Nothing says vacation quite like a drink with a paper umbrella in it. Mixologists might call such drinks tacky, but what’s not to love about the delight they bring to the table? When an umbrella is so unnecessary that it’s miniaturized and plunked in a cocktail, you know you’re not in Vancouver anymore.
Yet there we were on Commercial Drive, one Friday evening after yet another cloudy workday. The sun had finally broken through, and we were determined to find our inner sunshine for the weekend. The Reef Caribbean Restaurant was just the place.
In March, the Reef opened its third location after nine years on Main Street and five in Victoria. With a retractable, garage-door-style wall of windows fronting on Commercial, the spot is designed to maximize rays. Fenced in by corrugated steel that’s painted bright yellow, blue, and red, the sidewalk patio combines a Jamaican roadside feel with a bar view of the Drive’s human parade.
Patio full, we slid into one of the sunny turquoise-and-white booths just inside the open garage-door wall. Everybody seemed to be celebrating—servers carried trays of drinks with umbrellas, groups of diners laughed, and a dad bopped his baby happily along to the reggae.
First, the bevvies. Rum is by far the star here, with dozens of ways to enjoy it, including frothed into an island cocktail. Rum brands hail from Haiti to Venezuela, making it a good opportunity to try something new if you don’t gravitate to Red Stripe, Carib, or Brazil’s Brahma beer.
We couldn’t pass up the rare treat of a zingy, nonalcoholic housemade ginger beer ($3) made of steeped ginger and lime. The fizzy sorrel, also housemade from hibiscus flowers, had a mild, cranberrylike flavour, and we sucked both back as if we had just stumbled up parched from the beach.
Specials differ, but the menu is identical to that of the Main Street Reef. In a phone interview later, Reef co-owner Simon Cotton said that while traditional favourites like West Indian curries have been on the menu since the chain’s inception, other items have evolved from a “very literal translation of Caribbean food” to a more modern interpretation reflecting the region’s multiethnic reality.
To start, we ordered Oistin’s Flying Fish ($9), a no-brainer due to my tortured memories of having to leave Barbados a day before the famous weekly fish fry in Oistins. The Reef was sold out. Oh, cruel fate! Instead, we settled for jerked wings ($7) and a warm chana salad ($7).
In the meantime, we tore apart hefty balls of deep-fried johnnycakes. The complimentary bread comes with mango coconut butter, a bit sweet predinner but yummy nonetheless.
The salad consisted of curried chickpeas next to a sad mound of brown-edged lettuce and shards of carrot. The chickpeas were fine, but lacked wow.
The wings, however, were fantastic. With one intense stare, the meat fell off the bone. They’d been marinating for 24 hours in the Reef’s jerk spice, a stormy mixture that includes bay leaves, allspice, cloves, garlic, and Scotch bonnet peppers. The same jerk is applied to other chicken, tofu, and salmon dishes, and it heats your mouth without tasering your taste buds. Health bonus: the ample portion of wings was baked, not fried.
For mains, the Trini roti ($10) drew a mixed reaction. My father is from Trinidad, so I’ve eaten a fair sampling of roti here and on that island. To me, a roti skin should be soft, thick, and pliable. This one resembled a tortilla wrap. (Cotton told me later that it’s a “quick roti”, which he said was developed by one of their Trinidadian chefs but is now outsourced.)
The goat curry inside the roti, however, was rich with a deep turmeric-and-cumin flavour. Goat curry is often unpleasantly bony, but these mild, boneless chunks were a pleasure.
I loved the ackee and salt fish ($12), which combines meaty chunks of not-too-salty salt cod with onion, tomato, and peppers. With thumb-sized wedges of ackee—a mild, buttery, yellow fruit—over kidney-bean-studded rice, the textures melded wonderfully. Only later did I question where the salt cod had come from—Newfoundland, according to Cotton. This makes it a SeaChoice no-no due to overfished stocks.
With a bill just over $60, including two beers, and an enormous dessert of fried bananas and mango ice cream, the Reef delivered sunshine for about the cost of an airline fuel surcharge to the Caribbean.