Monday, August 2, 2010

Irie Palace

Imagine my shock,

"Joe, let's go out for Jamaican food!"

We have a Jamaican restaurant?

Well, I knew we did have a Jamaican restaurant. What seems like eons ago, occupying the old Gaslight restaurant on the corner of 60th and North Ave., now is the formidable Mekong Café, was Spice Island Jamaican restaurant. I never had the pleasure of going there, and I don't think many others did, either, as it closed not long after it opened. That Milwaukee was home to any other Jamaican restaurants was new to me, but it shouldn't have been...

Just a few blocks from my Maternal homestead, smack dab in the middle of 76th Street, Appleton Ave., and Capitol Dr., right next door to my favorite Asian Grocery in Milwaukee, Chu Hai, is Irie Palace; incognito, almost invisible in a block of former offices-turned-startups, save for the bright, clean marquee and windows bedecked with palm trees...

Inside, Irie Palace is a taffy-colored delight for the eyes: the walls fluorescing with a potent yellow, fishing nets filled with petrified starfish, structural columns wrapped in brown and crowned with fake palm fronds, paintings and murals of bright tempera abound. I had to smile.

You see, I like it when a business which can't afford really fancy décor makes their best effort in the ways they know how to convey a sense of place. At no point does any of this seem forced or fake, but rather a genuine gesture of authenticity: you can tell that everything in Irie Palace was selected with care: from the paint to the wood lattice around the booths. 

Of course, the dining room was filled with Reggae, but this, too, never got on our nerves: the songs were specific, picked for that time, that place... this was not the "Sounds of Reggae" station on Sirius, this was someone's playlist on their iPod. I like that.

We started things out with a frosty beverage: noting that the menu had under its Soft Drinks heading, "D&G Sodas," I was curious what exactly we had to pick from, but I didn't want to sound like a complete schmuck, so I asked what our server recommended. "Ting," he replied without any extra thought or time. Okay, so Ting it was... Ting all around!

Wait, what the hell is Ting? I had no idea. Did he say "Thing?" Or "Sing?" His light and slightly lilting Jamaican accent made the word just fuzzy enough for me to question what it was we were going to be drinking. But, I put my faith in the fates, and waited expectantly for our Ting. God, what on Earth is Ting?

Ting, as it turns out, is essentially the Jamaican version of Fresca. Served ice-cold, it's a grapefruit soda, but almost a sort of spritzer, as it is at its core sparkling water, grapefruit juice, and sugar. 

It is absolutely, positively delightful. Not overly carbonated, not cloyingly sweet, but refreshing, and just a little bitter with grapefruit flavor. Now I'm hooked on Ting.

The menu at Irie Palace is brief. Like, less than a half a page brief. But, I held out the hope this was an example of "Do one thing, and do it well." There are a number of recognizably classic Jamaican dishes, from Jerk Chicken and Shrimp, to Escovitch fish, Curry Chicken / Goat, and Brown Stew Chicken. We all started with a hearty cup (or, in Andy's case, a large trough) of Jamaican chicken soup:

This soup is out of this world. Days later, as I'm writing this, I instinctively start salivating at the thought. The broth is thick, richly flavored with thyme and allspice, and almost creamy. There are big, tender chunks of potato, carrot, and chicken -- not dry, flavorless breast meat, but hunks of bird with bones still in, making you work a little bit for your dinner. Andy and Lauren got a sort of long, sausagelike dumpling in their soup, I did not (for whatever reason), but I can honestly say I didn't miss it one bit. The soup was pleasantly hot, with the sort of trailing edge of heat that I so enjoy. At no point did I take a spoonful and immediately feel the chili explode on my tongue; the heat was subtle, slow and methodical. 

I can see how it would be easy to make a meal off of the soup alone, and I feel no shame in putting this on the "must-eat" list.

As for the entrées, well, we stayed a little pedestrian, I admit. But since we were testing this waters on this one, and none of us is exactly a Jamaican food expert, I'm okay with that. The rundown is as follows:

Andy got French Fried Chicken:

Lauren ordered Brown Stew Chicken:

While I ordered the Irie Sampler Platter, with two meats (I chose Jerk Chicken and Curry Chicken):

All of our dinners came with a side of Fried Plantain and Steamed Cabbage. You can stop your groaning right now, mister...

As well as a bowl of beans and rice:

Let's start with the sides, shall we?

First, I know what you're thinking. The steamed cabbage must be cringeworthy, right?

I have an odd relationship with cabbage. Despite the fact that I know I should probably hate it for its flaccid, mundane texture, its watery, bland flavor, and even purely on reputation, I can't. I love steamed cabbage. I love boiled cabbage. I love fried cabbage. I love sour kraut. I can't get enough of cabbage. Blame that on my Pomeranian roots.

