Trio opens Caribbean restaurant with Jamaican, Haitian recipes — and ‘Brooklyn swag’

What makes Caribbean cuisine “authentic”?

According to the trio behind downtown San Jose’s newest restaurant, it has a vibe. “Think of Caribbean cuisine as equal parts resiliency, history, tradition and, of course, spices,” their Instagram page says. “It’s how our people show love.”

Introducing that culture to a broad audience is the mission of Island Taste Caribbean Grill, which opened Saturday in the heart of downtown, across from City Hall. This new spot comes courtesy of Dorianne and Marc St. Fleur, who are the children of immigrants (her family comes from Jamaica and his from Haiti), and head chef Imani Manning, a Jamaica native who learned to cook in her mother’s Kingston restaurant before beginning on a professional career in New York.

The St. Fleurs had no intention of pivoting from their careers in HR and real estate to this cultural and culinary venture when they moved to San Jose. But they discovered that the descriptor “the islands” doesn’t mean to West Coasters what it means to East Coasters. In fact, they were surprised to find that many residents they talked with had never been to Jamaica, or to the Caribbean, for that matter. And West Indies cuisine was much harder to come by here than it was in New York.

Amid the pandemic, those realizations sprouted into an idea. We were eager to hear their Brooklyn-to-the-Bay Area story:

The jerk chicken entree at Island Taste Caribbean Grill in San Jose is named Bolt, after the legendary Jamaican track star Usain Bolt. Jerk chicken wings are also available. (Kory Botkin/WDS Visuals photo for Island Taste)

Q: How did the restaurant idea come about?

Dorian: We initially relocated here with our daughter back in 2019 when I started a role at Google doing Diversity, Equity, an Inclusion strategy. Right as we were getting into the groove of Bay Area life, the pandemic hit. We found ourselves isolated in our home, thousands of miles away from all our friends and family. During that time my husband started teaching himself how to cook traditional Caribbean dishes by watching videos on YouTube. His goal was for us to feel less isolated and homesick. We loved what we were building here, but it’s very different from our life in Brooklyn.

One day, he had the bright idea that we should open our own restaurant and bring a taste of the islands, along with our Brooklyn swag, to The Bay. The only issue: We’re not chiefs.

Island Taste Caribbean Grill is located on East Santa Clara Street between 5th and 6th streets in downtown San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Q: So you lured a third Brooklynite to come out West?

Dorian: Yes, that’s when Marc proposed his idea to a friend from NY who is a chef — Imani Manning — and she was immediately on board.

Q: Imani, what is your philosophy as a leader?

Imani: My passion is telling stories through food, using food to educate. Every dish has a story line. I want to push that culture out there. … I don’t even consider myself a chef. I’m a creator. The kitchen is an empty canvas.

Q: What’s on the menu?

Mark: Our menu features authentic, made-from-scratch dishes from Jamaica and Haiti, along with flavors from across the Caribbean. All of the dishes have a name that means something special to us. For example, our jerk chicken dish is called “Bolt,” which is named after the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, who was born and raised on the island of Jamaica.

Q: How does Haiti’s cuisine differ from Jamaica’s?

Mark: While both Jamaican and Haitian dishes include a mixture of styles and spices from West Africa, the indigenous Taino people, Spain and France, the flavor profile of each country’s cuisine is quite distinct. Most Haitian dishes start with a green seasoning base called “Epis” (which means “spices” in Haitian Creole) that includes cilantro, onions and thyme. Jamaican dishes, on the other hand, typically include base spices like scallions, ginger and pimento. Both Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the other islands across the Caribbean, are cooking dishes that include rice, meat and veggies, but what makes each country’s cuisine unique is the way in which local spices and preparation methods are incorporated.

Island posters on the wall inside Island Taste Caribbean Grill in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Q: What are the distinctly Haitian dishes on your menu?

Imani: Our menu currently features two dishes. The first one is called “1804,” which pays homage to the year that Haiti became the first independent Black republic in the Caribbean when it successfully fought for its freedom from France’s colonial rule. The dish features fried goat meat (called “Taso” in Haitian Creole) and black rice (“Diri Djon Djon”). The second is called “Bang Bang,” named after a popular song in Haiti, that includes fried pork (“Griyo”) and white rice with black beans (“Diri Kole Ak Pwa”).

Q: If someone is spice-averse, what’s a good choice?

Imani: While all of our dishes include a rich combination of herbs and spices, that doesn’t mean they’re all spicy. I think that’s the biggest misconception about Caribbean food. That said, if someone isn’t comfortable with too much heat, they can try our vegan Rasta Pasta, Oxtail, or Escovitch whole red snapper fish. The only truly spicy item on our menu is the jerk chicken.

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