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What A Jerk 

Good island fare and atmosphere in Indian Trail

If a sunny fall or winter retreat seems the best way to beat our waterlogged summer blues, recently US Airways has been offering tantalizing deals to the Caribbean. While these flights are not non-stop to the gorgeous St. Vincent and Grenadine islands where this summer's Caribbean pirates rocked, an increasing number of the non-stop flights to the Caribbean islands are being offered."Now that US Airways has direct flights to Jamaica, more people here are discovering island food," said native Jamaican Wilfred Coke who co-owns, with his wife Caroline, Indian Trail's first Caribbean restaurant, 60-seat Island Grill.

Caribbean joints seem to popping up around Charlotte, and neighboring communities, like summer mushrooms. Island Grill opened in a small strip shopping center off Old Monroe Road last February. Coke said, "We wanted to bring something new to the area, part of the Caribbean scene."

The Cokes moved to Charlotte from northern New Jersey where they had both worked in Caroline Coke's aunt's restaurant. The move was prompted by Charlotte's "laid back nature" and entrepreneurial spirit as well as being "a good place to raise a family." In 2002, the Cokes opened Island Grocery, a Caribbean food outlet near the intersection of Albemarle and Central. After coaxing their chef, Velma Baker, from New Jersey to Charlotte, the Cokes set out to open a full service Caribbean restaurant.

But at its heart, Island Grill is a casual Caribbean joint. Immediately inside the door is the long take-out counter with specials written on a blackboard. Separating this area from the dining area is a colonnade of bamboo. The ambience of the dining area is comfortable and simple. The dramatic feature is the vibrant wall mural the Cooks commissioned from a local artist. Caroline Cook said that various elements of different Caribbean islands are in the mural: the falls from Jamaica, mountains from St. Kitts, a house characteristic of St. Thomas, the beach from the Caymans, and a goat from, well, dinner.

The menu is primarily Jamaican: Jerk dishes, curries, vegetarian selections, and stews. Wilfred Coke said, "Even though we present a laid back atmosphere, island food takes time to prepare. We use a lot of seasonings and we marinate most of the meats for at least a day before preparing."

If you're not familiar with the items on the menu, it's best to ask one of the owners. Our server, with a self-admitted newness, was less than helpful.

The Ackee and Codfish, traditionally a breakfast dish, had a light, almost unfishy quality, with exotic mounds of fleshy ackee blended throughout. Please note, however, the ackee is a fruit fraught with health concerns since certain parts of the fruit are toxic when underripe: consequently, ackee importation is carefully controlled.

A popular dish at my table was the comforting oxtail stew, with all the elements clicking into place like tumblers. A side order of curry chicken roti was large enough for a table of four. Unlike the pliant poori of Malaysia, this crepe was a combination of lentils and flour and thus drier and a bit stiffer, but more filling. The curry, laden with juicy chicken and potatoes, was an agreeably pungent proof of the chef's subtle skill with sauces. The savory jerk chicken arrived wondrously tender. Sides of sauteed plantains, steamed cabbage, rice and beans, boiled green bananas, pleased as well. The complimentary salad was a vinegary mix of thinly sliced cabbage and almost ripe walnuts.

Desserts may be plainly served, but most are first rate. The bread pudding with rum raisin syrup and the carrot cake are both dishes deserving of fork parry. The Toto, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily dry cake. An acquired taste, I'm told, but I really don't have that kind of time. You can, however, skip dessert and order delicious fruit punch or squeezed fruit juice.

Prices are as mild as the Caribbean winter. Most entrees are $10 and include a salad, rice and beans, and two sides. Desserts are $2.50 while sandwiches are less than $6.

Island Grill is providing some diversity to the dining choices in an area of town straining with growth pains. If Old Monroe Road is backed up at the dinner hour, turn off, order some calaloo and jerk chicken, and let the sunset reflect off the Island Grill mural. It might not be Jamaica, but the food will fracture your expectations in a delightful way.

Eaters' Digest Georges Duboeuf did not make it to Charlotte on Monday, August 18th, to the Bistro 100 dinner in his honor. Due to the excessive heat in France, Duboeuf opted to oversee the heat-necessitated early harvest of the vineyards.

Just a reminder: soon apples will be in the farmers' markets. Some of these will be the antique varieties. If we do not make an effort to buy these apples, those trees will be cut down and replaced with commonly marketed varieties. Look for Horse, Ben Davis, Limbertwig, Grimes, Yellow Newton Pippin (George Washington's favorite apple), Cox's Orange Pippin, Esopus Spitzenburg, Hoover, Sheep's Nose (aka Crow Egg, Black Gilliflower) and Arkansas Black. Sadly each year, fewer antique apple trees remain. Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., owner of an heirloom apple nursery and author of Old Southern Apples (The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg, Virginia. 1995.) estimates that more than 1400 varieties of apples originated in the South, but now less than 200 exist.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: TLChild@bellsouth.net.

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