Getting excited over a bowl of cabbage doesn't happen every day, but it has happened twice at Evelyn & Olive, the new Jamaican/Southern fusion restaurant between Downtown and Midtown.
We've needed a Caribbean restaurant for a long time. Folks have taken a stab at it over the years, but none of the small restaurants, with the exception of a Cuban place, had any staying power (and, really, that's a whole different cuisine).
Evelyn & Olive, open less than two months, is already attracting a healthy crowd, and the reason is no mystery. The restaurant offers very good food, the prices are reasonable,
the service is friendly -- and there's plenty of convenient parking.
Now to that cabbage. The appetizer section of the menu seems to include sides, unless you consider items such as rice and peas, sauteed spinach or cabbage to be apps.
But the Kingston cabbage, named for Jamaica's largest city, is good enough to eat for a meal. Thinly shredded cabbage is sauteed until it's wilted and caramelized. Sweet red peppers and corn are stirred in, and it's all coated in a rich and earthy mix of warm spices such as allspice, ginger and perhaps even a little cinnamon. It's not only good enough to be a meal, but if you add an order of jerk chicken wings, it is a good meal.
The wings (part wings, part drummies) aren't hot, despite the "jerk" in the name. And while some jerk sauces or rubs can be fiery, they don't have to burn to be authentic. Yes, they contain Scotch bonnet or habañero peppers. But a tiny bit won't hurt you, and no one in the kitchen at Evelyn & Olive is looking to bottle a sauce with a warning label. The wings are tender, meaty and well-seasoned, but you taste the thyme, the allspice and the garlic, with just a hint of chili pepper. Pull the meat from the bone, add it to the cabbage, and, well, that's just a fine match. You can get the wings as a meal, too, served with rice and peas and a cucumber-tomato salad.
There's plenty of flavor in most of the food, and some of the sauces provide heat. The boom-boom sauce tastes like a comeback sauce with a kick, and the mango barbecue sauce delivers a fruity sweetness with a spicy ending.
Appleton pork tenderloin is a standout on the menu. The meat is glazed with sugar and Appleton rum (made in Jamaica), which both impart a sweetness to the meat. It's coarsely chopped -- some pieces are a bit pulled -- and tender as a slow-roasted pork shoulder. Rice and peas, a traditional dish throughout the Caribbean, is served on the side, and the second cabbage dish worth a little excitement is served on the side.
The coleslaw is a simple mayonnaise version with onion and the iffy-sounding but thoroughly delightful addition of pineapple.
I know from my meal that it pairs beautifully with pork; now I want to see it on barbecue.
The peas in the rice and peas are pigeon peas, which are actually beans. They're mild, and the rice isn't particularly flavorful, either. It's hearty fare that will fill a belly, but you might want to add a touch of one of the house sauces to the dish to liven it up a bit.
There are two shrimp dishes offered, and both are very good. The grilled jerk shrimp comes with the mango barbecue sauce, rice and peas and a cucumber-tomato salad. The appetizer salt-and-pepper shrimp is coated in the barest touch of breading, fried crisp and served with boom-boom sauce.
Jerk chicken pasta is hearty, comforting and delicious. Warm spices and rich cream are a great match, and this dish doesn't skimp on either. The boneless chicken breast is grilled in a generous layer of jerk spices, sliced and added to a big ol' dish of fettuccine tossed with red peppers and plenty of thickened cream, then garnished with a corn relish.
Another excellent chicken dish was the curry chicken and dumplings, offered as a special but worthy of a spot on the regular menu. Chicken drummies were cooked in a Jamaican curry and served over a bed of rice and beans with dense, flat dumplings that were full of the curry flavor.
The salmon cakes and Delta Grind grits were disappointing. The salmon had little flavor save the boom-boom sauce poured on top, and the grits were very dry and lumpy.
The sorrel, a beverage made from hibiscus (and called "jamaica," which is pronounced "hi-ma-ka," in Mexico), is usually a nice blend of sweet, tart and spicy. At Evelyn & Olive, I was put off by the strong flavor of apple cider vinegar in the drink. This isn't exactly an uncommon ingredient in sorrel, but I don't much care for it. I prefer it sweeter.
Evelyn & Olive is a warm and inviting spot, mostly because of the likeable, friendly staff. The dining room is simple, but clean and comfortable. (A warning, though: The front corner table is under a speaker, and it can get a little loud.)
The restaurant has all the trappings of a place that can stay around for a good long while, and here's hoping it does. A wine license is pending but should be coming through soon; beer is available.
Evelyn & Olive
Address: 630 Madison.
Telephone: (901) 748-5422.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Jamaican-style jerk chicken wings ($6.95 appetizer; $9.95 meal); Appleton pork tenderloin ($9.95); curry chicken and dumplings (available as a special; $7.95); jerk chicken pasta ($8.95); Kingston cabbage ($2.95).
Alcohol: Beer; wine license pending.