Self-professed Caribbean food aficionados seem to operate under a misconception: The shabbier the shack, the tastier the cuisine. In a recent review of Calypso, a Pan-Caribbean restaurant in Pompano Beach, Sun-Sentinel critic M.L. Warren writes, "Anyone who has traveled much in the islands knows that most great island restaurants are far from designs laid out in travel magazines. They tend to be a little run-down if not downright seedy, informal and filled with surprises."
I agree up to a point. When traveling, I've had some terrific meals in rather unappetizing surroundings. I've also eaten fine repasts in gorgeous settings. Plenty of Caribbean restaurants are indeed informal and often filled with surprises, such as roaches scuttling across the floor. But for the sake of adventure, I can live with the fact that restaurateurs in Third World countries simply don't have the resources to, say, hire an exterminator.
What irks me is that dirty has become synonymous with delicious in the United States; I know some diners who simply don't trust bright, clean Caribbean places. But no restaurant, I believe, should be excused from meeting the common standards of upkeep in the name of authenticity. Informal, fine. Bare bones, OK. I've got nothing against low-budget dives. But decrepit -- which is how I'd describe more than a few of the island restaurants I've walked into, and out of, these past few months -- pushes acceptable limits. Fortunately, two area restaurants have restored my faith in relaxing, informal, and decidedly nonseedy Caribbean dining.
In Davie the four-month-old Carib Palace, owned by Zalina and Gobin Dyal -- from Trinidad and Guyana, respectively -- offers a very pleasant atmosphere free, for the most part, of island-decor cliches. Located next to Nova Southeastern University's main campus, the 100-seat, pink-and-white restaurant features linens on the tables, framed artwork on the scalloped walls, and a small bar decorated with baskets of faux greenery. (A small, twinkling disco ball and a prominent TV were the only discordant notes; but then again, we got to see Wheel of Fortune.) Despite the soft decor, the West Indian fare is every bit as spicy and reasonably priced as if Davie were in the Caribbean. With one exception: Carib Palace is immaculate.
The limited menu -- four appetizers and a dozen or so entrees -- reads like a Reader's Digest account of the multiethnic heritage of Trinidad and Guyana. For example, roti, the specialty main course of the house, speaks to Trinidad's Indian population. A large, flat pancake of bread, the roti was mildly spiced and served warm and buttery in a basket. On a separate plate, tender beef tidbits (chicken and goat are also available) in a zingy, cumin-scented sauce were paired with a side dish of potatoes and chickpeas. Rolled with the savory beef and potatoes, the roti was delicious, especially when dabbed with a Scotch bonnet chili-pepper sauce, served judiciously on the side.
Curried goat, another succulent entree, contained just about every spice Columbus discovered when he accidentally stumbled upon the islands (and thus established culinary trade routes). Cloaked in a brown gravy, the stewed goat was neither stringy nor gamy. A huge scoop of vegetable fried rice, rife with scallions, bean sprouts, and egg but light on the soy sauce, was just the right kind of starch to soak up the sauce. Contributed by the Chinese-Caribbean community, the rice may also be ordered as a main dish, in which it's dotted with beef, chicken, or shrimp.
All three ingredients were crowded into the soup of the day, a sort of hot pot every Trinidadian constantly has cooking on the back burner. Zalina Dyal told us that her mother used to throw into the pot whatever leftovers were handy; at Carib Palace, the Trinidadian and Guyanese cooks start off with fresh ingredients. Along with generous cuts of meat, poultry, and medium-size shrimp, chunks of yuca, potatoes, and carrots thickened the peppery broth. The highlight was the homemade dumplings.
An appetizer of potato balls, the other house specialty, comes from Guyana. Half a dozen peppery, minced potato fritters were lightly fried but seemingly greaseless, and delicate on the inside. For zest, a habanero chili sauce, spiked further with vinegar, soy sauce, cumin, and black pepper, was handy for a dunk or two.
Carib Palace was out of its homemade fruit tart the night we visited, offering instead a cheesecake made elsewhere. Like typical island-hoppers, who prefer to gnaw on a piece of refreshing tropical fruit or, if it's available, a length of sugar cane, we skipped the heavy dessert.
We had to do the same at Seafood World, a Bahamian restaurant in Lighthouse Point, where cheesecake, key lime pie, and tiramisu fill out the dessert menu. The location is also very non-Caribbean: a strip mall just off busy North Federal Highway, where cars, instead of mosquitoes, buzz by. More rustic in design than Carib Palace, the 25-year-old restaurant has planked floors, fish-shaped place mats, stained glass depicting various forms of sea life, and plastic dishware. Still, the place falls into the finer-dining category asfar as Caribbean restaurants are concerned. Owned by Hugh and Joy Ganter, the restaurant owes its elevated status to three things: Bahamian chef Richard Oelkuct, who cooks fish and shellfish with panache; a menu offering native and nonnative seafood; and decidedly upscale prices.
Though the prices of many of the main courses hover in the upper teens, dishes like the Alaskan king crab legs cost as much as $32.95. Granted, they were the biggest legs I've ever seen, muscular with a luscious, lobsterlike texture. But I prefer to stick with the Caribbean fare for the more reasonable price tags and authentic preparations. The complete conch dinner, for example, was actually a bargain at $18.95. The first of four courses was a chunky conch chowder served with sherry on the side. Built on a tomato base, the piquant soup was followed by conch salad, featuring onion-accented nuggets of shellfish that were firm but not tough. Fluffy conch fritters and battered, deep-fried strips of cracked conch appeared in rapid succession, and both were excellent.
The Bahamas is one of the more cosmopolitan island groups, and many restaurants there tend to draw on world influences. At Seafood World, I was impressed by a button-mushroom sauce rich with Marsala-like flavor but disappointed by the arid, pan-fried wahoo steaks it dressed. Wahoo may be known as the fastest fish in the ocean, but overcooking brought these specimens to a crawl.
Jerk chicken is Jamaican in origin but rather ubiquitous throughout the Caribbean. Seafood World offered moist, boneless poultry, coated in thyme and pepper, over Bahamian peas and rice (kidney beans and white rice mixed with peppers). Though the chicken strips were just fine on their own, the kitchen couldn't resist adding a handful of sweet grilled shrimp, which were spread over the top.
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As for the appetizers, smoked fish dip made with minced marlin was tasty but needed a kick from a Trinidadian hot sauce served on the side. Blackened swordfish bites were juicy inside but way too black on the outside, tasting more like charcoal than spices. Main-course portion sizes and the complimentary house salads preceding them not only compensate but render that other bookend -- dessert -- obsolete.
As different as they are, Carib Palace and Seafood World are run in a friendly, efficient manner with an eye toward customer satisfaction. Regarding execution the newer, more reasonably priced Carib Palace has the edge, but Seafood World, where some dishes could be improved, has the long-standing support of the community. And, of course, neither restaurant lives by the shabbier-is-better creed. They prove, instead, that authentic Caribbean cuisine is best served without too many surprises.
Carib Palace. 3414 S. University Dr., Davie, 954-382-5990. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.
Seafood World. 4602 N. Federal Hwy., Lighthouse Point, 954-942-0740. Open for lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Sunday noon until 9 p.m.