A stylish Caribbean restaurant named Sugarcane
has opened on Flatbush Avenue, adding a bit of glamour to the
still evolving area between Prospect Heights and Park Slope.
Charmaine Gumbs, who co-owns the restaurant with Gaspa Rodriguez, plays host, while her talented, older sister, Phoebe Gumbs, introduces the pleasures of Trinidadian food to the area.
"Trinidadian food," says Charmaine, "is influenced by East Indian culture. We use lots of curry in our dishes. But, because so many people love jerk chicken - which is more Jamaican than Trinidadian - we serve that too."
On a recent Sunday evening, Sugarcane, which opened in early December, was packed with young couples and tables of women sipping oversized pina coladas and watermelon martinis (the bartender makes a frothy, fresh pineapple pina colada that isn’t too sweet, and in this setting, doesn’t look like a parade float).
A little numbing at the bar eased the pain of the reggae band - enjoyable yet loud - that took center stage in the dining room.
Both the bar and the medium-sized dining room are designed to complement Gumb’s cooking, which she bills as "stylish Caribbean cuisine." The bar sports brushed, stainless steel tables and laboratory-like chrome stools; the dining room is warmer with brick walls, black-and-white family photos, flattering lighting and, on each table, a vase with a single leaf that resembled a heart-shaped fan.
No one feels underfed at Sugarcane. Platters take the place of plates and portions are huge. An appetizer easily makes a light dinner.
The Sugarcane shrimp - an appetizer of jumbo shrimp served on sugar cane skewers - looked like edible sculptures. Each shrimp, glazed with Sugarcane’s aromatic "secret sauce" was pleasantly sweet from the sugar cane with a smoky edge from the grill. Unfortunately, the side of fried plantains were under-ripe and almost flavorless. Flavorless, too, were the codfish fritters called accras. These puffs are cute, but devoid of fish flavor; even a lively spring onion tartar sauce couldn’t rescue them.
How do you choose an entree from a selection that includes braised oxtails in a West Indian sauce, guava-glazed pork ribs or Trinidadian chicken stew laced with Old Oak Rum and thyme? I figured I couldn’t go wrong with jerk chicken. Half a chicken, cut into serving pieces and burnished a deep mahogany, arrived on a platter with heaping sides of pigeon peas, rice and fried plantains. The cloud of cayenne pepper, ginger and cinnamon-scented spice that rose from the chicken’s jerk glaze promised great eating.
And, great eating it was for the first three bites. The spices - hot Scotch bonnet chilies and cayenne, the soothing sweetness of cinnamon and subtle heat of ginger - set my tongue tingling. The meat though, can be described in one word: dry, which made eating more than one piece pointless. Pigeon peas and rice were light and quietly flavored - the right complement to the heavily seasoned chicken - and the plantains were, again, not sweet enough.
Chef Gumb’s curried shrimp, however, soared. Huge, flavorful prawns and sauteed green and red peppers sat in a heady stew of coconut milk heavily infused with coriander, garlic and cumin. Slices of caramelized onions added sweetness. A mound of mildly flavored coconut rice, served with the curry, made an appropriately simple base for the complexity of the dish’s flavors.
Light entree items on Sugarcane’s menu include a typical Trinidadian outdoor snack, a filet of shark sandwich, which is generally sold at outdoor stands. A diner can order their sandwich with one of six different herb- and fruit-based sauces or opt for all of them. Roti, a curry-infused stew encased in deep-fried bread, comes four ways: vegetable, chicken, beef and shrimp.
I wasn’t wowed by a nothing-special cheesecake nicely plated atop a white dish with three big dots of mango sauce. A wiser choice would be the palette-cooling house-made sorbets and mango or coconut ice creams. If you eat on the light side you may want to indulge in bread pudding made with coconut milk, a slice of warm chocolate cake, or a sponge cake soaked with rum.
Even with flaws that can be expected from a restaurant in its infancy; Sugarcane has generated crowds and good word of mouth. Diners enjoy its elegant ambiance and laid-back charm. If the kitchen can elevate all the dishes to the heights of that curried shrimp, then great food awaits.
Sugarcane (238 Flatbush Ave. at Bergen Street) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Discover. Light entrees: $8-$12. Standard entrees: $11.95-$17.95. For reservations, call (718) 230-3954.
©2003 Community News Group
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