I had never heard people argue about oxtail before. A nearby gentleman was under the impression he had received an incorrect takeout order size, and voices were rising. It didn’t bother me, though. I was sweating and out of breath, and I was trying to finish at least half of the soulful and spicy calypso shrimp dish that lay before me. Plump shrimp were swimming in a coconut curry sauce. It was a snowy night and a good night to be at The Islands (803 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-398-3575).
Located a quarter-block from the Brooklyn Museum, the Islands is a postage-stamp-sized restaurant specializing in Jamaican cuisine. It’s authentic and soulful and more reliable than just about any other restaurant I know. Eating at Islands feels like eating at a Jamaican family’s home. The menu doesn’t change, unless the restaurant has already sold out for the day of one of many staples, such as jerk chicken, curried goat, and a wide array of fish and vegetables.
With windows that are always fogged up, it’s hard to tell exactly what lies past the narrow wooden doors of this restaurant. But take one step in and you’ll find yourself in the center of this small, trapezoidal place, where the ceilings are low and steep-as-hell steps lead to a lofted, kitschily decorated dining room. A mere three or four feet away, just beyond the three-stool bar, is the smallest of kitchens, where you’ll typically find one of the co-owners, Marilyn Reid or Shawn Letchford. Childhood friends from St. Ann’s, Jamaica, the women, both in their fifties, opened Islands in 2001 with recipes from their parents and grandparents. About half of the business here is to go, so you’ll witness a constant flow of people stopping by.
The Islands’ menu is full on flavor and light on frills. “The dishes need to speak for themselves,” says Reid. Everything is made in house and each dish is prepared fresh. Because of this, the food and service are laid back, befitting of an island vibe. Oh, and Islands is BYOB, so bring whatever you enjoy with spicy foods, from dry Rieslings to crisp ale.
I would suggest dipping into the fowl section and trying the stewed chicken. Slowly simmered with fresh gravy that is both sweet and pungent, it is — along with every other entree — served with deeply flavored jasmine rice, steamed island veggies, and a small salad with golden raisins. The Islands is known for jerk seasoning (Reid would only tell me their house mix contains onions, garlic, and scotch bonnet peppers), and it may be best showcased on the jerk leg of lamb, which is sliced and served with sharp and electrifying mint chutney.
On my most recent visit, Reid was standing behind a large cast-iron skillet frying up what looked to be chicken, slowly turning each piece. “Frying chicken?” I asked, trying to make conversation. “Nah, a very special snapper dish,” she replied. It turned out to be escovitch snapper, fried and served with a simple vinaigrette sauce.
It is a weird dichotomy eating great Jamaican food when the mercury sits below 20°F. But what a dichotomy it is! In the summertime, Islands sets up a few folding chairs and tables just outside on the sidewalk, creating arguably the best and easiest outdoor seating in Brooklyn. And when it starts to get hot, do yourself a favor and order one of the ridiculous homemade lemonades or the gingery and sharp sorrel sodas.
To leave Islands without one order of soft and white rum-heavy bread pudding is to leave one note short. It is the only dessert I have ever gotten a real buzz off of, and it’s sweet and tastes like love.
A meal for two runs around $60 with tip. It’s worth it.