As someone who's always felt too arrhythmic to dance to reggae music in public, I discovered an activity at Cafe Negril that's a lot less nerve-wracking but also collaborates well with a good jam: chowing. Don't let the detail that Cecil Palmer is the only chef in town specializing in Jamaican food detract from the fact that he's the single-best chef of Jamaican food in town. His beef patties have soul; his jerk sauces are strong. It's probable that the relationship between him and his ingredients is affected by the solid reggae beats that push down like hosannas from the constant chop of ceiling fans high above.
Yes, this is the Cecil Palmer who once ran Palmer's Jamaican restaurant in Mid-City and whose booth at Jazz Fest draws a more voracious crowd than a Ricky Martin concert. His admirers will be happy to read that the dishes served at Cafe Negril are the very ones they've been missing. And Palmer still cooks with Scotch bonnet chile peppers and callaloo (the green leaf of the taro root) grown in his own backyard.
Just to be sure, on my first visit I asked a server to confirm that the man in the open kitchen was Palmer. "Yeah, he's the old guy in the beige cap," she said with a curious interpretation of age. At his former restaurant, a narrow hallway wobbled back to the kitchen where the side of a domestic refrigerator bulged into view like an extra-large belly in a small T-shirt. I always wondered how a person cooked back there. Now here he was, Cafe Negril's sturdy centerpiece with all the room in the world to move. He looked resolute but not old, tossing carrots into the air as he peeled them, swirling stiff rum sauce over slices of sweet potato pudding with the practiced tilt of a wrist. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" played to the rafters.
The lanky waitress, indeed much younger, looked as if she had stepped from the pages of Vogue. She sang inaudibly as she washed dishes by hand alongside Palmer, and occasionally the music and her hips coordinated like crutches to move her from table to table. When I asked her where Palmer got the goat for his signature dish, she said she didn't know but that "he just got here today."
If your server assigns a pronoun to your dinner, you can be fairly certain that HE was whole and practically still kicking just prior to coming under the chef's cleaver. This one had a sweet, brawny flavor similar to lamb, and a fabulous melting quality like long-cooked beef cheeks. A brown curry sauce was thick as country gravy and, thanks to having stewed with the animal's flavor-packed bones, began to congeal as it cooled.
Like the goat, each entree I tried convinced me that it was the most tender dish I'd ever eaten. Jerked drum fillets were steeped in a wet mixture of lime, allspice and chile heat that headed straight for the sinuses. Despite the menu's "boneless tenderloin" description, pork redolent of chiles and warm spices involved a bony cut that relished its long cooking time. I cut through a smooshed double-breast of Creole Flatten Chicken as if it was a cooked carrot. Besides the chicken's rigid side of fettuccine, most entrees came with great combinations of coconut rice and red pigeon peas, braised greens with squash, and perfectly white, boiled potatoes.
Either too special or too much like street food to mention on the regular menu, Palmer's specialty starters are listed on small cards at each table. Skip the shrimp remoulade and order these first. Four, flaking, turnover-type pies crimped along their curves came filled with ground beef and chiles, a heavier mix of ground meats, soft vegetables including cauliflower and carrot, or chicken flavored with something peculiar I can compare only to mothballs. A superior curry soup with shrimp tasted a lot like gumbo; pepperpot soup tempered with coconut milk held greens and chicken in suspension.
Although Palmer clearly is a key ingredient, he doesn't actually own the place. Whether it was beginner's luck or the hard-nose instinct of a private investigator (his other job), managing owner Mark Johari Lawes took wall-to-wall cement and created a vibrant room of tomato-red paint, Rasta-colored neon tubes and low-hanging lamps. He commissioned a local T-shirt artist to illustrate the fine line between tacky and tasteful in a brilliant, airbrushed mural devoted to Bob Marley. A lovely hedge of tables stands parallel to a bar serving Southern Comfort punch, Midori pina coladas and Red Stripe. Skinny palm saplings outside line the sidewalk along Frenchmen Street.
Don't be surprised if the jolly setting busts through your usual inhibitions. It's the only explanation I can find for my chatting up two guys as they fed $10 to the jukebox at lunch the other day. We stood there for a moment admiring the chef's way with jerked fish and a song by Ky-Mani. Nodding to the beat one of them mentioned something that, had I written it, might sound contrived: "This place has a great vibe."
- If you like what you taste at CAFE NEGRIL, Chef Cecil Palmer is right there in the open kitchen, ready for compliments.