Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taste Trippin' Part Four



It's November in Chicago. This is the time my mind turns to thoughts of island life, not that it doesn't most times but now is when I really focus. So I grabbed a quick excursion to Jamaica. Of course, I'm not talking about a physical jaunt but a gastronomical trip to the South Loop's Utopia International Caribbean Cuisine. Outfitted in rich tapestries and bordeaux velvet sofas, the place doesn't conjure up any images of Jamaica at all. That's because it used to be an upscale tapas lounge. That concept apparently didn't work for them so a few months ago they switched to Jamaican fare. Now, as you'd expect, I'm pretty particular when it comes to Jamaican food. All the jerk chicken joints that populate this city do not necessarily qualify as authentic Jamaican cuisine. I have my criteria and my check list that an eatery must pass before I'll try them but mostly I send my Caribbean friends to scout it out. I called Utopia personally when they opened and they failed my test miserably. I don't go near any Jamaican place where the staff doesn't know what ackee and saltfish is, which happens to be the national dish. At the persistent urging of my friends, I decided to give Utopia another chance. I scheduled an afternoon lunch interview with Chicago-bred actor and comedian Erica Watson (catch her in the film Precious) and hoped for the best.



Bob Marley singing "Kaya" in the background was a very good sign. Erica ordered the jerk catfish shown above,a specialty created by the executive chef "Papa Jay." Accompanied by a generous helping of rice and peas, plantains and hard dough bread, the spread looked like a hearty Jamaican lunch.




I ordered the classic Jamaican dish, brownstew chicken but when I opened the cute ceramic pot, I was surprised to discover ox tail stew, pictured above. Erica and I immediately discerned the difference but the kitchen prep assistant clearly did not. Since I don't eat red meat, a mistaken nibble of the ox tail could have made me sick. The waitress was aghast and assured me that the chef would come out to rectify things. Well, that's exactly what I was waiting for. Before Papa Jay even opened his mouth, I could tell from his artful stride and bemused expression that he was Jamaican. He apologized and explained that none of his assistants knew the difference between the two dishes but he had prepared my chicken and presented a plate of jerk chicken wings in the meantime. He sat down and that's when our Jamaican meal began. You see, a large part of an authentic Caribbean meal is the conversation. And I don't mean small talk. Papa Jay recalled his life in Ocho Rios, how he met his American wife and offered suggestions on potential love interests for Erica.



By the time my brownstew chicken arrived above, we were all good friends, downing glasses of ginger beer and Ting with healthy does of spicy talk and food. By the time we finished 5 hours later, Papa Jay's work shift was over and waiters were setting out tea lights for dinner. I raced home, happy that I had managed a quick Jamaican visit that didn't involve air fare.

9 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

Loved the post but what I loved the most was the social interaction. You see, when the first 'paladares' (private restaurants) opened in Cuba most foreigners would go just for hte pleasure of the conversation. Most restaurateurs have forgotten about that personal touch and Papa Jay belongs to that geenration for whom the smile on one's face accompanied by a tasty meal is the perfect combination. And I envy your eye for telling ox tail from chicken apart. Once it goes in the stew it's all the same to me.

Greetings from London.

Ekua said...

It's so nice when you can find a bit of another place right where you live! Are you Jamaican?

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, paladares are my idea of great Caribbean cuisine, conversation is such an important ingredient. Can't tell huge round, oxtail bones from chicken? I think you just focus on eating, lol!

Ekua,I make it a constant to visit places that can offer a different cultural experience. No, I'm not Jamaican but I specialize in Caribbean travel and culture and am typically assumed to be. (Pappa Jay thought so!.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

You are so fortunate to know the existance of these treasures.

Fly Girl said...

Jean-Luc, thanks, yes I am!

LongwoodLadyLaTaunja said...

I am sooo in love with Jamaican food...especially Ackee & Saltfish!So to know that the staff was not familiar with that dish, would have made me hestitant as well!(lol) I am so glad that you gave them a second chance. I will definitely have to make my way down there. I think I will have some....Ackee and Saltfish! Maybe by then Papa Jay will have educated dem on this Jamaican delicacy! I will let you know how it went. Thanks for the review.

Fly Girl said...

La Taunja, I'm glad I'm not the only one who's picky about my Jamaican food! Thanks for dropping by.

Dianne Sharma-Winter said...

Girl even though I am vegetarian, your post had me drooling!

Fly Girl said...

Diane, I'm semi vegetarian and this place had enough veggie goodies to satisfy me, thanks for dropping by.