Set your watch to Jamaican time

It used to take an age to get served in this landmark Caribbean restaurant, but things have improved a lot. Still, don't be in a hurry, says Karina Mantavia
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a theory that mankind evolved in fits and starts - that far from it being a slow, gradual process, we became more civilised in spasmodic leaps and bounds. If Brighton is anything to go by, food culture can work in much the same way.

There's a theory that mankind evolved in fits and starts - that far from it being a slow, gradual process, we became more civilised in spasmodic leaps and bounds. If Brighton is anything to go by, food culture can work in much the same way.

Over the past six months, the town's foodie landscape has evolved faster than the start-up line-up on Silicon Valley's main drag. As the arrival of immigrants in Britain spiced up the air and changed the culinary climate, so the arrival of Londoners to the staid south coast has done the same. Branches of halfway respectable chains (Wok Wok and Moshi Moshi), wisely courting that ex-Notting Hill purse, a few decent ethnic caffs and even the odd proper restaurant have all quickly introduced something new to the swelling population: choice.

Tamarind Tree is no product of this culinary renaissance. On the contrary, it is as much a Brighton landmark as the seagulls and the antiques mafia. Once the preferred hang-out for one of the world's last few breeding hippie colonies, this Caribbean restaurant was ahead of its time. Back in the town's dark days, when caff owners would stand beaming over something as weird as a Brie 'n' bacon sandwich, it was a freakish oddity.

Tamarind Tree is very Jamaica. On my last visit three years ago (when the restaurant first opened), my starter took about 40 minutes to materialise, and the surprise of the waitress when pressed was sincere: "You want to eat NOW?" Your mind was filled with images of the kitchen staff doing exactly what you were doing: sitting, nodding hypnotically to the reggae. And waiting.

I expected a second visit to the restaurant - formerly known as "waiting in vain for your food" - to be an "interesting" experience at the least. But things had changed. Where once the customers were guaranteed to have plenty of hair (facial, ponytailed, artificially extended), today, they have evolved into the fresh-faced, modern-day, temporary hippie: the backpacker. On a busy Saturday night, every last table was taken by a combination of these resting travellers: halter-topped girls puffing Marlboro Lights, and blokes in checked shirts involved - however tenuously - in the "art world".

Like many budget eateries with a BYOB policy, decor isn't a priority. Battered tables, odd chairs and wooden benches that leap up when the person next to you crosses their legs make for a seating arrangement designed to keep you alert. Turquoise and yellow walls are the backdrop to some generally spacey artwork: psychedelic vistas, bits of tie-dyed nonsense. The slow reggae beat still washes through the room. A tiny opening at the far end displays the immensely reassuring sight of the chef actually doing stuff with pots and pans.

Tamarind Tree seems to have clicked into normal time: service and food arrived way before light-headed fury. And both were pretty good: a starter of dark, intensely flavoured chicken soup came with minced chicken and dumplings, and was tastily spicy. Prawn and avocado salad (offered with the enigmatic "special island sauce") was less good: the prawns were shrimps, and the island sauce was basically a thin, bland mayonnaise flecked with what looked like dried mixed herbs.

Classic ackee and saltfish was an excellent main, the creamy fruit just taking the edge off the salt kick before it melted on the tongue. Steamed tilapia was perfectly cooked and served with a light, oniony sauce, but came without its head and looked somewhat incomplete. Good rice and beans were the accompaniment. A side order of calalou fritters was a course in itself - crisp on the outside, nicely chewy within, and served with a rich, garlicky avocado dip.

Staff were young and sweet and served well. But desserts disappeared into Jamaican time. The tamarind dream - which arrived half an hour after it was ordered - comprised wonderful, fluffy plantain fritters with a dollop of cherry ripple ice cream and various tropical fruit.

Successes include the bitter hot chocolate, spiced with cinnamon; sweet, milky sour sap juice; and "Search Mis Heart" herb tea made with two gigantic fragrant leaves.

The three-course meal, including these goodies with £2 corkage and service at your discretion, came to a bargain £47 for two. And it was all served within that same evening. For Tamarind Tree, that is evolution.