The Islands used to be a two-story restaurant on the Crown Heights side of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, near the top of the hill, within sight of the Brooklyn Museum. Upstairs was a cramped, angular, shadowy dining room with a few tables under a ceiling so low it made tall people stoop. Downstairs was a cramped, angular, shadowy kitchen where oxtails, goat curry and other Jamaican dishes were cooked and sold.
To the right of the door, behind a counter, was the restaurant’s single stove. It had three burners that were almost always going. No matter when I went there it seemed that about a quarter of the things on the menu had not finished cooking, but complaining would have been cloddish, both because the limitations on capacity were obvious and because whatever was finished was bound to be both nuanced and powerful.
The whole operation was one of those precarious marvels of adaptive survival, like a pine growing from a crack in the side of a cliff. So the outlook was grim when news came two summers ago that the structures housing the Islands and another business were being torn down so a new apartment building could be constructed. This neighborhood and the ones to the south between Flatbush and Ralph Avenues owe much of their character to black- and immigrant-owned businesses, including a large swath of Caribbean restaurants such as the Islands. With developers sniffing at this part of Brooklyn, many of them are at risk.
Marilyn Reid, who owns the Islands with Shuon Letchford, had other ideas. She had had other ideas since 2001, when she opened the restaurant. “We were always looking because we had outgrown it by the second day,” she said in a phone interview. “We knew.”
Before closing the original space in March 2017, she and Ms. Letchford had found a much bigger one downhill on Washington Avenue. Preparing it took a few months more than she had hoped, but the second incarnation of the Islands has been up and running since January.
The new kitchen has two stoves and 10 burners. Nevertheless, what’s available when I’ve gone has always been several dishes shy of the complete menu. The stewed okra with cod is especially hard to pin down. At the same time, the comfort of the bigger dining room and the table service, an impossibility in the first space, have encouraged me to branch out beyond my usual favorites.
The Islands is best known for long-simmered stews but the kitchen also knows a thing or two about frying. The flattened fritters of salt cod seasoned with fresh hot chiles, known as stamp and go, were crunchy and golden. Some Caribbean cooks deep-fry fish escovitch to oblivion, on the theory that spicy vinegar heals all wounds. The escovitch I had at the Islands was a whole red snapper, obviously fresh and fried just until firm. The vinegar dressing, meanwhile, was seasoned with not just hot chiles but pickled bell peppers, carrots and cucumbers, making this escovitch more interesting than usual.
From the old days, I knew the curried goat would be very tender and richly seasoned, although like most of the cooking at the Islands, it was never scalp-piercingly spicy. Now I’ve found a new standby in the curried vegetables — a very different thing, of course, but the golden raisins, turmeric and allspice may do even more for cabbage and carrots than they do for goat meat.
Barbecue chicken was ordered in a rush verging on panic because whatever I’d first wanted wasn’t ready yet. The sauce is nothing like the ketchup-based sludge I’d imagined. Made with raisins and allspice, it tastes more like a glaze for a holiday ham, and it’s lovely.
I prefer it to the jerk chicken, which will sound like heresy to some customers. Like barbecue, jerk can describe either a sauce or a process, and the process needs to involve wood smoke. The Islands bakes its jerk chicken in the oven, and while I like its sauce, when I want jerk chicken I will cross Eastern Parkway and keep the windows down until I smell burning allspice logs.
But I have no quarrel with the jerk shrimp or leg of lamb at the Islands — there’s no place to get an allspice-smoked version of either, as far as I know. The lamb is especially alluring, stuffed with jerk spices and slowly roasted until its outer crust falls, upon slicing, into a dark rubble that in New Orleans would be called debris.
Rice and peas, fried plantains and stewed cabbage, slippery with coconut oil, are all mandatory in my book. Others insist on baked macaroni and cheese, served in a brick the size of a pound of butter. When I taste the bread crumbs on top, and wonder if they’ve been seasoned with dried onions, I think those people may have a point.
All of this food is brought to the table on oval platters that could hold a small Thanksgiving turkey.
Since opening in January, the new dining room has been embellished bit by bit. The walls are painted in watermelon and aquamarine. Small hurricane lamps decorate the tables. A couple of weeks ago, plaid cloth napkins made their debut in the middle of dinner service. Menus, which used to be kept inside a clear plastic sheath, are now presented inside folders made of textured handmade paper, held in place with stickers of bumblebees and butterflies.
The bar, across the dining room from the kitchen, is still unoccupied while Ms. Reid waits for a liquor license to come through. A rumored roof deck has not materialized, either. In the meantime there is an excellent limeade sweetened with demerara sugar and a dark purple, fruity sorrel punch, which can give the impression it has been lightly spiked with rum.
Credit for the food at the Islands is shared. There are two chefs, Delroy Henry and Ronald Porter. Most of the recipes, though, are Ms. Letchford’s, and she does a lot of the cooking. Like Ms. Reid, all of them were raised in Jamaica before moving to New York, but only Ms. Letchford did any professional cooking there. Ms. Reid is often in the kitchen too. “I do the light stuff,” she said. “I tend to stay with salads, seafood.”
Is the food as good as before? I used to be impressed that anything at all could be cooked at the old Islands. That so much of it was actively delicious seemed like a miracle. It’s less astonishing now that the kitchen has 10 burners and room to turn around.
But I suspect the only thing that’s changed is me. And when I’m in the mood for something miraculous, I’ll just remind myself that the Islands is still in business. You can’t stop gentrification, but sometimes you can fool it while it’s looking the other way.