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MOBAY IN THE 'BU : Hills of Plantains, Waves of Black Beans, Rivers of Hot Stuff: It's Caribbean, Mon

July 18, 1993|Charles Perry

MoBay. That's Montego Bay, mon. As in Jamaica.

And this before our eyes is Cafe MoBay, a colorful nouvelle Caribbean restaurant in the 'Bu. That's Malibu, dude.

Did I say colorful? It looks as if somebody threw about eight cans of paint on the wall in eye-piercing swirls. It should all make perfect sense on Fridays and weekends, when there's live Caribbean music at dinner and brunch.

And did I say nouvelle Caribbean? MoBay serves not only the traditional jerk chicken, in a peppery sauce heavy with the island's own allspice, but also jerk-chicken-filled ravioli. Ackees and codfish get wrapped in filo, braised oxtails come in a soup bowl under a crust, roasted lamb wears a Brillo pad of yam threads. And of course you've got your Rasta pasta: chipotle-pepper linguine with tiger shrimp and scallops.

If anybody has the right to play around this way, it's Derek Harrison, who has had an extensive cooking career, including study in Paris, an internship at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia and a stint at Santa Monica's DC3, before opening Cafe MoBay last year. He has a clear affection for Caribbean flavors like black beans, plantains and the green vegetable callaloo, which is similar to spinach and adds a delicately exotic note to one soup. But he also makes his plates look pretty, nouvelle-style--a rather robust sort of prettiness, marked by bright colors and a preference for generously heaped-up shapes.

When I say generous, I allude to the fact that several of the appetizers are piled up on the same mound of spinach and plantain as most entrees. The restaurant recently recognized that this may be too hearty, at least in Malibu during the day in summer, by offering a lunch menu with some lighter dishes.

An appetizer called "stamp and go" shows what Harrison can do with a rather plain-sounding Jamaican snack--it's just codfish fritters. The fritters have a strongly fried character, alternating mushy and crunchy textures. They're richer than you'd expect, but you're also getting all the spinach and plantains your doctor could possibly want you to eat.

When you order piononos , you actually get just one, but it's plenty: a squat tube of dense-textured jerk chicken sausage wrapped in fried plantains, with a hot allspice sauce and quantities of black beans and chopped tomato on the side. What the menu calls "Jamaican patties" are also singular: one big empanada with the same sort of chicken filling, lots of chopped tomato and onion and quite a bit of hot tomato-cinnamon sauce.

The crab cake is a hamburger-sized patty of crab meat surrounded by cucumber, tomato and grapefruit chunks. Coconut shrimp come with fresh grated coconut shreds on top. The roasted-corn-and-chipotle bisque is, surprisingly, scarcely hot at all a mellow corn soup with a weird purplish tinge from the peppers.

Anticipate either a hill of spinach and plantains or a plain of black beans and chopped tomatoes with most of the entrees. The black pepper bass has an arresting sauce, tangy and aromatic from lime and tamarind. Herb-roasted lamb, tasting like very good barbecued lamb mixed with candied mango chunks and a hot jerk sauce, rests on a "plantain pancake" that's a lot like a tortilla. Wild billy (Harrison's version of curried goat, often called Jamaica's national dish) uses an Indian curry sauce, grainy with ground spices and depth-charged with cayenne toward the bottom.

Ackee is a Caribbean vegetable that tastes like cooked egg yolks and grows on a tree, and ackees and saltfish (salt cod) has also been called Jamaica's national dish. You don't get much in the little filo packet, but the rich ackee and the salty cod not only play well off each other but also turn out to be surprisingly filling.

Seared ahi tuna with roasted pasilla peppers, fresh corn and curry-mint sauce lacks the simplicity of wild billy, and it's also the item most likely to be found in your average California cuisine restaurant. But don't hold that against it. Baby corn joins the tuna on a spinach mound with plantain, curry sauce and a slice of fried eggplant.

Everything is so likable here, you'll probably run out of appetite

by dessert time. The waiter may suggest the bread pudding. It's devastating: two stubby cylinders of rather solid bread pudding, browned--virtually blackened--on top and stacked one on the other, dripping with a dark, powerful caramel sauce, surrounded by ponds of sabayon, custard sauce and strawberry sauce. Banana boat consists of a scoop of what may be the world's best rum-raisin ice cream in a sort of tostada shell made of cookie dough, with the same sauces.

You can't even expect any mercy from the fresh raspberry sorbet, a big plate of sorbet scoops arranged with berries and papaya slices. Only one dessert doesn't make heavy demands on your appetite, the Key lime and coconut mousse. It's served in a cup, in effect a particularly fluffy Key lime pie without a crust.

Amazing. You don't expect to find a combination of high skill and jovial fun way out here, five miles past Topanga Canyon Boulevard, across the road from Carbon Beach. But that's CarBe for you, mon. In the 'Bu.

Cafe MoBay Caribbean Cuisine, 22235 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; (310) 456-1313. Dinner served nightly, lunch Monday through Friday, brunch on weekends. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $36-$61.

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