Island Standards

Tucked away in South Berkeley's student ghetto, Caribbean Cove serves all the greatest hits.

I have a few greatest-hits compilations on my shelves: Kate Bush, the Kinks, a few others too embarrassing to mention in print. I don’t own these CDs because I love the artists, I own them for the songs — they were all collected in the pre-MP3 days, when if you really needed to listen to “Go Your Own Way” and “Rhiannon” over and over again but couldn’t bear to invest in two separate Fleetwood Mac albums, you could buy The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac and hide it at the back of your CD rack. That’s a random example, by the way.

Caribbean Cove’s dinner menu reads like a greatest hits of Caribbean food — curried goat, ackee and salt cod (Saturdays only), and, of course, jerk chicken — all recognizable from other Jamaican and Trinidadian menus in the area. But the pleasure it elicits isn’t tainted with the same guilt.

The dine-in menu doesn’t do much more that present its shortlist of dishes, but the takeout menu contains all the relevant facts, and then some — how chef Judith O’Loughlin comes from Nevis, a tiny island that forms an independent state with neighboring St. Kitts. How the dining room has 26 seats and may be booked for special events. How goat is lower in saturated fats than many other meats, and how Kim and Mike have said, “The fish and goat dishes were primo delicious.”

O’Loughlin, who emigrated from Nevis to the United States in the early 1980s, owned the six-seat J&J Caribbean Kitchen on MacArthur Boulevard for many years before the bar it was housed in closed. She catered for a while before finding a new space right above Fondue Fred’s in the Village, the minimall on Telegraph at Blake. The room is mighty cute — the sea-blue and lemon-yellow walls, the hardwood floors varnished to a shine, the view from the windows of wooden rafters and the plumes of indoor banana trees — but the lack of direct street access may not be to her advantage right now. With the Cal kids gone for the summer, evening business doesn’t seem to have picked up yet.

She has readied the menu for their return, though, with student specials of Jamaican patties, plantains, and Ting. Patties (pronounce the word as if you’re Nico) are wallet-sized turnovers stuffed with densely curried shredded meat or vegetables, heavy on the peppers. Ting, of course, is the best grapefruit soda ever.

But after one taste of O’Loughlin’s homemade sorrel, I switched to the red stuff. Steeped in water, the ruby-colored blooms of the hibiscus variety islanders call sorrel and Mexicans call jamaica produce a fruity, tangy drink that tastes as intense as it looks; one sip will tell you why some people call sorrel “Florida cranberry.” O’Loughlin’s twist is to add ginger, which is like adding a half-blind cop, a bus full of kindergartners, and a kitten to a Michael Bay car chase.

Equally spellbinding was the curry goat. Curry arrived in the Caribbean with Asian Indians, who came to Guyana and the islands as indentured servants in the mid-19th century. The masala of spices with which O’Loughlin braises the goat is at once familiar and just a little strange, melding with the rich meat into a thrumming, ever-so-funky stew.

O’Loughlin brings out the same robustness in her oxtail. Oxtail is already a self-contained meat: It requires no fancy sauces, dozens of spices, or really more than a few aromatic vegetables to bring out the most amazing flavors. Raw, it looks forbidding, its vertebrae ringed thickly in fat and studded here and there with what appear to be tiny chunks of meat, nothing worth your time. But then you stew it and stew it, braising the meat until the fat slinks away, and the collagen melts into the broth, which reduces and begins to glisten. By the time you’re tired of stewing and ready to run across the street for some Popeye’s, you look in the pot and realize the oxtail is ready: The meat is finally tender enough to scoop out from the hollows of the bones with a spoon.

The success of the chef’s dishes seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of time they take to make. The cornmeal-coated chicken wings, which spent no more than a few minutes in the hot oil, were fine — tender inside, and served with a chile-flecked syrup on the side — but nothing exceptional. Same with the simple lettuce-and-vinaigrette salad that precedes every meal, there for balance rather than inspiration. And the curried chicken couldn’t match the long-stewed goat. I blame the chicken breasts, which dried out as they cooked. Chicken legs and wings, which do the opposite, would have had a completely different effect, and could have been stewed long enough to pick up some real flavor.

O’Loughlin’s jerk marinade, which caramelizes on the skin into a dark brown, clumpy crust, isn’t exactly sweet, not in the way some people sweeten jerk. There’s more to it than that. You can catch some allspice in the beautifully complex marinade, and some thyme, but the first and last thing you’ll notice is the hot peppers. The fillets of whitefish in the es-cove-itch fish and mysteriously named “brown stewfish” both were cooked a little too long, but their sauces made up for it. A play on escovich, the islandization of the Spanish escabeche, the es-cove-itch was slathered in a vinegar-sassed sauté of peppers and onions, and the sweetly ferocious brown “stew” sauce could have come from Sichuan as well as Nevis.

Everything is served by a pair of young women who wander in and out of the open kitchen casting sweet, slow smiles wherever they pass. There are no desserts listed on the menu, but if you remember to ask the servers, they may duck back to the cooler for slices of black cake, a rum-soaked descendant of British plum pudding that blurs the lines between custard and cake, dessert and after-dinner cocktail.

O’Loughlin says that much of the food cooked across the Caribbean is the same, and familiar dishes like curry goat and escovich fish are the foods she grew up on. As packed with hits as Caribbean Cove’s menu is, though, it left me wanting to try more of Nevis’s B-sides. What discoveries may lie beyond the highlights of the Caribbean?

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