I've never understood why Caribbean restaurants haven't caught on in St. Louis. We love barbecue, we love fried fish, and we certainly love a party atmosphere. I suspect the reason for the paucity of the spicy, starchy, rooty, sweet-sour foods is the lack of any sizable Jamaican population, unlike the massive influx of Asian émigrés who settled in St. Louis during the '80s and found their niche in the restaurant business. With the passing of House of Jamaica a few years back, Jamaican food has been about as scarce around here as a New England clambake.
But that changed nearly three months ago when husband and wife Easton and Tammey Romer's De Palm Tree took root at the west end of the mile-and-a-half-long ethnic haven that comprises the stretch of Olive Boulevard between Hanley Road and Interstate 170.
Easton Romer has worked in restaurants ever since he arrived in St. Louis from Jamaica fifteen years ago. As he worked his way up from busing to waiting to cooking, Romer, who's now 34, harbored the dream of running his own restaurant. After years of planning, a loan from the Small Business Administration and plenty of mentoring from Delmar Loop developer Joe Edwards, the Romers opened De Palm Tree on January 20.
The restaurant, located in Jeffrey Plaza across the parking lot from Nobu's in the space that used to house Cater Jamaica, fits nicely into what we've come to expect of small ethnic eateries. Which is to say it's cozy (seven tables), funky, casual, inexpensive, vibrant and staffed by a family that works insane hours. While Easton mans the kitchen and Tammey takes care of the front of the house, the couple's two children -- six-year-old Alejandra and two-year-old Malaki -- play in back, or sometimes entertain diners. The ambiance is warm and inviting, with the requisite palm-tree motif everywhere and a TV monitor that endlessly projects a Bob Marley concert video.
The menu offers three "jerk" dishes: pork, chicken and an appetizer of whole chicken wings. Romer makes his own rub -- and you can smell and taste the difference. "A lot of places buy their rub in big plastic containers," he told me one evening. That stuff, Romer notes, loses its flavor over time. His, on the other hand, is always fresh: pungent, citrusy and bursting with the discernible but not overpowering heat of chiles. Romer roasts his meat in an oven rather than in a pit; a wing appetizer and a chicken entrée both came out crisp on the outside while retaining their succulence.
Probably the only positive outcome of foreign colonization is the melding of culinary cultures that inform Caribbean cuisine. Obvious influences range from the African (yams, black-eyed peas, okra, plantains) to the French (cream sauces, green herbs) to the Spanish (olives, chickens, capers, pork, oranges, garlic, vinegar, raisins). More counterintuitive are the rice, wheat flour, mangoes and curry spices that radically expanded the regional diet when Chinese and South Asian laborers brought them to the islands in the mid-nineteenth century. Romer doesn't make his own curry, but that shouldn't stop anyone from delving into his curried shrimp, chicken or goat, each of which comes simmered in a curry sauce with tomatoes, onions and (with the exception of the shrimp) carrots. A dish of curried chicken arrived steaming with the heady aroma of the mildly spiced golden sauce, delicious to the last flavorful drop.
Fish are a big deal in the islands, whether they come pickled, salted, baked, jerked or grilled. Jamaica's national dish is salt fish and ackee (the yellow flesh from the ripened pods of the ackee tree), a meal typically consumed for breakfast and certainly an acquired taste for most American palates. When chopped, ackee resembles scrambled eggs but has a mild lemony flavor. Mixed with chopped salted cod, it looks like some sort of tropical hash. It's odd at first to sort out the bold contrasts of texture and flavor, but once they assume their natural roles everything fits. And everything is suitable for washing down with a bottle of Red Stripe beer.
The Romers' escovitch fish is nothing short of superb. Cooking seafood in a vinegary chutney is common practice in the Caribbean. The term is derived from the Spanish escabeche; the method sometimes refers to the process of curing raw fish in the sauce -- like a ceviche -- but it can also refer to the cooking sauce itself. That's the case at De Palm Tree, where whole red snapper, weighing about a pound apiece, are lightly battered, pan-seared and then doused with the piquant sauce before the lid is put on. During the final few steam-filled cooking minutes, all that tangy goodness works its magic, permeating the firm, fresh fish down to the bones (which you have to carefully pick out). The restaurant's other snapper dish, the aptly named "spicy" escovitch, undergoes a longer steaming, reducing the tomato-based sauce before being finished off with a few minutes in the oven, resulting in a softer texture. Romer's generous hand with the chiles ups this version of escovitch on the Scoville scale, but it's nothing a few Red Stripes can't control.
All entrées come with either herb mashed potatoes or rice and peas. Keep in mind that in Jamaica, "peas" are beans, so what you're actually getting is red beans and rice. Nor are De Palm Tree's mashed potatoes as literal a translation as one might expect. Flavored with herbs I failed to identify, the potatoes had been chopped to a chunky consistency and shaped into a disk. One night they were too dry, but on another visit they were moist and enjoyable.
Distinctive appetizers include empanada-like pastries (not house-made, but tasty) stuffed with your choice of beef, chicken or vegetables; jerk or honeyed chicken wings; shrimp cocktail; and fried plantains. Yet another offering, fried codfish balls, is a variation on the traditional codfish fritters, with mashed potatoes substituted for bread crumbs and egg. Lunch brings a choice of five sandwiches: jerk chicken or pork, tuna salad, a veggie burger and cod (deep fried or grilled). In addition to the appetizers, the lunch menu features smaller editions of a few dinner entrées -- curry chicken, jerk chicken or pork, grilled vegetables -- plus several sandwiches, soups and salads, including a nice-looking tropical mélange of grated coconut, pineapple and tangerine segments. Vegetarians take heart: Several meatless dishes are available at lunch and dinner, among them a Creole-style okra, a black bean stew and baked red peppers stuffed with onions, almonds and bread crumbs.
I'm a fool for mango fool pudding, creamy and custard-like, rich with mango flavor and seasoned with raisins spiked with rum. On the night we tried De Palm Tree's rendition, though, the batch hadn't set properly and looked more like mango fool cream. Still, the sweet cream was delicious, absolutely worth giving Romer another shot at achieving the right consistency. The banana rum fritters, however, were gobbled up as fast as they cooled enough to eat, making for a great pairing with sweet, creamy avocado ice cream. House-made dokono, a common Caribbean dessert of African origin, consists of cornmeal, grated green bananas, coconut milk and raisins, rolled in foil into cigar-shape packets, then boiled. The resulting bread-like dessert is sliced and served with drizzled sweetened condensed milk. Too dry for my party's taste -- but maybe not for yours.
Finding a niche amid University City's ethnic-food bonanza is a daunting task for any restaurateur. "A lot of people have the desire to start a business but don't have that spark, that extra drive," observes entrepreneur extraordinaire Joe Edwards, who says he saw precisely that spark in the Romers. "They're really idealistic," adds Edwards, who says he's happy to help aspiring business owners whenever he can. "You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices that they're going to put in the work to make a new business successful."