Sweet Spice2725 Agricola Street431 5500Hours: Mon-Wed 7am-7pmThur-Fri 7am-10pmSat 10am-10pmSun 10am-5pm
Jamaica and Newfoundland used to share very close trading ties: Jamaica sent rum up north and Newfoundland reciprocated with salt cod—which, when combined with the ackee fruit, makes Jamaica's national dish. Being a Newfoundlander who isn't fond of salted fish, I think we make out pretty well in that deal. And although neither is dependent on the other these days, there's still a bond. In an odd way, I've always felt a closeness to Jamaican cuisine and culture.
When I hit Sweet Spice that feeling is only strengthened.I feel as if I'm walking into someone's house. Bright oranges, yellows and blues are everwhere, plywood booths remind me of a kitchen project from my childhood days, and Bob Marley (of course) is singing away in the background. The only other customer looks up from his meal, says "Hi," and yells for someone from behind the take-out counter, kind of like you'd bawl out for your mother if company dropped by.
The shy, smiling server appears as we wedge ourselves into one of the booths. (Note to self: Do not eat too much, or you may be stuck in here for good.)
The menu is small, with the classic Jamaican offerings, along with Canadian favourites such as fish and chips, burgers and an all-day breakfast.
We order up beef patties ($2.25 each), brown stew chicken ($9.25), oxtail ($10.25), curry goat ($9.75) and of course, jerk chicken ($9.25). All of the entrees come with heaping piles of peas and rice, and a crunchy purple slaw. Each plate could easily feed two.
I like the beef patties—the flaky pastry is wrapped around the beef filling and there's just a hint of sweetness in the otherwise hot dish. The brown stew chicken is Jamaican comfort food, and with more subtle seasoning than the rest of the dishes we try, would make an excellent introduction to island cuisine for less adventurous taste buds. The oxtails are a little tougher than I've had, as though they haven't been braised quite long enough, but they're tasty and I'm not averse to gnawing the bones clean. Jamaican cooks are not wasteful—all parts of an animal are used and meat is cooked on the bone, where all the flavour is. The goat has certainly been braised long enough:
The meat falls off the bones as we pick it up. Once again, no bone is left with even a hint of meat, and the remaining mild curry sauce becomes an accompaniment for the rice.
While ackee and salt cod may be the Jamaican national dish, there's no doubt that jerk chicken is the most famous. As with any spice blend, the components of jerk may vary from cook to cook, but there is always a balance of sweet and spicy, a complex blend that starts out with a quick burn and is followed by a nuanced sweet finish. Allspice (a pimento tree berry that tastes of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon) provides the sweet, while some hot chilies create heat, then ingredients such as green onions, tamarind and ginger may be combined to create those wonderful layers of flavour. Typically, jerk chicken is toned down to appeal to North American palates, but I am pleased to report this is not the case here—because it's good, damn good.
There was nothing I didn't like about Sweet Spice, a casual, relaxed place to feed body and soul. Nothing that is, except the distance from my house to the restaurant.
Liz Feltham is only as far away as your computer. Visit foodcritic.ca for more reviews.
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