Don't Curry, Be Happy

One of the most exquisite architectural structures in South Beach is the Marlin Hotel on Ocean Drive, designed in 1939 by the great L. Murray Dixon -- one of seven important Miami Beach projects the architect completed that year -- and recently purchased and renovated by music magnate Chris Blackwell as a shrine to the Caribbean pop music industry. The modest, street-corner hotel, whose nocturnal allure is beautifully underscored by phosphorescent lighting and mauve Deco plaques, offers eleven individually decorated suites, a recording studio, and, crowning the visual pyrotechnics of British designer Barbara Hulinicki, a Caribbean restaurant -- Shabeen Cookshack & Bar -- whose cuisine tilts decisively toward curry-conscious Jamaica. Reggae and roti: it's a good match.

Hulinicki's vision for this deliciously eclectic jumble of a place is a type of cayenne-spiced abstract expressionism. The foyer, bar, and cubbyhole-size restaurant, splashed with vigorous hues and tropical colors, built from scraps of wood panel, and covered with painted tile, have an air of insouciance that propel forward the languid vitality of the Marlin's predominantly SoBe crowd. If ever a drinking and dining experience drew inspiration from atmosphere (even at the expense of culinary attributes), this is it. Admirers of abstract art will be delighted by Shabeen's brand of playful reminiscence -- Jackson Pollock would call this "action dining." Even the rest rooms are kaleidoscopically colorful.

"Shabeen," in the derivative patois of Jamaicans, is simply a shack in which food and/or drink is consumed. (The term, allegedly of Irish origin, can also mean a dive.) The small menu is a hodgepodge of standard Jamaican home-style favorites with more than a smattering of junk-food delights. There's little question regarding the authenticity of the jerk seasonings applied to the majority -- if not every single one -- of Shabeen's dishes. Food can be tongue-scaldingly spicy here, and I did hear some patrons say it was too peppery. (Keep in mind, though, that in Montego Bay and Kingston, nothing is too hot to strut. Indeed, some connoisseurs may deem Shabeen, if anything, bland as butter.)

It is scarcely meant as insult to say Shabeen's prime priority is not cuisine. The menu is variable -- half good, half godawful, depending on your mood as much as personal preferences. I'm pleased to report that never have I tasted more delicate pastry than Shabeen's Jamaican patties ($4), available in chicken or beef. The shortening and flour are blended to crumbly perfection, and marry richness of flavor with a feathery texture that is surprising and greatly enjoyable. The filling, as expected, is pungent, but not overwhelmingly so. For anyone living in Miami, these nourishing island bites, like the nearby Caribbean world, are, in the words of the poet Wordsworth, too much with us. They remind me of Cornish pasties, Britain's classic pub pastries filled (habitually) with ground beef, onions, gravy, and potatoes. (The patties are probably descendants.) But Jamaica's are indubitably finer fare -- as Shabeen's deliquescent renditions, which hit all the right notes, amply demonstrate.

So far so good.
Among other appetizer varieties, the all-out best is a generous platter of pepper shrimps ($8), marinated and grilled to a tender ideal, where the heat is more subtle -- late afternoon rather than scorching midday. There's a daily soup ($3), plus fresh fish balls ($5), and the ubiquitous, and predictably cost-efficient, conch fritters ($3).

Now don't be captivated by the low price of these conch fritters. They're a disgrace -- three hand-size mounds of inedibly oily batter suggesting only the slightest slivers of shellfish, heaped one upon another and dripping with liquid fat. Resembling the tried and true fried morsels of the Caribbean as much as cat food resembles conch meat, this starter is enough to make your heart go fritter-patter. To be avoided at all costs.

Shabeen also offers such typical preparations as roti -- spicy pancakes, curry sauce, and mango chutney with either chicken or broad beans (both $6); and irie foods (side dishes) such as roasted yam, roast sweet potatoes, baked ripe bananas, and broiled or roasted green bananas (all $2.50), and coconut rice and peas ($3.50). They're decent enough, but I'd say the coconut quotient in the rice makes its presence felt as forcefully as Ronald Reagan did at press conferences when he was the doddering old tenant of the White House.

All hell breaks loose thereafter at Shabeen.
I'll admit I was looking forward to the triumvirate of Jamaican dishes offered as main courses -- jerk chicken, curried goat, and oxtails (each $9). But it became clear this was not to be a stellar dining experience. The chicken, seasoned to a recognizably Jamaican kick, left its flavor (so to speak) at the door. The skin, battle charred and Bible black, was indefensibly bitter, while the flesh was about as moist as wood-scrubbed sandpaper -- this chicken was finger-stickin' bad. The goat stew was no better, the cuts of game tougher than Jay Leno's jaw and then some. The sauce, hinting at curry and cayenne without overpowering the palate, compensated somewhat. The nadir was the oxtail entree. Perhaps I'm spoiled here by my exposure to the immeasurably superior rabo encendido of Cubans, an oxtail stew brimming with red wine, onions, tomatoes, garlic, beef stock, green peppers, and finished with a smidgen of hot red pepper. Alas, Shabeen's ox was a tail of two pities: The sauce was indistinguishable from the goat stew and drenched the stiff morsels of beef like tar, while the flesh clung to the bone like an exile to a floating raft. In both senses of the term, an unhappy end.

But there is one treat in store -- if you can limit your mastication and restrict yourself to drink and discussion -- in the shape of a waiter. His name is Warwick. This unquenchably cheerful fellow is the single reward for those patrons who aim to endure the shack's cooking experiment to its incontestably bitter conclusion. But Warwick is simply the finest waiter imaginable: friendly, informative, witty, attentive. He'll describe the ingredients of Jamaican cuisine like an expert; he'll relate the history of the Marlin like an Art Deco doyen; and he's indefatigable when it comes to offering Shabeen's tall-glassed and rum-laced tropical punches. An example of Warwickian wit: he compared a visit to the above-mentioned rest room to "falling into a jar of jellybeans." Aided by a delightful waitress, Melanie, he raised the spirits as our minds and stomachs wallowed in curry-satiated mire. No mean feat.

Warwick's origins had to be Jamaican, I thought, given his typically Jamaican name, culinary expertise, and nonchalance. But appearances are deceiving at Shabeen, like much else. When I pursued this line of inquiry, our waiter smiled cannily and answered, "I'm from Cincinatti, Ohio, man."

SHABEEN COOKSHACK & BAR
1200 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 673-8373. Open daily from noon to midnight.

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