132 West Houston Street, New York NY 10012 (at Sullivan; map); 646-588-5375; misslilynyc.com
Service: Casual but professional
Setting: Hipster diner, veering on clubby
Must-Haves: Grilled Corn, Jerk Chicken, Cod Fritters
Cost: Appetizers $9 to $11, Entrees $17 to $23
If you wanted to construct a chef pedigree that would result in seriously delicious Jamaican food, you'd look no further than Bradford Thompson, who first came to our attention when he was voted one of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs in 2004. A James Beard award for Best Chef, Southwest, followed two years later for his cooking at Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona. Previously Thompson had honed his craft under the watchful eye of Daniel Boulud and his fabled chef de cuisine at the time, Alex Lee.
So when you combine his overall cooking chops with the fact that his Jamaican wife Kerry-Ann's family owned several seminal jerk chicken restaurants in the Bronx, you have the potential for Jamaican food that's probably better than most of us have experienced in the Caribbean. The only thing that worried us as we walked into the restaurant is that Lily's is a Serge Becker joint, and Becker is much better known as a club owner and scene maker (The Box, La Esquina) than as a restaurateur. We had a real fear that the scene would trump the food.
But we needn't have worried.
Sure, the atmosphere is a bit loud, veering towards clubby later on in the night, and the restaurant is full of beautiful people (not the least of which are the striking front-of-the-house staff)—but it couldn't be friendlier, and our wait time was very accurately and politely predicted for us when we walked in on a Thursday night at 7:30 with a party of five and no reservation. (We waited no more than twenty minutes).
Listen: we've spent a lot of time eating food in the Caribbean, from the South American mainland to the islands, and the unfortunate truth is that it's hardly a culinary mecca. Granted, the flavors are exciting and the natural products can't be beat, but we can count on one hand the number of times we've had jerk chicken or fried whole fish that wasn't at least partially if not wildly overcooked.
So what happens when you pair those flavors and spirit with some hardcore classical and modern technique? You end up with some seriously delicious food.
Middle Quarters Pepper Shrimp ($10) are served head on, plump and crisp, and pack some real heat—particularly if you suck the juices out of the head as you peel them (which you should). The modern Iberians like their Salt Cod Fritters ($9) soft, cooked in milk until tender. In the Caribbean, you can expect larger, tougher chunks of fish. At Miss Lily's, you get something in between: Enough large chunks that there's no doubt about what you're eating, with just enough tender shredded meat to bind them together.
Glazed Ribs are pretty awesome—first cooked in a low-temperature vapor-infused oven then finished with a sweet, sticky glaze over their raging hot grill, they're tender without being fatty or fall-off-the-bone melted (that is, they're perfectly cooked). But our favorite appetizer was the Grilled Corn, a clever and incredibly successful spin on Mexican street corn. Grilled until charred, slathered in garlicky mayonnaise, and covered in toasted coconut shards, it's not the only place in the city to serve it (Num Pang has it too), but it's the best.
Smoked Mackerel Salad ($11) combines chunky and moist smoked fish with a handful of bright pickled red onions, and some sparingly dressed greens. It's more of a "salad with smoked mackerel" than a "smoked mackerel salad," but delicious nonetheless.
Nowhere is Brad's hardcore high-end restaurant training more apparent than with the Jerk Chicken ($19). He starts by brining the birds in a salt water solution overnight, followed by another night sitting in a spice rub. The next day they spend several hours in a C-Vap oven, a high-tech cooker designed to control both temperature and humidity precisely to cook meat through evenly from edge to edge with minimal moisture loss. Finally, the chicken gets a brief stint on a blazing hot grill where the spice rub chars and blackens.
The result is supremely moist chicken—the kind of chicken you'd expect to be served at Daniel—but brasher, bolder, and way more fun. That the jerk sauce he serves with it is a meticulously reconstructed version of his mother-in-law's (he plans to sell bottles in the near future) makes the juxtaposition all the more fitting.
His Hellshire Style Fried Whole Fish ($23) is better than any fried fish we've ever had in the Caribbean: Moist, meaty flesh with thin crisp skin, the deep-fried whole red snapper served with bright and spicy pickled vegetables is just missing a beach and a beer.
Of all the dishes on the menu, it was odd to us that our least favorite was the burger. Assertive jerkiness is not something we often ask for, but the Jerk Pork Burger ($15) could have used it. Ours was underseasoned, lacking in both salt and spice. No doubt, it's still the most popular item on the menu. We much preferred the Curry Goat ($22), awesome sweet rice cooked with raw sugar and a meaty, spicy stew of goat, potatoes, and carrots. The tender goat comes on the bone, so be ready to use your fingers (you'll want to lick them afterwards). We just wish there was a little more goat to go around.
Is it just us, or are slices of cake a dessert trend these days? Not that we mind. Miss Lily's has a rotating selection, and the Coconut Cake ($8) we tried was superb. This time we got ultra-moist white cake with a rough, tender crumb, a not-too-sweet frosting, and plenty of toasted coconut. Banana Pudding ($8), served with Nilla wafers, is moist, tender, and very banana-y, though our Cereal Eats columnist Leandra preferred a scoop of Grape-Nut Ice Cream (naturally).
Would we have liked the music a bit quieter and the scene a bit less, well, scene-y? You bet. But we couldn't have asked for better food or service, and that's rare in New York, especially for a place that's already well-known as a scene. In the end, we came away remembering not the crowds, but the chicken, and that's an impressive feat.