Odeis Stephenson removes a bag of conch from his open kitchen’s refrigerator for the umpteenth time on this Saturday night. Laying into the notoriously tough mollusk with a mallet makes his prep table shake and creates enough racket to register over the dancehall beats that vibrate through the sound system. A specialty of his native Jamaica, the conch fries up as soft as calamari — no small feat when the knobby slices are thicker than a ’90s-style braided belt. Drawn by the sound of tenderizing seafood, a prospective customer sidles up to the shop’s façade. “This place has the best food in the neighborhood!” gushes a woman sitting at the only table in sight, a hand-painted black wooden bench Stephenson built and stationed outside to maximize interior space. (He hauls it indoors for groups of two or three who wish to eat in.)
Similar proclamations ring out most nights at Brooklyn Belly (915 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn; 347-787-3110), the fish-fry and soul-food shack Stephenson opened last year in Kensington, near the broad thoroughfare of Coney Island Avenue. Count me as an unabashed member of that chorus, happy to extol the kitchen’s mastery of comfort food, from the ample portions of fried seafood to smoky grilled chicken doused in sweet barbecue sauce or Jamaican jerk seasoning fiery from scotch bonnet peppers. As for Stephenson’s cracked conch, it shines on its own, as one-third of a “Bellyful Seafood Combo” with whiting and shrimp, or chopped and tossed into herbed batter for airy Bahamian fritters destined for dipping in hot-sauce-spiked aioli.
After landing in New York in 2001, the enterprising cook nabbed a job at Famous Fish Market, a Harlem standby known for long waits and towering fried-whiting sandwiches on pillowy whole-wheat bread. A multiyear sabbatical spent working in the financial district’s real estate market was followed by an attempt at riding the food-truck boom with a mobile version of the archetypal uptown seafood spot. Stephenson’s Fishing Shrimp truck made a splash in midtown and in Ditmas Park but ultimately succumbed to rising operational costs.
Harlem’s fry joints share a communal foundation with all of America’s regional fish fries, and fittingly, Stephenson has brought pride of adoptive borough and commitment to community to Brooklyn Belly. He and his employees live nearby, and the chef and his staff host a rotating menagerie of friends who stop by out of hunger or just to say hello. The place is open till 11 p.m. during the week and closes at 2 a.m. on weekends. Brown-sugar limeade, the sole beverage on offer, is sold in Ball jars, and patrons are encouraged to bring back their empties for a discount off the next batch.
“My customers are my neighbors, so I’m constantly looking for feedback to ensure quality,” Stephenson says. “I’ve had people come up to me crying, talking about how it tastes like home.” Working the grill, fryer, and counter most nights, the slender but broad-shouldered chef-owner is clearly at home here. The chalkboard menu is a reflection of his tastes. “The menu is for me,” he says. “All I eat is chicken and fish, so that’s what I serve.” The latter affinity is made flesh in greaseless, gnarled fillets of peppery fried whiting, cod, and seasoned shrimp. (All the fish preparations achieve that rare combination of market-fresh and wallet-friendly, with only cod and conch poking past the $10 ceiling.)
Stephenson hands over a basket of breaded and fried macaroni-and-cheese balls that threaten to ooze their flavorful filling at so much as a glance. Biting into a jerk chicken po’boy served, atypically, on dense, West Indian hard-dough bread, I’m sorely tempted to abandon the deli sandwiches of my youth in favor of this fragrant flavor bomb. Chase it with a container of those shrimp — fried so crisp you can eat them whole, tails and all — and I’ll put this salt-of-the-earth surf and turf up against any steak and lobster you can muster.