By Michael Nagrant
Can you really trust a Jamaican restaurant that serves German chocolate cake? Then again, maybe that’s not really a good standard as you can’t really judge a German restaurant by that caramel-pecan-topped slice of goodness either. For German chocolate cake was not born in Deutschland. Rather in 1852, an Englishman named Samuel German invented a chocolate bar for the Baker’s Chocolate Company which was eventually named “Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate” in his honor. Someone made a cake with the stuff, and in 1957, an American submitted the recipe for the cake to a Dallas newspaper and thus it’s more American than apple pie, which is actually English.
One might turn to the decorative reggae LPs hanging on the wall at the new Ukrainian Village island-influenced retreat Mr. Brown’s Lounge for a measure of the place. But, by that standard, you might run away, for there are far too many Maxi Priest and Shabba Ranks album covers on this wall to take the restaurant seriously. Yes, I know you reveled in “Mr. Loverman” between spins of Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes,” but Shabba also has the dubious honor of guesting on the Eddie Murphy track “I Was a King.”
Of course, we know Eddie Murphy’s girl likes to party all the time, and the sleek black couches and flickering candlelit confines here seem as fine a place to get your groove on as any. While slinking in for the night, you’ll likely be tempted to indulge in the many expensive boat drinks on offer. If the Jamaican Rum Punch featuring a throat-constricting back note is any indication of the rest of the cocktail offerings, you should probably stick to bottles of Red Stripe. The menu says the fruity concoction features “island juices.” Technically that’s true if they’re referring to the Danish Island of Zealand, for the shelf stable Rose’s Grenadine I saw the bartender tossing in the drink is distributed from Copenhagen.
With your whistle wetted, the mint-green walls might inspire you to conjure some ganja, but Chicago’s smoking ban and Illinois’ marijuana law (720 ILCS 550/4), which could land you thirty days in jail or lighten your wallet by about $2,500, might discourage you.
Speaking of drugs, the name of the place comes from the Lee “Scratch” Perry-produced Wailers track, “Mr. Brown,” which with the lyric “From Mandeville to slide-a-ville, coffin runnin’ around, upsetting, upsetting, upsetting the town asking for Mr Brown,” is either about a ghost, or duppy if you speak Rasta, rolling around Jamaica on a coffin, or it’s about the spread of heroin, which thanks to W. Axl Rose, some of you might also recognize by its alternate name, Mr. Brownstone. It’s likely that Mayor Daley and his administration, whose progressive liberal dictatorship has influenced, err witnessed, the closing of hundreds of neighborhood beer halls wouldn’t take too kindly to any growth in the use of a relatively harder substance like heroin.
If you insist on stirring it up, though, might I suggest the homemade Island Style Chicken Soup speckled with shiny golden droplets of chicken fat and filled with tender dumplings and toothsome sweet hunks of pumpkin and carrot. While I don’t want Mr. Brown’s Lounge to become quarantined for swine flu, if you’re sick, I can think of few bowls of chicken soup in the city that would salve better than this one.
The “patties,” aka Jamaican empanadas, have a nice chili-tinged beef filling that would feed a fever quite nicely if they weren’t wrapped in a suspiciously uniform dusty-tasting wrapper reminiscent of cheap Hot Pockets freezer-style pastry. Note, though I’ve expressed a fondness for Hot Pockets in the past, this is not an endorsement.
One dish I do endorse is the jerk chicken. Over the years, the Chicago form of jerk chicken has evolved to a hybrid of braised or stewed chicken parts touched with a bit of smoke and finished with a burn-your-head-off allspice-and-Scotch-bonnet-pepper-sauced skin. The lack of integrity and supreme spice is a turnoff for anyone who appreciates textural contrast and nuance. Mr. Brown’s version is a more authentic form featuring a deep charcoal-kissed crispy skin, smoky rose-hued flesh and a spicy though well-flavored and relatively balanced sauce served on the side. Some might quibble about the heavy Worchestershire sauce notes, but as one who likes to filch a swig of the stuff straight from the bottle on occasion, I’m down with it. In fact, this might be my favorite jerk chicken in the city, especially on Tuesday nights when it’s on special for half price. On the other six nights, I’d more likely drive down to D’s Irie Kitchen at 11137 S. Vincennes where you’ll pay half as much.
Though you might pay half as much for curried goat elsewhere, you’ll likely get either a mixture of grandma-denture-friendly mush or SuperBall-tough rubbery flesh. Mr. Brown’s has a balanced noshable integrity and is nestled in a rich clove and black pepper gravy.
As for that German Chocolate cake, the gooey frosting and moist light dark crumb, which disappeared in about two minutes amidst our table’s greedy forks, suggests that maybe you really can judge a Jamaican spot by it.
Mr. Brown’s Lounge, 2301 W. Chicago, (773)278-4445