Restaurant Reviews

Jah's Will Be Done

I'm trying to decide which of the virtues I like the best. Loyalty is a great favorite of mine. And I'm very fond of compassion. Courage is up there, too. And honesty, of course. I've nothing but praise for honesty. As for integrity.... Well! What's there to say? I'm all for it. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Come to think of it, I doubt if there's a single virtue that doesn't have my wholehearted approval. Valor, fortitude, perseverance.... I love every one of them. But the best virtue of all? The one I couldn't do without? It's a tough call -- and many will disagree with me -- but my choice would be insouciance.

I'm a new convert to insouciance -- defined by my dictionary as "calm and unbothered; carefree" -- a change of heart I owe to Jamaica-Me-Crazy. (Great name, no?) The restaurant, open just a short time when I ate there, was experiencing what are called teething problems, the minor difficulties that beset any business still to find its feet. Not being a demanding person, I take these glitches in stride. When my salmon en croute turns out to be all croute and no salmon, do I complain? Not at all. It isn't myself I feel sorry for on these occasions; it's the wait staff. For them, errors like this are deeply embarrassing.

Not, though, for the wait staff at Jamaica-Me-Crazy. You're no more likely to see handwringing here than you are to receive a craven apology. Which isn't to say the staff is indifferent. Quite the contrary. It's diligent and caring. But to enjoy this restaurant, it's important to understand the ethos of the place: an acceptance of fate so all-embracing, it would shame the Dalai Lama.

Nothing seems to faze these people. When the waitress returned with the news that I couldn't have the cake of the day for the reason that the kitchen hadn't bothered to bake one, her tone was philosophical: The gods did such things for the sport it gave them, she seemed to suggest, and it wouldn't do at all to demonstrate impatience. Making a fuss would only encourage them. A better response was to learn not to mind.

The gods were even more mischievous on my second visit. After consulting the menu, we ordered vanilla ice cream. There was none. We ordered rum-raisin ice cream. There was none. We ordered cheesecake. And there was none of that, either. But did I raise a hue and cry? No way! If the waitress could embrace her fate, I could, too, I discovered. I owe Jamaica-Me-Crazy a great debt of gratitude. I came here for lunch and was given, instead, something infinitely more valuable: a spiritual lesson. I left this place a better person; more tolerant, more forbearing. And that's the way I mean to stay. At least for the next couple of days.

It's a good-looking restaurant: a large room with high ceilings, a dance floor and two bars, in both of which Red Stripe, Jamaica's best lager, is conspicuous by its absence. The walls are painted in the Rastafarian colors of red, green and gold, and sport several attractive murals: one celebrating the strawberry daiquiri; a second featuring those natural playmates, the monkey and the dolphin; and a third honoring Bob Marley, shown here surrounded by a bevy of bathing belles whose pro-portions would make the babes of Baywatch turquoise with envy.

By no stretch of the imagination could Jamaican cooking be described as sophisticated. There are no stocks taking days to make, and no elaborate sauces. Which is not to say it can't be delicious. Food is cooked slowly to coax out the flavors. And it's expertly seasoned using garlic and ginger, coconut and curry powder, and allspice, which is indigenous to Jamaica and tastes like cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg all in one.

Generally speaking, the food at Jamaica-Me-Crazy is very good. But if you're wise, you'll avoid the appetizers. The popcorn shrimp ($5.50) were marinated in vinegar for reasons that defy explanation, and they tasted as if they had been pickled. And as for the mozz sticks ($3.99) -- mozzarella rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried -- forget them. The beef patties ($4.95), though, are delicious: saffron-colored pastry pockets and, inside, ground beef perfectly seasoned with onions, chiles, thyme and curry powder. And do try the accompanying dip. Called Pickapeppa, it's reddish-brown in color and tastes like Worcestershire sauce.

The entrees include two dishes not often seen on Houston menus: curried goat and oxtails. Both are excellent. The goat ($7.50), tasting slightly of game, is cooked in its own marinade of garlic, tomatoes, onions, curry powder and chiles. Be warned: Those chiles are Scotch bonnets and can be deceptive. Innocent to start with, the heat builds until you're pleading for a glass of water.

The oxtails ($7.75) are milder. The meat, after being marinated in bay leaves, cloves, chiles and onions, is simmered for several hours, making it exquisitely tender.

I also liked the combination known as rice and peas ($7.50) -- actually rice and beans -- and served with a beef ragout. This dish, which uses coconut milk, is ubiquitous, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the Caribbean. (In Cuba, it's known as moros y cristianos -- Moors and Christians.) Less successful is jerk chicken ($5.95). Traditionally, the meat is marinated and cooked over a fire of allspice branches. At Jamaica-Me-Crazy, hickory is substituted. My chicken was dry, the fault, I suspect, of insufficient basting.

The menu lists only four desserts: cheesecake ($2.95), apple pie ($2.95), the cake of the day ($2.75) and ice cream ($3.25). Four desserts -- and prosaic ones at that -- don't seem nearly enough. The Caribbean is famous for its sweets and puddings. There's brown-sugar fudge and mango fool; coconut bars and guava cheese (not cheese at all, but a pulp made of guava paste and sugar); and the much-loved Dunkanoo (the word is thought to be African), a paste made of sugar, grated corn and coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

"What is the cake of the day?" I asked the waitress. "Apple pie," she said. Which raised all sorts of questions, the most pressing of which was this: If, when you order the cake of the day, you're given apple pie, does this mean that if you order apple pie, you'll be given the cake of the day? I know. It makes the head reel.

Jamaica-Me-Crazy, 9347 1/2 Richmond, 339-2201.

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Eric Lawlor