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Friday, April 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Rum's the word at spirited Caribbean outpost

Special to The Seattle Times

Casuelita's Caribbean Cafe 2.5 stars


81 Vine St., Seattle; 206-770-0155, www.casuelitas.com

Caribbean

$$

Reservations: recommended on weekends.

Hours: dinner 5-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays; happy hour 4-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.

Prices: dinner sides $3, small plates $5-$12, soups and salads $5-$8, large plates $12-$17; happy hour small plates $3-$5.

Wine list: The focus is on rum and rum-based cocktails ($6-$8), with 50 dark rums available individually or in flights. About a dozen red and a dozen white wines (bottles $18-$60), all available by the glass ($5-$10).

Parking: street.

Sound: loud.

Full bar / major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to bar, but main dining room is upstairs.

Who should go: rum drinkers and fans of expertly braised meat and fried fish.

While waiting for a table at Casuelita's in Belltown, I realized I'd never had hot buttered rum. That was easily remedied, and my drink, smooth but for crunchy granules of brown sugar, was delivered in a coffee mug that read "Jamaica: No problem."

Not everything about the Casuelita's experience is so laid-back. Yes, casual dress is the rule and the clientele isn't exclusively young and hip, but the tropically decorated place is hot and loud, reservations are mandatory on weekends and service can be slow. At its best, however, the food has a tangy, ginger-infused sparkle that makes any shortcoming easy to overlook.

It's easy to make a meal of appetizers, especially since the menu bills them as tapas. Conch fritters ($8) had a nice marine flavor, but they'd sat around until their crunch was lost. The accompanying tomato salad was wonderfully tart. Chicharrones de Pollo ($7) is more like tempura than actual chicharrones (which are pork cracklings), lightly breaded bits of chicken served atop a pool of tangy and fiery sauce.

Jamaican vegetable patties ($6) had a nice curried vegetable filling, but the breading was just bread, not the flaky pastry a patty deserves.

Casuelita's downstairs bar is packed at happy hour (4-7 p.m. weekdays), and with good reason. Beer is $2, well drinks $3, and most of the tapas are available for $3-$5. Order several and they'll arrive on a platter with an addictive cabbage salad as its centerpiece. I especially liked the crisp plantain tostones ($4) and the St. Croix Prawns ($5), skewered, rolled in dried coconut and properly fried.

After two visits to Casuelita's and a whirlwind tour of its entire tapas menu, I thought I had the place all figured out. The entrees would just be larger versions with the same flavors, right?

Wrong.

Large plates — bowls, in many cases — are where the Casuelita's kitchen shines. These people know how to braise.

Don't miss Rich's Lamb Shanks ($16 and named for chef and co-owner Richard Dwyer), two meaty shanks braised with sweet onions, dijon mustard, fresh thyme and red wine. They are served in a bowl with Jamaican-style rice and peas and bok choy. Chicken ($12) and goat ($13) curries sported equally tender meat and a powerful hit of curry powder. In all cases, the best part of the dish — the best part of my whole day, frankly — was what's left after the meat is gone: a rich concoction of sauce and rice.

The callaloo soup ($5) is another rich concoction. It looks like saag paneer (creamed spinach and cheese) without the paneer: smooth and earthy from stewed greens. The coconut milk hits your palate first, followed by a vegetal undertone when the initial tongue-coating richness falls away. I liked the soup, but I'm not sure I could have eaten more than a few bites, even without a bowl of lamb shanks in front of me.

Non-braised entrees are also superb. Escoveitched fish is a whole fish of the day (this day it was red snapper, $21) fried until the flesh is moist and the skin crisp like the best possible fried chicken. I watched a friend eat this fish and keep eating until long after I thought there was nothing edible left on it. Even the crunchy little bones were delicious. Montego Bay Pepper Prawns ($15) features a surfeit of jumbo shrimp in a slightly too sweet but still addictive sauce with rice.

Service at Casuelita's ranges from eager-to-please to could-care-less, in sync with how busy the place is. A freebie nibble would go a long way toward alleviating frustration and inebriation while drinking and waiting for food. Some loss-leader tostones, perhaps.

Casuelita's is one of the only bars in town that takes rum seriously. It serves more than 50 different rums, available singly or in flights. I tried a flight of island rums ($12): one shot each of rums from Jamaica, the Virgin Islands and Barbados. I am far from a rum expert, so I'm not going to extol the caramel and leather overtones, but I enjoyed the rums almost as much as I enjoyed frowning thoughtfully after each sip as if I were analyzing caramel and leather overtones.

If my friends found this convincing, it was because they were drinking Casuelita's strong, sweet cocktails such as the Painkiller (Bacardi 151, pineapple and orange juices, Coco Lopez and nutmeg, $7.50).

Dessert goes to show that every chest of Caribbean pirate treasure has a few wooden nickels. After the flames cleared on the Bananas Foster ($6), I enjoyed the creamy morsels of banana and especially the spoon-worthy dark rum sauce. But chocolate banana cake ($6) was no more than slabs of banana bread glued together with artificial-tasting chocolate frosting.

I was going to complain about the steel-drum player who was banging out renditions of saccharine pop songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," but then I realized the obvious: If it doesn't sound good, you haven't had enough rum.

Casuelita's just opened a second location in Judkins Park (2608 S. Judkins St., Seattle; 206-329-1202). I haven't tried it, but according to the restaurant, it features a similar menu and lower prices.

Matthew Amster-Burton: matthew.reviews@gmail.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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