Island Spice And Tranquility
Bahama Billy's brings a breezy style and tasty fare to Carmel.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
At the entrance to Bahama Billy''s, a mannequin with dreadlocks flowing from a hat of Rastafarian colors sits at a piano as a Jimmy Buffett tune plays. It''s time to relax and take life less seriously, Bahama Billy''s seems to advise.
How did owners Bill and Teresa Lee have the foresight to know we would need more of that? Probably the same foresight that led the duo to open Billy Quon''s in 1998.
Ceiling fans turn languorously in two dining rooms-one with a bar. I recall the restaurateurs who have bit the dust in this space. But Teresa and Bill, known for having great front-of-the-house service, don''t appear worried. They''re good at this.
And they have good taste. Cool lighting enhances the tropical motif. Plants freshen the air. Tables are burnished in soothing colors. Mosaic candleholders and colorful salt-and-pepper shakers adorn each table.
The visual workout makes me thirsty. Mr. X, my sworn-to-anonymity partner, must have the "famous" mojito rum drink ($5.95). I can tell at a glance that red wine would hold up to nearly anything on the menu. Even seafood is bumped into red wine country with strong spices and sauces.
Our server, Julie, recommends the Australian Mad Fish Shiraz. I usually avoid the cheapest wine, but this is the best $6 glass in memory, with a nice spice to balance the fruit. The mojito looks impressive in art glass with a stick of sugar cane, but it has less lime and more sugar than the best versions.
I ask about signature dishes. Julie says the restaurant specializes in seafood, that the most popular dish is "The Ultimate Meatloaf," and that she likes the lamb shanks and the salmon.
Mr. X gets Bill''s attention and asks what the owner recommends. He suggests sea bass, filet mignon, the meat loaf, sweet potato fries, and the empanada appetizer-because there are three of them and three in our party.
As I muse over the menu, Julie serves the evening''s simplest dish: "Hot Calypso" cheese bread with butter, garlic, Parmesan, corn and green onion. Caribbean cuisine is diverse; the sea provided access to a melange of cultures. And there are regional variations. Many of the fruits, nuts, spices, and roots that shape the cuisine were introduced to the native Caribs (the first to cook with chili peppers) and the Arawaks (the fabricators of grills of green sticks, called barbacoa) by Europeans and by African slave traders.
Our first taste was an excellent, smoky, well-textured Cuban black bean and pork soup with avocado salsa and chipotle cream. Noting a bowl for $4.95, I asked for a cup. Julie agreed cheerfully and without hesitation to this off-menu request.
The empanada--ground beef and veggies in a crust--was a disappointment. The crust was too oily and the spicy aioli sauce, a variation of mayonnaise, tasted too much like the bottled condiment. We tried the shredded duck salad and relished the romaine, watercress, jicama, yuca and spicy dressing. We also went for the Caribbean "sunshine salad," which tasted like lettuce and trail mix.
A trend surfaces, recognizable to anyone familiar with Caribbean food. There''s lots of hot and lots of sweet, often simultaneously. The dishes have so many ingredients, chef Jason Wright must supervise an army of prep cooks. I cook with lots of minced vegetables at home, and appreciate the effort.
The sea bass with a jerk seasoning rub is delightful, with the island slaw a refreshing side. The lamb shanks--get this--are caramelized in sugar and spices, braised with coffee, cinnamon and chocolate, and served with molasses-roasted butternut squash and plantains. The dish is as good as it sounds.
The portions were so large, three of us could not handle dessert. Maybe you''ll save room. We each had only one drink on this weeknight, and our bill came to around $90 for three.
The food is a change from California cuisine (no sun-dried tomatoes or goat cheese here). Some will find it too distant from simple, rustic European and American cuisine. Others will find the array of flavors stimulating. Bahama Billy''s food is never boring, and the place is a rum barrel of fun.