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Steamed snapper and civil reggae


"What I wonder," says Casava owner Tony Price, "is how long it took the Chinese to be successful." How ethnic cuisines catch on is an interesting question. Take-out Chinese is nearly as popular as pizza. Thai food has become common, as has Indian. So, what about Jamaican?

            Rochester has a number of small places serving Jamaican food. There's the Island Kitchen at the corner of Columbia and Genesee, and the wonderful LJ's on Thurston. But Casava has been around the longest. Price originally opened in the living room of his house on Central Avenue back in 1994, serving spectacular steamed snapper and homemade ginger beer.

            Four years ago, Price shut down and began building a new restaurant next door. Financiers weren't lining up --- they shy away from "commercial" establishments in "industrial" districts. But Price went ahead with some help from his family, and after three years of work, reopened last November.

            The new Casava looks very different, with a large bar room in front and an enormous dining room in the back. The hardwood floor in the huge, open space is striking, and everything is designed for handicapped access. Jamaican travel posters are the only decorations. The wall of speakers in the back is somewhat frightening, but the music --- what Price calls "reggae with civility" --- is kept low and creates a relaxed mood.

            If you liked the food at the old Casava, you'll be pleased to know that chef Rudolph Lyle is still in charge in the back. The Falmouth steamed fish, a whole red snapper prepared with onion and spice (allspice standing out), is the signature dish, plenty for two ($18.95). The fish is meltingly tender, and falls right off the bones. Plus, there's something festive about the presentation of a whole fish.

            The curried goat is the best I've had, unusually tender and lacking the gamy flavor goat often has ($10.95). The sauce is complex in its spicing without being overly hot. Oxtails --- really beef tail --- are stewed until you can drink the meat off the bones ($10.95). Oxtails aren't for the squeamish, but are one of the most flavorful meats on the planet.

            Chicken comes either jerk or curried ($8.95). The jerk is mild by Jamaican standards (a response to customer tastes). My girls split the curried chicken, and Price served it on separate plates. The portion was generous enough to feed them and my wife, with leftovers for me the next day. The Jamaican curried seafood platter was marvelous, with a large piece of snapper, five scallops, and four shrimp in a delicious sauce with onion and sweet pepper ($14.95). A couple bites of Scotch bonnet practically blew my head off, but in a good way.

            My wife ordered "the vegetarian" ($8.95), which is largely just the sides you get with an entrée. That would be rice and pigeon peas, steamed cabbage, a trip to a small salad bar, and spectacular, fried, ripe plantain. If you're a vegetarian, call ahead and Chef Lyle will steam fresh vegetables for you.

            Food cost is very important at Casava, meaning Price keeps the menu short. But he's willing to make all sorts of Jamaican specialties given a day's warning. You could try akee (a savory fruit) and salt cod, a traditional breakfast food; escoveitched fish (cooked then marinated in a spicy vinegar sauce); or homemade ginger beer (with rum, if you like). You might even talk them into making bammy, a griddle cake made from the restaurant's namesake, cassava root.

            Price served both our meals, and he was gracious and attentive. He warned us that the seafood dishes took longer to prepare, and perhaps because of the warning, the wait didn't seem bad. Casava's location is actually quite convenient, just a minute off the inner loop, with plenty of free parking. Can Jamaican take off like Chinese and Indian have? The lack of vegetarian fare is a problem, but this is tasty food in generous portions, and the atmosphere is inviting. Hopefully, enough people will give it a chance.

Casava, 420 Central Avenue, 546-1184. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sat, 3 to 10 p.m.; Reggae Lounge open until 2 a.m.

Food tip

The old Savory Thyme location at 105 East Avenue near Gibbs Street has been reopened by a trio of partners as Haleigh's: Just Good Food. The restaurant opened September 23, and is slowly expanding its menu beyond salads, sandwiches, grilled wraps, pizzas, and specials. Desserts are done in-house, and look wonderful. The restaurant's beer/wine license is due any day. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael can be heard on WYSL 1040-AM. On Saturdays, he discusses gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to 12 p.m.); and on Sundays it's antiques and wine (10 a.m. to 12 p.m.).