Windrush Island Cafe: Belfast's first Caribbean is a love affair that's set to last
45 University Road, Belfast. Tel: 075 3456 6252
Minne Laboratories, the leading centre for experimental lounge bar economic and social analysis, has recently determined that for every act of bigotry, xenophobia and narrow-minded numptiness which envelops Northern Ireland, from time to time there is an equal and opposite reaction.
This reaction expresses itself every day on the plate and in the glass of a few hundred ethnic minority restaurants where those of us not bombing the homes of migrant families nor setting their cars on fire quietly reaffirm our solidarity with the communities of our towns and cities.
But visits to these restaurants are not just politically motivated. It's the flavours of the Punjab, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Mexico and just about every where else you can think of, which draw us there.
The one component missing from this box of wonders is the Caribbean. Belfast's Caribbean representation is slim. But we do have the Windrush Island Restaurant. It may be a lonely outpost, but it is the real thing.
Windrush has all the charms of a township shibeen. The tables are upturned electricity cable spools and the chairs are the back-breaking, bendy plastic type which never worked even for the P7 classes for which they were designed.
But this and the shoestring decor (featuring some astonishing people photography) should be seen as a mood enhancer rather than a hindrance. The shack-chic thing works here, because it is not fabricated. It's just that owner Wendy McGuire doesn't have the financial clout of your more common, commercially aware and established restaurateur.
She has been operating successfully for some years as an outside caterer, bringing the wonders of beef and chicken jerky, goat curry and hot fish pots to the living rooms of the culinarily challenged rich of north Down and south Belfast.
I was at such a party two years ago and the adviser and I were knocked out by the food. At this stage, Wendy was thinking about opening a restaurant. Last year she went through with her plan (while keeping the catering business going simultaneously) and opened Windrush in the Queen's Quarter.
Anyone who knows the Caribbean and Jamaica in particular says her food is not just authentic, but at the highest level. Judging by the flavours and textures alone, I can vouch for this.
The Creole, Jamaican, Haitian and Cuban dishes are not just robust, homey and tasty. They are outstanding.
Most of it is down to slow cooking, long marination and sound judgment. She says the secret of Caribbean food is time. “It takes a while, but it’s worth the wait.”
That may be so, but the few lunches I've had were actually more quickly served than most and for this reason alone, it's an ideal spot for the time-poor.
Among the starters in the evening (only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays) there are corn fritters done Haitian style, gently fried in herbs and spices, Jamaican jerk chicken sunshine salad with mixed leaves, mango, pineapple and lime, tamarind and mango dressing, and yam fritters, grated and fried with tomato, onion, garlic and herbs. The most expensive starter is £4.95.
Things get even more revved up with Prawn Rundown. These are tiger prawns in a Jamaican slow-cooked coconut sauce called run down, or rundun. Jamaican jerk pork marinated in her own paste and cooked in a Dutch pot in the oven is another wonder, but the dish that flies out the door is the half-a-jerk-chicken. Spiced and marinated in jerk seasoning which McGuire also makes it comes with peas and rice and a side of plantain, a banana-like fruit which you can only eat cooked. I had some last year and can still remember it.
Proof that Belfast is not xenophobic is the citizenry's love of the new international flavours which in recent years have popped up and which have been embraced.
This is our first Caribbean and I think the love affair is set to last. And the sure way to our hearts is a good BYO policy: only £1 corkage.
Jerk chicken sunshine salad £4.95
Escoviche fish £11.00
Rasta brownies £4.00
Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee £2.50