We'd been hearing, for what seems like forever, that Jimmy Sneed was going to open a new restaurant with Carena Ives of Jamaica House fame. Many people thought he was a little unhinged (Jamaican food from the guy who used to cook with Julia Child and who put Richmond fine dining on the map with The Frog and the Redneck?). But a lot more people didn't really think the plans would come to anything, especially when they heard Sneed wanted to open the restaurant across the street from the now-defunct Cloverleaf Mall. I mean, where is that? Just to the left of crazy town?
What Sneed failed to mention was that the new place is less about him and more about chef Carena Ives. Or maybe Sneed did mention it, and we didn't bother to listen. Sometimes a famous name gets in the way of perception, and Richmonders have an unfortunate tendency to leave their brains at home when celebrity anoints one of our own (see: Yamin, Elliott).
So it really should come as no surprise that Carena's Jamaican Grille on Midlothian Turnpike is modest, yet comfortable and authentic -- accessible to the uninitiated, much as Carena Ives herself appears. Jamaica House has been a cult favorite for years amongst the food cognoscenti, consistently banging out great Jamaican fare, focused and hauntingly spiced, to any and all comers on Broad Street. But Jamaica House is essentially a take-out joint; Ives needed a place to stretch a little.
The particular section of Midlothian Turnpike that Ives and Sneed selected might seem an odd choice for a location, but then again, Oregon Hill seemed like the height of folly when Ed Vasaio opened Mamma 'Zu in the mid-'90s. Who's smirking last? And according to the clock in my car, the drive took me about 12 minutes from Ginter Park. Everyone else in town can probably make even better time, and frankly, what's so hard about getting on the highway and then exiting?
In fact, it's the easiest thing in the world to persuade me to take my family across the river for dinner, when at the end of it I know a great meal is waiting. All of the traditional dishes you can get at Jamaica House are here too and just as good things like meat patties, oxtail and jerk pork but served in comfortable booths with bamboo-topped tables. Appetizers such as the jerk chicken wings come smoky from the grill; the calamari is fried just long enough to produce tender brininess; and the conch fritters are authentically sweet and a little tough although the fritter/conch ratio goes a long way in making up for a little inevitable chew.
Burgers, burritos, pizzas, pasta it seems like there's something for everyone on this menu. Although the fire-grilled pizza really needs to be relocated to the appetizer section, the bacon-mango combo wins a gold star from me, although the Parmesan topping did more to dry it out than meld the flavors together. On the entrée side, the pan-roasted Jamaican jerk steak is brazenly spicy and oozes bloody medium-rare goodness all over the plate with every meaty slice.
Best though and reassuringly for a restaurant based on island cuisine is the fish. The salmon is lush and topped with a tangy mango and sautéed onion relish spiked with a shot of vinegar. The pan-fried tilapia is perfectly crisp on the outside and flaky tender on the inside, with exceptionally good red peppers and, topping it all, onions sautéed in butter with a hint of sharp citrus. Although there are lots of sides to choose from, stick with the garlic-spiked rice and peas, which almost outshine the star of the plate next to them.
If Sneed's influence can be felt, it's in the freshness of the ingredients and the judicious handling of spice and dish. Or maybe not. Who's to say the accolades shouldn't go to Ives? Jimmy Sneed has certainly been singing her praises for years, and maybe it's time we finally listened. S
Carena's Jamaican Grille NS ($$)
7102 Midlothian Turnpike
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.