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for The Brooklyn Paper
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If you want a good Caribbean meal, go to JRG Restaurant Bar and Fashion Cafe in Prospect Heights. But eat a little something before you go. And don’t plan on seeing a movie afterward.

Strange advice, I know.

JRG Fashion Cafe ("where food and fashion meet") opened in December. The restaurant has a lot going for it. It’s an attractive space, warmly hosted by owner J.R. Giddings, and his staff. Some of the food is simply good, other dishes, like a salmon fillet bathed in mango and sorrel paste was sublime. Speedy, it’s not.

The kitchen, headed by executive chef Carlton Rodgers and sous-chef Karen Pompey, is still experiencing growing pains. Waiting for courses is slow going: how does 40 minutes for two appetizers sound? If the food wasn’t as good as it is, I’d say, "Save yourself the trip." But Rodgers and Pompey take great care with their cuisine. Their dishes - fresh, attractively plated and boldly spiced - are worth the wait.

The cafe occupies two floors of a building. There’s a busy bar and dining room downstairs and a quieter dining room upstairs abutted by a spacious outdoor deck. Little expense has been spared in outfitting the cafe. The walls are glazed in tones of celadon and soft beige. Run a hand over them, and you’ll find they’re cool and smooth as glass.

On the fourth Thursday of each month, Giddings hosts a fashion show in the cafe to promote New York area fashion designers. His love of fashion is apparent in the photos of models gracing the walls, the garments of Brooklyn-based designers displayed on mannequins and an endless video of gorgeous Amazons strutting down a runway that plays overhead while you dine.

Many dishes that you’d find on a Caribbean menu, with touches of Guyana and Latin America, can be found at JRG. Yucca, a root vegetable common in Latin cooking is present, as is sweet or squash-like plantains and akee, a red-skinned fruit that tastes a bit like scrambled eggs. Codfish, curries and jerk chicken are among the entrees.

The akee and codfish tempura are a welcome break from seasonal crab cakes. The akee is blended with codfish into a velvety puree. The mix is then dipped into a light tempura batter and fried until crisp. The cakes taste cleanly of the fish and needed only a squeeze of fresh lemon to heighten the flavors. Codfish cakes, similar to the tempura version without the akee, were almost as good.

Stew, especially a heavy, brown stew, doesn’t appeal to me on a hot summer evening. But I love what happens to oxtails when they cook for hours in a rich stew and, heat or no heat, I was ordering them.

JRG’s oxtails needed another hour in the pot to reach optimum tenderness, yet it was still beefy and not stringy. The stew - enhanced with a healthy dose of fresh thyme - was smoky. The side of rice and beans (kidney or black-eyed peas) is slow cooked in fresh coconut juice with thyme, rosemary, onions and garlic. It’s worth ordering on its own.

And then there’s that salmon. A huge fillet of the fish arrives with a crosshatch of grill marks on its orange-pink flesh. Before the salmon’s short stint over the fire, it’s brushed with a marinade of pureed mango and sorrel leaves. The mango’s sweet cinnamon flavor underscored by the tartness of the sorrel does something magical to the fish. The puree forms a thin, brittle skin while the fish’s flesh stays moist with a crisp edge. Each mouthful is a pleasure. Simply sauteed leaves of sorrel add color, and garlic mashed potatoes add chunky texture to the plate.

There are only three desserts offered at JRG: a Georgetown sponge cake, vanilla custard layered with strawberries, and a pineapple-raisin bread pudding. I love bread pudding in any form, but this one left me cold. It was too dry and a little heavy like a Polish babka.

On the other hand, I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed anything at that point. Two hours of those over-oiled sticks prancing around on the video made me feel guilty for the big dinner I just downed.

Imagine that the JRG Fashion Cafe is a vacation, one that takes awhile to ease into. Allow your shoulders to drop from their place near your ears. Try to forget the million things you have to complete before bed. (A strong cocktail, like their potent whiskey sour, will help.) The food will arrive. Think of it as fashionably late.

 

JRG Restaurant Bar and Fashion Cafe (177 Flatbush Ave. at Pacific Street in Prospect Heights) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner’s Club and Discover. Entrees: $10.95-$19.95. Valet parking. For reservations, call (718) 399-7079.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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