It was about 7 on a Wednesday night when we arrived at Bamboo Fire in Delray Beach. We picked out a cozy seat near the restaurant's front window looking out on Fourth Avenue. Fifteen minutes later, we were still waiting to be recognized by someone other than the riotous five-top sitting dead center in the shoebox of a dining room. Over the pulse of reggae music on the sound system, we could barely make out some gentle clinking coming from the kitchen, the only sign that the staff wasn't on vacation in Barbados.
When the reggae stopped, a bald man with a goatee emerged from the kitchen, made a beeline straight for the CD player, and — without looking up once — changed the disc. As a steel-drum beat began to chirp again from the speakers, the guy disappeared behind a swiveling door, like a turtle ducking into its shell.
He spotted us moments later as he delivered some plates to the five-top. "How long have you guys been here?" he asked with an innocent gulp. We learned the man was co-owner Donald Jacobs, and pretty soon, Donald's wife, Beverly — the real star of Bamboo Fire — came out to greet us with a tray of spicy curry meatballs. Donald followed her with two frosty Imperial lagers from Costa Rica, a small tray of chickpeas flavored with onion and cumin, and a dish of garlicky eggplant dip that tasted like a less spicy version of Indian baingan bharta. We were having a hell of a good time already, we thought as we alternated sips of sharp beer with nibbles of the meltingly soft meatballs and musty chickpeas. And we hadn't even ordered a thing.
In recent months, Bamboo Fire has developed a cult following in part because the Jacobses deliver an experience that's not the typical restaurant script of "sit, order, eat, pay, leave." Instead, this is a meal akin to visiting someone's home, a place where food, conversation, and company intertwine.
Beverly Jacobs wears her passion for food like an Atelier Versace gown. Despite cooking to order plates of curry yellowtail with coconut rice, Beverly regularly swoops out of the kitchen to chat with customers about everything from Japanese cooking to street fairs in the Virgin Islands. Though she's never been formally trained or even worked in a restaurant before, she has been cooking since she was old enough to fascinate over glossy British food mags she came across in her home country of Guyana.
The Jacobses opened Bamboo Fire last December in the wake of one of the worst financial collapses in recent memory. There they were, with day jobs they couldn't afford to leave (she is a legal assistant; he is an auto mechanic), hardly any budget to speak of, and an ambitious plan of serving only freshly prepared food that incorporated the complex flavors of Beverly's homeland. It's staggering that two first-time restaurateurs could even pull it off.
Largely, they do. As you sit in the tiny restaurant lined with cargo nets, souvenirs, and strips of corrugated sheet metal, you'll realize the formula works best on slow nights when Beverly can devote her time to both the front and back of the house. As a hostess, Beverly walks you through your options verbally, as if she were at that moment brainstorming a menu only for you. On one visit, she nodded her dreadlocked head as my fiancée explained that she's a vegetarian, and in turn Beverly produced a plate of jerk tofu with julienned peppers, carrots, and green beans studded with fat pieces of nutty pumpkin ($10.50). The tofu had the hearty texture of crisp-skinned duck and earthy-sweet heat from the jerk rub, and the vegetables were sautéed just enough to relinquish their grassier notes while maintaining a farm-fresh crunch.
When I told Beverly I wanted something lighter, she brought me a huge helping of escovitch tilapia ($12.95), a whole fish's worth of tenderly fried fillets basking in a vinegary pool made even more radiant by slivers of orange and red pepper. The tart vinegar cut the tilapia's usually muddy flavor, rendering the white flesh flaky and bright. Both our plates were packed with sides of fluffy coconut-tinted rice and pigeon peas and savory braised cabbage — each some of the best versions I've tasted. A side of tostones ($5.95) took a bit longer to arrive; I could hear Beverly pounding the thin wafers of mashed plantain flat. The finished product — crisp and airy, with fresh garlic butter on the side — was flawless. After our meal was over, Beverly set us up with a slice of thick rum cake doused with a whole shot and a mound of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream ($4.95). As we ate dessert, we sat and talked with her for over an hour — a lovely end to a great meal.
On another visit, however, the restaurant's intimate vibe turned flat-out disorganized. The place was nearly full of diners who came for the promise of Beverly's creative "wild things" menu, a once-monthly special featuring exotic game and fish like curried Florida golden crab, venison gumbo with andouille sausage, and wild hog marinated à la Portuguese in garlic and vinegar. But the thrum of the full restaurant brought service to a standstill. Donald was busy scurrying among eight full tables inside and out, and most of them were starting to look around impatiently as they waited for food and drink. Worse, Beverly, who would ordinarily be out mingling with customers and talking out orders, was barely present as she rushed from kitchen to table and back again.
A miffed lady with a big hairdo stomped inside and asked as patiently as she could if they could get something, anything, to snack on while they waited. Donald, looking fully underwater, could tell her only that their meals would be out soon. In an act of defiance, she grabbed a jar of peanuts from the bar top and brought a big handful outside.
By the time we settled into a square, white bowl of iguana soup ($5.95), we were ravenous. "How is it?" a harried Beverly stopped by to ask on her way to another table. The thick pieces were reminiscent of swordfish, but the flavors were monotone, like stringy white meat. Pieces of the reptile (skin and all) soaked up a spicy but gummy stew anchored by some oblong dumplings. I much preferred the golden crab, two clusters of meaty legs simmered in a Jamaican-style spicy brown sauce ($16.95). The curry had seeped into the shell, creating a fragrant, heady aroma; wonderful stuff, even if extracting the flesh was messy work. Across the table, my friend's dish of braised rabbit ($12.95) came rubbed in sweet and peppery Chinese spices — the tender flesh ceded from the bone with ease. He had requested a little bit of hog to go with his rabbit, so his plate came with a bit of both. "I'm not even sure which animal this is, but it's delicious," he said as he passed me a piece of the exceptionally tangy meat.
By the end of our meal, though, the scene had deteriorated: While a reggae band playing outside kept the mood a little light, most of the tables had empty drinks, no food, and a cloud of steam building overhead. Two or three parties sat among a mess of finished plates scattered like shrapnel across the tables. After an untold wait for his check, one older man with gray hair turned to his wife and said, "I feel like I'm being kept prisoner." In an effort to make things right, the kitchen started handing out plates of rum cake for free. But after an hour of sitting at our table after dinner, my friends just wanted to pay and leave.
What Beverly and Donald have in Bamboo Fire is a boutique restaurant that operates best when the couple can devote attention to each table. "We wanted to be like one of those secret restaurants that would take place in fields or basements a few years back," Beverly told me recently over the phone. It's a great concept, but I'm afraid it's no longer a secret: As more people learn about the stellar, home-cooked food and the low prices, the place is bound to grow. The question is whether Beverly can continue walking her kitchen/dining-room tightrope for bigger crowds.
Even as a first-time restaurateur, Beverly knows she needs an answer to that question. "I realize now I need to be out in the front of the house," she says. "We have to maintain the quality of the food, but we also need a semblance of decent service. I don't want to be known as one of those Caribbean places that are too laid-back."
With time, hopefully Bamboo Fire will find that right balance. Too laid-back? No. But just laid-back enough.