If there's one thing Caribbean Red does with exhausting ardor, it's play with its name, at least the latter part of it. Stroll into the place, under the blazing scarlet neon sign, past the little vestibule strewn with litter, and you'll enter an expansive bar-lounge-dining-room hybrid so saturated in hues from the lower end of the color spectrum that you'll swear you're about to dine in an amusement-park version of hell, or maybe in a bordello.
Caribbean Red's press literature says that it took a lot of paint to create this effect. No fewer than 11 shades of red were used in the design process. The walls are layered in reds, with little striations of white and pink peeking through the texture. Stare at them long enough and you'll feel like you've been imprisoned inside a steak.
On our first visit to Caribbean Red, we were greeted by a blonde who was seated in the lounge, conversing with a man. They appeared to be the only souls in the space, which was oddly assembled with sofas and chairs fashioned around little conversation areas marked with little end tables filled with sand--maybe stylish butt snuffers. There are also candles everywhere, as well as a roaring fireplace.
The hostess asked us if we wanted to have dinner. From the question, we assumed she had something to do with the place, in a management capacity, perhaps. But instead, disembarking from her seat, she hollered for some help and went back to her conversation with the man, leaving us standing there for one of those minutes that drags on for what feels like an hour.
We stood there, gazing at the walls, observing what the press materials describe as "incredible pieces of industrial abstract and ink sketches." I don't know if "incredible" is a word I would have chosen, although "brazen' comes to mind. In one corner of the lounge is a painting of a single eye below a fat pair of red lips. In another of Caribbean Red's distinctive lounge cavities is an array of bamboo stalks that looks like some sort of island booby trap. The bar is a long sweeping thing made of "marvelous" Oklahoma flagstone, which thankfully was not soaked in red dye before it was assembled.
The dining room is pickled in idiosyncrasies too. Sketches hang from the walls, some positioned outside of their frames. One has its frame turned 45 degrees away from the sketch it is bordering. One must assume this is an artistic touch, although the bare speaker box with frayed copper wires hanging in one of the corners didn't seem to add anything.
Neither did the music. The lounge was piped with one of those throb-pop-bump stations that plays four miles of commercials for every three songs. We heard commercials for a muffler shop, Mitsubishi, light beer, and fast food before we could even get the red napkins off the red tablecloth and into our laps.
The walls also hold bare porcelain-socket light fixtures, into which are inserted red light bulbs. It all comes across like some kind of warning. But you eat anyway.
Caribbean Red's food is difficult to classify. It's billed as Caribbean-Latin fusion cuisine, or something like that. But it comes off a bit more like TV-dinner rumba.
The menu is divided into three sections: sunrise (appetizers), low tide (salads and sandwiches), and high tide (entrées). But virtually all of it is beached.
Yam fritters hail from the sunrise portion of the menu. Although they arrived as golden crisp, slightly oblong disks on the plate, they traveled to the palate as batter-encrusted paste. The only discernible flavor in this mash formula was one reminiscent of mold spores. My guess is that the mix was too heavily weighted with flour, and old flour at that. I was too frightened to try to compensate for these yam fries by dipping them into the accompanying mango-tomato chutney.
Our hope was that high tides would lift us from the culinary berm upon which we had found ourselves. Yet despite an enthusiastic recommendation from our server, the cane-sugar pork failed to levitate. The plate was designed, in a sense, with slices of pork counterpoising stalks of faded yams arranged in a semicircle around the rim of the plate. The meat was washed-out, old-tasting, and drenched in a honey-hued sauce that tasted suspiciously like the bottled sweet-and-sour sauce you can find in the ethnic-foods aisle in the grocery store. Running up the middle of the plate was a rippled stripe of cool, solidified, melted cheese. This must have been the peppered Brie mentioned in the menu blurb. It looked more like mashed potatoes, although it would be hard to get mashed potatoes that stiff without adding wood glue.
By far the best item we sampled on the menu was the jerk flank steak, meat that was marinated and blackened with jerk seasoning. The slices were slathered in a thick, tarry reduction that was smooth and sweet, but it overwhelmed the relatively tender and juicy flank strips. A defter touch would have made this an acceptable dish.
It's difficult to know how many entrants on Caribbean Red's original menu had enough lift to keep them off the rocks. Owner Anthony Bermea, who cut his teeth on Steak n Shake and Red Lobster, recruited Patrick and Peter Tarantino to craft the menu. (The brothers launched the now-defunct Tarantino's Mediterranean tapas bar near Fair Park.) The pair has since left the restaurant, and the menu has slipped markedly from its original moorings. Tarantino's menu was more adventurous, with things such as hearts of palms, shellfish fondue, lobster ravioli, and Jamaican barbecue quail. Those things have given way to bar munchies such as habanero barbecue wings, garlic-cheese bread, chips and salsa, and burgers.
Which wouldn't send your plumbing anywhere near the red zone if these listings were executed with verve and assembled with care. But they aren't, even when kicked with jerk. Black n' jerk chicken arrived as sheets of dry, listless chicken tinged gray and freckled with spices. Those spices proved fiery. In fact, the only perceptible sensation on the palate was heat. A side of pineapple rice was dismal, nothing more than a clump of white rice clumsily cluttered with big chunks of canned pineapple. Next to that loose rice-and-fruit mesh was a scoop of firm, tender black beans, perhaps the best item served here.
Diablo rojo shrimp was also potently spiced--a good thing, it turns out, because the coiled white shellfish was flavorless, save for a hint of something that tasted like lighter fluid. The shrimp were marinated and drenched in "volcano" sauce, a sweet but ferociously spicy slurry made of chilies, garlic, vinegar, and other spices. But all of this explosiveness failed to blast it from dullness. Maybe the kitchen could sacrifice a virgin in the next batch, although they might first want to dispense with the pineapple rice, a dish no self-respecting virgin would be caught dead next to.
Dessert offerings included a variety of cheesecakes, but the one we had our tongues set on, the Key lime cheesecake, was out of stock.
Customers appeared to be out of stock too. On our first visit, while frittering away a whole evening noshing on our forgettable dinner, we saw only one group of diners stroll in. Sure, there were two couples who took seats at different times (strangely at the exact same table), but they took one look at the menu and quickly left.
Caribbean Red is open as of this writing. It's an open question as to whether it will be open by the time this is read, because it seems that developing a restaurant by merging the color red into an island theme is fraught with pitfalls. Remember Jungle Red? No? We didn't think so.
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