Tropical Allure 

Spices of the islands and a tireless chef conjure a getaway downtown.

Foreign powers invaded or dominated the islands for four centuries. Then immigrant labor (East Indians and Chinese) or slave labor (Africans) influenced the area. All those cultures left their mark on the cuisine. Even the original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, may have given us barbecue from their barbacoa, food slow-cooked over an open fire. Curries and rice came from the Asian migrants, and the most famous Jamaican dish, jerk, originally was a preservative method used by inhabitants escaping invaders. And, of course, indigenous seafood is a mainstay.

I thought perhaps the name Mingles suggested the fusion of cultures and cuisines that is part of the islands' heritage. But chef-owner Uton Graham, who opened the place about seven months ago, wants the restaurant to be a lively spot to mingle, hang out, have some good food and, eventually, hear reggae or other island music.

Graham is no stranger to the Richmond scene, having operated the Caribbean Pot on Midlothian Turnpike before opening in this more central location. He grew up around his parents' restaurant in Jamaica and has been cooking since he was a kid. After stints in several New York restaurants, he came to Richmond a few years ago.

Graham is definitely a hands-on chef. But he also visited our table shortly after we arrived to answer menu questions because his server was a first-nighter. After hearing a bit about the menu, I suggested he send out a sampling of Jamaican food, and we were not disappointed.

We started our leisurely dinner with fried dumplings, which were hot, buttery and as light as a good Southern biscuit. While you can choose standard offerings such as prime rib, steaks, crab legs or salmon ($16.95-$21.95), the Jamaican offerings are more interesting and a better value ($8.99-$15.99). Our samples included several of these. I particularly liked the fried tilapia with its crunchy light batter. This mild fish, though not from Caribbean waters, takes to sauces well, and the chef's original, delicately spiced sweet-sour sauce was appropriate. Chicken curry is a bit like a mild Thai green curry, both sharing a base of coconut milk. A robust serving from the bowl of rice and peas (beans), which accompanies these plates, is a welcome addition for absorbing some of the good sauces.

A sample of Jamaican food must include jerk, the dry-rub mixture that can wake up almost any lazy palate. We found the jerk chicken to be moist and pleasantly piquant without inducing tears. Vegetables tend to be less than exotic, though okra, plantains and the spinach-like callaloo find their way into many dishes or are served as a side dish.

We returned for lunch, when the values are excellent (most plates are $5.99), and I enjoyed brown stew chicken. Brown stews get their name — and color — from caramelized sugar and soy sauce. You can order a brown stew of either chicken or fish, but the slow-cooked chicken is particularly succulent and takes nicely to the interesting sauce. A little salad and the rice/peas combo complete the luncheon plate.

Mingles will soon offer a Sunday brunch and perhaps live music in the evening. The apparently indefatigable chef, who also caters and hosts special events, keeps the kitchen open Friday and Saturday nights until the wee hours for those who have not yet mingled enough or who need good sustenance before continuing on. S

Caribbean Mingles ($$)
15-17 W. Main St.
Lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays open until 4 a.m.


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