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story.lead_photo.caption The curry chicken with rice at Montego Cafe. - Photo by Bobby Ampezzan

— Around the newsroom, word of Porter’s Jazz Cafe’s sputtering term inside the historic Gus Blass Wholesale Co. building was met with wrinkled noses and pursed lips.

We local business digesters don’t delight at the pusillanimous performance of any enterprise, especially one with the kind of vision Porter’s was peddling, and one along a ghost town strip of Main Street.

Now it’s Montego Cafe, a joint catering “Jamaican fusion cuisine” — according to owner Brad McCray’s ABC permit — while angling for the same audience downstairs that Porter’s courted.

It’s a small stretch to imagine Montego as the western bookend of Juanita’s. Both offer ethnic fare the envy of downtown De Queen, but not Dallas or Memphis. Both offer seasoned and approved second-tier stage acts in venues smaller than The Rev Room but bigger than Stickyz, for racially homogenous crowds — blue-jeanedwhites at Juanita’s, kerchiefed and coifed blacks at Montego. Both are a short walk from the thrombosis of River Market revelers circuiting the block and a half that includes piano bars, Flying Saucer and Big Whiskey’s, and in the business metrics of downtown, a “short walk” can add up to certain irrelevance.

Friday a small group of friends and I swung by for dinner and were turned away. The restaurant was closed until 8 p.m., the sign said. We returned to a crush of sophisticatedly dressed nightlifers forming lines north and south of the door. It’s like Jean-Georges in New York on a no-reservations night, I thought. We were in for a treat.

A gentleman in a vest and bow tie flashed me his ticket. Chrisette Michele, it said. (She’s an Island/Def Jam label artist and Grammy-winning singer.) Whether or not the dining room was open, we didn’t find out. When you don’t have tickets to the show, standing in line feels humiliating.

That’s OK. I get it. Montego wants to be a club first — the clearest sign of this is the regular Wednesday dueling pianos karaoke they’ve lined up — and it should. If you’ve never been, the dark and acoustical downstairs is a cool space with its great two-story opening in the ground floor to loose the sights and sounds of the entertainment to the diners above.

We must leave all that for another time, because this space — this inky four-sided offering in your newspaper — is for evaluating the food and service of restaurants.

On my first visit I started light with the jerk chicken and mango salad. Judge for yourself whether $10 is a mite much for a shallow bowl of spring mix topped with a small pre-sliced chicken breast, accented with carefully diced mango and red onions and thinly sliced avocado. I was impressed that the chicken was warm, not cold, and the ingredients were fresh.

A word on the jerk seasoning, which the house manager on one occasion confided is a toss of ginger, thyme, Walkerswood-brand jerk sauce and lime. Without too much experience with authentic Caribbean dry rub, this is excellent. Lots of heat doesn’t overstay its welcome, but lots of undertones - the ginger and thyme - make it more than just five-alarm barbecue.

Chief among the appetizers touted by servers is the coconut shrimp ($9). When we tried it, the heavily coconutted shrimp were overcooked such that my date referred to the taste as “toast,” and the shrimp seemed almost buried by the batter. On the other hand, the mango salsa was delicious, with kernel-size chunks of mango and a wispy back-of-the-tongue red pepper kick that really made it pop. If the kitchen could go lighter on the coating and the deep-frying this would be a winner.

The Bob Marley burger ($9) is a little bland. I commend the cooks for serving up a burger that doesn’t topple beneath its own girth, though with a burger patty, a fried egg, plantains, onion, avocado, and cheese, it could be unwieldy. The most delicious element in the stack is the sweet jalapeno bun.

Saturday night I returned and tried the Island curry chicken ($14). For some reason — the new moon? Christmas shopping? my decade-long unrequited pen-pal correspondence with Debra Winger? — I was ready to be disappointed. Instead, the curry chicken delighted. The cubed chicken breast had a cooked-in spice mix, and while the morsels weren’t stewing in a gravy, they were not dry. The “island” rice accompaniment was fluffy and almost milky sweet, with savory bits of carrots and peas - this rice could have been an entree; it was that good - while the fried plantains were lightly crunchy on the outside and banana-smooth inside.

The service over each of three visits varied from friendly to overeager to sexy-but-handsoff. All were attentive and informed.

I’m not sure Montego Cafe is a dinner destination yet. The entrees number just about eight, and the only red-meat offering is the hamburger. It’s a cool downtown lunch spot, though, with medium traffic thus far, and its status as a joint with a new hook on the downtown music scene is happening.

Montego Cafe

Address: 315 Main St., Little Rock

Hours: Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday.

Venue open until 2 a.m. Wednesday-Friday, 1 a.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Caribbean-inspired

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Large parties

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

(501) 372-1555

Montego Cafe

(By Bobby Ampezzan)
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Weekend, Pages 31 on 12/20/2012

Print Headline: Cafe sings in Jamaican accent

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