like the ketchup-based mud I had imagined. Made with raisins and allspice, it’s more like frosting for a holiday ham, and it’s delicious.
I prefer it to jerk chicken, which will sound like heresy to some customers. Like barbecuing, jerk can describe a sauce or a process, and the process must involve wood smoke. The Islands bake their jerk chicken in the oven, and although I love its sauce, when I want jerk chicken, I will walk through Eastern Parkway and keep the windows down until I smell scorching allspice logs. .
But I don’t have any quarrels with the jerk shrimp or the island leg of lamb – there’s no place to get a smoked chili version of either, as far as I know. Lamb is especially enticing, stuffed with jerk spices and slowly roasted until its outer rind falls, upon slicing, into dark rubble that in New Orleans would be called debris.
Rice and peas, fried plantains and cabbage compote, coconut oil slippery, are all required in my book. Others insist on baked macaroni and cheese, served in a brick the size of a pound of butter. When I taste the breadcrumbs on top and wonder if they’ve been seasoned with dried onions, I think these people may be right.
All of this food is brought to the table on oval trays that can hold a small Thanksgiving turkey.
Since its opening in January, the new dining room has gradually improved. The walls are painted in watermelon and aquamarine. Small cyclonic lamps decorate the tables. A few weeks ago, checkered napkins made their appearance in the middle of dinner service. The menus, which were previously kept in a clear plastic sleeve, are now presented in handmade textured paper folders, held in place by stickers depicting bumblebees and butterflies.
The bar, across the dining room from the kitchen, is still unoccupied while Ms. Reid waits for a liquor permit to pass. A rooftop rumor didn’t materialize either. In the meantime, there’s a great sweet limeade with demerara sugar and a fruity dark purple sorrel punch, which can make it look like it’s been slightly spiced up with rum.
Credit for food on the islands is shared. There are two chefs, Delroy Henry and Ronald Porter. Most of the recipes, however, are those of Mrs. Letchford, and she does a lot of the cooking. Like Ms Reid, they all grew up in Jamaica before moving to New York City, but only Ms Letchford did professional cooking there. Ms. Reid is also often in the kitchen. âI do the light stuff,â she said. “I tend to stick with salads, seafood.”
Is the food as good as it used to be? I was impressed that anything could be cooked on the old islands. That so much of it was actively delicious seemed like a miracle. It’s less surprising now that the kitchen has 10 burners and room to turn around.
But I suspect the only thing that has changed is me. And when I’m in the mood for something miraculous, I just remember the islands are still active. You can’t stop gentrification, but sometimes you can trick her into looking the other way.
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