Everyone once in a while, a restaurant meal surprises in a delightful way.
That moment came early during a recent dinner at Rocksteady Jamaican Bistro. We were looking over menus, trying to make heads or oxtails from the island offerings, when our server had a kind suggestion: "Would you like to try our sampler platter to start?"
She explained that it offered a taste of some of the more popular entrees – jerk chicken, oxtail stew, curry goat and brown stew chicken – so that we might figure out our main course selections.
I didn't see it listed on the menu, but sure, that sounded lovely.
Our table nibbled at the wonderful bits, some spicy and others subtle, and it left us wanting more. We didn't ask how much it cost, but when the bill came later, the Rocksteady Sampler was listed at $10.
A sawbuck rarely stretches into something so lip-smacking good.
Surpassed expectations turned out to be a theme for the evening. With a name like Rocksteady, I was imagining some loud reggae dancehall, perhaps a live band onstage, perhaps Bob Marley or some classic ska blasting from speakers. But no, the operative word here is "bistro." This is a small (40 seats), comfortable and cozy restaurant, tucked at the far end of a Boca Raton strip mall on Federal Highway.
"I always had a passion for food, and I wanted to make it known that Jamaican cuisine can be served in an upscale setting and not just come out of a cardboard box," says Duane Morgan, the Jamaican-born owner who develops all the recipes and trains the kitchen staff.
It's muted inside, with dark wood paneling on one wall, artwork and bric-a-brac on another. Imagine a romantic French nook with a dozen tables and booths, and rasta colors painted on a center floor column, and you get the picture. I was jarred by how quiet and empty it was on a Friday night to start a holiday weekend.
Apparently, Rocksteady Jamaican Bistro attracts a bigger crowd at lunch than dinner, especially offseason. Adjust accordingly. At the time most trendy South Florida restaurants are getting warmed up, Rocksteady is winding down, with last orders taken at 8:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on Saturdays.
The bistro has a sister location, Rocksteady Jamaican Jerk Cafe, a few miles south (1179 S. Federal Highway), also owned by Morgan, originally from outside Kingston. Chef Tony Grizzle, from Saint Ann parish near Ocho Rios on the northern coast, usually spends the early part of the day at the cafe, then moves to the bistro.
The cafe came first, six years ago, and the bistro opened two years later. Judging by the food and overall experience, I'd say it's holding rocksteady. The spice in the jerk and curry dishes might be tapered down a bit for Americanized tastes and the Boca audience (so said my Guyanese dining companion who frequents Caribbean lunch joints on 441), but I found most food to be balanced and flavorful, sophisticated and not overpowering.
And in the case of the ackee appetizer ($10), ephemeral. Pieces of ackee fruit were sauteed with onions and placed atop fried green plantains. It sounds heavy, but somehow each bite was silken and pillowy, and the plantains were not greasy at all. The scotch bonnet pepper shrimp ($11) featured four sizzling, seared shrimp on a cast-iron plate, capped by a scorching scotch bonnet pepper. You'll want to keep a cold bottle of Red Stripe beer handy, along with a loaf of the puffy Coco bread ($2), doughy and slightly sweet. My only quibble: the shrimp could have been a little larger, or perhaps there could have been a couple more per order.
The menu has a good selection of meats, seafood and lighter sandwiches and salads. We couldn't resist more of the oxtail stew ($16.95), fatty and tender and good to the bone, served with a scoop of bland rice with pigeon peas and a fried plantain. Grilled jerk wings (10 for $11) were on the smaller side, but packed a pleasing charred and peppery punch. The menu said to allow 30 minutes for wing orders, but they arrived much quicker, perhaps because they were pre-cooked earlier and then finished on the grill. Morgan says everything is supposed to be cooked to order. No matter, they were still mighty tasty. And for those who want bolder spice, Morgan says items can be adjusted upon request.
We also jumped into the seafood section labeled "From Di Watas." A jerk Florida lobster tail ($27.95) was nicely grilled, but came up a little light on flavor. A side of cabbage offered some crunchy textural contrast. My personal favorite was the whole snapper escovitch ($22), a small fried yellowtail snapper showered with the traditional white vinegar bath of onions, carrots and scotch bonnet peppers. The fish was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside and piquant goodness all over. I had to fight with my Guyanese friend over who got the sweet cheek meat from the snapper (duty called and the critic prevailed).
Service was smooth, friendly and relaxed, a benefit of such a small dinner crowd (four tables at the peak). Dessert was the weakest part of the meal, the lone option a bread pudding dubbed Kiss Mi Neck ($5) that was a bit too dense for my liking.
No worries, mon. I left Rocksteady Jamaican Bistro feeling irie.
ROCKSTEADY JAMAICAN BISTRO
2399 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Credit cards: All major.
Bar: Beer and wine.
Sound level: Conversational.
Outside smoking: No.
Kids' items: Yes.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Free lot.