Restaurant Review - Negril Caribbean Cafe

Go on and stew it up Negril Caribbean Cafe dishes out delectable cold-weather eats

The scent of, um, shall we say ... burning herbs wafts through the air outside Rebel Music next door to Negril Caribbean Cafe. Wisps of smoke and a few bars of rhythmic music slip out of the Caribbean club adjacent to the record store and into the cool night air, as dreadlocked patrons enter and exit. Vagrants shift belongings from boxes to carts in a tree-darkened lot nearby. Inside dark, cozy Negril, jump-suited patrons pick up Styrofoam clamshell boxes stuffed with brown stew chicken and fried conch salads while a mini stereo system pumps out sunshiney reggae.

What a difference day makes: Admittedly, it takes a fairly brave soul to venture over to the Auburn Avenue area at night. At lunch, however, an ordinary downtown noontime crowd sidles up to plates mounded with rice, vegetables and meat stew. Daytime portions are practically the same size as the ones served in the evening, but at $3 less, make this fair-value destination a bargain eat.

Jerk me around: Jerk chicken is synonymous with Caribbean cuisine in many diners' minds, and Negril obliges with the spicy dish in several incarnations — a hefty leg portion ($8.95 at dinner), chicken breast ($9.95 at dinner), and salad ($6.95). The authenticity of Negril's jerk is debatable as the thigh and drumstick are not rubbed with spices and grilled. Instead, the chicken is presented stew-style, sloppy with gravy. It may not have been the real deal, but the dark meat, richly perfumed with allspice, nutmeg and cayenne, is tender enough to be nudged off the bone with the slightest movement of fork and knife.

Conch, another typical Caribbean staple, is available fried, curried or in brown stew (all $11.95 at dinner). The fried conch at Negril is much the same as it is most anywhere else: The crispy batter is much tastier than the meat itself. Vegetarians can find relief with a surprisingly decent curry tofu ($8.95). It has less in common with what most people consider curry and is more like a meat-free version of Negril's jerk. But it is a satisfying, filling option.

Oxtails, anyone?: Those who like their meat velvety and favorably gelatinous in the manner of pig's feet will love the oxtail stew. There's not a lot of meat on the bone, which makes the dinnertime price of $9.95 seem a bit unfair. Yet the stew is very close to the perfect wintertime comfort food — rich, thick brown gravy and beef so soft it barely requires chewing. Like all the combo plates, the oxtail is served with a choice of several kinds of rice and two vegetables such as fried plantains, cabbage and black beans. Opt for the yellow rice with black beans, heady with the lusciousness of coconut milk. The plantains are tangy and sweet with slightly burnt, caramelized edges.

A variety of Jamaican sodas, Vita Malt and homemade lemonade are available to wash the gravy down. Jamaican rum cake ($2), made in-house, ends the meal on a dense, slightly bitter note. Akin to a very good fruitcake without the plasticized cherry bits, it would do well with a swirl of whipped cream on the side.

Negril Carribean Cafe couldn't be considered a hardcore foodie find, but it is nonetheless an agreeable spot. The service is friendly, and at lunchtime the plates are good value enough to bring some sunshine into a gray, chilly day.