I know very little about Jamaican cuisine. In fact, when quizzed by the Serb on the main ingredients of Jamaican cooking, I started with mango and stopped there. A couple of silent minutes later, I added pineapple to the list. The car remained silent. I tried to save myself by explaining that if you say the word ‘beer can,’ it sounds like ‘bacon’ in a Jamaican accent. That didn’t help the silence in the car either, but i know she was trying it in her head. Just like you are now.
Ting Irie is a Jamaican restaurant in Downtown Dubai, tucked away in the Al Manzil Souk. It’s difficult to explain the décor, once you walk through the doors. There are two distinct rooms, and they have tried to go for the beach shack feel, with sun-bleached wood detailing.
However, design wise, they then take a left at the traffic lights and veer off into parts unknown. In the main dining room, Ting Irie suffers from a very low ceiling height and with significant bravery, they decided to make it a feature, instead of trying to blend it out. The entire expanse of the ceiling is covered in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of Jamaican patterns and colours – bright, bold, distracting, alluring and polarizing. I hated it; the Serb liked it. To make matters worse for me, the two walls are full-length mirrors, so the madness continued for infinity and beyond.
The creativity behind the concept is Mr. Craig Wong, a Jamaican Chinese, French-trained chef who lives in Toronto. No, I didn’t make that up. Wong has a successful restaurant in Toronto, called Patois (a native dialect spoken in Jamaica) which serves an innovative blend of Chinese Caribbean cuisine. His Dubai outpost, Ting Irie, is just as playful, but a little more primitive and base in the menu and perhaps underestimates Dubai’s desire to be taken seriously as a foodie city. We have the Michelin Guide coming, mon!
Let’s be honest here and call a dreadlock a dreadlock. Ting Irie is a heavily themed restaurant – as themed as TGI Friday or Rainforest Café. Even the name comes from a Bob Marley song – Everything’s Gonna Be Alright. The staff sing happy birthday accompanied by the sound of a reception desk bell, the music is eclectic reggae beats, and the menu is plagued with Jamaican lingo. That in itself is fine, fun almost – but when you start spelling menu items with a Jamaican accent, there is a danger of it becoming tacky. Spitfire Jerk Chicken is one example. At Ting Irie, it is, of course, spelled Spitfayah. Peppa Shrimp and Fish ‘a’ Mon are some more gems.
It must be incredibly tiring for the Jamaican service team. Imagine every guest shouting out their orders in a terrible attempt at your own accent. It’s not like the guests are doing it on purpose either – we are being forced to do it by reading the menu! Perhaps it is a massive Jamaican joke, and we are all being laughed at – the islanders are known for their love of life.
I mentioned earlier that I had very little experience with Jamaican cuisine, and I would have loved the waitress to take some time to chat with us and explain a little about the food, the restaurant, and the culture. It wasn’t busy when we were there – a couple of other tables only. She asked if we had been before – I said no and put on my best ‘tell me more, I’m a cultural sponge’ face. Instead, she informed us they had been open three months and asked what I wanted to drink. I ordered some sparkling water and looked down at the menu so she wouldn’t see my tears of disappointment.
The menu has starters (Likkle Bites), and main courses, (Big Tings) supported by a couple of salads (salads) and add-ons (add-ons). The menu is a hybrid of well-known soul food, infused with Caribbean flavours, such as jerk chicken shawarma, and jerky’s fried rice.
We ordered the Tun Up Tuna, a tuna tartare with sweet plantains, coconut, and lime. It arrived in a coconut shell and was elevated by the contrasting texture of the sweet plantains, the tuna, and the excellent flavour combination of coconut, lime, and sesame.
For the Big Tings (oh goodness, I’ve started) we had the Seabass Rundown and the Jerky’s Fried Rice. The jasmine rice is fried with jerk chicken, pineapple, and egg. The jerk chicken, for the uneducated, is not a chicken that was a bit of an idiot in the coup. Jerk is a style of cooking where the meat is seasoned with a pimento and scotch bonnet pepper marinade. The Jamaicans like things spicy!
The fried rice was served flowing out of a pineapple shell – a vessel that much impressed The Serb. The rice was just oily enough to be coated with flavour and light enough to support the pineapple and chicken. The chicken for me needed a little more punch – I was expecting more from the jerk spices.
The seabass was steamed in banana leaves and served with coconut rice. I know, healthy right? I presume that’s what Usain Bolt eats. Opening the banana leaves revealed an almost translucent piece of seabass, that flaked away with each touch of a fork. The coconut gravy provided a wonderful, creamy Caribbean touch to the dish.
We tried a dessert called the Puff Puff Pass. Luckily, because I live in Dubai, I can’t for the life of me think why they called it that. Three oversized macaron/slider looking pastries arrived filled with a different variety of creams and fillings. It was, however, pass pass pass for me. Too big, too sweet, too much.
They are still waiting for their liquor license, and one hopes that if they do get it, they can afford to lower their food prices, as it is quite a pricy meal as it stands.
As for the authenticity of the food, I am not able to adequately judge. As stand-alone dishes, they were well constructed, showed some serious marriage of flavours and were presented in a fun, entertaining way. I feel that perhaps many of the dishes have strayed from the original cuisine, and that might be a commercial decision more than anything else. Ting Irie don’t take themselves too seriously and offer a pleasant night out.