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Doing the Jerk

The Jamaican Cafe in Santa Monica indulges its dishes with the country's famous seasoning, including its Alaskan king crab legs.

June 12, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Mother's Day and a steel band was playing. To be more specific, a one-man steel band in dreadlocks was crooning a la Bob Marley as he plunked out soft, punchy rhythms on a steel drum. There may even have been a couple of mothers present.

That's Jamaican Cafe for you: not just a Jamaican restaurant but a Santa Monica Jamaican restaurant. Besides having frequent live music, it features an artist of the month on its walls, has a wine list and offers dishes named Italian veggie delight, Rasta pasta and jerk tofu.

Everybody in Santa Monica seems to know of it, though they don't necessarily know it's under new management. I was never there in the old days, but locals always remark that it looks good after the redecoration (lots of red and golden yellow).

Jamaican food runs to goat, seafood, tropical fruits and allspice, of which it is one of the world's main producers. The famous Jamaican jerk seasoning is based on allspice and chiles, and jerked food is this kitchen's strongest suit.

In fact, the best appetizer is the arrestingly named smoked jerk Alaskan king crab legs. When you cut the crab legs open (these aren't the kind that crack), you find the meat smeared with brownish jerk paste. The effect is delicious, like sweet crab meat that has somehow gotten barbecued. Dipped in drawn butter, it becomes something spectacular.

The other appetizers pale in comparison. The patties are like rectangular samosas, or maybe flattened burritos (the dough dyed bright yellow with annatto) with beef and chicken fillings that can be a little hard to tell apart. The conch fritters are starchy dough balls. But you don't absolutely need an appetizer here, because entrees come with a pleasant green salad in a curried dressing.

The entrees--which come with plantains, steamed vegetables and usually steamed rice--are all in the hearty Caribbean style. Even the fish dishes tend to be hearty. Halibut in coconut cream sauce (not listed on the take-away menu) is a luscious composition of fish, coconut milk, onions and sweet peppers. Brown redfish (red snapper standing in for redfish, an L.A. tradition since the days when everybody was blackening "redfish" in the mid-'80s) has a sauce decidedly brown with allspice. It's not an imposing dish but a solid, folksy one.

Escabeched fish, an adaptation of a Spanish dish of fish pickled in vinegar, is rubbed with jerk seasonings, fried brown and finally topped with a vinegary marinade of onions, carrot shreds, sweet peppers and scotch bonnet chiles. The menu describes this dish as "Hell hot," evidently because of the chiles, but nobody who eats Mexican or Thai food need fear it. The scotch bonnets are nowhere near as hot as usual, though they do contribute their wonderful fresh-vegetable aroma.

The best dish here is the barbecue jerk pork ribs, really good smoky ribs in a jerk-flavored barbecue sauce. Jerk pork, as distinguished from the jerk ribs, is also good, though it can be a little chewy.

There's a long list of curries, the most thoroughly Jamaican being goat curry, and it's excellent--funky and muttony, fragrant and spicy, with a faint, sweet coconut flavor. You can order curries with rice and pigeon peas or rolled up like a burrito in a roti, an Indian crepe with chickpeas in the batter.

But the stewed oxtail, though meaty, is somehow vague and grainy, and the tropical chicken--breaded fried chicken with plantains and pineapple--comes off surprisingly bland. Stick to the seafood, the curries and the jerk dishes, apparently.

Jamaican cuisine may not exactly suggest dessert to you but there are some traditional specialties. Black cake is like a fruitcake without the dried fruit--dense, dark, not (despite what the waiter may say) terribly rich or sweet but wonderfully saturated with rum flavor.

It's a lot better than the mushy bread pudding, which has the air of somebody's private comfort food. There's a good Key lime pie, and it's hard to resist the pineapple-banana cake, an unfrosted yellow cake with a good pineapple flavor, surrounded by sliced bananas and whipped cream.

Altogether, it's a great place to take your mother if she likes seafood and allspice and, once in a while, a little goat curry.

BE THERE

Jamaican Cafe, 424 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 587-2626; fax 587-2628. Open noon-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only $36-$59. What to Get: smoked jerk Alaskan king crab legs, goat curry roti, jerk barbecue pork ribs, halibut in coconut cream sauce, pineapple banana cake.

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