Island Fantasy
[from March 2000 issue]

By all accounts, the formula should work: a Caribbean menu. If not exactly a major DC restaurant trend, island cooking has made many Washingtonian converts, and if you look carefully in ethnic neighborhoods, you'll find Cuban, Jamaican, and Trinidadian restaurants (there was once even a Puerto Rican place in Maryland), plus some restaurants that advertise a pan-Caribbean menu. And it's a sure bet that our passion for the succulent, flavor-drenched dishes of the Caribbean--curries, soups, and stews, plus much more--will escalate. As one local simply puts it, "Caribbean sells."

If that is so, what's going on with Caribbean Dream, the replacement for the Adams Morgan old-timer, Straits of Malaya? Caribbean cooking may tap into our deepest longings for folksy, full flavors, but it looks like this is one restaurant that is off to a slow start--barely anyone lunched there recently--and the fault may lie with the cooking.

Well, actually, with the flavors, which don't exactly mirror their island roots. Quite possibly it's because the kitchen staff--at least recently presumably from Africa--just doesn't understand Caribbean seasonings and cooking methods. As my knowledgeable lunch companion pointed out, the food tastes good, it just doesn't taste Caribbean.

So, what is Caribbean cooking? In the simplest terms, it's an amalgam of French, Dutch, Spanish, Indian and African influences interpreted differently on each island. Since that is the case, it's a bit tricky for a kitchen to label a dish Jamaican when it may actually resemble something from Florida, or say, New York.

We started with the Caribbean combo, a sampling of typical appetizers, including codfish fritters (good), Jerk buffalo wings (the accompanying sauce tasted like a bottled hickory blend), fried plantains, and some battered and fried vegetables. Plus, we ordered coco bread, a particular island favorite that should be sweet and dense. Theirs was fine, by the way.

We moved on to the Trinidadian corn soup, which looked like a version of the local takes on Mexico's tortilla soup with a thin broth, a chunk of corn cob, and sliced vegetables. Apparently, the real thing calls for blending the corn kernels into the stock resulting in a thick and creamy soup.

Alas, the goat curry was not ready, nor does the kitchen offer any roti (dough wrapped around a curried filling), a standard dish on many island tables, so we settled on the pan-fried chicken fricassee, a Jamaican dish that had little flavor; the Jamaican escovetched red snapper, calling for a chunk of pan-fried fish served with an abundance of onions, sliced green peppers, and tomato sauce. OK, said my companion, who certainly did not rave. And finally, the oxtail stew, seasoned with herbs and spices and garnished with lima beans (can't say these were actually there). Each dish came with a scoop of rice and beans, which had flavor but no island character.

Even the desserts seem to have little island relevance: three different flavors of cheesecake, carrot cake, and a pineapple upside-down cake. Perhaps your best finishing bet is to order mango or guava juice and bid the staff good day.

If you want courteous service and food attractively presented, then Caribbean Dream fits the bill. But for real Caribbean flavors, you'd better look elsewhere, or hope management hires an islander to do the cooking.

Caribbean Dream, 1836 18th St.; tel., 797-4930.Hours: Daily, 11am 'till late. Entrées $8.95 to $13.95. Major credit cards accepted

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