Lemon yellow, lime green, orange, red, blue, purple. Is there a little-known law that decrees that every Caribbean restaurant must be decorated using only the colors of the Gay Liberation flag? It’s not like it’s an homage or anything. Yeah, yeah, I know, the islands are just so colorful – the sky is so blue, the hibiscus so red, the sunsets so … you get the idea. Perhaps the vivid hues are supposed to make up for the blandness of what gets served. Caribbean food is rarely amazing, even on the islands (except for the yummy $85 lobster salads on St. Barts). Most of it is overcooked and underseasoned, with menus offering fewer options than a roadside Git-n-Go.
I was recently in Jamaica and don’t remember eating anything as good as even the worst dish at Cabana (although it should be noted that the place cheats a bit by co-opting several recipes more native to Central and South America than the usual Carnival Cruise stops). The coconut shrimp really are crackling and tasty, the seviche refreshing, the bacalaitos clean and crisp with no filler but cod, and the vegetable fritters surprisingly good when dipped in the chipotle-pepper sauce.
The jerk shrimp may be dull, and the “hot! hot! hot!” jerk chicken wings only sometimes deserving of the exclamation points, but the jerk pork kicks the roof of my mouth, the sauce for the mariscadas is rich in tomato and garlic, the ropa vieja just needs a splash hot sauce, the picadillo is an inviting variant to hamburger, and the fruit batidos are the real thing.
The problem with Cabana is not the selective authenticity of the food but the selective attentiveness of its staff. Oh, there are plenty of personnel on the floor. But only one waiter, a brash, fast-talking young Latino, seems to have any awareness that this really is a service business. When he leaves the floor, everything grinds to a halt like a blender stuck on a pineapple rind. My missing waitress couldn’t make it over because “He kept spinning me and wouldn’t let me go, ‘cause he loves the music.” “He”, of course, was the hotshot waiter. Hey, loco, one thing at a time. You need help here. Teach the novice how to be a partner at Cabana first. Then take her out to hear the music.
Cabana, 1022 Third Avenue, near 61st Street (980-5678). Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday noon to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $4-$11; entrées, $11-$24. All major credit cards.