Welcome to the Islands–in Silver Spring
Walk into this laid-back seafood market and you won't find a fish in sight. Just mounds of shaved ice in a display case. But look closely and you'll notice the iridescent glint of silver skin–the fish at Caribbean Sea are buried until it's time to hit the frying pan.
This unassuming Jamaican seafood house just off New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring might as well be in another world. Well known in the West Indian community, the restaurant is probably not on your radar unless you speak with an island patois. It sells fresh fish, but more to the point it sells a piece of home to West Indians who come in for plates named after Jamaican locales like Port Royal and Morgan's Harbour. Takeout seems to be the thing during the week; weekends are livelier. Whenever you go, Yvonne Edwards, who owns the place, is likely to greet you like a regular.
Behind the shop is a narrow dining room done up with island knickknacks and oversize photos of tropical fish. Because everything is cooked to order, the place runs on island time, meaning it's going to be a while. Stave off hunger with a round of spicy steamed Jamaican Pepper Shrimp and a basket of the aptly named Festival, crisp fried balls of dough worthy of a celebration. A roster of Jamaican juices and drinks made with fresh fruit by Edwards's aunt, Thelma Redwood, are an authentic foil for the salty-spicy shrimp and fritters. Some, like Irish Moss and Soursop, are seasonal. Others, like the fabulous Pineapple-Ginger–squeezed pineapple juice steeped with fresh ginger–can be had year-round.
Mildly spicy fish soup is a homey bowl with bits of snapper and carrots in a sturdy tomato-and-fish broth. Conch and shellfish versions are available, too. Likewise, curries and stews can be had with different fish or shellfish, including pricier lobster and crab, which will blow the Cheap Eats budget. All are worth sampling, but a few have star status.
Blue Mountainstyle curry sports briny shrimp in a spicy brew redolent of coriander and red pepper. Milder but no less flavorful are the curried vegetable dishes available with king fish, snapper, and fried crab balls. Also memorable are brown stews made with a caramelized sauce called browning that gives the dishes depth of flavor and their rich hue. Shrimp and conch are good, fish (usually snapper) even better. Then there are the classics: escabèche–fried fish smothered with peppers and onions in vinegar sauce–and fish 'n' chips made with nicely fried whiting. Deviled lobster with fiery ginger curry sauce is worth the splurge if you like it hot. Amid all these dazzlers, the blander scampi and steamed fish with okra seem a bit forlorn.
As in Jamaica, soulful rice and peas are a given with most plates; the small salad is a nod to America. Festival cakes and occasionally bammie–the fried round flatbread made with cassava flour–can be ordered as sides.
Typical of a Jamaican/West Indian meal, there is no dessert. In the West Indies, sweets come from the bakery and are eaten as a snack or at teatime. Which really lets you concentrate on the subject at hand–seafood.
Caribbean Sea Seafood Market & Restaurant
6869 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring; 301-891-3497. Open daily for lunch and dinner; closes at 8 Sunday and Monday.
Atmosphere: Homey and low-key.
Food: Authentic Jamaican-style seafood curries, fries, and sautés. Menu is seafood only.
Service: Runs on island time. Owner does duty in the kitchen with the help of an aunt and two cooks.
Price: $3.50 to $17 for everything except lobster dishes ($25) and curried crab ($24). Dinner for two, $45.
Value: Very good.
Beverages: No alcohol–good house-made juices.
Bottom line: Authentic island atmosphere and a real find for lovers of West Indian curries, escabèche, and fresh seafood.