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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tummy Paradise

The Porkchop Express was on the prowl for good Caribbean food in Brooklyn, when what should we spot on Utica Avenue but a bright yellow awning with pleasant pastel letters spelling out a most intriguing name. Yes, good reader, we had stumbled across Tummy Paradise.

If you're hungry (we were), in the mood for Caribbean (we were), and happen to see a place with both “Tummy” and “Paradise” in the name, chances are you'll stop to explore. We did, and it proved a terrific move. TP may look like one of many East Flatbush competitors, but inside they're cooking up a storm. A delicious storm. So come on in, and see what kind of paradise befits a tummy.
The first thing you'll notice at TP is chef-owner Yvonne Hanna. She is super-extra-nice. Five “i” nice. (Niiiiice.) She calls everyone sweetheart or dear or (my fave) baby, and it's hard not to feel the instant love. It's even harder to ignore the stimulating smells: peppers and allspice, curries and stews slowly bubbling in the background.

There are three tables to sit and eat at, but head to the counter first. Peruse the daily offerings, and ask if they have anything else in back (they probably do). Then pick something and order. Yvonne cooks more on inspiration than a set menu, so the selections often change. That said, here are a few noteworthy (and recurring) items you might see at TP.
Supermegadelicious Combo Plate, to stay

From the top, going clockwise:
Stew Chicken. Extremely well-spiced and cooked with finesse. Reminded us of quality barbecue: flavor-infused chunks of tender, moist meat. Note the unusual “dry” cooking style and nice whiff of marjoram.
Stew Fish. Mackeral stewed with sweet peppers in a light vinegar sauce. Soaked and cooked longer than spicier escovitch, but not so long that you lose the taste of the fish. Goes great with white rice to soak up the sauce.
Greens. Collard-like greens stewed with a little saltfish and spices. A nice side of Jamaican soul food.
Curry goat. Terrific. Rich, plump and refreshingly meaty. Served in a very mild curry with unusually clean flavors. Neither too sweet nor too goaty, if you catch my drift.
Rice and peas. Traditional Jamaican side with a unique twist: she uses black-eyed peas. Light, flavorful, and definitely a cut above the standard redbean glop.
Cowfoot Soup (not pictured). Rich, homey, flavorful, gelatinous soup studded with giant broad beans and smooth slabs of silky white tripe. Caribbean comfort food to the fullest.
Dumplings, Jamaican-style

The verdict, good reader? Impressive. And here's why. First, the terrific mix of flavors. No two dishes were alike, yet everything was complimentary. Second, Yvonne is highly attentive to detail, in both her spicing and cooking. (The Curry Chicken, for example, is seasoned and stewed down raw, which gives it both depth and tenderness.) Third, TP places a premium on freshness. They buy all their meats every morning from a butcher two doors down, and all dishes (save the jerk chicken) are prepared the day they are served. This fits Yvonne's culinary philosophy to a tee: light, fresh flavors, and subtle, rich spicing that complements (rather than overwhelms) the main ingredient. In a word, Yvonne's approach to Caribbean cuisine is elegant, a sensibility that hints at her culinary background. She first honed her skills cooking for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, then moved to New York in 1978 as chef for the Consulate General. Nearly 15 years (and countless diplomatic meals) later, she opened her own spot: enter Tummy Paradise, circa 1992.

Now owning a restaurant is no mean feat, especially in East Flatbush. The area doesn't see many tourists, nor many subway lines. Nor, for that matter, do folks receive small business incentives common to more high-profile commercial zones. Add to this the fact that the main drags (Utica Ave. and Church Ave.) are overflowing with Caribbean eateries. Simply put, it's a competitive environment, one in which it's hard to survive... much less flourish.
Yvonne Hanna, with the welcoming smile

So why has TP succeeded for all these years and counting? Long story short, Yvonne can flat-out cook. And since her partner split soon after opening, everything at the Paradise is hers: her recipes, her seasoning, her skills. On one visit, Yvonne claimed that she was looking for someone to help her cook but just hadn't “found the right person.” Thankfully, I didn't buy it. She loves what she does, and I don't see her relinquishing the reigns anytime soon.

Which is good news. Although TP (like many Caribbean places in these parts) neither adheres to a standard menu nor keeps the strictest of hours, it's here to stay. And what's more, the laid back m.o. follows a crisp culinary logic: going with the creative flow while remaining passionate; cooking inspired dishes that keep her largely Caribbean clientele coming back for more. More freshness and hospitality. More tasty Jamaican eats prepared with a deft, delicate touch. More flavor and goodness served by a real-deal chef-owner.

If that's not a Tummy Paradise, good reader, I dunno what is.

Tummy Paradise Caribbean Cuisine
932 Utica Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn

Usually open Noon 'til Midnight (except Sundays)
Call ahead at 917-216-2078 to confirm hours and food availability.

Prices are exceptionally reasonable. $10-12 bucks should get you a generous plate filled with Jamaican goodness, and a tasty homemade Sorrel.



Blogger Douglas Cress said...

a single host/server/chef is such an anomaly in today's restaurant world. Good to see it still exists.

They curry goat sounds intriguing - most Americans are turned off by the animal, when its actually the the most widely consumed meat worldwide.

8:41 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

the whole chef-owner-server-etc. thing reminds me of places in, say, Italy... but not so much NYC. & i agree, tis very refreshing to see. (unlike, say, "celebrity chefs" who don't cook at their own restaurants)

fyi, i hear Jamaican goats are way meatier than their US cousins... tho i must add that Old Friend Pork is actually the most widely consumed meat worldwide...

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Doug said...

nice chart J.

I stand corrected; I'm not sure where I heard that statistic.

Celebrity chefs indeed.

9:00 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

prolly the goat lobby, they're always trying to keep the Pork Man down!!

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Rick said...

Hey, thanks for the tip on Yvonne's wonderful food. We've been a couple of times recently and plan a return visit soon. She is great and her food is amazing. The phone number is wrong/disconnected, though, FYI...

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been a regular at Yvonne's restaurant for 3 years now and have yet to be disappointed. The stewed chicked is my favorite but all of her dishes are excellent.
She just needs some encouragement to prepare her world famous "Sea Moss". Legend has it that her "Sea Moss" has been responsible for the high birth rate in East Flatbush!

Special note: When she lived in Jamaica years ago she was the personal chef for the country's Prime Minister. She can flat out cook!

7:23 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

so yeah, the phone is now definitely disconnected. BUT Tummy Paradise is still open... if you make the trip I'd suggest heading down on the early side. she shuts down when the food is gone...

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Rick said...

Very sad to report that Tummy Paradise is no longer (at least at this location...) I was too bummed out to try the current proprietor's offerings when I was told they didn't know anything of Yvonne's whereabouts.

2:21 PM  

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