In Trinidad and Tobago, there's little shying away from spice. That's also the case at Island Paradise, a new restaurant in Gretna where the fiery scorpion peppers native to the Caribbean island add heat to many dishes.
The lip-numbing characteristics of the Trinidadian hot peppers are most obvious in the bright orange house-made "fire" sauce. Order the "fire" version of Paradise wings and the scorching heat will leave your mouth tingling for some time before its mild sweetness lessens the blow.
Heat isn't the only element present at Nadine Balbosa and Kwesi Jordan's tiny, brightly colored restaurant. The food features complex flavor combinations that are refreshingly distinct. Split pea dhal is the color of saffron and tastes of garlic and turmeric, yet also is slightly tart. An aromatic curried chicken dish is mild, carrying notes of thyme and cilantro.
Balbosa emigrated from Trinidad to New Orleans 15 years ago and worked in kitchens and catering operations across the city before opening Island Paradise restaurant last December. Though most of the menu is fairly straightforward, the friendly and sociable owners are happy to explain the Trinidadian vernacular.
"Doubles," a common street snack, are like little chickpea sandwiches made with bara, a fluffy turmeric-scented flatbread, which is deep-fried and wrapped around channa, a spicy and tart curried chickpea filling. Dhalpuri roti is a flatbread fragrant with cumin that is stuffed with a grainy split pea and garlic mixture and carries an earthy and warming aroma.
New Orleans cuisine, with its strong French, Spanish and Caribbean influences, feels similar to some of the dishes served at Island Paradise. Instead of rice and beans, there's rice and pigeon peas, cooked down with pumpkin and coconut milk, which makes the dish slightly sweet and almost creamy.
Jerk chicken has the look and feel of classic soul food at first glance, but after a few bites it's clearly much spicier. Seasoned with a medley of chili peppers (including scorpion), thyme and a hefty dose of black pepper, the outside of the chicken is blackened to form a crispy shell that keeps thigh and leg meat juicy and tender. It is served with golden hunks of buttery, sweet cornbread.
There's an excellent and unique rendition of braised oxtail, a Caribbean standby. After the meat is marinated with peppers, thyme, green onions, cilantro and garlic, the oxtails are browned with caramelized sugar and braised for hours. The result is an almost sweet and caramel-like flavor with tender meat that slips effortlessly from the cartilage.
At times, the kitchen deviates from the more authentic fare, and those dishes feel at odds with the rest of the menu. A side of crawfish pasta tastes as out of place as it sounds. Diners should stick with what the restaurant does best: authentic Trinidadian cuisine with a lot of heat, heart and soul.