Soulful Jamaican, Even Without the Meat, at The Islands
I have a thing for hole-in-the-wall places: there's just something special, almost a little magical, about a cook who can turn out rich, satisfying dishes in a tiny space outfitted with few amenities.
When I think hole-in-the-wall—in a good way—I think the Islands, a slender little strip of a restaurant located just down the block from the Brooklyn Museum (previously reviewed by Carey here). Here, a postage stamp-sized "kitchen" (a couple of wall-mounted ovens and two gas burners) produces lovingly spiced, deeply flavored plates of food that, in spite of their enormity, rarely exceed a $12 price tag. And the "dining room" offers a similar off-the-cuff charm, consisting of four small tables up a perilously narrow metal staircase, where aromas of allspice, ginger, and garlic waft up from below. Something else that's great about the Islands? It's BYOB, so be sure to stop by the corner store on your way in.
The menu at the Islands lists a number of vegetarian dishes, but because it's such a small operation, the restaurant actually only serves a rotating cast of daily specials. It's a good idea to call ahead to see what's available, especially if you're eating vegetarian, as the day's meat-free options, though all delicious, aren't always on hand.
My gang and I started with a huge chunk of—get ready for this, people—the best Macaroni and Cheese ($5) I have ever eaten. The prominence of thick, baked slabs of mac and cheese—or, as it's often called, macaroni pie—in the Caribbean diet is something of a mystery, but the Islands has clearly perfected this mutt of a tradition: its deeply cheddar-y, sky-high noodles are threaded through with sweet cooked onions and topped with a crunchy, deeply savory layer of toasted breadcrumbs. "It tastes like something straight out of a church basement," one of my companions commented.
An entrée of Curry Vegetables with Tofu ($10, pictured at top) made a cohesive dish of tons of elements: included in the mix were butter beans, red beans, corn, carrots, peas and cauliflower, sprinkled overall with golden raisins and bound together in a light curried broth. A veritable mountain of rice and peas was on hand for sopping up the stew, and the Islands's other standard sides don't get short shrift, either: the tender, buttery sautéed cabbage accented with peas and carrots is well-seasoned, and a lettuce salad is dressed brightly and showered with thinly-sliced red onion and more sweet golden raisins. I repeat: all of this costs ten dollars.
The dark horse of our bounteous meal was, perhaps, the simply-titled (and simple-looking) Stew Peas ($10), a dark, thick stew of creamy kidney beans, peas and carrots in a coconut-rich, gingery sauce. Tender flour dumplings added extra heft to this filling main dish.
The Islands is the kind of place where the table water arrives in a former vodka handle (true story) and the check is passed up to you through the balcony bars from a server below. The fact that the food here is so outstanding is just part of the reason to pay a visit.