Island Delight is a delightful island. It's not actually a patch of land but rather a small generic space in a huge generic shopping mall. To get there you brave not the sea but the sea of cars that rises up to swamp the streets of Kendall with teeth-grinding regularity. And although some islands are forced to endure the reign of bearded despots with a taste for olive drab, this island's ruler is as colorful and charming as she is, well, delightful.
Island Delight's matriarch, chef, and co-owner (with husband Kenneth) is Audrey Chai, a cheerful, chatty native of Kingston whose vivid personality doesn't so much light up the tiny dining room of her modest Jamaican grocery store-cum-café as bathe it in an incandescent glow.
On "Mama" Chai's island (an honorific bestowed by the dozens of young Jamaican immigrants she's mothered over the past decades), it's almost impossible to feel lousy. Your shrinking bank account, the abominable state of world politics, the jerk who cut you off in traffic and then flipped you the bird for good measure -- they all fade to insignificance when she fusses over you like a doting aunt and begins dishing up appetite-busting portions of her homey, tongue-tingling Jamaican cuisine.
As with many islands, the appeal of Audrey Chai's domain isn't apparent at first glance. A look through the big plate-glass window in front reveals only a tiny retail space, shelves jammed with Jamaican curries and other spices; cans of ackee, the Jamaican national fruit; and jars of this and bags of that and packages of whatever.
The café, all five tables of it, is hidden behind a low divider topped with plastic tropical flowers. The menu is one of those stick-the-letters-on-a-blackboard things hung on the wall beside a blaring TV; specials are hand-lettered pages taped haphazardly in the vicinity. But the place is neat and scrupulously clean. You could perform major surgery on the well-scrubbed tile floor.
You could, but that would distract you from the task at hand, which is sampling as many of the café's signature Jamaican dishes as possible before your appetite goes limp.
Start with pepper shrimp, a sort of Caribbean shrimp cocktail without the cocktail. Audrey brings you a baggie full of finger-size shrimp (shells and sometimes even heads on) that have been boiled in a spice-and-chili-enflamed broth and then cooled. You suck out the meat, smack your lips, guzzle a cold Red Stripe, then suck, smack, and guzzle some more.
Don't skip the callaloo with saltfish, another Jamaican culinary staple. The leafy, spinach-like callaloo (a type of amaranth) is steamed and combined with sautéed onion, tomato, and chunks of pungent salt cod to make a thick, sturdy soup that eats like a hearty fish-and-vegetable stew.
If any two ingredients define Jamaican cuisine, they're salt cod and ackee. The red pear-shaped fruit of the ackee tree is a sort of vegetarian fugu fish, for all but the spongy, curdlike flesh surrounding a trio of shiny black seeds is poisonous. The texture and subtle flavor of that creamy flesh is quite luscious, however, like softly scrambled eggs. Audrey sautés onion, tomato, green pepper, and thyme in plenty of butter; adds the boiled ackee and salt cod; and serves it over rice and beans. The perfect accompaniment, she says.
Jerk chicken is less exotic but no less tasty, the moist and tender meat imbued with a sneakily incendiary, allspice-heavy jerk marinade. Goat curry is another standby, the meat rusty red and faintly gamy, awash in a thick, rich gravy that's savory rather than fiery. The Jamaican rum cake -- flavored with the Caribbean's favorite spirit, ground dried fruits, and rosewater, a beguiling and unexpected touch -- gives one more reason why a visit to Audrey Chai's island really is a delight.
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