Serious Eats: New York
BYOB of the Week: The Islands
“Someone who knows how to cook food is cooking this food.”
As a West Village girl about to leave her borough behind, I know how hard it can be to lure Manhattanites out to Brooklyn. A bar in Williamsburg, okay; a walk on the Promenade, maybe—if it’s sunny, and a weekend, and the A train isn’t running on the F line.
The Eastern Parkway, on the other hand, might as well be in New Jersey.
But after a string of lackluster New York BYOBs, I am happy to proclaim that The Islands, a Jamaican nook just north of the Brooklyn Museum, is worth the subway fare. From whichever borough you might be in.
Walking down Washington Avenue, it’d be easy to pass right by. On first glance, the storefront looks to be no more than a single counter, with barely enough space to squeeze in for take-out. But up an impossibly steep staircase (ladder?) is a second floor—its ceiling barely high enough to let one walk upright—with a few cozy tables, waitered service, and a BYOB policy. Break out the Red Stripe, and climb upstairs.
As we peeked in the door, co-owner Marilyn Reid called us inside, a merry lilt in her voice. “Come sit upstairs, baby. Come sit upstairs.” She stirred vats of chicken and goat, chatting amiably with customers, her warmth diffusing along with the mouthwatering aromas from behind the counter. I couldn’t have gotten a kinder welcome from my own grandmother.
Virtually everything on the menu requires a long, slow simmer, so there’s no cooking to order—when the kitchen runs out of something, they’re out, and you’re out of luck. But with such an outstanding roster of dishes, just take whatever’s there. You’re not likely to be disappointed.
I judge any Jamaican restaurant by its jerk chicken ($10 small, here), and by that measure, The Islands could do no wrong. Both spicy and allspice-y, with slow, creeping heat and a whiff of Scotch bonnet, the chicken was served bone-in but cooked so tender the drumstick bone could have been picked up and tossed aside. A scant sheen of chicken fat kept the meat moist, but not greasy in the slightest.
The jerk leg of lamb ($12 small), roasted with the same blend, tasted so intensely of lamb that the notes of spice didn’t come through as strongly. But with such tender meat, one couldn't complain. The accompanying rice and peas had their own seasoning, and stewed cabbage added a nice bite.
The oxtail ($12 small) was a bit more work, clinging to its star-shaped bones, but here, too, fell away at the touch of a fork. In its own deep, musky gravy, the meat was superb—fatty in the most appealing of ways.
Leaner and meaner, the curry goat ($11 small) was cooked just as perfectly; tough, but not unpleasantly so, in a lighter, saltier stew. As Ed chewed his goat, he nodded sagely, in evident approval. “Someone who knows how to cook food is cooking this food.”
Each dish came with one or two slices of plantains, but we sprung for an extra dish ($3)—deeply caramelized, sweet flesh, beautifully crusted around the edges.
When we'd walked in the door, we'd seen at least three shepherd’s pies ($16) waiting for pickup. “The traditional Jamaican shepherd’s pie?” Ed laughed. Marilyn smiled back. “We’re a colonized people, baby. We have our British roots.”
A few hundred years in the Caribbean did an awful lot for this pub staple. (Would that all English food passed through Jamaica.) Whereas the ground meat in shepherd’s pies is often a grayish, insipid crumble, The Islands’ version was as beautifully spiced as any of their other meats—I’d guess with heavy-handed cinnamon and allspice, though Marilyn wouldn’t tell me.
“It’s just made with love, baby. Lots and lots of love.”
803 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11238 (map)