Trio opens a Caribbean restaurant with Jamaican and Haitian recipes – and some “Brooklyn swag”

What makes Caribbean cuisine “authentic”?

According to the trio behind the new restaurant in downtown San Jose, there’s a vibe. “Think of Caribbean cuisine as equal parts resilience, history, tradition and, of course, spice,” their Instagram page reads. “This is how our people show love.”

Bringing this culture to a wide audience is the mission of Island Taste Caribbean Grill, which opened Saturday in the heart of downtown, across from City Hall. This new spot is courtesy of Dorianne and Marc St. Fleur, who are the children of immigrants (her family is from Jamaica and hers from Haiti), and chef Imani Manning, a Jamaican native who learned cooking in her mother’s restaurant in Kingston before starting a professional career in New York.

The St. Fleurs had no intention of switching from their careers in human resources and real estate to this cultural and culinary endeavor 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 of the residents they spoke with had never been to Jamaica, or the Caribbean, for that matter. And Caribbean cuisine was much harder to find here than in New York.

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

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

Q: How did the idea for the restaurant come about?

Dorian: We first moved here with our daughter in 2019 when I started working at Google for a diversity, equity, inclusion strategy. Just as we were getting into the rhythm 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 this time, my husband started learning how to cook traditional Caribbean dishes by watching videos on YouTube. His goal was to make us feel less isolated and less nostalgic. We liked what we were building here, but it’s very different from our life in Brooklyn.

One day he had the brilliant idea that we should open our own restaurant and bring a taste of the islands, as well as our Brooklyn swag, to The Bay. The only problem: we are not chefs.

The 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 attracted a third Brooklynite to come out West?

Dorian: Yes, that’s when Marc pitched his idea to a chef friend from New York—Imani Manning—and she was on board right away.

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

Imani: My passion is to tell stories through food, to use food to educate. Each dish has a story. I want to push this culture there. … I don’t even consider myself a chef. I am a creator. The kitchen is an empty canvas.

Q: What’s on the menu?

Mark: Our menu features authentic homemade dishes from Jamaica and Haiti, as well as flavors from all over the Caribbean. All 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 the cuisine of Haiti differ from that of Jamaica?

Mark: While Jamaican and Haitian dishes include a mix 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” (meaning “spice” in Haitian Creole) that includes cilantro, onions, and thyme. Jamaican dishes, on the other hand, usually include basic spices like scallions, ginger, and chili. Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the other Caribbean islands, prepare dishes using rice, meat and vegetables, but what makes each country’s cuisine unique is the way the local spices and cooking methods of preparation are incorporated.

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

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

Imani: Our menu currently offers two courses. The first is called “1804,” which pays homage to the year Haiti became the first independent black republic in the Caribbean, when it fought successfully to free itself from French colonial rule. The dish includes 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, which includes fried pork (“Griyo”) and white rice with black beans (“Diri Kole Ak Pwa”).

Q: If someone doesn’t like spice, what’s a good choice?

Imani: Although all of our dishes include a rich combination of herbs and spices, that does not mean that they are all spicy. I think that’s the biggest misconception about Caribbean cuisine. That said, if someone isn’t comfortable with too much heat, they can try our Vegan Rasta Pasta, Oxtail or Escovitch Whole Red Snapper. The only really spicy dish on our menu is jerk chicken.

Q: What do you serve for drinks and dessert?

Mark: Island Taste has bottled Caribbean drinks like cola champagne and pineapple soda, and traditional drinks like sorrel (the Caribbean name for hibiscus) and Haitian lemonade. Although we currently have no sweets on the menu, we are planning to add traditional island desserts like sweet potato pudding, grated cake and krema in the near future.

Q: What do you want customers to get out of the Island Taste experience?

Dorian: We want people to come for more than food. Yes, the cuisine is what draws people to Island Taste, but we also want guests to connect with our culture. We have artwork and music that speaks to the core of who we are. We look forward to sharing it with the community.

Details: Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 225 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose. Find the full menu at www.islandtastegrill.com and Chef Imani’s Instagram journey at yaadchef_45.

Michael M. Tomlin