It’s been a bit since I’ve done a restaurant review—but I’ve been working on some other projects in the meantime1—so I figured the Steelpan Rastaraunt and Black Magpie Theory bar would be an interesting destination to kick things back into top gear on my new Urbanspoon restaurant-blogging spree.
Why? Well, this is the inaugural review on my blog after I decided to leave my Nooga.com column in March, and at that time this building housed Joe Friday’s Alaskan coffee house upstairs and O’Heiney’s pseudo-Irish pub downstairs2.
Thus, could this blog post be somewhat of a metaphorical mambo of unrelated dual transformations converging on a textual plane? OK, not really, but let’s see how it goes, shall we?
John Shoemaker, co-owner of the adjacent JJ’s Bohemia, took over the building in May to turn it into a pan3-Caribbean restaurant and bar. Shoemaker is no stranger to restaurants, but his abilities in making shoes are suspect. However, I was wondering if Shoemaker was lacing together a quality Caribbean menu, or if the experience would sink this “rastaraunt” into Davy Jones’ locker.
Atmosphere and service
Steelpan4 Rastaraunt had shed the Alaskan hunting shack décor of Joe Friday’s for a more basic-looking space with brightly colored walls and picnic tables. Preserved were the spiral staircases up to the top floor and down to the Black Magpie Theory bar, which still featured the O’Heiney’s metalwork on the ceilings and walls—and, of course, the infamous sliding bathroom doors, which have been notorious for confusing drunk people.
I decided to sit in the Black Magpie Theory5 to grab a brew while waiting for my party to arrive. The full Steelpan menu was also available down in the bar, and I was told they would soon be serving a vast selection of rum when they get their liquor license—Steelpan menu items are also now available at JJ’s Bohemia, and there is a walkway now linking Shoemaker’s establishments together.
The bartender, Shelby, was pleasant and attentive, and ran up and down the spiral staircase often to grab food and place orders with the Steelpan upstairs6. Both Shoemaker and Eddie Bridges (who had an epic beard) also came down a few times to run food and check on patrons. All of the staff I encountered were amiable and informative.
The black bean hummus ($5) had forgone the traditional chickpea in favor of the Caribbean black bean staple as its base. I liked the full intensity of garlic and a pico de gallo gave it some acidity and bite. My buddy cilantro was also present, of course, to greet me back to the restaurant-reviewing scene7. The consistency of this refried black bean dip was very close in firmness to the traditional chickpea mix, and it worked well as a nice cultural mishmash.
The guacamole served to the side was very thin, but flavorful. While I certainly prefer thicker, chunkier guacamoles, this one was pleasant. Sturdy, premade black tortilla chips were the vehicle for both dips, and gave the presentation a dark flair, complementing the shadowy hummus and contrasting the bright guacamole.
The heirloom tomato salad ($7) was loaded with heirloom tomato wedges of a juicy translucence, accompanying a huge pile of crumbled goat cheese on a bed of spinach. We also paired Steelpan’s housemade goat cheese ranch dressing to this salad, to compare their straight goat cheese with the dressing mix. The cheese melded well with the dressing, giving it a heightened creamy, tangy kick, while keeping it under the pungence of a bleu cheese concoction. It was a nice combination, and all the ingredients of the salad were fresh and vibrant.
I began the main entrées with the trinity pan ($16), which was a sampling of their three protein pan offerings: jerked coconut chicken, curried goat and mojo pork tenderloin. However, Shoemaker came down to apologize for the goat not being up to par and said he didn’t want to serve it. So, instead, we substituted the roasted vegetables in the same curry sauce, which also dropped the price to $12.
In the world of spices, a singular spice having the encompassing name “allspice” could foster a bit of arrogance, but once you get it together with some of its cronies—garlic, peppercorns, chiles, thyme, sea salt, cinnamon and nutmeg—they all become total jerks.
This jerk spice crew had bullied the skewered chicken when things became heated, but the chicken chunks had also brought their own pineapple and bell pepper buddies into the fray, pounding bittersweet, acidic punches to the lightly spicy, strongly savory jerk seasoning. When this fiery confrontation was over, the situation became quite juicy, and then it was brought to my table. I thought the dish looked great, but could it be loved?
While a somewhat spicy party was jammin’ on the chicken’s outer surface area, further intensified with the lustful presence of coconuts in the mix, the core of the chicken chunks was longing for something more. This chicken simply needed more time after its initial spice rubdown to fully marinate and embrace this culinary sadomasochism.
