Smalley's Jamaican Barbeque: Jerked around

A trip is sometimes like finding buried treasure, and sometimes like walking the plank

Entrees are served with complementary sides, which, like the appetizers, were hit or miss. A scatter of shredded coconut added interest to peas and rice, and the beer-battered fries had a flavor as addictive as the ones at McDonald's back when they were fried in beef tallow. The Smalley's kitchen elevates its coleslaw with a kick of horseradish, and its macaroni and cheese with bits of bacon and jalapeño—the sorts of touches you'd expect accomplished chefs to add. At the same time, the beans and potato salad came out as drab as those from supermarket delis.

Ironically, the biggest disappointment about Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque was the Caribbean barbecue, as most meats had either flavor or moisture, but not both. The plump sugar-cane shrimp hadn't picked up any smokiness, tasting only of heat and char—even chewing a skewer didn't add any sweetness. The meats in the pork sampler—a super-salty sausage link, a hunk of pork shoulder, and a few spare ribs—gained flavor in exchange for moisture. The shoulder was drier than a pork chop cooked by a Midwestern mother-in-law, and the ribs, too, could have been more succulent. Smalley's ribs are quite different from the Southern-style ones common to these parts, sauced up sweet and tangy. These aren't fall-off-the-bone ribs, but rather, those inspired by the expression about sticking to them. The marinade is so black the ribs look charred, and their texture is almost jerky-like, so gnawing at 'em caveman style is a diner's best approach. I did like the flavor—piney, peppery, smoky, and caramelized. It was like a Caribbean version of curry or mole, with a smoky allspice flavor infused in the meat like wood barrels do for booze. Of all the barbecued meats I tried, the best was the brisket, which had picked up all those flavors yet managed to retain a tender texture.

As a song from The Little Mermaid played on the stereo, my friend summed up our party's mood: "I did not feel transported to the tropics," he said. "I felt transported to Famous Dave's." I had to agree. Was I holding Smalley and McKee to a higher standard because of their prior accomplishments? And, if so, was that fair?

Not an actual pirate: Shawn Smalley, with cannon
Jana Freiband
Not an actual pirate: Shawn Smalley, with cannon

Just because a guy's a star chef doesn't mean he should never be able to let his guard down, relax, and have some fun—or cash in on, say, a pirate trend. Still, I think my wish that Smalley's might have a bigger impact was justified, especially when benchmarked against a few of its possible local influences. Compared to, say, Marla's and Harry Singh's, Caribbean restaurants run by Caribbean natives, Smalley's didn't have nearly the range of authentic dishes. Compared to Brasa, another casual ethnic-food eatery run by a fine-dining chef, Smalley's didn't source naturally raised meats. Compared to La Belle Vie and Solera, McKee's other restaurants, Smalley's didn't deliver an experience that was nearly as delightful, or as boundary-pushing.

Then again, not only were these guys adopting a new cuisine, they were introducing it to an audience that knows jerk not as a food but as a Steve Martin movie. Smalley and McKee have their work cut out for them: It's tough to sell authenticity in a tourist town to crowds who would rather skip the spice at dinner and save it for the B&B. 

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