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We back like ex-lax, what happened since I was gone? Middle East Omar got got, Bryant Gumbel called Stern a overseer (props), Nucky told his snitch brother to kiss his leathers, and I had some rice and peas with your boy J.D. Williams.
A lot of my homies have been to Miss Lily’s for drinks and small plates. Others for dinner, but all gave mixed reviews. “It’s just missing something.” “It’s not real Jamaican food.” “It was ehhh.” Yet, every few weeks, you hit em on the text and they're right back at it again. Are these people just being crunchy? Isn’t the definition of insanity constantly going back to a restaurant you tell every one you don’t like?
I set it off with ackee and saltfish tacos. If you haven’t had ackee before, think back to that vegan you dated. Then try to remember if she ever made you “eggs.” Yes? Maybe? Fried or fertilized, that was ackee and you loved it, dun.
Usually ackee and saltfish gets some nice heat from Scotch bonnet peppers and sweetness from bell peppers. This rendition has all the usual suspects, but they’re subdued; seasonings are reined in and measured by design. You start to think the real Miss Lily is tied up in a Brooklyn basement with a potato sack over her head. Free Jah people.
Miss Lily doesn’t have a liquor license so she used the Korean Restaurant juke serving Soju under a beer and wine license. Trust, you’ll like it. Take it straight or with a splash of Ting. The bar sits underneath kitschy Jamaican style signs advertising fresh squeezed sour sop. Usually, I’d be annoyed with ironic things like this, but I wasn’t at all. I get it. I tried to get fresh sour sop when I had a bar and it was next to impossible. Anyone who expects to find fresh squeezed sour sop in Manhattan is a fucking moron. But on the off chance that Serge pulled strings and accomplished what I couldn’t, I had to ask... “Do you have Sour Sop?” No dice... well played, sir. From the melanine plates to the Ine Kamoze in the background to the pastel formica Popeye’s tables, I was feeling the interior. People love talking about how the photo of Billy Joel at Torrisi’s is sooo smart and iconic, please... That boy and his boxing gloves got nothin’ on Sintra Arunte-Bronte. Proceed...
Oh yea, Miss Lily got some fine-ass mother-fucking friends too. It’s the anti-Hooters, a classy joint with women that just can’t help being this fly. Every one was relaxed, hanging around, just kicking it with customers. The entire staff is mad approachable and excited about what’s going on there. As a patron, you see them having a good time and you buy in. It has a reputation as a “scene” restaurant, which it is, but it’s not threatening, every one gets a crack at it. I ran into three people I knew in the joint having dinner the same night. One was an Indian guy from my fantasy football league at Cardozo, another worked at MTV, and another a customer from Baohaus. Random collection, but that’s the charm of the place. No one owns it. Somehow, someway, Miss Lily’s defies Bill Cosby and it’s working (i.e. the “please everybody” quote).
We were having a good time and almost forgot to order mains until Suri, our server, reminded us. We had the Oxtail, Curry Goat, rice and peas, plantains, festival, and more Soju. As J.D. said, it was “starter Jamaican food.” He liked the tenderness of the oxtail, but it could have used more pimento, browning, and of course SBPs. Yet, we understand that’s not for every one. This is a survey course in Jamaican food. Next semester maybe you go out to Flatbush, but as is, Miss Lily’s is a great place for people who feel 1st and 1st is the nexus of the universe to get their first taste. Yes, some wild ass bitch from Michigan actually said that to me thinking it was some clever shit. I figured one day she’d write for Time Out Magazine with game like that.
I will re-iterate, every thing at Miss Lily’s is cooked extremely well. The technique is better than any Jamaican restaurant I’ve been to, bar none. Ingredients are superior and the service is immaculate. When I mentioned that the food could use more seasoning, the server told us to try the pepper shrimp, hands down best dish on the menu. Eat it with the shell and a cold ass beer.
Also try the Salt Cod Fritters, an example of how good Bradford’s Jamaican food at home must be. It was the best Salt Cod Fritter I’ve ever had, and you realize it’s allowed to be that good because the hallmark of a good fritter doesn’t require mass amounts of SBPs or unfamiliar flavors like pimento. It’s the one item that crosses paths on a American and Jamaican food Venn diagram. Ditto for the Coconut Cake—the shit was Cytherea: dumb moist. I even liked the spin on pickled cabbage with rice and peas, but the Curry Goat at Miss Lily’s is just playing nice. If he really let them thangs go in the curry, white people might just lose their shit and run for the nearest Dos Caminos. For those of us that really get down with Caribbean food, it’s wink-wink let’s get drinks and have Jamaican, but for the record WE AIN’T MAD AT THAT! We know the drill. We have to act like this is normal because Carson Daly ain’t ready for the REAL Mariah!
If you want sit-down Carribean food in the city, the only show in town is Negrill. Miss Lily’s is one of the first places to open in a long time that serves Carribean food in an environment we can bring friends and business. You know when it’s your homie, yall can go eat at fucking Golden Krust if need be, but for people you just met, doing business, friend of a friend that wants to run an idea by you, that’s too close to home. You need a room that offers some distance, distraction, and drinks that’s not French or New-American food. No matter how much people try to get me to eat that shit, I don’t want it. Give me Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Lebanese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Thai, Yemenese, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ukrainian or red sauce Italian, I don’t care, just not French or New-American. For the record, Mediterranean is slowly creeping up as the haute un-offensive cuisine du jour. White people like anything grilled with salt, pepper, and lemon. It’s a fact, Bobby Flay told me so.
There’s a reason very few ethnic food concepts are able to cross-over from out-of-the-way family restaurant or grab-and-go to a full on sit-down restaurant and bar. And this is the Catch-22. You want to open a restaurant that services a core audience: people who like Jamaican food. Well, to survive in Soho, you’ll need to draw a market that has no idea what Jamaican food is and to do that, you have to turn the dial back 20% on flavor. Heads ain’t ready. But, by doing so, you risk alienating the core audience you sought out to serve. That’s not happening here because most people are coming back because every one has a great time. Somehow, someway, Miss Lily’s is pulling off the impossible and I fux with it.
I think the problem is that a lot of people go into Miss Lily’s wanting or expecting the best Jamaican food they’ve ever had to justify the price, but that’s not the business model. If you’re some cornball Serious Eats or chowhound reader looking for the next temple of Jamaican food, this isn’t the spot. Take your $10, hop the train to Flatbush, and stop wearing Aeropostale. Bradford Thompson is fully capable of making the best Jamaican food you’ve ever had, but coach didn’t call that play. He’s not whippin’ around in the drop, he’s cruising in the 550 listening to "Moment of Clarity," serving some well-cooked Jamaican food in a high rent area with an attractive staff in a great room playing Ini Kamoze. Why you mad, son?
P.S. I could not type the words “Ini Kamoze” with a straight face. Try it, you can’t, it’s impossible.
by Eddie Huang (@MrEddieHuang)