Cheap Eats - Fire in the hole

Island Breeze Caribbean will make you savor the heat

We think we know hot. Georgia asphalt can roast potatoes on most summer days, but in the Caribbean, where island breezes (not cranked up AC) are the only relief from stifling temps, they really know hot. Rather than cool you off with a slice of watermelon or a chilled daiquiri, strangely enough, the native cuisine sets mouths on fire. This area of more than 7,000 islands is known for its fiery Scotch Bonnet chilies and spicy meat rubs — anything to blister the tongue and make you sweat.

The diverse culinary influences of Africa, France, Spain and India can be seen in common favorites like jerk chicken and curries. And the new downtown restaurant Island Breeze Caribbean offers a truly American presentation of searing specialties at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The location is a bit out of the way. Hunched across from the downtown Sheraton on Courtland Street, the restaurant has little parking except for the pay lot in back. Walking from the lot, you are forced to pass by grease traps and dumpsters fully exposed and fuming with pungent discards. Not a great entrance to a meal. Luckily, the inside has a quaint Caribbean feel, with bright yellow and pink walls making up for the lack of curb appeal.

Upon entering, a friendly host directed me to the buffet, which looked small but contained plenty of variety for only $5.99. You can opt out of this cafeteria line and get a combo meal of most of the items on the buffet or some more exotic choices like oxtail or cow feet for only $6.25. The combo includes white rice and two sides or saffron rice with peas.

I decided on the buffet and picked up my warm plate and began piling on the grub. I expected to find the requisite jerk chicken, but didn't expect the curry selections — one chicken and the other goat.

The goat was dark brown, suspended in the gravy-like curry, which contained more red and black pepper than chiles. My introduction to goat meat was a bit iffy; the small pieces contained little flesh and lots of bones that I had to spit out onto the plate. I wasn't sure what part of the animal I was munching on, but the overall taste satisfied my need for heat. The sauce was thick and tasted a bit earthy from the combination of meat and spices. The chicken curry, on the other hand, contained more turmeric, giving it a yellow color and a more traditional Indian flavor, and there was more meat per mouthful than the goat. Combined with saffron rice with peas, it was a satisfying grouping. The red beans and rice, on the other hand, were dry and had been sitting too long.

The jerk chicken, which is commonly seasoned with a dry meat rub and includes thyme, ginger and up to 20 other spices, was in a liquid sauce that turned the chicken nearly black in color but kept the meat moist. Despite the unappetizing appearance, the jerk spices were evenly combined with a heavy emphasis on the allspice and ginger instead of black pepper.

A more Americanized pepper steak with red and green peppers and onions was also available, but was not of the same quality as the more traditional entrees. The steak was stringy and didn't have the same burst of flavor that the more spicy items shared.

The most popular dish on the buffet was the fried whiting. A flaky, white fish with little fishy taste, the whiting was lightly battered and served piping hot. With a little lemon and Scotch Bonnet hot sauce, the fish was easily the best thing available. I would opt out of the other selections entirely and make a meal of it at the low price.

You will find a few dishes set out to appease less adventurous eaters. A chaffing dish of cold noodles and marinara sauce looked out of place and was left untouched, and the butter beans and cooked yams sitting at the end of the line had lost most of their texture.

A separate buffet of salad fixings included sliced almonds and a good selection of fresh fruit including honey dew, strawberries, watermelon, sliced oranges and cantaloupe. A nice way to cool down the palate. Slices of red velvet cake were proffered several times, but at $3.15 a slice, I didn't bite.

A new choice for the lunch-time crew, Island Breeze also offers a dinner menu, but the prices are steeply raised, with the lobster dish escalating to $24. With plans on bringing in poetry and evening entertainment, the restaurant may attract some hotel guests from across the street or become a nighttime destination. But if I were you, I'd keep to the buffet. With any luck, you'll be so focused on the searing in your mouth you'll forget the swelter outside.??