Irie Food Joint(745 Queen West, at Tecumseh, 416-366-4743) Despite the fact that its name is similar to the College jerk joint (Irie Caribbean Restaurant) and that this breezy, relaxed room also shares some of that place's menu, the two have nothing in common. Out back there's a relaxed patio with a tropical vibe; up front a glass wall opens to the passing parade. Best: lightly jerked boneless chicken breast over salad greens; the same chicken with avocado and smashed beans wrapped in a grilled tortilla over tamarind-dressed mesclun; mildly spiced tail-on shrimp atop linguine scented with heat-free curry and sweet coconut milk. Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottle of Jamaican beer. Open Tuesday and Wednesday noon to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday noon to 1 am, Sunday 3 to 11 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Fully licensed. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
this weekend, all of toronto -- well, everyone except His Melness -- ignites with Caribana heat. Whatever your style, it's time to jump up, get down and chill out. And where better to party than at one of the many chicken shacks and jerk joints scattered across town?Open only a month, Irie Food Joint seems to have some folks confused. Taking its name from the Rastafarian expression for being high, the Queen West spot has nothing to do with the similarly named College eatery. Except that Food Joint owner Carl Cassell is best pals with the other Irie's Leroy Morrison and Egon Walker, who also consulted on the new resto's menu, which just happens to feature interpretations of many of the original's signature dishes. And excepting the exchange, their phone numbers are identical. But other than that, absolutely nothing.
"We're all one family, man," laughs Cassell.
I've dragged several of my foodie family to Irie's balmy, breezy walled-in backyard patio to check out the buzz. Surrounded by tropical plants -- appropriately potted -- we dance in our seats to a CD soundtrack that cool-runs from current R&B divas to retro Blue Beat (Millie Small's quintessential My Boy Lollipop!).
We begin with one of the other Irie's classic starters, jerk chicken salad ($8.50): sections of lightly jerked boneless chicken breast over a heap of shredded iceberg lettuce and red cabbage mixed with strips of romaine and crowned with a cloud of sprouts and deep-fried threads of caramelized sweet potato, all dressed in a tasty thyme- and allspice-laced dressing.
A similar salad and vinaigrette (but tamarind-tart) provides a base for jerk chicken tortilla roll ($9), a grilled and quartered tortilla spread with red kidney bean paste and wrapped around chicken pieces, pickled veggies and avocado cubes.
Sorta Sandersesque, fried chicken ($9) sees several sections of cornmeal-battered breasts and thighs alongside a massive mound of mild peppery rice and kidney beans. But the real star on the plate (and it shows up as a side option on several) is a delicious pink pickled cabbage slaw.
Curry shrimp linguine ($12) features a flavourful coconut cream sauce lightly spiked with curry powder that hasn't really fused properly with the sauce. Menu-described as jerk snapper en papillote ($12), the bones-and-all fish has been cooked not in parchment paper but in aluminum foil. Not quite the same. And what's with the three soggy crackers that were cooked inside the bundle and have soaked up all the buttery seasoning?
The few slivers of okra that, along with rice and slaw, accompany the snapper, show up again in seafood gumbo ($12), more of a stir-fry than a stew. Throughout our meal, we guzzle glasses of ice water; we're so dehydrated from the heat wave, our friendly server lends us her pitcher.
Unfortunately, there's not much fire so far in any of Irie's lineup. Chef Owen Mitchell, with his background in hotel and convention centre kitchens, plays it safe.
What's needed is a good spicy kick in the keister. And I don't mean a bottle of two-for-a-dollar Grace's hot sauce on every table.
"That's what I keep telling him!" agrees Cassell.
Uptown, a few doors west of the Spiritual Assembly of Happiness, I discover another Irie (2516 Eglinton West, at Glenhaven, 416-653-4825), only this one is a Rastafarian vegetarian restaurant (rasta-rant?) and really has nothing to do with either of the downtown diners. Not much more than a storefront decked out in posters of the Rastafari Holy Trinity -- Haille Selassie, Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley -- this Irie offers a limited roster of mostly veggie items.
For 10 bucks you get a large container of rice and pigeon peas layered with Ital stew (potato, onion, carrot) and firm tofu mixed with squash. There's more: buttery cabbage and tomato as well as al dente steamed okra, cauliflower and green beans. To wash this down, I order a bottle of Mr. Vigerous ($5), a Jamaican ginseng tonic that claims not only to relieve "nervous problems" but to boost "sexual prowess," too.
To my dismay, after downing an entire bottle the only urge I get is to do housework.