Restaurant review: Island Soul Caribbean restaurant in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood stands out with its curried chicken and goat, oxtail stew, yam fries and coconut shrimp — plus a fun décor with mango-colored walls and tropical canvasses.
Island Soul has gotten a lot of ink since it moved last summer from Judkins Park to Columbia City. The brick-walled entry of this cheery Caribbean eatery teems with framed press clippings. Owners Theo and Gaelyn Martin are proud, but modest about all the attention. “We make the same food here. But suddenly everyone has discovered us. It’s been a blessing,” he says.
Certainly no local foodies worth their sel gris need a GPS to find Columbia City, and Island Soul is a lively addition to the cluster of restaurants and cafes that make this diverse urban neighborhood a dining destination.
With mango-colored walls and big, bold, tropical canvasses, Island Soul hooks you from the sidewalk. Inside, the welcome is as warm as the pecan stain on the bare wood floor. A woman with a dazzling smile, a mischievous twinkle in her eye and a bounce in her step plays the role of hostess, waitress and mistress of ceremonies, belting out a foot-stomping, hand-clapping birthday song when the occasion demands it — as it frequently does.
Her name is Carla Jean and she also knows the art of the up-sell. “You really should try the coconut prawns,” she purrs into a gentleman’s ear. “We make ours fresh. It’s not that frozen product most places use.”
Most Read Life Stories
And even though he hates coconut, he succumbs, only to devour more than his share of the skewered shrimp frilly with toasted coconut. They did indeed taste fresh and were quite delicious dipped into a pepper-spiked passion fruit sauce. That same passion fruit sauce also flattered empanada-like Jamaican meat patties, fragile pastry pockets filled with garlicky minced beef or curry-kissed ground chicken.
Hot and sweet flavors frequently play in concert on chef Bobby Laing’s pan-Caribbean menu. Delicate seafood fritters, made with snapper and shrimp in a lightly curried batter, come with “jerk mayo,” a sauce that starts out murmuring of nutmeg and finishes with a peppery yell. Clove and allspice pervade another mayonnaise sauce meant for lissome yam fries that are almost candy sweet.
All of the above are among the dinner appetizers, and it’s a good idea to share them if you are moving on to any of the amply portioned entrees, most of which include copious amounts of rice and beans, collard greens and coconut cornbread muffins.
The collards alone are worth the visit. Chopped carrots, onion and red bell pepper punctuate the vibrant, just-tender greens, cut like confetti and simmered with a splash of cider vinegar for a subtle tang.
The curries are also restrained. Chicken and goat are stewed with potatoes in similar mild yellow sauces. Sharp bone shards are a hazard in the goat, but those bony pieces yielded tender, tastier meat. Inveterate bone-suckers will find the gnarly pieces of stewed oxtail in rich, brown gravy even more rewarding.
I couldn’t warm to the jerk chicken or ribs. The chicken breast was a little dry, the ribs were tender enough, but the acrid jerk seasoning was all smoke and pepper, no nuance. Bayou gumbo proved an even bigger disappointment. The pricey bowl ($19.50) promises prawns, crab, chicken, and beef hot links. I found one mushy shrimp, three pieces of gumbo-logged king crab leg, and a predominance of what tasted like all-beef franks. Moreover, the murky green liquid had an off-putting fishy taste.
Maybe the gumbo had an off-night; other seafood entrees were first rate. Whole red snapper, moist and good beneath crispy fried skin, looked ready to leap from under a tangle of escovitch (vinegar-marinated bell peppers and onion). Sautéed prawns, also paired with peppers and onion, were content to stay curled in their coconut milk pond. With loads of chopped fresh garlic to offset the sweet coconut, this lively entree shot to the top of my favorite list.
Bold flavors like these work well with beer. Island Soul’s list includes not only Jamaican Red Stripe, but also African, South American and European beers. Fruit juices, Jamaican soft drinks and sweet ice tea make good chasers too. The modest wine list wisely leans toward inexpensive varietals that are soft, fruity or spicy.
Some might consider coconut cornbread enough of a dessert. But in case of celebration, stick a candle in the mango cheesecake. Softly spiced with ginger, nutmeg and cloves, with a mosaic of fresh fruit on top, it deserves a round of joyful clapping.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org