844 Merrick Rd., Baldwin
AMBIENCE: Rustic dishes served up in a casual dining room filled with stained wood and Caribbean music.
ESSENTIALS: Closed Sundays. Lunch and dinner, noon to 9 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, noon to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Major credit cards and reservations accepted, delivery, takeout, parking lot.
Like many restaurants serving foreign cuisine, the walls inside Coalhouse Grill are designed to express the food’s origins. But where a pizzeria’s hokey painted walls of hills and grapevines charm easily, the muted walls with rustic chair rail molding in the dining room at Coalhouse Grill require a little more effort. The stained tables, made from the same common lumber used as floor joists, and the bar, built with oriented strand board typically used for wall sheathing, are utilitarian. It’s all a little rough around the edges, but honest — just like the food.
Chef Nathalee Francis, who moved to the United States at 19 and now owns the five-month-old restaurant with her husband, Patrick, knows both sides of her native Jamaica. There are the beaches, the tourists and sugary cocktails with umbrellas, but there is also the inside of her grandfather’s butcher shop, where he’d pack up cuts of beef, pork, goat and chicken and send her home to cook them. Francis described her restaurant’s interior as a reflection of that Jamaica, complete with a pudgy banana tree planted in the center of the dining room.
A dish familiar to most Jamaicans is the ackee and saltfish starter. Considered a national dish, it’s a savory and creamy bowl (the mouth feel is similar to a pile of soft egg curds) that combines salted cod sautéed with ackee, a popular island fruit. Paired with four rounds of crispy bammy (dried yucca or cassava) the dish is worth more than the $9 asking price, even if the accompanying, never-ending spiralized cucumber proved hard to share. Small details like that get in the way, as it did when our pleasant waitress distributed square bowls, instead of roomier plates, making it hard to get all the dish’s elements together.
There were more instances when the menu didn’t reflect what reached the table. The green salad’s list of mesclun, chickpeas, apples and grapes became romaine, more spiralized cucumber, canned tangerine segments, carrots and green peas. It happened again with the sides that should have accompanied the broiled salmon. Instead of potatoes and blended vegetables I received the standard sides for most of the entrees: rice with gungo peas, fried sweet plantains, and a scoop of sautéed cabbage. I’m not sure adhering to the menu would have helped in either case as the already sweet salad had an even sweeter raspberry-walnut vinaigrette, and the salmon was riddled with bones.
Traditional, time-intensive main courses were more consistent. The twice-cooked braised oxtail, having spent enough time on the heat to breakdown the tough connective tissue, was silky and flavorful in a sauce of carrots, butter beans, tomato pastes, hot peppers and butter. Floating in that sauce were oblong, pillowy spinner dumplings. The stewed, bone-in segments of tender chicken were coated in a rich brown sauce flavored with carrots and potatoes. The jerk chicken and pork both spend about 24 hours in the same basic rub that includes Scotch bonnet pepper, pimentos, and thyme. The quarter chicken’s mildly spicy flavor is tempered by the bright and sweet mango salsa, while the six or so hunks of pork shoulder sit squarely on the savory-spicy side. Francis said the kitchen can tailor the heat level per request, though that offer never made it to our table.
The juices are another bright spot, the best of which is a zippy natural, unfermented ginger beer made from the root, water, lemon juice and some sugar. End the meal with one of the clever desserts, cakes served in Mason jars with plastic spoons so you can eat them at the table or on your walk out of the restaurant. The carrot cake was moist, with a nice hint of cinnamon and a measured hand with the sweetness of the frosting.
Get the most out of Coalhouse Grill by sticking with the traditional plates and asking questions about the preparation. With a ginger beer in hand, you won’t be tricked into thinking you’re on a touristy beach, but it sure feels like a Jamaican kitchen.