In 2005, Hugh Russell, who moved to Connecticut from Jamaica in 1987 at the age of 20, opened the Hartford restaurant that bears his name. Two years ago he moved The Russell to the cavernous Allyn Street space that once housed the Black Bear Saloon. And last January, he opened a Jamaican satellite restaurant on South Main Street in West Hartford Center, as part of his ongoing mission, he says, to “bring the island here.”
Both venues (a third, on New Britain Avenue, offers take-out only) offer a distinct choice of ambiance. Unlike the sprawling downtown mothership, the West Hartford branch is cozy and friendly, an elegant room where a blackboard lists the bar’s specialties in multicolored chalk. A large mural depicts Bob Marley and others depict breadfruit, soursop and other Jamaican foods. Cocktails feature rum-based concoctions with passion fruit, pineapple, and blue curacao. “Vibrant” is the appropriate word. The restaurant features live music most nights, while Downtown also offers karaoke and spoken word poetry.
“Entertainment”, says Russell, “is what Jamaica is all about”.
Our server enthusiastically described the delights of his homeland: its wooded hills and cool nights, the coffee plantations of the Blue Mountains and the rowdy scene of Boston Beach, epicenter of Jamaica’s barbecue specialty, jerk. The mention of Boston Beach reminded me of a trip I took there years ago, visiting jerk pits where meats cooked on hardwood grills. One stop was the stand known as Sufferers Jerk Pork #1, whose name alludes to the explosive power of jerk pepper.
“We can’t do it that hot in here,” our server at the Russell said with an apologetic smile. “Honestly, that should hurt a little more.” She provided a bottle of Grace’s scotch-bonnet sauce to kick the pain up a notch.
Under the direction of Executive Chef Rohan Smith, a veteran of the Kingston dining scene, the Russell is a jerk-centric dining experience. You can get it in snack form, like a grilled chicken panini or a gooey cheesy flatbread pizza, both of which use roasted red peppers and caramelized onions to add sweetness to the chicken. Don’t bother with the calamari appetizer – the jolt was undetectable in these over-beaten pieces. I wouldn’t go for the salmon either. The subtle flavor and tenderness of seafood does not always make an optimal platform for jerk. You want something you can fight with.
Like pork. The Russell serves up thick chunks of pork butt, grilled and piled high with large timbales of rice and gungo peas, which look like small red beans and give the rice a rosy tint of dirty rice. But my favorite jerk option was the chicken wings – charred, moist and tangy, with a dipping sauce that cut the heat from the scotch bonnet with a sweet rum and mango chutney.
The kitchen prepares other Jamaican dishes that, like jerk, reflect the complex history of the island. Ackee, a lobe-shaped pink fruit with a sweet, elusive flavor, came from Africa on slave ships. Boiled, sliced and fried, it resembles scrambled eggs and combined with flaked salt cod – brought to Jamaica by the owners of sugar cane plantations – it makes the classic Jamaican breakfast. The Russell’s kitchen distributes it on plantain chips as a tasty appetizer. Or come for Sunday brunch and get it as a main course.
Chinese workers brought the stir-fry to the island, presented here in an excellent starter of sliced steak with red and green peppers. The curry (and chutney) arrived with indentured laborers from India. Jamaican curry uses allspice and usually does not contain red chili powder or curry leaves, which gives a more subtle flavor. Eating goat curry might mean battling with bone fragments, but The Russell’s cooking minimizes that problem with careful butchering; the meat fell off the bone in large, tender chunks and also lacked any of the slightly gamey flavors that goat meat can have.
The fish preparation known as escovitch came to the Caribbean from Moorish Spain; the word comes from Arabic al-sikbaj, a stew cooked in a sweet and sour sauce. The supremely enjoyable version at the Russell is a large, deep-fried red snapper (with the head
on top) until perfectly crispy, then topped with onions and carrots and tossed in a very vinegary vinaigrette. An accompaniment of honey and jerk BBQ sauce completes the pleasure. And on the subject of fun, I have to mention a fabulous (and enormous) starter of fish tacos, tender tilapia fried in a fruity salsa, dipped in a rich scotch-bonnet aioli.
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Not everything was perfect – a penne starter, for example, leaned too much on the cream – and some timing issues with the serving of the dishes needed to be resolved. But The Russell offers excellent value for money. His skillful scaling of street food – or beach food – reminds us how delicious it is to confront history and culture through our taste buds, via cuisine that maps the world in our plate.
THE LAW PROJECT: Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, $8 to $14; entrees, $12 to $26; sides, $5 to $8; desserts, $8 to $12.
HOURS: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; On Sundays, brunch from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (the bar closes one hour later.) Reservations not accepted.
ACCESSIBILITY: Wheelchair access from the front of the restaurant. Free parking in front of the field.
LOCATION: 39 S. Main St., West Hartford. 860-519-0138 and therussellct.com
Rand Richards Cooper is a freelance food writer in Connecticut.