Island Time 

Can oxtails, ginger beer and reggae save Little Ochi Hideout? Maybe.

Little Ochi comes pretty darn close to claiming many charms. Its atmosphere is kinda cool, a narrow Shockoe Bottom space with exposed brick. Its primary server is charming, with an accent to make you melt. And some of the food is delicious. But no one thing seems honed enough yet to keep customers coming back.

Our server was gracious. A grandmotherly figure with a red apron and wide, quick smile, she recommended menu items and chatted about Jamaica as if we were guests in her kitchen. So who cares if no one greeted us when we arrived, or if we waited 20 minutes to order because our waitress was visiting with another table, or if, when she did come, she brought one menu and one set of silverware.

Unfortunately, most of what she wanted to chat about is that she's moving home this month.

As for the setting, Shockoe Bottom is a perfect spot to put an "Out of Many, One People" sign, turn up the reggae and woo in a young urbanite crowd. Unfortunately, the "Legend" album seems to be the only one in Little Ochi's stereo, and Bob's buttery lyrics have to compete with Jackie Chan movies or CNN playing on a TV visible (and audible) from every seat.

I'll tolerate uneven service and a chaotic atmosphere for great food. And some items on the dinner menu (which range in price from $6.50 to $16.99) were great.

I love it when quotidian dishes are transformed into exotic fare by cultural transportation. Little Ochi offers a couple of decidedly authentic Jamaican dishes that I haven't seen elsewhere in town.

If you don't mind working for your meal — … la crab, lobster, crayfish, ribs — then I recommend the oxtail. Every bite I plucked off the bone was melt-in-your-mouth moist and flavorful. And don't be put off by the source; this is the best pot roast you'll ever have. Braised with loving care and accented by a rich brown sauce, this is what I'd been looking for.

I couldn't wait to try the curried goat — a favorite dish that has bordered on the sublime in texture and piquant sizzle. But not at Little Ochi. The meat, though tender, was a bit greasy, with a curry sauce so flat I couldn't make out what I was supposed to be tasting.

Jerk chicken and beans and rice serve as benchmarks for Jamaican cuisine in the States, and at Little Ochi the jerk marinade was right on the spot, a snappy mix of juniper berries and hot peppers with a hint of soy sauce. But the rice was an overcooked, blown-out mess that hardly seemed capable of carrying the blunt spice of the beans.

It's disappointing when a staple of a cuisine is executed haphazardly. Especially since I wanted this place to be great. Not five-star, just a cozy downtown spot to grab some jerk chicken and a ginger beer (which, by the way, may be a reason to go back to Little Ochi — it's mixed on site with natural fruit juices and ginger extract). I wanted it to be a jewel in Shockoe Bottom's eclectic crown, but between the unprofessional service, OK food and TV-dominated dining room, it fell short of the mark.

That's not to say it can't recover. With their primary asset — our server — heading back to Jamaica, Little Ochi's owners have an opportunity to make some critical decisions, evaluate their strengths and offer Richmond at least one consistently appealing reason to keep coming back for more. S

Little Ochi Hideout ($)
4 N. 18th St.
Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-midnight; Thursday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m.;

Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday 1-10 p.m.

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