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Natraliart: The Site of Succulent Sips

Restaurant serves up choice juice drinks and hearty Jamaican fare.

May 11, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I need a drink, I head for Natraliart, on a bleak stretch of Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. Natraliart is not a bar. It's a Jamaican restaurant with the choicest juice drinks in town.

There are more than a dozen, including pineapple with fresh ginger, soursop with milk, fresh mango juice (in season) and reggae punch (fruit juices and Jamaica sorrel, which is the same as the Mexican drink jamaica). There is also ginger beer made with fresh ginger. If you want a serious health drink, the "energizer" will pump you up with sea moss, milk, bran flakes, stout and bananas.

The biggest surprise is cucumber juice. It's a delightful greenish drink flavored with honey, lemon and ginger. Try it in hot weather, when you wish the beach scene painted on Natraliart's wall were real.

Owner Charles Forrester created these drinks. No wonder his nickname is Jucy (so spelled). The restaurant's name refers to natural, lion and art. "I'm a nature kind of guy. I'm strong like a lion, and cooking is an art," he says.

As for the food served here, there's jerk chicken, of course, black and peppery, with a very hot sauce on the side. There's also brown stew chicken, cooked until the meat falls off the bone; the chicken comes in clear golden juices instead of thick brown gravy, with a subtle dash of hot peppers. Potatoes, carrots and fried plantain sprawl over the meat, and alongside is a huge helping of rice and "peas" (red kidney beans) cooked in coconut milk. The restaurant uses only fresh coconut milk, squeezed from more than 30 coconuts a day.

Curry chicken is another option. If you like the flavor, explore the adjoining market, which stocks Caribbean curry powders and other ingredients.

On Tuesday and Thursday, brown stew chicken is on special, and Wednesday is the day for chicken soup. Along with chicken, the soup will contain some vegetables. Forrester favors carrots, green beans, lima beans, peas, corn, potatoes, yams, plantains, malanga (a variety of taro), chayote and Jamaican pumpkin. The chicken broth is a tad spicy and tinted a warm gold by the pumpkin. In Jamaica, soups are eaten as a meal, so they tend to be filling.

Gongo beef soup, a Thursday special, is beef shank with dumplings, gongo peas (pigeon peas) and "ground food"--anything that comes from or grows along the ground, such as potatoes, yams and pumpkins. Somehow, bananas slip into this category.

My favorite dish might be ital stew. "Ital" is not short for Italian. The name indicates purity, says Forrester. It contains no meat; it's a dish of the Rastafarians, a vegetarian Jamaican religious sect. It does contain vegetables, dumplings and red kidney beans in spicy coconut milk.

Forrester makes the Jamaican national dish, ackee and salt cod, with canned ackee, since the fresh form isn't available here. Ackee is a bland vegetable, the fruit of a West African tree that was brought to the Caribbean by slaves. It looks like scrambled eggs when combined with the cod.

Fresh fish dishes include steamed or fried red snapper and king fish steaks. Except for these, most dishes can be ordered in small or large portions. This is a convenience if you can't consume a lot of food at a sitting. At Natraliart, even the small servings are generous.

A few dishes, including curry goat and chicken, oxtails, beef ribs and ital, can be ordered as sides, which makes it possible to sample a greater variety of food.

Natraliart has a high counter where you order food either to take out or eat there. Check the box at the end of the counter for desserts. They're not plentiful because Jamaicans aren't dessert eaters, according to Forrester. Once I was lucky enough to get the last square of yellow rum cake. Coconut drops, clumps of coconut pieces glued together with brown sugar syrup seasoned with ginger, are a popular Jamaican snack.

Browsing in the market, I spotted Grape-Nuts ice cream--vanilla ice cream flecked with grains of cereal. It was quite nice, but I haven't seen it since. Jamaicans are so fond of this combination that it sells out quickly, says Forrester.

BE THERE

Natraliart Jamaican Restaurant and Market, 3426 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 737-9277 or (800) 891-JUCY. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m Tuesday-Saturday. Market is open Monday-Saturday. No alcohol. Street parking. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $20.

What to Get: Juice drinks, jerk chicken, brown stew chicken, curry chicken, chicken soup, ital stew, coconut drops.

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