A Jamaican restaurant? Really? Is that what Little Rock has been collectively clamoring for?
That was our reaction when news broke last November that Montego Cafe would give it a go in the renovated space at 315 Main St. briefly and tumultuously occupied by Porter's Jazz Cafe.
More than three months into Montego's run, we're beginning to think our pessimism was unfounded. On three early-evening visits we've found bustling crowds of drinkers and diners, and we've heard the later-night entertainment lineup is drawing pretty well, too. Owner Brad McCray was behind On the Rocks, the East Markham club that crashed and burned, but he also owns Bear's Den Pizza, which by all accounts does quite well across from the University of Central Arkansas football stadium in Conway.
Sure, the home page of the Montego Cafe website is still prominently touting the second annual tribute to Bob Marley that happened Feb. 8. Sure, we arrived one early evening to find a scrawled note on the door that Montego had closed for a snowstorm-that-never-was that scared Little Rock senseless. Sure, on the following Monday afternoon we called just to make sure the place was open for dinner, only to be told Montego was closing at 5 p.m. because the staff had worked really hard over the weekend and was tired.
But when we finally did get there for dinner during Friday happy hour, the place was bustling and the food was pretty good.
Montego Cafe still looks in layout like Porter's — tables and booths at street level with a decent-sized bar area and much larger downstairs space designed to highlight the musical entertainment — but it has a lighter feel owing to the natural-fiber accents, a large sunburst on the floor, paintings by Pine Bluff artist Ariston Jacks and an overall, laid-back island feel.
At Friday happy hour we enjoyed the rasta DJ/steel drummer. And if you've never heard "Billie Jean" or Cat Stevens' "Wild World" tricked out steel drum style, well you haven't really heard them.
We started with a Montego'tini, a refreshing take on the classic featuring Ciroc coconut vodka, pineapple juice and a splash of Sprite. It was one of many intriguing choices on the drinks menu, which besides specialty cocktails has a decent selection of wine and beer choices.
To the average Arkie, "Jamaican" equals "jerk," so jerk shrimp ($8.99) seemed a logical appetizer. Six, decent-sized butterflied, tails-on shrimp were served with a red, sweet-and-sour sauce.
The shrimp were smoky, but not particularly spicy. Beef patties ($7.99), another familiar Jamaican dish, were outstanding — four pies featuring a flaky pastry crust surrounded spicy ground beef. The same sweet-sour sauce was served here, but we didn't use much of it since it overwhelmed the flavor of the patties.
While there are plenty of American choices on the menu, including a chicken Caesar wrap, chicken Caesar salad, cheeseburger and a veggie wrap, we opted for dishes we might be likely to try were we actually in Jamaica.
We decided grilled tilapia ($12.99) would be a good choice for the "make it Rasta" treatment — a $1.89 add-on that applies "a specially prepared Montego jerk seasoning." Other than saffron, we're not sure a couple of shakes of any spices are worth a couple of bucks, and while the ones used here offered a bit of smokiness they didn't supply much heat or anything else, leaving the dish more than a bit boring.
Not so for the Escoveitch Red Snapper ($15.99), a large fillet lightly battered, pan sauteed and topped with sauteed vegetables (mostly red and green bell pepper). It was crisp but light and flavorful — the fish firm and flaky but not greasy. The sauteed cabbage on the side was delicate but very tasty, but a rice and peas blend was bland and tasted a bit charred. The fried plantains were sweeter than others we've had and also not greasy.
Tilapia, shrimp and chicken are the choices to fill the island tacos ($10.99/$9.99 for chicken, served with rice and peas). The shrimp were cut on the bias and cooked just right, topped with generous slices of avocado and pico de gallo. As in the other dishes, a heavier hand with the spice would be nice.
Finally, we had to go for the most Jamaican thing on the menu, though the tie is musical and not culinary. The Bob Marley burger ($8.99, or $10.98 with a side) is huge — a sprawling, relatively thick patty topped with a fried egg, slabs of fried plantain, avocado, cheddar, an herbed mayo and "authentic island herbs," which couldn't be discerned in this way-too-much-going-on item. The fries were fine but fairly standard issue.
Construction abounds across the street and in the block south of Montego Cafe, and the burgeoning rebirth of Main Street needs the restaurant/club to succeed. There seems reason to be optimistic it will.