Photo of Anne Fishbein
NATRALIART IS ONE OF THE NODES of Jamaican culture in Los Angeles, a high-ceilinged restaurant on a faded corner of Washington where the background reggae pounds out of Peavey speakers on the dining-room floor, the big television shows silent hip-hop videos when it isn’t tuned to police chases, and half the dreads in the city drift in and out over the course of a lazy afternoon — for flagons of fresh-squeezed carrot-lemon juice, for to-go cartons of vegetarian food, or to buy tickets to any of the half-dozen concerts that the guys behind the counter happen to be selling at any one time. The walls, where they are not covered by a flat, painted map of Jamaica or a mural of a rustic, gleaming bay, are thick with notices of soca shows and community picnics, cheap phone cards and something called a Gals Gone Wild Cruise. Behind the counter, Jucy’s Wall of Fame features a distinguished collection of reggae memorabilia. When I made the mistake of praising a Beverly Hills Jamaican restaurant several years ago, almost every letter of complaint that reached the mailbox suggested that I try Natraliart instead.
This is real Jamaican food, you understand, not the stuff you find on cruise ships or at Ocho Rios resorts, strong, direct, sometimes nastily spicy cooking without a mango or a spiny lobster in sight; no prime rib, no sweet sauces, no fresh flowers posed on the plate. This is a place of tough, curried goat, practic- ally vibrating with the taste of ground cloves; of stewed oxtails zapped with spice; of starchy gongo bean soup thickened with ground legumes.
The Natraliart idea of great seafood is probably the Saturday special of sprats, whole little herrings, bristling with bones, that have been marinated briefly in vinegar, fried to the brittle-chewy consistency of beef jerky, and garnished with a few slivers of onion and crimson shreds of fresh scotch bonnet, a pepper with a floral, citrus-peel perfume and a heat that punches through the limits of human tolerance. The fried sprats are tasty if you are not averse to the idea of strong-tasting fish, and the tiny bones are easily ground down in the teeth (although a couple of hairsbreadth pin bones will probably go down a little less comfortably than one might prefer). It is easy to see how sprats may not have the universal appeal of rum-painted grouper. It is also easy to see how some people (me, for example) like to toss the things down like potato chips.
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There is a lot of strong seafood at Natraliart, oily slabs of fried kingfish, flakes of salt cod sautéed with vegetables, “stew fish” fried hard and then smothered down to a pleasant leathery chaw with a pile of vegetables and aromatics. Akee with salt cod is one of the standards of the Caribbean table — “Akee, rice, salt fish is nice,” Harry Belafonte sings — and Natraliart does a rough and delicious version of the dish, chunks of the chewy fish sautéed with onions and the ripe island fruit, which smells a little like heated avocado and has a texture and steaminess disturbingly like that of soft scrambled eggs. On Fridays, you can get fried fish with bammy, a sort of bland cassava latke not entirely far removed from what are undoubtedly West African origins; on Satur-days, the fish comes with fried dumplings that are the size and shape of ping-pong balls but which seem to have a specific gravity somewhere south of lead.
Natraliart’s jerk chicken is among the best versions in town at the moment, rubbed with dry spice, grilled over fragrant wood, perhaps slightly dryer than it could be, but flavored all the way to the bone. Good jerk chicken, strictly speaking, requires no sauce, but if you need it, a small cup of the restaurant’s jerk sauce, thin, vinegary and heated almost to the blister point with scotch-bonnet peppers, is always close at hand.
If you have ever been curious about mannish water, the famous Jamaican soup made from goats’ heads boiled with tripe, Natraliart is probably the place to try it — in this peppery Saturday-only dish (which is reputed to act as a sort of culinary Cialis), the high, lamby funkiness of the goat collides with the more plangent funkiness of the tripe, but where you might think the combination would be unbearable, there is a mellow animal sweetness to the soup, a sort of muted barnyard aroma that is far milder than, say, menudo. This stuff would be worth eating even without its homemade dumplings, doughy little things that look like floating spliffs. And you don’t even need a prescription.
Natraliart Jamaican Restaurant, 3426 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 732-8865. Open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.– 9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16–$26. MC, V.