The sunny yellow bungalow that houses Kassava Caribbean cafe is a Chandler-esque remnant of an earlier L.A., a poignant contrast to the neighboring steel- and glass-fronted restaurants along 3rd Street and the monochromatic hulk of the Beverly Center nearby.
But the intriguing pull of this ambitious little restaurant extends beyond the charm of its palm frond-festooned patio. Kassava is run by three chefs, each from a different area of the Caribbean, and each provides a discrete expertise to assure that the restaurant's offerings are as polycultural as the islands themselves.
The French-influenced Haitian specialties prepared by Carmen Dagon, who maintains a following from her tenure at Chez Nous in Inglewood, are distinctly spiced from those of French-speaking Martinique, cooked by Vanessa Walkoviak. Jerk chicken and other Jamaican food -- with their own set of influences -- are turned out by chef Pedro Gil.
"The idea is to represent the Caribbean's regional flavors authentically," says co-owner and filmmaker Jean-Claude La Marre.
Inside, the walls vibrate with crimson, azure and citrus hues that fairly pop from the original art on display at the restaurant. Tropical-fruit-shaped table mats add a zany gaiety to the room.
Dive on in
Now you're in the Caribbean, and the time-honored remedy for pre-entree hunger is a plate of crispy accra. The addictive Haitian-style fritters of codfish and malanga (a potato-like tuber related to taro) shatter with each bite like a Belgian frite. These pair spectacularly with tall, cool glasses of homemade watermelon juice or freshly made and not-too-sweet sorrel "juice," the hibiscus-flower tea (called jamaica in Mexico).
Gil's Jamaican patties, empanada-like pies, are flaky of crust and bulging with jerk chicken, saucy stewed beef or vegetables, and they make a substantial foundation for a satisfying supper with salad or soup.
And to taste Dagon's steamy Haitian pumpkin soup is to understand how she came by her reputation.
The semi-chunky French-style purée of earthy fresh vegetables teems with bright green minced herbs and a judicious touch of garlic. It's at once hearty yet light. Dagon makes traditional and vegan versions.
In a similar vegetable-intensive vein, her marinated chicken soup, full of roasted chunks of the bird in a similar rough vegetable purée, is a clean-tasting, hunger-banishing meal in a bowl.
Kassava's roti is sumptuous. The soft, thin, slightly flaky griddle bread, wrapped around chunks of Gil's curry chicken or curry goat and dipped into its spice-infused sauce, possesses a combination of flavor and texture that vies with the perfect Parisian pastry or the very best taco. Roti is also the ideal absorbent for the rich, satiny sauce of coconut shrimp, though the pairing may not be traditional.
Although you have to order the roti separately to accompany an entree, it comes automatically as the wrapper for any curry sandwich (vegetable, chicken or goat).
The hard-to-find conch stew, here in all its homely glory, is an enduring lure for homesick Caribs.
The mollusk, tenderized by lengthy simmering in a dark French Creole-style sauce, has a vaguely lobster-like flavor.
Sides and desserts
Humble as they may sound, the beans and rice that anchor every entree here reveal a kitchen that works as precisely as a Swiss watch. Rice grains, always plump and separate, possess an appealing terra cotta hue absorbed from the perfectly cooked pink beans scattered throughout. Paired with the caramel-y sweetness of fried plantains, they are terrific with Martinique-style marinated fried chicken, braised oxtail ragout, brightly seasoned, moist jerk salmon or vegan "legumes," an eggplant-based vegetable stew.
Equal respect has been bestowed on desserts: custard-tender bread pudding squares perfumed with vanilla bean, dark molasses-laced Jamaican cake (and cupcakes) redolent of allspice and a silky rich French-inspired passion fruit mousse have been diligently crafted by cooks who display an intimate connection to their own patch of the Caribbean.