Optimists who prefer to think of things as half full, however, will be heartened by the unlikely success of Islands in the Pines, a 49-seat storefront eatery in the nigh-deserted northwest-corner shopping plaza. Bright and relentlessly cheerful, with sponge-painted yellow walls and embossed wood booths, this Jamaican shabeen gives a pulse to an otherwise dead strip mall.
Part of that life comes, on Thursday nights, from entertainer Trevor Lopez, who plays guitar as handily as Carlos Santana but with an island, rather than Latin, inflection. Yes, patrons must shout at each other to be heard over his musical stylings, but they can always soothe their strained vocal chords with a Red Stripe, a cuppa Blue Mountain java, or a can of Jamaican cream soda.
Proprietors Rick and Joy Lyn supply the rest of the vitality, running their operation with a smooth and easy hand. Jamaican by nationality, the husband-and-wife team operated car-rental businesses before becoming restaurateurs about a year ago. The plunge into the culinary arts has paid off. Despite big-chain competition from places like Bahama Breeze, Islands enjoys a steady clientele that appreciates authentic Caribbean cuisine.
The food is so true to its roots that the servers might raise an eyebrow at enthusiastic diners who aren't regulars. When we ordered a chicken-wing appetizer, our waitress seemed reluctant to bring us the house sauce, which crackles with palate-tingling Scotch bonnet peppers, palming off some Tabasco-flavored stuff on us instead. But she gave in when we told her we like spicy food and watched in amazement as we smacked our lips over the Scotch bonnet mixture. "Are you sure you're white?" she asked.
And when we ordered the oxtail main course, she couldn't conceal her shock. "Now I know you're not white," she told us. But I'll endure any skepticism when it comes to oxtail, particularly when it's prepared as brilliantly as this dish was. Rich and sauce-drenched, the nuggets of stewed meat slid off the bone at the touch of a fork. Rice flecked with pigeon peas and a pair of greaseless fried plantains helped soak up the delectable sauce, which had the bottomless flavor of demi-glace.
Once the server saw how serious we were about having an uncorrupted Jamaican experience, she happily obliged us. Which is better, we asked, the jerked chicken or the jerked pork? Pork, she declared, and she was right. The allspice-scented pork was so tender it hardly required chewing. And as an accompaniment, we queried, would we prefer the dumplings fried or boiled? Fried, definitely, she recommended, and again we followed her lead with great results. Long and plump, the dumplings had been pan-fried and were a sturdy partner for the more-complex gravies of some of our other dishes, like the curry goat. Too bad the goat wasn't as succulent as we would have wished. In another restaurant it would have been fine, but at Islands, where the fare is truly exemplary, it paled by comparison.
We also had trouble choosing between kingfish escovitch (breaded and marinated in vinegar, allspice, Scotch bonnet chilies, and onions), and brown stew whole yellowtail snapper. We went with the latter, which turned out to be a fish large enough to feed a table of four. Gently deep-fried, the snapper had been napped with a tangy, almost sweet-and-sour sauce, more accomplished and with more explicit Asian overtones than other brown stew recipes I've sampled. Though bammie, a side dish of fried cassava cake, is typically served with fish escovitch -- at, say, Sunday brunch -- we found the dense, crunchy oval ideal for dipping in the brown stew it accompanied.
Don't expect green vegetables here -- Islands doesn't even offer callaloo (sometimes referred to as bhaji in Jamaica), the spinachlike leaf of the taro plant. Nor should you expect the variety of soups, including manish water (goat soup), beef with pumpkin, and pepper pot, to be available; the restaurant often runs out or makes a substitute. We settled for a hearty broth flavored with kingfish and stocked with boiled dumplings but longed for something just a little more exotic.
Unadventurous diners and stubborn kids will be relieved to know that chicken fingers and burgers are on the menu, though even the tamest eater can surely be tempted by the conch fritters starter. Rife with nubby conch, the fritters were just barely held together with a bit of filler and served deep-fried as golden as unearthed pirate treasure. Cocktail patties sounded a little unusual but were actually Jamaican beef patties. Lyn imports them from the Caribbean Bread Box, a new bakery opened by his cousin a mere month ago. Good move, because the flaky pastries, stuffed with a little spiced meat, are some of the best I've tasted.
Forget dessert, because Islands in the Pines doesn't really keep any on the premises; I suggest Lyn rectify that situation by negotiating with the Caribbean Bread Box. A slice of golden rum cake or even a hunk of crystallized ginger, a stomach-settling after-dinner preparation, would only sweeten Islands' resounding success.