But! Irie Palace's steamed cabbage packs a one-two punch. First, there's the element of texture: slightly firm, with a sort of toothiness that is pleasant without being either mushy or crunchy. Second, there's the element of flavor: salty, savory, herb-y, and infused with that belle of the ball, the Scotch Bonnet chili. You would never know this cabbage is steamed, and even Lauren, an avowed enemy of cabbages everywhere stated, "If I ate cabbage, this is the cabbage I would eat." Such a resounding vote of confidence!

The fried plantain was a fun change of pace for a starch: tart like plantains are, but fried so that the sugars began to caramelize and break down -- it was tangy, slightly sweet, and even a bit crunchy in places.

The beans and rice was nice, if not a bit bland. There was the slightest hint of coconut flavor... perhaps a bit of coconut water in the cooking liquid? This is meant top sop up juice, not to stand alone as a dish unto itself, so blandness is completely forgiven here.

Andy's "French-Fried" Chicken was pleasantly spiced, well seasoned, and had a decent all-around crunch factor. This crunch factor may easily have been the bones that were still in the carcass, though, and this is an important matter to take note of: most (if not all) chicken dishes are bone-in. Learn to chew lightly.

The fried chicken was served with a sweet, allspice tinged dipping sauce, which was the slightly milder analog of the nose-hair scorchingly hot sauce that was served with my Jerk Chicken.

Lauren's Brown Stew Chicken was deep, dark, rich and highly spiced. I immediately thought back to my luncheons with my mother as a young, impressionable foodie at Shah Jee downtown: the gravy was so strong, so intense with spices (but never too spicy), you can't help but love it. Showing Jamaican cuisine's varied influences, Irie's Brown Stew Chicken is a little Indian, a little French, a little indigenous... all delicious.

My half and half Jerk Chicken and Curry Chicken was a mixed bag. One one hand, the Jerk Chicken was absolute seasoned to perfection. Hot, but never painful or unpleasant, salty, but not briny, with garlic and allspice and everything I love about jerk seasonings. On the other hand, despite what looked like a huge portion, I was dodging bones and gristle left and right. The meat was a hair overdone, and was a bit too dry. I understand that Jerk Chicken is grilled, and that grilling lends itself to overcooking and dryness very easily, so I know why it was dry, but I wasn't thrilled that it was.

The Curry Chicken, in a complete about-face from the Jerk, was fall-off-the-bone tender, in a bright luminescent curry sauce with veggies. If you're looking for an Indian-style curry, you might as well take a trip over to Tandoor, 'cause Jamaican curry is a whole different animal. The spicing is subtle, almost bland, and while there was no truly offensive flavor to the dish, it wasn't exceptionally flavorful. 

I'm splitting hairs, and I know this. The Jerk Chicken is very tasty indeed, and I would certainly love to order it again (and I wouldn't fear doing so), yet I can't help but wonder if it will be consistently dry, or if this was just a one-time event.

All in all, I have to say, I really did enjoy our visit to Irie Palace, and with the menu as foreign to me as it is, I would relish the opportunity to try some less pedestrian flavors next time we go -- and to be sure, we will be going again. As the sun was setting on our dinner, the warm orange glow filtered through the windows, cut up by the painted palm trees, and splashed across the yellows of the walls, and for a second... just a second, I wasn't in Milwaukee anymore. And isn't that the fun of a good dinner? Even if the chicken is a little dry, isn't it all better escaping the drone of Rust-Belt city life for a while?

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Bright colors, island music, and friendly faces. It's not expensive décor, but it sure brightened my crappy mood when I walked in!

Prices: B
Price-to-portion is good, but for the money I would like to see a slightly higher amount of meat-to-bone. Most dinners are between $10-$15

Service: A-
Quick, friendly, helpful, and un-intrusive. 

The Food: B+
Tasty and different, including a long list of surprises (the Chicken Soup, steamed cabbage, Brown Stew Chicken), a few valiant efforts (the Jerk Chicken), and a bummer (at least in my book) in the curry chicken. All in all, tasty enough for me to recommend it, but mysterious enough for me to want to come back for more. 

The Details:

Irie Palace Jamaican Restaurant
7506 W. Appleton Ave. 
Milwaukee, WI 53216
(414) 461-8203

Irie Palace on Urbanspoon


  1. Having been the Jamaica three times, this menu took us right back to the restaurants along the sand! I'd say it's as close to authentic as you're gonna get here in Brew-Town!

  2. Looks amazing! Reminds me that we have 2 great Jamaican restaurants in Madison. I need to go and get some fried plantain soon!!! That soup looks amazing, too.

  3. Great Review, will be trying irie soon!

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