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.