[Sidebar] August 14 - 21, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Montego Bay On the Hill

A tropical haven on Radicchio Row

by Bill Rodriguez

422 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 751-3040
Open Tues.-Thurs., 5-10:30 p.m.
Fri. & Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

What a welcome addition to Radicchio Row, up there along Atwells Avenue. Dining at Montego Bay is a little like doing the limbo while most folks are dancing the Tarantella, but I bet you won't be able to resist once the steel band starts playing. (More on that later.)

Ever since it opened this summer, Montego Bay, with its Jamaican colors and vacation cuisine, has looked alluring. So one recent hot Saturday evening too many factors converged to resist any longer: the paint-blistering weather and dining companions in a party mood, plus the prospect of snorkling in Bimini soon.

A transition to boat drinks was in order, so after I provided a Hawaiian shirt loaner to the only non-floral member of our assembly, we were off.

When you walk into Montego Bay, lazily circling fans nudge the AC down as the bar beckons the heat-stricken crawling in like in a mirage cartoon. Crayon colors surround you. A gaily painted half bathtub with sofa cushions squats beneath a mural of a cascading brook. Bright paintings from area artists adorn the salmon stucco walls. Later, as the sun goes down, the wall color gives rosy tans to diners in the shadows.

The motif is muted pink and apple green, colors that contrast comfortably with the waitstaff's black-tie reminder of attentive service. Exotic drink concoctions, of course, are featured on the menu. They are small and mild, judging from our sample, but parasol-free. In addition to some exotic bottled beers and several wines by the glass or bottle, tangy, non-alcoholic ginger beer and several tropical fruit juices are offered.

Appetizers include two spicy variations on chicken tenders, either jerked (spiced) or in a marinade. But we tried the codfish cakes ($7.50) to see what their version of the New England standard would be. The two crispy cakes were delicious, and chunky rather than minced to mush. A green tomato chutney came on the side, although the bed of watercress was the hottest touch.

But don't otherwise expect to be gulping water with hot dishes. Recipes have been adjusted for scaredy-cat tastes, so make a specific request if you expect much heat from any particular item.

That said, the pepperpot soup ($5), garnished with shrimp, was a nice balance between a mild peppery flavor and a fish taste. The spinach-like calaloo, raised locally, predominates with potatoes, for authenticity. While this pepperpot contains no tripe, as the American version does, it does come with a wonderful, smoky grilled pita filled with sautéed garlic and onions.

As for entrées, I chose the jerk chicken over the jerk pork ($14). The chili-based rubbing was not very hot but certainly flavorful, and the chicken was baked to maximize moistness. Watercress, oiled and baked crisp, came as a garnish, along with a mound of tomatoey pumpkin rice and a ginger-apple chutney.

Rasta pasta ($14) was the most colorful item on the table. A modest pile of wide, homemade spinach pasta, tossed with red-pepper puree, was surrounded by a garden's worth of grilled vegetables, cut large and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction.

The third entrée on the table was also a winner. A special that evening, the rockfish fillet ($18.95) was encrusted in blackened sesame and not overcooked. It was served on a bed of cold julienned Asian veggies, such as daikon and bamboo shoots, as well as slivers of green bean. Nice complement -- and compliments from curious samplers.

For dessert, ginger ice cream from Maximillian's accompanied a melon compote, and a sweet-potato pie was served on crushed raspberry sauce (each $3). The wedge of pie was dainty but tasty, and the hot-cold ice cream provided the perfect parting taste.

Denese Carpenter, who co-owns Montego Bay with her husband, Douglas, grew up in England, but she travels often to Jamaica, where her mother lives. Evidently, Denese has collected some vivid memories along the way.

As for that steel band, which began its festive counter rhythms at 8 p.m. that Saturday, it had us dancing on the sidewalk. Fine food and exercise too? What more can we ask for?

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