Open Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.M., Friday and Saturday until midnight. BA, MC, AE. Reservations.
Food: Intriguing island fare
Style: Soft lights, calypso music and sunny service
Price: Main dishes average $6, appetizers and desserts $1.75
LAST YEAR I spent a week trying to find Creole cooking in Trinidad, only to settle, finally, for one luncheonette, a house of ill repute, and a boutique that served afternoon tea. I could have stayed in Washington and waited for the Martinique to open in Georgetown.
I would have missed the sun and the the sand, but everything else has been transported to Georgetown. Like most Caribbean landing strips, the entrance to Martinique has all the charm of a back alley. You sort of slip in off M Street, echoing through a tiled corridor to a stairway that looks as if it leads down to the incinerator. But downstairs is music - calypso guitar that irresistibly draws you to move tables aside and dance. And brick-arched nooks with tables that allow you to feel yours is a private party. And tables in the center for a more public appearance. Like a newly nationalized colonial hotel, the Martinique retains signs of its earlier uses as a disco bar and California cafe, but the lone native touch of shading the ceiling lights with wicker bread baskets turns it sufficiently Caribbean.
So there is music, and a few wispy tropical trees languish in the candlelight. Young French waitresses lilt more than speak, serving your food as if it were presents, waiting to be delighted if you like it.
Welcome to sunny, exotic Georgetown. The water is safe, but some of the drinks are not; the rum specialty of the house will get your head spinning faster than your feet are tapping. And, while you need no passport, getting the most out of the Martinique requires a certain immunity to hot peppers. You could do this restaurant the tourist way: the pina coladas are good (though expensive) and a quiche makes a passable appetizer. There is nothing unfamiliar about the chicken and spinach salad except that the chicken is a whole lot better than most restaurants bother to present. The skewered beef is simply a marinated kebab, again tangier than most, but requiring no special courage to eat.
Then there is the real Martinique, that can wrestle an Indian curry to a draw and leave a Szechuan stir-fry gasping. The supple red shreds of pickled fish called Mai Mai bring the tropical sun to your innards. It is just a small appetizer dish, but your tongue will long remember it. On a cold evening, warm your stomach - all the way to your toes - with a green pureed soup called calalou, practically the national dish of Trinidad. The pepper in it is fairly mute, but the spinach and okra taste as intensely green as it looks. If you want to know how hot a benign looking green can be, dine on crabs stewed with spinach, tomatoes, cayenne pepper and ginger, the emphasis on the latter two. The whole crabs slurp around in a wonderful sauce that envelops you and makes your tear ducts work overtime. Also with the gingered beef stew, pleasure and pain intermingle, for the chunks of fresh ginger seem almost as plentiful as the beef. Dark brown and tender, this stew uses taste buds you never knew you had.
Calling uncle? Simmer down with chicken in wine and spices. Slightly peppery, it has a sweet undertone, having been sauteed with a touch of sugar, then stewed with cloves, wine, onions and island mystery. It is a perfumed chicken new, a real come-hither dish. Martinique's menu meanders with a pasta dish, pork, lamb, shrimp, curried goat and a cuple of fish dishes, one a mahi filet lightly sauced with mon, garlic and coconut milk, flecked with parsley. Alongside all the main dishes come white rice and red beans cooked with onions, yellow banana peppers and more clove than is prudent. If you are into masochism, ask for a dish of the homemade pepper sauce, which is to be cautiously added if you like even hotter dishes.
Extend your tour to desert. If you haven't overdone the rum before dinner, the flaming banana fritters - crisp around the edges and creamy inside - are barely sweet but very boozy. The pineapple custard tastes light and fresh, tremblingly fragile. And there is a coconut tart which, like the other desserts, is sweetened with restraint, but is packed with shredded fresh coconut. Then there is the opportunity for more rum in the coffee, topped with whipped cream. But the filtered coffee is a very good alternative.
By then your shirtsleeves will be rolled up, your feet keeping time to the slosh of the rum in your head or the echoes of hot peppers in your throat. You'll be an islander. And if it costs you $15 a person, as the total tour will probably run - well, put it on your credit card and figure you'll just fly now and pay later.