Caribbean food is still rather elusive to me. I don’t fully know what genre of food it is and what its famed flavour combos are. So when my friend Vick and I were settling on a pit stop lunch break during a recent shopping trip in Chelmsford, we decided to try a restaurant neither of us had visited before; the brightly coloured Turtle Bay.
Upon entering, we were bombarded by colour, clanging metal light fittings and chunky wooden signage painted in lurid neon shades. Cluttered, mismatched and featuring pretty much every colour under the sun, it oozed a fun and frivolous vibe, all about casual get togethers with friends and one too many cocktails. Although the decor was haphazard, it pulled together really nicely and looked oddly polished and put together despite the corrugated metal.
Since it was a pretty toasty day, we really wanted to gulp down some soft drinks, so we went for the super refreshing pineappleade, a mixture of pineapple and lime juices, topped up with soda. It was served in a classic glass milk bottle, topped with a greaseproof paper lid that was held in place with an elastic band, a straw tucked tidily through the band too. It was zingy and fresh, the perfect start to what I was sure was going to be a spicy meal. And herein lies the problem.
I do enjoy food with a bit of a punch, and when eating spicy dishes, I tend to opt for a mild to medium spiciness. In all honesty, super hot food isn’t really my thing as I find it overpowers the flavour of the dish, and burns my mouth too much, for me to enjoy the food. On the Turtle Bay menu, I found loads of curries that I loved the sound of – one featured duck, another goat – and I would have liked to try them, however a lot of them featured scotch bonnet chilies and the like. Vick and I ended up drawing our waiter into an intense conversation over how spicy everything was. He soon admitted that everything was pretty spicy. The only things that weren’t was one of the chicken curries really and a few other bits and bobs. It’s a hard call as I wanted to try something different, however I didn’t want to waste my money and calories on a meal that I wouldn’t enjoy if it was too spicy and since our waiter painted the majority of the menu as being spicy, I was left in a bit of a quandary.
In the end I opted for the jerk sirloin steak. You really can’t go wrong with steak. I got to chose between two sauces, the spicier jerk sauce or a mild option. Since I thought my steak was safe, I chose the jerk sauce, to make sure I still sampled some traditional Caribbean flavours. My dish was originally meant to come with spinach, which I love as well as fries and onion chutney. Having spotted coconut rice and peas as a side for some of the other dishes, I asked whether I could swap the fries for this. When my meal arrived, it looked nothing like I anticipated, and I was certainly getting swift food envy of Vick’s chicken one pot curry. The steak was relatively thin, a nice size and cooked medium rare as I requested. The jerk sauce was a thick, brown sauce that had been generously poured all over my meat, and it pooled around the plate. I do love having plenty of sauce so the quantity was good here, and luckily I also liked the taste. It was a rustic spicy with a burnt BBQ vibe that really brought out the red meat flavours from the tender steak. There was a few blobs of green dotted over the top too, although I had no idea what that was.
My sides were not as expected. The coconut rice was, again a very generous portion, and also tasty although to me it just tasted like rice. I also had a pile of green mush snuggled next to my rice, which I think featured peas. This wasn’t the ‘rice n’ peas’ combo I thought I’d ordered. The green stuff was soft, had a minty undertone and was ok, but a bit odd. Although my sides weren’t really what I expected, or thought I ordered, I can’t deny that I did enjoy my main meal as a whole dish. The portion size was really rather large and the steak was tasty too; I also enjoyed being able to have so much sauce to mix up with my rice as well as eat with my meat. It was a strange mix of foodstuffs but I still thought it was an ok meal.
We also ordered a couple of sides to share. These included dumplings, which were like doughballs really as they were more bread than a traditional English suet dumpling, however the outside of the dumplings were golden brown and baked so they had a firm bite on the outside and then the warm, soft bread on the inside. These did soak up the jerk sauce really well and were a great help when mopping up my plate. Our second shared side was fried plantain, another item I hadn’t really tried before. Plantain reminds me a little bit of parsnip, as it is a sweeter root vegetable too. Where it had been fried, it had a caramalised lustre to it, which really enhanced the flavour and added to the sweetness of the veg. These felt indulgent, but they were also incredibly moreish, cooked until they were soft in the centre.
For me, my favourite course was dessert, where I chose the Caymanas upside down run cake, which was basically a caramel rum sponge pudding. It was hefty slice of sponge cake that had been very thoroughly drenched in rum for a very alcoholic kick, drizzled with lovely caramel. The sponge itself was soft, light to eat and delicious; the sweet caramel was still a prominent flavour and it stood up to the punchy rum well to create a really well paired dessert that I adored. Served with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, this was a real treat for me and even though I am not traditionally a rum fan, I loved the combo between the rum and the caramel, the sponge cake acting as the perfect flavour conduit.
Although I am still a bit bemused by Caribbean food, on the whole, this wasn’t a bad meal. The service was ok and our waiter was trying his best to be helpful and suit our needs. What I did eat was nice, but for me, dessert was the winner here. I’m not sure whether I would go back, or if I did go back whether I would be braver in my food choices, but it fit the bill for lunch on this occasion.