Lighting Up the “Pan-”

A heap of Caribbean flavors makes for some healthy, and sociable, dining in Columbia City.

Columbia City is fast becoming Seattle's Caribbean restaurant district, with a lot more red, gold, and green in the mid-Rainier strip than ever before. The ceiling fans have been lazily spinning at Kalaloo, a block off the main strip, for a little more than two years. A couple of months ago, Eloi, a catering firm that I've spotted at street fairs, opened up a pocket restaurant near Genesee Street (it's in the process of expanding into the space next door). I'd also include Naomi Andrade Smith's one-year-old Villa Victoria, a Mexican deli that specializes in the food of Veracruz, a state along the Caribbean Sea. The latest to arrive is Island Soul Caribbean Cuisine, which moved in June from Judkins Park next door to the Columbia City Bakery."Caribbean food" is an amorphous phrase, since the region's island nations each claim distinct specialties, but also share recipes. So you can find jerk chicken, curried goat, and fried plantains at Kalaloo, Eloi, and Island Soul. And the beef-stuffed turnovers that Eloi calls "patties" and Villa Victoria calls "empanadas" are as addictive as they are similar. What distinguishes the new Island Soul, besides a freshened-up, all-embracing take on the region's cuisine, is an awful lot of good will."Everybody, we have two birthdays in the house," announced our waitress during my second visit, as one of the parties readied to leave, balloons in hand. When she called out the two birthday boys—one in his 20s, the other a generation older—and shook their hands, they responded in normal fashion—by freezing, as did everyone else in the room. Then she announced it was time to sing, and the celebratory smiles pulled even tighter. "This is the first time I've sung this," she said, a little bashfully. "It's an island birthday song." We started clapping rhythmically, everyone suddenly an uncle at a Chuck-E-Cheese party, and our waitress threw down the throttle on a clear mezzo that could have outroared a Harley.Jaws dropped, and the room applauded, more for the performance than the birthdays. As she waded back through the clapping, I confessed, "When you said this was your first time singing the birthday song, I expected something a little more timid.""Well, I have sung in church choirs," she admitted, grinning like a pool-hall hustler collecting from her mark.The genuinely celebratory birthday song seemed of a piece with the restaurant's community spirit. Some of the customers, indeed, spent half their dinners getting up from their seats to shake people's hands, and cross-table small talk circled the room. Even in August, Seattle seems a little brighter from a seat in the open room, with non-brick walls sponge-painted the color of a sunflower in full bloom. There's a spray of flowers in the entryway and a few tropical paintings on the walls, but no need for much else in the functionally casual restaurant. The color alone turns the space into a solarium. In January, the owners should begin charging high-season rates.The place represents a step up for Theo Martin, a man beloved for his Casuelita's Island Soul, which used to be off Colman Park. I'm probably going to be committing heresy by saying I wrote off the Central District restaurant after one visit. Last year, beset by a serious goat craving, I dragged a goat-friendly friend there for dinner. The goat was tough and the curry sauce still watery; we had to chew the meat off the bone in my friend's oxtail; and Island Soul's trademark greens were vinegary, crunchy, and off-balance. I never went back.But the move to a much larger, higher-profile space seems to have given Martin and his cooks a new enthusiasm for their food. I had the exact same dishes at the new location, and finally understood why this restaurant has earned a following. The goat, in a thick, coriander-redolent yellow curry, was braised all the way through, its sweet, slightly musky fat enriching the sauce (for the goat-phobic, the curried chicken has a similar appeal). The oxtail meat slipped off the bone, peppers and onions infused into the moist beef. To cook greens without smoked meats is usually a missed opportunity, but here I appreciated what Martin was aiming for with his confetti approach—the leaves were slippery and silky and the mass of dark green was flecked with onions and bell peppers, their vegetal depths lightened up with a little vinegar. The oxtail and the greens tasted as though they'd evolved to be eaten together.Island Soul's prices are in the upper-casual range (appetizers $8, entrées $12–18), but the portions are huge. Most of the appetizers could be mistaken for entrées—for example, the Key West prawn salad contained four daily servings' worth of lettuce dressed in a delicately sweet basil vinaigrette, two fruit-pepper skewers, and four fat prawns—and the night that three of us split two apps and two entrées, we ended up with leftovers and no room for dessert. Besides, the only dessert I really need there is the coconut-corn muffin that comes with each entrée. (Though I admit that didn't stop me from enjoying a tasty banana cake with coffee frosting on another night.)Considering the pan-ness of the menu—a prefix that three times out of five signals "disaster" instead of "witty eclecticism"—I was surprised at the number of dishes I enjoyed. There were the curries, from Indian Trinidad, and the generally tropical prawn salad, for example. From Mexico and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean came "little islands," cornmeal cups filled with black beans and showered in feta, avocado, and tomatoes—like nacho-style thumbprint cookies, only tasty instead of disgusting—and tostones, double-fried plantain chips covered in fried garlic. Who knew the exact origins of a vegetarian tamal Azteca, layers of corn tortillas, ricotta, and grilled vegetables topped with a sweet-smoky chipotle salsa? Nonetheless, the dish came together in a solid, bright fusion of flavors, and I downed more of my megaportion than I'd planned to.Not all of the diaspora cooking came off as well. From the American South, the chef's serving bayou gumbo and Southern-style catfish, as well as barbecue ribs that tasted like they'd been oven-roasted rather than smoked (I'd be more likely to walk over to Roy's, Jones, or Willie's than to order them again). And truth be told, I didn't like Island Soul's Jamaican jerk chicken. It wasn't because of the grilled chicken, though that was on the dry side. There was something about the marinade that didn't cut it, a flavor-mob instead of a slowly marching parade of herbs, sugar, spices, and heat.A lot of Caribbean classics are hearty, powerfully flavorful dishes. Martin's lightening up the food and scattering colorful garnishes and vegetables around the bright FiestaWare he serves everything on. Sometimes his approach doesn't work, as in the "red snapper Island-style dinner," his take on Jamaican escovitch fish. Instead of just saturating the fried fish with the tangy sauce, the chef topped it with too few sweet-tart sauteed onions and peppers. Other times, holding back on the oil or sauce made a dish succeed: His seafood fritters, irregular patties of whitefish and prawns, looked like they'd be dense and fishy, but in the mouth the fritters dissipated, as though they were held together by whipped egg whites. What with the tamal Azteca, the little islands, the prawn salad, and his pork-free greens, the chef's light touch translates into relatively healthy dinners, the kind you can see yourself splitting with friends on a Tuesday evening as well as at a Sunday-night birthday celebration for your 16-year-old son. Lure him with seafood fritters and curried goat into thinking you're honoring his grown-up tastes. Then when he goes to the bathroom, request the birthday song.Price Check

 Seafood fritters    $7.95

 Prawn salad    $7.95

 Tamal Azteca    $12.95

 Curried goat    $14.95

 Banana cake    $5.95 

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