First Look at J'Ouvert

J'Ouvert is a huge holiday in the eastern Caribbean, celebrated from Trinidad to Dominica, that precedes Carnival each year. It's also a brand-new Caribbean restaurant that just opened in Midtown six weeks ago.

I stumbled into J'Ouvert (3030 Travis, 713-521-1313) by accident yesterday when I headed over to Cali Sandwich to grab a quick lunch. Cali was packed, as always, and I noticed that a small restaurant had opened up next door...and was empty. It listed roti, jerk chicken and rice and peas as menu items on the front door. I was sold.

It was quiet and cozy inside, perfect for a low-key lunch. A very handsome man behind the register (yes, I'm horribly shallow sometimes) took my to-go order as I looked around, a bit sad that I couldn't stay and enjoy the calm environment. Although J'Ouvert has $5.99 lunch specials, I splurged on a plate of jerk pork that came with two sides for $8.85. These entrees are a build-your-own type of endeavor: tell J'Ouvert what kind of meat you want (chicken, shrimp, beef, salmon, etc.), what kind of seasoning (jerk, curry, mango barbecue or lemon pepper) and then choose two of the daily side dishes from the chalkboard above the register. I went with rice and peas and the cabbage and carrots.

"And what would you like to drink?" the man asked.

"Oh, just a Coke. Whatever you've got," I replied.

A broad smile broke out on his face. "Oh, we don't have Cokes." He gestured to a lineup of beverages I hadn't noticed before on the counter. "We encourage people to broaden their horizons here."

Champagne kolas and other Caribbean beverages stood in a colorful row. I suddenly found myself at a loss to choose one and pointed at a Jamaican Irish Moss sort of at random. "I want that one," I said, feeling awkwardly like Andy Pipkin from Little Britain.

"Are you sure," the man asked, slowly, "...you want that one?" In my head, I thought: Oh my God, I'm Andy AND HE'S LOU. "That one's made from peanuts."

"Yes," I answered, giggling to myself. "I want that one."

He handed it over and I sat down to wait for my lunch to come out. I cracked open the Irish Moss and took a sip: MAGIC. It tasted like a peanut butter shake in a can. (The 13 grams of fat per serving attested to this taste sensation, unfortunately.) But it was sweet and creamy and terribly difficult to stop drinking. I'd polished it off before my to-go container even came out.

Back at the office, I dug into the rice and peas first. Fresh sprigs of thyme were threaded throughout the kidney beans and rice. It was studded with fat allspice berries, giving the entire dish that fresh autumn air scent that I always associate with allspice; I don't like consuming the berries whole, however, and was a bit annoyed at having to pick all of them out.

The cabbage and carrots were pleasantly curried, though I wished for larger chunks of carrot. And the jerk pork -- which I ordered "regular" as opposed to "mild" or "extra spicy" -- was definitely on the milder end of that spectrum. I made a mental note to order it extra spicy next time, though, as the jerk seasoning that came through was rich with cloves, cinnamon, garlic and thyme. More Scotch bonnet peppers would have given it the oomph I was craving.

I want to go back to J'Ouvert soon and try the roti, especially the curry shrimp roti wrap that's on the menu for only $4.99. I can see making a regular lunchtime thing out of this new place. Bonus: It's open until 3 a.m. on Thursday through Saturday nights, giving Midtown one more late[-night], great dining destination.

I shall probably only make a yearly habit out of those Jamaican Irish Moss drinks, on the other hand. I have a feeling that -- as delicious as they are -- they might be the death of me.

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