SUNSETS, beaches, cocktails, music, even on one occasion a small hurricane, are what I remember best of the Caribbean. Never the food. Sure the fruit at breakfast is just off the tree and the barbecue fish is just as fresh but resort buffets are inevitably the bland leading the bland.
Maybe I never got close enough to the street stuff; in Kingston, Jamaica I was just to chicken to venture in search of authentic jerk joints… while goat curry? You must be kidding.
I’ve wised up since to the spicy pleasures of Caribbean cuisine, dowsed my ackee in Reggae Reggae Sauce in the company of its creator, Levi Roots, gone down the jerk route at carnival times. And I’m not alone. There must be a growing market to persuade Eat & Sweet ‘Real Jamaican Street Food’ to open recently on Church Street along from the Arndale.
Still the mainstream flag bearer for the whole West Indian package remains the Turtle Bay chain, 36 across the nation at the last count, two of them in Manchester – on Oxford Street and latterly on Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter, where I dropped by to sample their revamped menu with 15 new dishes on board.
Revamped, yes, with a welcome injection of vegetarian and vegan dishes and big on healthy Beach Salads, yet I couldn’t resist again a main of Goat Curry. Even after slopping it down my jeans at one of Turtle Bay’s heroic launch parties. The stain remains.
Rather than a flimsy party carton, this curry (£9.95) came in the substantial metal pot in which it had been braised (I presume), with coconut rice and peas, the spice quotient slightly underwhelming.
Another main, the newcomer Bajan Beef Cheeks (£10.80), packed more spice oomph, its six hours’ simmering with the likes of garlic, ginger, star anise, cinammon, coriander and coconut all too evident. Not subtle food but a satisfying stew.
There was more balance in another addition to the menu – our pick of the mains, tender Slow Braised Beef Rib (£4.95) from the jerk barbecue pit, partnered with sweet potato fries and a lovely fresh watermelon, lime and coriander chow (Trinidad-inspired fresh fruit salad). The new message is upgrade your BBQ dish with a build-your own salad.
Our starters, £5.10 each, were a mixed bag of salty, panko-coated fried stuff, the new okra fries and whitebait upstaged by genuinely crispy squid.
The wine list, cutely tagged from good via better and best to fabulous, is not a strong point given the spices, mango moles and mayos dominating the food, so stick with the rum-led Caribbean cocktails or the inevitable Red Stripe.
I really loved the Island Records Session IPA (£4.25 a colourful can), a hop-forward refresher brewed in Sussex with an intriguing back story. It was created by home-brewer Robin Pearson and served at a beer tasting night in Brighton in 2014. Its quality was recognised by one of the tasters, who next day signed it up to represent in liquid form the iconic record label. Which meant Robin quickly had to upsize into a professional brewer on other folk’s kit to satisfy the order. So ‘gypsy’ brewing company Soundwaves was born. The rest is delicious history.
We were at Turtle Bay NQ at (a quiet) lunchtime, which the menu’s new lighter focus (the chickpea wrap is a a healthy hunger fix) seems to suit, but the 120-cover venue really bursts into life after dark when the reggae is cranked up high and the rum flows.
The food, like the fun, is for sharing and that is when Turtle Bay comes into its own with platters and ‘cutters’ on canteen style trays to dig into. Authentic? Turtle Bay would have to have a hint of spicy downtown Kingston danger about it to convince me. And who wants that?
Turtle Bay NQ, 46-50 Oldham Street, Manchester, M4 1LE.