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Winnie's Caribbean Cuisine authentically captures the spicy flavors of the islands. 

Island Eats

Winnie's Caribbean Cuisine
200 E. Main St.
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
649-4974

Spring weather usually encourages fantasies of hot Caribbean beaches, cool blue waters and basically, indolence under the sun. But few of us can chuck work, hop on a plane and act on those fantasies. So the next best thing is a trip to Winnie's Caribbean Cuisine. On just such an evening, when balmy breezes had blown off the chill of early spring, my West Indian compadres and I slipped downtown and walked into summer.

Winnie's decor is upscale island, with electric pinks, cool turquoises and sunny yellows of the islands. Faux foliage mixes effectively with real greenery. Reggae music from a radio provides a backbeat. Straw place mats add an earthiness, as does the art on the walls, more notable for its brilliant colors than for its content. Winnie's retreat is tiny, making conversations more communal than romantic. But if it's authenticity you want — and I mean the real thing, from conch fritters to the languid pace of the islands — Winnie's is the place.

Of the chalkboard specials, fresh jerk salmon ($13.95) sounded the most enticing. The jerk buffalo wing appetizer ($2.75) was less so. Winnie's jerk spice with any meat is good, but I wanted something boneless and fatless, if possible. Winnie's one deviation from authenticity is a welcome one. Sometimes in the islands, barbecue shack jerk can be very fatty. On one occasion I even found it to be hairy (enough said). Winnie's uses decent, well-trimmed meats in its jerk offerings.

Instead, we ordered from the menu. Fried curry shrimp brought six large, lightly battered shrimp with curry undertones. The real excitement came from the accompanying sauce, which was creamy, tomatoey and fiery all at once. The Caribbean crab cakes (two for $3.50) were less of a success. From the amount of crab included, we presume crabs either aren't too plentiful in the Caribbean or they're very expensive. Whatever the reason, these flat, thin cakes were more grease-absorbing batter than anything.

For the midpoint, we shared a cucumber, olive and avocado salad ($3.50), which was equally uninspired. Iceberg lettuce was the mainstay, sprinkled with halved cocktail olives and barely visible avocado. Winnie's house dressing, a spicy blend, was so hot that a generous splash rendered the mix inedible. My fault.

Our entrees made up for any earlier disappointments. Although I'd had my heart set on jerk pork, alas, the kitchen was out. Our waitress suggested jerk beef as an alternative, and I wound up being very glad she did. Given the size of the portion, the $10.99 price tag was a good deal. The plate was filled to the rim with cabbage and sliced carrots, deliciously cooked to the perfect texture; large chunks of beef roast; and a huge mound of rice, studded with kidney beans and drenched in dark brown jerk marinade thick enough to be gravy.

The extra-large coconut shrimp (also $10.99) were prettier, just as tasty, and as good a bargain. This plate too was loaded with all the accouterments included with the jerk beef, but this sauce was light in color and texture. The six large broiled shrimp went quickly, but the real treasure was in the sauce-soaked rice.

With only one dessert ($2.75) on the menu, choosing was easy. Pineapple-flavored yellow cake frosted with a creamy, delicious chocolate frosting would have been heavenly. But when our waitress suggested drizzling chocolate sauce over it, we couldn't resist. It was divine.

Winnie's is truly unique in Richmond. Other eateries boast Caribbean food from time to time, but I haven't found any as good, as authentic, or as consistent as Winnie's. I know I'm not
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