Flatbush Ave. from the Manhattan Bridge to Grand Army Plaza is still pretty rugged, better for driving than walking. The area is flat, but you can imagine the route as a high, dry ridge, with Brooklyn’s fertile plains rolling down from both sides. Park Slope and the Heights are on one, and all the uncounted black millionaires of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights reside on the other. When the New York Philharmonic plays Prospect Park in summer, you can see all these flourishing family people together. Makes the Central Park equivalent look like Sun City.
New Trinidadian restaurant Sugarcane isn’t the first high-end black-owned business to set up shop on Flatbush, and it definitely won’t be the last (look for multi-story lounge bars with bottle service to show up next—seriously). Hopefully, the place will set the tone for what’s to come. Its food is billed as "stylish Caribbean cuisine," as if to apologize for nontraditional elements and fine-dining prices, but Sugarcane isn’t too caught up in class struggle. Sure, they’ll add the tip to a party of four’s bill, and they strongly prefer that diners check their coats. That’s just how it’s got to be until Northwest Brooklyn’s center stripe of frontier is tamed.
Trinidadians generally hold themselves in high esteem and are serious about food. The culture seems more urbane and competitive than its neighbors’. Asked about his island’s cuisine, one Trinidadian acquaintance confidently told me it’s the tradition on which all other Caribbean cooking is based. My reaction was skeptical: Jamaicans didn’t invent jerk chicken?
Lo and behold, the jerk chicken at Sugarcane is of premier quality, for Brooklyn or anywhere else. You can smell it coming. Not all jerk lives up to the richness of its fragrance, though, and what floats out of Sugarcane’s kitchen is especially rich. But it’s all there in the flavor as well—fresh ginger, real mustard, crazy hot peppers, deep traces of cinnamon and soy. The true beauty of this done-right chicken is that even though its meat is bbq-smoked right off the drumstick bones, the jerk glaze is so laboriously applied that no mouthful tastes dry. It’s not super-spicy. Naysayers would cite that and the few desiccated wings in my generous appetizer portion, as well as the non-takeout prices ($6.95 for mini drumsticks and wings; as part of a salad for $7.95; or half a jerked bird for $14.95), but until one shows me something better, Sugarcane is my Brooklyn jerk spot.
Coconut shrimp ($8.95) were also succulent. They’re fried, coated in a rather thick, spicy batter (almost reminiscent of Brooklyn’s most popular restaurant: every Popeyes) and served with lime and threads of fresh coconut. Other starters include two kinds of fritters, also deep-fried yet nongreasy. Accras codfish fritters ($6.95) look like plain dough and taste like tiny seafood sandwiches. They come with some excellent onion-spiked tartar sauce. Pholouri split-pea puffs ($5.95) are like chickpea samosas, only lighter. Their accompanying sticky tamarind dip is another winner.
Sugarcane’s service is friendly and very efficient for a new restaurant, though there are some minor kinks to work out in terms of ingredient supply. One night there was no shrimp, another no sugarcane (so in two tries I never got to taste the appetizer of shrimp on sugarcane skewers). We were served a skunked Red Stripe. And the lack of the restaurant’s namesake wreaked havoc with the cocktail menu, which is supposed to feature Trinidadian rum punch. We settled for a soursop colada and a mango mojito, which were fine. From putative masters of the rum drink, I’d expected spectacular.
Most of Sugarcane’s entrees cost more than $15, but there’s a cheaper selection of "Light Things" and salads. The Trinidadian buljol ($8.95), however, would make for a lackluster main course, especially after jerk drumsticks. It’s a tower of steamed codfish (salted and dried like Portuguese bacalao), well-seasoned but a little tough. Surrounding it are slices of tomato and avocado, some watercress and two big pieces of "bake," which is what Trinidadians call fried bread. Like all ethnic comfort food, buljol is probably special only if you grew up on it.
Vegetarian pasta, Ital stew (a Rasta-innovated tropical veggie staple), a selection of rotis and traditional "bake & shark" also fall in the $8-$10 range. That last is standard beach fare in Trinidad. Since anyone can put fried fish on fried bread, bake & shark stands compete to make the tastiest special sauces for their sandwiches. Sugarcane has six, and they don’t make you settle for just one. Sampling three, I was as impressed as at jerk time with the chef’s command of challengingly powerful flavors. To mix them is a high-wire juggling act, and Sugarcane’s mango kucheela (hot sauce), cilantro pepper paste and passionfruit mayonnaise did that plus a little jig.