Next on the trinity combo, the tender black pepper pork had some strong mojo, which radiated a garlic and citrus8 zing with a Caribbean pirate9-esque aplomb. However, of the three dishes, the curried veggies substituted for the goat were actually my favorite: sweet potatoes, cremini mushrooms, peppers and onions bathed in a golden curry, which was mild in heat but rich in flavor. In addition to being a great dish for anyone, the veggie pan ($9) would be an excellent find for vegetarian and vegan diners panning for gold in Chattanooga’s restaurant scene.
I enjoyed all signs of the cross of Caribbean cuisines in the trinity pan, and though they could be improved, I did not find these creations blasphemous to their islands of inspiration. This pan dish included a large serving of seasoned black beans and long-grain white rice, which sopped up the juices and added bulk to the entrée. A substitution for peas was also available.
Next, I sampled a wedge of the mojo flat ($4), which was basically like a slice of pizza with a refried black bean base. It was topped with the same mojo pork from the pan dish, and these juicy, tender pork chunks were smothered in melted white and yellow cheddar cheeses, with pico de gallo and cilantro as an appetizing entourage. A mixed lettuce and sour cream salad was served to the side, either to eat on its own or to plop on top of the pie. While I enjoyed the melding of flavors with the toppings, I wasn’t crazy about the crust, which was on the dry side and a little stiff.
They do not have desserts—as of this writing.
The Caribbean is a huge region with many different traditions and influences. And if capturing the culinary spirit of this broad area wasn’t daunting enough, doing so with the limited arsenal of a cook top, rotisserie and pizza oven limits what can be done in the kitchen.
Some key components of Caribbean cuisine were not present—such as ackee and saltfish and plantains—and the menu mainly focused on a few traditional base ingredients used in different forms. While experimenting with the menu and getting the restaurant on solid footing, simplicity is a good idea, and Shoemaker said he’s offering various Caribbean dishes as specials as they establish their main line-up.
I feel Steelpan Rastaraunt has had a great start out of the gate, and I enjoyed the dishes I sampled, the friendly service and the fun atmosphere. I will certainly be back, and am looking forward to sampling the goat pan10 I missed this time, as well as the future rum selection at Black Magpie Theory while checking out some local acts. I’ll most likely be doing a follow-up review sometime down the road, to see if they’ve turned into a Port Royal-esque disaster, or have further plundered the rich booty of Caribbean culinary treasures. I’m betting on the latter.
I’m a wandering writer, presently focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene and outdoor adventures. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Urbanspoon, and can contact me at email@example.com. In addition to my restaurant reviews on this blog, all of my previous reviews as Nooga.com’s restaurant critic are available here.
1 I will discuss these other projects on this website soon.
2 Joe Friday’s and O’Heiney’s were a great combination of a quality coffeehouse stacked onto a good bar, and were owned by Rich and Misty Heinsman, with Rich’s law firm right next door. Many of the renovations they made in and around the building are still prevalent features in its design, including the outdoor deck areas overlooking JJ’s Bohemia.
4 The steelpan—known to us in America as a “steel drum”—has a vast history. Rooted in Trinidad and Tobago, this instrument has had many cultural implications to not only its homeland (celebrated in the the annual Panorama competition during Carnival), but now throughout the world—this will soon be addressed in an upcoming documentary on worldwide steelband culture.
5 The name “Black Magpie Theory” is derived from a questionable urban legend. Aside from the magpie bird being the inspiration for the word “pie”—which I’ve discussed in a previous review—according to the Black Magpie Theory’s Facebook page, Caribbean pirates would track black-billed magpies for rum because of the bird’s nature in finding fermenting molasses with its high-energy food diet. Thus, this apparently led to this modern slang phrase, meaning a cheap drinker. However, being the nerd that I am, I found no other sources for this story after heavy research, or evidence of the native Western U.S. Pica hudsonia magpie ever migrating to the Caribbean. Regardless, it’s a cool story, and if anyone wishes to enlighten me on this theory, feel free.
7 Cilantro and I have a love/hate relationship. After expressing my distaste for this herb in certain situations in my first review for Nooga.com, it continued to stalk me around in my following reviews, even in restaurants where you wouldn’t typically expect it. We have since made amends.
8 I believe this was orange and possibly lime juice.