Jonkanoo, Surry Hills

Caribbean fare. It’s not all jerk chicken and rice. No really, it’s not.

It’s also coco breads from Jamaica, soused mackerels from the Bahamas, rum baba desserts from Martinique, and carnival doubles from Trinidad. Oh and Jamaican jerk pork.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

In a city where Caribbean cuisine is rare and images of jerk chicken and Bob Marley race through the mind at the drop of the word ‘Jamaican’, Caribbean restaurant/dive bar Jonkanoo is seeking to introduce the true scope of Caribbean cuisine. This from its very own island paradise on Surry Hills’ Crown Street.

Even on a rainy evening, you’ll feel the sun shine and the good-times roar the moment you breeze through Jonkanoo’s door. It’s as if you’ve been washed onto the shores of a classic colonial novel: bright turquoise walls with white trim surround and chairs of old boat-wood, splashed in a rainbow of colour and wrecked with wood knots and worrisome cracks, are splayed across the ‘deck’.

Tasting Notes
There’s a new Caribbean joint in town with your name on it.

The vibe: Groovy, cruisy, hipster-y.

Ideal for: Families, catch-ups, late night eats.

Bartender’s choice...Smarmy, Green ‘n’ Barmy ($17) “Definitely one to turn any Corsair fair”, says Patrick.

Try the... Jerk Chicken, $14/half-pound or Jerk Pork, $16/half-pound

By the way... Bubs eat free and Jonkanoo is wifi, hifi and mai tai-ed up. Additionally, hidden amongst the wall of colourful window panellings is one that is 100-years-old. See if you can guess which it is.

Find Jonkanoo on Facebook: Jonkanoo

Down back, a collection of painted window panellings patch a wall, while cool Caribbean beats pulse through the air and the bar shines with the crystal clears of the glasses as they bounce off the back mirror.

It’s here where you’ll find drinks slinger Aage Bauer shooting the breeze, carolling with the diners and shaking up the ‘juices’. Traditionals such as mojitos and margaritas are always on offer. Then there are some heavier hitters, like the Jamaican Old Fashioned with Appleton rum, grapefruit liqueur and sorrel syrup, which Aage says will keep you “happily dread locked”.

But if you’re contemplating the curry goat or jerk chicken/pork for dinner, he’ll steer you more towards a Chilean, Argentinean or Brazilian wine. And you are. Contemplating the jerk chicken, that is. Or jerk pork.

Same culinary amazement. Just a different animal.

This is when you cross the borders from rum country into the big smokey lair of co-owner, head chef and self-confessed ‘hipster’ (joking/not joking?) Damion Brown. Now to say that Damion is a well-seasoned cook would be a gross understatement.

The Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-bred, Miami-schooled chef has spent most of his working life as a film-set caterer and if there’s one thing he took from his time on set, it’s this pearl of wisdom: “there’s common ground with food”.

Martin Lawrence told him that.

No, seriously.

Sure, he could have stuck around for more wise words from the realm of the red carpet (John Malkovich, Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman… jealous? Us?), but it’s always been a dream of Damion’s to star in his own restaurant production.

So when the opportunity to showcase his home country’s cuisine, alongside Patrick and Nick Toth (Jonkanoo’s marketing manager), he took it.

Tonight, much like any other, Damion’s kitchen is a bustle of smoke and sheen. The oven steams with batches of Jamaican coco bread (coconut milk based rolls) and metallic tray-like plates shine, ready to be laid over with wax paper and one of the smoking options off the ‘jerk tings by di pound’ menu. Yeah, you just read that in a Jamaican accent!

Jerk chicken, jerk pork, it doesn’t matter. So long as you order at least half a pound of his traditionally smoked jerk something won’t begrudge you the rest of your dinner choices. As Damion cuts and weighs the meat, which has been marinated in his family’s secret sauce for at least two days, he explains that, “In Jamaica, we sell jerk by the pound. So that’s the way I have it on my menu.”

A half pound of the chicken will set you back $14, a pound $28. Pretty square, pretty fair, hey?

Whichever way you weigh it, that bird comes out smoked like nothing else and smothered in herbs and spices with just enough kick to flavour the walls of your mouth, but not enough to make you want to wash it down with something ice-cold. The skin is slippery soft and the meat runs through layers of succulence and tenderness. You’ve never tasted jerk like this in Australia and once you try it, you’ll never go back to anything else.

The rest of the menu reads in a similar fashion – keeping true to traditional methods. Only one deviates from this formula and has been given a ‘Damion Brown’ twist. We’re calling it his signature dish, but to everyone else, it’s called the soused mackerel. It’s a Bahamian offering that’s traditionally soused in salt, pepper and lime – quite like a ceviche – though Damion souses his in ginger ale and serves it with a side of sweet potato chips. We’ve never tasted the original, but we’re loving this invention.

See, it really isn’t just about the jerk chicken.

But you’ll get it, anyway.

What you need to know

Address: 583 Crown St, Surry Hills

Opening Hours: Monday, Wednesday & Thursday 6pm-10pm, Friday & Saturday 11am-3pm (lunch) 6pm-late (dinner), Sunday 11am-3pm (lunch) 6pm-late (dinner)

Stephanie Yip

Stephanie is a journalist, avid traveller and all-round bargain hunter. If there's an online coupon code, deal or cheap flight available, she'll know about it. And she'll let you know about it, too.

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