ANDn 2005, Hugh Russell, who moved to Connecticut from Jamaica in 1987 as a 20-year-old, opened the Hartford restaurant that bears his name. Two years ago, he relocated The Russell to the cavernous Allyn Street space that formerly housed Black Bear Saloon. And this past January he opened a satellite Jamaican eatery on South Main Street in West Hartford Center, part of his ongoing mission, he says, “to bring the island here.”
The two venues (a third, on New Britain Avenue does takeout only) offer a distinct choice of vibe. In contrast to the vast downtown mothership, the West Hartford branch is cozy and convivial, a stylish room where a blackboard lists bar specials in multicolored chalk. One big mural depicts Bob Marley and others illustrate breadfruit, soursop, and other Jamaican foods. Cocktails feature rum-based concoctions with passionfruit, pineapple, blue Curacao. “Vibrant” is the apt word. The restaurant has live music most nights, while the downtown venue also offers karaoke and spoken-word poetry.
“Entertainment,” Russell says, “is what Jamaica is all about.”
Our server glowingly described the delights of her homeland: its forested hills and cool nights, the coffee farms of the Blue Mountains, and the rowdy scene at Boston Beach, epicenter for Jamaica’s signature barbecue specialty, jerk. The mention of Boston Beach recalled a trip I made there years ago, visiting jerk pits where meats cooked on smoldering hardwood grills. One stop was the stand known as Sufferers Jerk Pork # 1, whose name hints at jerk’s explosive pepper power.
“We don’t make it that hot here, ”our server at The Russell said with an apologetic grin. “Honestly, it should hurt a bit more.” She furnished a bottle of Grace’s scotch-bonnet sauce to bang the hurt up a notch.
Under the direction of head chef Rohan Smith, a veteran of Kingston’s restaurant scene, the Russell is a jerk-centric dining experience. You can get it in snacky munches, like a grilled chicken panini or a gooey-cheesy flatbread pizza, both using roasted red bell peppers and caramelized onions to add sweetness to the chicken. Don’t bother with the calamari appetizer – the jerk was undetectable in these overly battered morsels. I wouldn’t opt for salmon either. The subtle flavor and the tenderness of seafood don’t always make an optimal platform for jerk. You want something you can fight with.
Like pork. The Russell serves thick chunks of pork butt, grilled and piled together with large timbales of rice and gungo peas, which resemble small kidney beans and lend the rice a pinkish, dirty-rice tinge. But my favorite jerk option was chicken wings – charred, moist, and zingy, with a dipping sauce that cut the fire of scotch bonnet with a sweetish rum-and-mango chutney.
The kitchen turns out other Jamaican dishes that, like jerk, reflect the island’s complex history. Ackee, a pink, lobe-like fruit with a mild and elusive flavor, came from Africa on slave ships. Boiled, sliced and fried, it looks like scrambled eggs, and combined with flaked salt cod – brought to Jamaica by sugar plantation owners – it forms the classic Jamaica breakfast food. The Russell’s kitchen doles it out on plantain chips as a tasty appetizer. Or come for Sunday brunch and get it as a main course.
Chinese laborers brought stir-fry to the island, presented here in an excellent entrée of sliced steak with red and green bell peppers. Curry (and chutney) arrived with indentured workers from India. Jamaican curry uses allspice, and typically contains neither red chili powder nor curry leaves, resulting in a subtler flavor. Eating goat curry can mean doing battle with bone fragments, but The Russell’s kitchen minimizes this problem via careful butchering; the meat fell away from the bone in big tender chunks and also possessed none of the slightly gamy taste goat meat can have.
The fish preparation known as escovitch came to the Caribbean from Moorish Spain; the word derives from the Arabic al-sikbaj, a stew cooked in a sweet-and-sour sauce. The supremely enjoyable version at The Russell is a large red snapper, fried (with the head
on) to perfect crispness, then smothered in onions and carrots and given a highly vinegary dressing. A side of jerk-spiked honey BBQ sauce completes the pleasure. And on the subject of pleasure, I have to mention a fabulous (and enormous) starter of fish tacos, tender fried tilapia in a fruity salsa, drenched in a rich scotch-bonnet aioli.
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Not everything was perfect – a penne entrée, for instance, leaned too heavily on cream – and some timing issues with the serving of courses need ironing out. But The Russell offers terrific value. Its deft upscaling of a street food – or beach food – reminds us how delicious it is to engage with history and culture through our taste buds, via a cuisine that maps the world on our plate.
THE BILL: Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, $ 8 to $ 14; entrees, $ 12 is $ 26; sides, $ 5 to $ 8; desserts, $ 8 is $ 12.
HOURS: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 am to 9 pm; Thursday to Saturday, 11:30 am to 10 pm; Sunday, brunch noon to 4 pm and dinner 4 to 8 pm (bar closes one hour later.) Reservations not accepted.
ACCESSIBILITY: Wheelchair access through front of restaurant. Free parking in front lot.
LOCATION: 39 S. Main St., West Hartford. 860-519-0138 and therussellct.com
Rand Richards Cooper is a freelance food writer in Connecticut.