STREAMS OF BLESSINGS FISH SHACK (285 Augusta, at Oxford, 416-834-8558) Offbeat Jamaican joint in north Kensington Market specializes in island-style seafood suppers and leaves the jerk to others. Friendly folks, rockin' reggae soundtrack and mango smoothies, too! Complete meals for $13 per person, including all taxes, tip and bottled water. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 9 pm. Closed Monday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, but uneven floors and tiny, cramped washroom. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Streams of Blessings Fish Shack don't do jerk chicken. No goat either. But it's easy to see why you might think this off-the-wall Kensington Market lean-to did. From the street, it certainly looks like an island-stylee chicken shack. A garage door painted red, yellow and green opens to the street, a beaded curtain across the gap. Interior walls explode in a riot of Caribbean pastels above an uneven concrete floor. On one side, regulars lounge in a raised chill zone of overstuffed sofas and tropical foliage under the obligatory Marley poster to the accompaniment of a bass-booming CD glued in the player.
But there's zero jerk.
Instead, this place specializes in a dish that deserves its own category in next year's Readers Poll: Jamaican fish and chips. Coating a head-tail-and- fins-intact red snapper in secret seasoning (garlic, shallots and thyme, my guess), Blessings then quickly deep-fries it to golden perfection and sides it with cut-to-order Yukon Gold fries and tartar sauce spiked with chilies (all mains $8 small/$10 large).
Mind the bones and eyeballs, but don't miss Blessings' brain-melting house-made hot sauce. I managed to wangle a small jar of the incendiary stuff out of the kitchen crew for five bucks. Back at the NOW Test Kitchen, it renders the Troubled Balkan a sweating, speechless hulk, an all too rare occurrence.
The remainder of Blessings' brief card could be called Variations On A Red Snapper Theme. When the snapper's fried and then its juices reduced, it's tasty Brown Stew. Stuffed with slightly bitter callaloo greens, thyme sprigs and slivered scallions, the flounder's available steamed or roasted, then grilled. Plain sautéed fish is billed as"fried." Add barely pickled raw onion, sweet pepper, carrot and okra and it becomes escovitch. All get sided with ripe corn on the cob, sweet caramelized plantain and respectable red beans 'n' rice ladled with veggie gravy.
There are a couple of deviations from the theme. Blessings' delish veggie sandwich ($5.95) finds a sugary coco bun spread with secret sauce (hint: chili-spiked mayo), then layered with deep-fried plantain with the crispness of BLT bacon, creamy avocado, colonial English cuke, lettuce and approximately ripe tomato.
One of Blessings' personable cooks and counter staff, Melvin Laidlaw, is responsible for Rasta Pasta ($6.95). Although it's not as al dente as the sweet bell peppers found on top, his multicoloured hemp and semolina rigatoni spirals get sauced with fiery Mr. Spinner's Hemp Seed Sun-dried Tomato Pesto Seasoning. Both pasta and awesome pesto are manufactured by Laidlaw's just-launched line of organics and are for sale at the restaurant ($4.99/$5.99) and downtown health food stores like Noah's on Bloor, as well as online at www.mrspinners.com. Enquiries welcome, as they say.
Blessings isn't likely to be discovered by the mainstream just yet. Instead, these Streams are for anyone looking for out-of-the-ordinary Caribbean grub in an out-of-this-world setting. Previously, this ramshackle room has housed Spitfire Sound, the short-lived ultra-mod scooter kid cappuccino bar, and Pasta Rica, the unbelievably low-priced noodle house. They both immediately went under despite NOW's favourable reviews. I can only hope the restaurant industry shibboleth that claims it's all about location, location, location doesn't apply here.
Jinxed or not, Blessings deserves our prayers.