Having defied all conventional wisdom by opening just a week before Christmas last year, Turtle Bay’s new Leeds opening seems to have hit the ground running.
Despite a poorly judged and even worse-received marketing campaign and app that stopped one short of blackface when encouraged customers the “Rastafy themselves”, trade didn’t seem to take a hit. The traditional “January slump” is apparently the only thing that Turtle Bay wasn’t dreading. Even when I was getting a tour of the restaurant before it had even opened, I counted 15 people in the space of two hours wandering in to try and get a table.
That said, owner Ajith Jayawickrema is no stranger to casual dining start-ups; he’s the man who started Las Iguanas from nothing and turned it into a £27million, 35-site empire. With Leeds playing host to the 15th Turtle Bay restaurant to open since it started out in 2010 he seems to be repeating his former success, so obviously his methods aren’t to be questioned.
Those familiar with Las Iguanas, or indeed any shopping-mall casual dining affair will know what to expect in terms of ambience and menu – the sprawling 150-cover bar & dining area is kitted out in Caribbean shorthand with a beach-shack aesthetic. It’s obvious that a lot of money has been spent to make this look like such a poor part of the world: corrugated steel, raw concrete and wood palettes are everywhere. Graffiti art covers any surface that paint will adhere to (the stairway to the toilets is decorated by a local artist whose work – through no fault of his own – has featured almost exclusively in restaurants that want to appear edgy and “with it”. You’ll have seen it around.) and an island bar – like ones in the middle of swimming pools in hotels that you can’t afford – takes pride of place as soon as you walk through the door.
With the bar featuring so prominently, it’s unsurprising that almost as much focus has been put on the drinks menu as the food – 40 Caribbean rums are available from the bar as long drinks, tasting boards, or shaken into cocktails (there’s almost 30, and they’re all 2-for-1 in happy hour), and there’s a decent selection of “Caribbean Softs” – the Peanut Butter & Banana smoothie made with condensed milk makes a pretty good dessert all on its own.
To avoid getting caught in the labyrinth of the food menu (I counted four categories, three sub-categories and two side-categories, all interconnected. A Venn diagram representation of it would require the help of a Spirograph) we ordered a selection of small plates, or “Cutters” as they’re known in other regions, as well as a token Curry Goat and Jerk Chicken to act as a litmus test.
Small Plates was hit and miss – tendrils of squid, coated in a thick, gluey breadcrumb and deep fried beyond identification; King Prawns cooked over the jerk-pit flames, just past that point where the meat has a juicy, milky characteristic when squeezed between your teeth. The herb, chilli & garlic butter residue they leave on your fingers is too good to end up in the finger-bowl provided so was lapped off with all the table manners of a disobedient terrier.
Our waitress recommended the Duck Roll which was ok, but the soy & tamarind sauce that dressed the roast meat was as authentically Caribbean as Jesy Little Mix’s Jamaican accent
Trini Doubles easily stole the starter-show – fried flatbread dough, topped with curried chick-peas, cucumber & mango chutneys and coconut shavings – at once warming & refreshing, light & satisfying, it reminded me of something that would come out of the Bundobust serving hatch, and coming from a fully paid-up, card-carrying member of the Bundobust fan club, that’s no faint praise.
Curry Goat and Jerk Chicken – like Pad Thai and Tod Man Pla at Thai restaurants – are the benchmarks I use to gauge what any Caribbean restaurant.The culinary equivalent of a polygraph test or that lingering, squinting, Larry David eye-contact that looks into the pits of your soul – they’re are the dishes that will consciously or subconsciously tell you everything you need to know about a Caribbean restaurant, and here it’s no different.
Both dishes are fine. Curry checks all the major boxes – the gravy is thin, it’s warmly-spiced, and the meat doesn’t take much convincing to fall apart in your mouth – but lacks the depth of flavour that only comes when a stew has been cooked with meat on the bone. Similarly the Jerk chicken has that inimitable flavour of chicken skin that’s been marinated and licked by an open flame, but it doesn’t give you that masochistic “slapped across the face” feeling of pleasure when you get a bit of sauce up your cheek.
Despite their mission-statement of “Rum, Reggae, Jerk”, the former is the only element that hasn’t been toned down to cater to the high street market, but you can understand why. Caribbean cooking is all about bold, vivid flavours, which means it just isn’t to everybody’s tastes.
That’s why none of the places you go to eat Escovitch Fish while listening to Cutty Ranks and Yellowman occupy restaurants that can comfortably seat 150 customers. While Turtle Bay might not be as authentic as your favourite jerk and curry spot in the suburbs, it really isn’t trying to be – it’s a casual dining restaurant you can take the whole family to, with enough accessible versions of Caribbean food for everybody to find something they like the look of, while humming along to Althea & Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking.