Rare Trini fare

Restaurant CriticJuly 25, 2003 

DURHAM -- Culinary adventurers are always on the lookout for unexplored territory. So when you learn that the Triangle's first restaurant specializing in Trinidadian cuisine has opened in Durham, you're excited in a way only fellow foodies understand. The best analogy you can give to others is one of an avid bird-watcher spotting a rare species for the first time. But the bird-watcher doesn't get to eat the bird.

You gather a few friends -- the better to sample a variety of dishes -- and set course for Trin-B'Ago, in a strip mall just off the Durham Expressway. Inside, a wall-spanning mural of dancers in flamboyant headdress sets a suitably exotic mood, reinforced by potted palms, trellised vines and colorful bouquets of faux flowers on the tables. Except for the fluorescent-bright lighting and the 50 Cent tune in the background, you can almost imagine you're on the island of Trinidad.

Opening the menu, you discover that Trinidadian food isn't an entirely new species of culinary bird at all. It's a subspecies of Caribbean cuisine. You've seen many of these listings, from jerk chicken to curry goat, on menus offering Jamaican food.

But there are several items you haven't seen before, like phulourie. These turn out to be a Trinidadian take on hush puppies, made from split pea flour and mildly seasoned with curry powder and saffron. Phulourie, like most of the appetizers at Trin-B'Ago, is served with a spicy mango puree for dipping. And they're tasty, as are baiganee, eggplant slices fried in a phulourie batter.

Accras, spongy-textured salt cod fritters spiked with onion, garlic, herbs and chiles, are pretty good, too, though they may be an acquired taste for some. Cautious palates fishing for a starter might be more comfortable with coconut shrimp that -- even though obviously made from a frozen product -- aren't bad.

Best of all the starters you sample, though, are aloo pies, airy crescent-shaped turnovers with a potato filling (not to mention the "aloo" part of the name) reminiscent of Indian cuisine. When you comment on this to owner Elizabeth Martinez, a native of Trinidad, she explains that one of the subtle differences between Trinidadian and Jamaican cuisines is that the former relies more heavily on East Indian spices. Except for the curries, that is, for which Jamaica is well-known.

As an entree, you decide to try Trin-B'Ago's rendition of curry goat, one of your Jamaican favorites. The dish compares favorably to the Jamaican version -- so favorably that you can't distinguish any difference. You like it so much that you order it again later, but this time try the curry wrapped in a griddled flatbread called roti, for a Trinidadian-style burrito.

Oxtail, slow-cooked until the meat and fat practically meld, is as rustic and full of beefy flavor as you've had in any Jamaican restaurant. And based on Trin-B'Ago's fine showing, the differences between Trinidadian and Jamaican versions of the classic Caribbean vinegar-marinated escovitch fish must be subtle indeed.

The same can't be said of jerk chicken, which is usually grilled with either a dry rub or a light marinade of jerk seasoning. Here it's slathered with a sauce of barbecue consistency that isn't as spicy as most Jamaican jerks, though it does exhibit a complex array of flavors associated with the dish.

Stew beef ("marinated in our Trini spices, onions, carrots and peppers, served over rice") turns out to be dry and chewy, and the only "Trini spices" you can detect are salt and pepper. The accompanying fried plantains, on the other hand, are excellent.

The restaurant is out of all the desserts except one. Fortunately, that's a dark, intensely spiced fruitcake so thoroughly soaked with rum that you're tempted to ask for a straw. With nothing more than a fork and a couple of surreptitious finger-wipes of the plate, you're able to get every drop -- er, crumb.

Afterward, Martinez tells you her goal is for Trin-B'Ago to serve as both a restaurant and a place to share Trinidadian culture, like the reggae or steel drum band featured every other weekend. Judging by the diverse crowd that nearly packed the room , Martinez appears to be achieving her goal.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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