I discovered it thumbing through Zagat 2000 in search of a Chelsea spot. The name was intriguing, and I wondered just how the chef would celebrate the culinary traditions of the escaped Akan slaves who’d headed to the Jamaican hills to wage war on the British. A few weeks later, I was in the reception area at Maroons, perched on a wedge of blue brocaded sectional sofa that lacked only a covering of thick plastic to duplicate the living rooms of my youth.
Located in the double basement of an old-line tenement, Maroons boasts a decor that one of my guests aptly described as “très kitsch.” Odd pieces of unremarkable ’50s furniture make the place more like the burgeoning bistros of the outer boroughs than an eatery a few steps off Chelsea’s Eighth Avenue strip. The brick-walled barroom and main dining area offer seats for 24 packed so tightly that coat checking is required. Yet the tightly packed chairs provide intimacy, not discomfort; the overly familiar wait staff rapidly become complicitous friends; and any annoyance with the decibel level disappears with the first taste of the fried green tomatoes that arrive in a stack of soul food as tall food ($4). Crunchy on the outside and appropriately soggy beneath the crisp crust, they were a creditable rendition of the classic and defined the menu as New World African, a Brooklyn concept long overdue in Manhattan. The codfish fritters ($6) that represented the island were well-fried and fishy, although drizzled with a ginger sauce in which the advertised honey tasted like maple syrup. A corolla of fried plantain strips ($3.50) surrounded light and slightly spicy crab cakes ($7); the tomato and cucumber salad ($6) proved to be spears arranged around a bed of mesclun with a creamy vinaigrette.
Chicken comes barbecued, fried, and jerked at Maroons. The fried ($13) was a crisply succulent half that arrived with long-, low-, and slow-cooked collards and a cheddar-bound brick of macaroni. The barbecue ($13) retained the splendid sides, but tasted more of jar than char. Bearing the name of the Maroon general, Cujo, whose battle food it was, the tasty jerk ($13) lacked the complex allspice and Scotch bonnet flavors my Brooklyn joints provide. Another main is a monumental pork chop ($15), split and stuffed with a sage-flecked mix of onions, carrots, and bread crumbs, that proved daunting to my hungriest guests. Although disappointed not to find my favorite escovitch, I was more than satisfied with the spicy fried fish. The novice waitress knew the fish began with M and opined it was mackerel; I was therefore delighted to discover three red mullets in a crisp, savory breading that played on the distinctions between Jamaica, West Indies, and Jamaica, Queens, adding a mess of callaloo and a pile of rice to the plate.
Sugary desserts like a potent rum-infused bread pudding ($7) and a mellow applesauce carrot cake ($7) amply demonstrated that, from Alabama or St. Ann’s, the hemisphere’s cane harvesters retain a sweet tooth. Although Cujo would recognize neither the desserts nor the jerk, he would probably be proud. This restaurant celebrates the African world, which in the end is what he was fighting for.