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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

What a Jerk!

By B.A. Nilsson

Orchid’s Jamaican-American Restaurant

1305 Altamont Ave., Schenectady, 952-7182. Serving 11-9 Mon-Sat. Cash only (credit cards to come).

Cuisine: Jamaican

Entrée price range: $7.50 (small curried chicken dinner) to $11 (large beef stew dinner)

Ambiance: close quarters

 

A compelling blend of spices becomes a flavor so complex that it achieves an identity independent of its components. Savor a good curry and you don’t even think to pick out components like cardamom, cumin and cloves. Similarly, jerk seasoning, while screaming with allspice, travels considerably far from that flavor alone.

Jerk chicken, liberated from its long, slow roast, can astonish you with a crowd of sensations in which sweetness rides the back of a chili-hot roar, but where the spiciness has so many palate neighbors that you may not be aware you’ve been so affected until sweat beads along your forehead. Herein lies the blessing and curse of Jamaican cuisine. If you’re going to enjoy something spicy, this is the ideal dish, the punishment it offers akin to the frisson of spanking during sex play.

But the prospect of that sort of pain frightens many. I take it back: The curse is not with Jamaican cuisine; it’s the mac-and-cheese blandness that dulled American cooking for decades. Thus the apologetic caution offered by so many immigrant restaurateurs who offer livelier fare: “We don’t make it as spicy as we do at home.”

The situation has improved in recent years, and I’ve visited places in other cities that make no compromise or apology. And I know that you, loyal friend, have done persistent work in pushing back those culinary boundaries.

Rose Marie Coleman assures me that everything she offers at her restaurant, Orchid’s (named for her nickname), is easygoing in the heat department. “Except for the jerk chicken,” she adds. I’ll take that as a promising compromise, and I can tell you that the dish is exceptional, well satisfying my pepper requirements without going anywhere near actual discomfort.

And the rest of her menu? She told me that oxtail is far and away her most-ordered dish, and when my 13-year-old daughter tried it, the kid’s eyes lit up. She then assigned me the task of learning to make it so that it could become a household dinner staple. These are plump ringlets of meat, cut from the tail of cattle, with a high fat content that brings persistence of flavor to the long-simmering stew. There’s often more bone than meat, but what meat there is has a filling richness.

The menu, posted on a signboard over the counter, offers dinners in two sizes, which include rice and peas, plantain, and a choice of salad, cabbage or collard greens. Jerk chicken is $8 or $10; curried or brown stew chicken is $7.50 or $9. Beef is available in a stew ($8.50/$11) or oxtail ($8/$10). Curried goat is $8 or $10.

Jamaica’s national dish is ackee and salt cod ($8/$12), combining a fruit of west African origin with a pungent fish, cooked with onions, peppers, tomatoes and more. You’ll find fish in a brown stew ($8/$12) and escovitch ($8/$12), a Spanish-derived dish also called escabeche, a cousin of ceviche, in which the fish marinates overnight in an acid (like lemon juice), then gets additional cooking with vinegar, onions and a complement of spices.

Two types of wrapped meat are served: Roti ($3 alone) is a thin dough that can be filled with chicken ($5), beef ($7) or goat ($7.50), and each is a meal in itself. Patties are smaller, plumper and chewier ($1.85 apiece).

Although the place is geared for takeout, a pair of tables gives a lucky few an eat-in opportunity. Over the course of a couple of visits, I saw a variety of customers, many clearly regulars, hurrying in for their take-home bags. “Oh, I see many different people here,” says Coleman. She rattles off a rainbow of ethnicities. “Not just Jamaicans. Everybody loves the food.”

If the loves persists—as it really should—she’d like to expand the hours and open for weekend breakfasts and stay open Sundays. “And I’d like to move to bigger place where I can have tables,” she says wistfully. “There’s so much more I could be serving. I’d like to do callaloo and more escovitch.”

Meanwhile, Coleman already is realizing a long-standing ambition. “This is my dream,” she says. “I’ve always wanted my own restaurant, and I’ve worked hard to get this.” She can’t talk for too long, because the phone is ringing with orders, customers are coming in for pickups, and she and a very small staff are pulling baking trays from the ovens, topping off the steam table containers, and heaping spoonful after spoonful into takeout trays.

She’s been in this space for a year and a half, spreading the word on little more than word of mouth. Let’s help her build that business.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant competition in North America. Chef consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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