In this series, we take you inside the restaurants we keep going back to–neighborhood spots that always deliver on their promise of good food and hospitality, even if they don’t necessarily look like much from the outside.
[UPDATE: The Islands is now closed, as pretty much the entire block was bought by a developer. We hear there are plans to re-open nearby and we will keep you posted on that.]
The facade is unassuming. Located next door to a Key Food and sharing the grocery store’s awning, you may miss it the first time you look for it. But The Islands (803 Washington Ave.) is a Prospect Heights gem: the food is phenomenal and the ambiance unparalleled.
Windowed doors open into a shoebox-sized room. Along one side is the kitchen, big enough for two people, tops. A counter with three stools abuts the prep area and there’s room for maybe five people to pick up food to go or wait to sit at one of the four tables upstairs. To get to the “dining room” guests must climb up a blue ladder and through a hole in the ceiling. No joke. Diners over six feet tall may have a hard time eating in, as the ceilings are quite low upstairs.
But that’s all part of the charm. The Islands is equally known for its unconventional space and its fiery Caribbean dishes.
I’ve visited The Islands many times and each time I tell myself to try something new. But I just can’t. That’s the true test of a dish. Can’t go without it? Crave it? There’s something happening that you can’t control. My order: jerk chicken, curry vegetables and a side of mac and cheese. If I’m dining with more than one person, curry goat or stew peas and dumplings get added to the mix.
The chicken is tender and succulent, fragrant with thyme and fiery to the tongue. The chicken is cooked until it’s literally falling off the bone, yet the skin retains a slight crispiness. The sauce–spicier than most jerk chicken in the area–is liberally applied. Each main course is served over a bed of rice and beans and with a side of tender, stewed cabbage. The cabbage is mellow and sweet and the rice thick and sticky thanks to a healthy dose of coconut oil.
Coconut plays a starring role in the curry vegetable dish too. The flavor isn’t overwhelming or even very “coconutty,” but coconut oil lends a cohesion to the beans, carrots, zucchini and tofu.
Yes, the food is heavy. You are not going to The Islands and heading to a show after because you may fall asleep. The Islands is a place to hit up with friends and a six-pack or bottle of wine (it’s BYOB) and to talk, laugh and then walk it off.
One dish you will especially need to walk off is the 5-by-5-inch square of mac and cheese. It’s served a little warmer than room temp, with a crusty top and cheesy inside. The macaroni has been cooked way past al dente so each bite literally melts in your mouth.
But here’s the kicker: The Islands, which opened the week of Sept. 11, 2001, is closing its current location and moving into larger digs down Washington Avenue at the end of February. The new location, at 671 Washington Ave., will feature more seating, breakfast and a liquor license. The ambiance will change, but the recipes and food will remain the same. So take a trip to The Islands now so you can say you remember when you had to climb a ladder to reach the dining room.