When my girlfriend casually said something about Jamaican food to a Jamaican friend of hers, the Jamaican friend insisted that we go to The Islands on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn. After taking her advice, I can conclusively say that the Jamaican friend is awesome, and I owe her a cookie.
The Islands is a very small, quirky place with a treacherous staircase leading to a seating area that makes me feel like I’ve accidentally stepped into a little girl’s dollhouse. It’s one of the few places in this world where I actually feel tall. (And just for making me feel tall, this restaurant deserves your money.)
When we arrived at 1:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, the dinky seating area was closed, but the Jamaican gentleman at the counter let us crowd around the downstairs bar for lunch. “Bar” is a bit of a misnomer—there happen to be three bar stools hanging out there, but no alcohol is served, and the three stools stare straight into The Islands’ tiny kitchen. At that hour of the afternoon, The Islands is pretty much a takeout joint, and we were lucky that the man in charge was kind enough to host us in that tiny strip of space. Thank you, nice Jamaican man in charge!
I showed up with a posse of four people, and none of us have any connection whatsoever to Jamaica. None of us have ever even been near Jamaica, unless you count Puerto Rico or Trinidad and Tobago.
So we had no idea what we were doing.
I declared myself food dictator, and ordered four dishes pretty much at random. Jerk chicken is obviously a classic, and we also ordered stew chicken (jerk’s mellower, gravier brother), goat curry, and stew peas.
As soon as I ordered the stew peas, I wondered what the heck I was thinking. It’s a bunch of beans and peas with bits of corn and carrots and some boiled dough. How could that possibly be exciting? Actually, I really wanted to order the okra and codfish, but they were out. Crappy. So we were stuck with stew peas as our token vegetarian entree.
I’ll start with the meat dishes. All of the plates were absolutely huge, and served with a mound of rice and beans, as well as some stewed vegetables (mostly carrots and cabbage) and a salad garnish. The jerk chicken was fantastic—perhaps not the best I’ve ever tried, but still great. The stew chicken was a huge, huge hit—definitely the best I’ve ever had. And I’ll be honest: this was my first goat experience ever. (Well, I’ve petted goats before, like at petting zoos or something. But I’ve never eaten any pieces of one, at least not that I was aware of.)
I’m not quite sure what to say about the goat. The curry sauce was gentle, and did not overpower the flavor of the meat. But if you’re not used to goat, that’s not necessarily a good thing. As you might guess, goat is pretty gamey stuff—the meat never lets you forget that you’re eating a stinky beast. I’m not knocking The Islands, but I’m not accustomed to the flavor of this particular stinky beast. One of my buddies used to live in Malawi, where goat is a regular part of the menu; he was pretty thrilled with The Island’s version of goat, and I’ll accept that as a full endorsement. (He did, however, report that his bowels were pretty much livid the next day. Not sure whether the goat or the cabbage or the beans were to blame, but I’m pretty sure it was the goat. Sorry, that was probably far more information than you needed.)
Now on to the stew peas, which I thought would suck. Mmm, kidney beans and peas. Who cares? How could those be good? The crazy thing is that the stew peas were ridiculously amazing, probably even better than the stew chicken or the curry goat. Who knew that a creamy-looking puddle of kidney beans could taste so good?
When I asked the server/cook what spices were in the stew peas, he said, very slowly: “Beans. Peas. Carrots. Flour. Pepper. Regular pepper. Jamaican pepper.”
I have no idea what he meant by “Jamaican pepper,” but I could definitely get used to it… even if my friend’s butt apparently can’t.
803 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, New York
Subway: Eastern Parkway – Brooklyn Museum station (2, 3 train)