Joyce Joseph, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and longtime member of the New York finance world’s elite hierarchy, tends to diners at Spice Isle in Warren like she taught Danny Meyer how to run his Union Square Hospitality Group.
She may be newer at the restaurateur game than New York’s Meyer, but she’s no less gracious, informed and interested in the connections she can make, and is making, by opening a restaurant of a different stripe in a community not known for starting dinner with something as novel as Jamaican festival bread.
Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of bread to start dinner, a feed-’em-quick tactic restaurants have adopted to keep folks sated and potentially quiet between the time they order and their food arrives. If this started on another planet, I wish Earth hadn’t taken up the mantle.
But I’d make an exception for the little fried balls of lightness that come in a basket with a ramekin of guava sauce. They look like Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. They taste not a bit oily. Bite into what stands in for a crust, and it yields to a soft cornmeal crumb that’s slightly moist. This crumb offers the suspicion of sweetness, a pinch of sugar and, perhaps, a pin-drop of nutmeg. Dip it into the tangy guava sauce and consider it bread as aperitif.
If this is eating life at Spice Isle, I’m stoked—and a new follower of Joyce Joseph’s path to eating happiness.
Okay, I’ll admit, all those coconut shrimp appetizers out there, dripping with sweetness and oil? No, thanks. But after the Jamaican festival bread, I’m game to try Spice Isle’s version. Light, bright, crisp and terrific—with the snap-crackle of toasted coconut flake coating surrendering to juicy shrimp. Codfish fritters can be gooey and bland or bready and bland. Here, they’re all about the fish and extra-fun to eat with a spot of corn-tomato relish. Chicken wings done jerk style? Cooked to a properly bronzed brown and slapped with just the right amount of jerk spice, they go down mighty quickly.
We palate-cleanse with the reggae kale salad. If you’re tired of kale salads, this one’s for you: Tender, massaged kale leaves are tossed with slices of apple, mango and red peppers, then given a fat dollop of mashed avocado. A barely-there spray of honey-tinged balsamic vinaigrette binds the greens and accents. Nice.
If you think oxtails are a cold-weather dish, you need to book an island vacation. Joseph, who tells us of girlhood vacations on her family’s native Grenada, is on a veritable mission to explore oxtails as interpreted throughout the Caribbean. Here, at her Spice Isle, they’re served in a near-gravy of a broth with plantains and butter beans, the latter of which ably competes with the beef in a gravy sop-up match. On the side: rice-and-peas and a thick slaw of cabbage, peppers and carrots.
I’m still craving the mango-ginger relish of a salsa that lifted salmon from the doldrums. Sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts and partnered with garlicky spinach, plantains and rice, it was another entree that could’ve been ordinary. But it, too, had that special something.
Thoughtfulness in concept, definitely. Care in execution. Oversight by a woman who may be new to the restaurant business, but instinctively, perhaps intuitively, gets it—and gets it right.
Spice Isle, 41 Mountain Boulevard in Warren. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays. Spice Isle offers a list of wines from Alba Vineyards, one of New Jersey’s premier wineries; or, you may BYO. 908-834-8864; spiceislenj.com.
NOTE: Joyce Joseph is starting something of a Supper Club within Spice Isle by offering a series of Caribbean cuisine exploration events. On Thursday, June 14 from 7 to 9:30 pm, she will host a Foods of the Bahamas four-course dinner at $39 per person. Reservations are required and may be made by calling the restaurant or visiting the website.Click here to leave a comment