Our beef roti ($10) was devoid of vegetables or peas, a disappointment. The compensation was a wrap that had been prepared with the same spicy split-pea dough that was fried to make pholouri fritters. Also, the beef cubes inside had been aerated for tenderness. The other roti options are vegetable ($8), chicken ($9) and shrimp ($12).
Sugarcane occupies a comfortable medium-sized room, appointed with an emphasis on functionality. A single broad leaf (does sugarcane have leaves?) in a vase adorns every table. The bar appears big and colorful from the dining area. Caribbean pop is played at a festive volume, and just like it’s not quite loud the lighting is not quite dim. On the brick walls are mirrors and old family photos. The only place the setup wavers from wise conservatism is the bathrooms, which are all done up in stainless steel instead of porcelain. Not that that’s unwise—in fact it’s pretty nifty.
The entrees didn’t dazzle, though I leave open the possibility that our party chose poorly. I rarely love sugary meat sauces, and those seem to be key to Trinidadian technique. One of the best-known island dishes is pelau—chicken cooked in caramelized cane sugar—which I would have tried, but Sugarcane doesn’t serve it. Instead, there are braised oxtails, guava-glazed ribs and steak with a tamarind-infused sauce.
Sugarcane’s curry is yellow and mild, tasting of coconut milk and fresh coriander. It comes on shrimp or chicken. The latter version is wrapped in the banana leaf it was steamed in. We liked the flavor but the meat was too dry.
Plantain-crusted red snapper didn’t have the promised green crust; it’d been deep fried in a humdrum plantain batter. We’d have instead ordered the grilled ginger salmon had we known. A vinegary garlic tomato sauce and some coconut rice made things better, just as some stellar garlic mashed potatoes did for our chicken curry recipient. You can choose your sides (two with any entree) at Sugarcane. Another good one is the callaloo, a sweet green that here arrives pureed with okra and fish, so it’s more of a hearty soup than a side.
"Classic" stew chicken was supposedly braised with rum and Spanish thyme, but Sugarcane’s Trinidadian version didn’t excel beyond the Jamaican sit-down standard. I can’t be the only visitor who wondered about the absence of pelau. The base of the brown stew sauce seemed to be butter-sauteed flour, like a New Orleans roux, but there wasn’t as much going on as there would be in an authentic gumbo.
The meal trajectory made dessert seem like a longshot, so we passed on the chocolate cake, cassava pone and mango ice cream.
Sugarcane has the potential to be much more than a place for great jerk chicken and bake & shark, even if now it’s just a little more than that. Strong roots are what you need to grow from the ground up. Right now the place is drawing mostly young Brooklyn-yuppie couples and well-to-do Brooklyn immigrant families. A restaurant with a central location and a good cook can build high on such a varied base. They mix things up right in the Caribbean—mighty flavors from far-flung locales—and the rest of us have a lot to learn from that.
Supper: They Are It
For the past month and a half, I’ve been eating at least once per week at Supper, the inexpensive East Village Northern Italian restaurant with the same owner as nearby (inexpensive Southern Italian) Frank. I’ve written about Frank’s restaurants before, and about how inexpensive downtown Italian places always get overrun and go downhill. Not so with Supper. The place is madly popular, but long waits in the next-door bar continue to be pleasant. The staff must know they don’t need any particular customer’s business, but they’re still warm and friendly. And Supper’s food has achieved the same astonishing consistency. It’s high-value, high-quality every time.
I’d been having insatiable cravings for the restaurant’s veal Milanese, so I decided to order it every time until it disappointed or I tired of it. Had to give up after five, because there’s too much other good stuff on the menu.
One style note: I don’t spend much time in the East Village anymore, so when I became a Supper regular, it was new to me how many young men in Manhattan try to dress like the Strokes. Or is it just that a lot of such characters have good taste in Northern Italian food? In any case, some of these "Strokabees" are so skillful (the skill involved is actually a willingness and ability to acquire designer wear that looks like thrift wear) you can actually pretend, at Supper’s communal tables, that you’re breaking bread with New York’s most successful rich-kid band.
Supper, 156 E. 2nd St. (betw. Aves. A & B), 477-7600.