The most famous dish in Trinidad is doubles, two pieces of spiced, flash-fried bread served with curry-lit chickpeas and hot sauce. Natives eat doubles for breakfast and as a sop for alcohol at night. When he visited the Caribbean island in 2009, President Obama was provided a taste of the street food staple, which gets steamed before it’s eaten, a scene recaptured in a painting that hangs at the new Cane on H Street NE. If you find yourself sitting next to diners who know the signature from their time in Trinidad, doubles — sunny with turmeric and cumin in the thin and elastic bread — are the first thing they order.
Cane marks the return of Peter Prime, 48, who introduced us to his Caribbean-influenced fare at Spark at Engine Company 12 in Bloomingdale and counts among his mentors the late French maestro Michel Richard. Launched in April and based on the memories of Prime’s youth, Cane is a good thing in a small wrap, just 33 seats in a narrow dining room that doesn’t take reservations. Show up when the door opens if you don’t want to wait.
Otherwise, wait you might for cow heel soup, which is exactly what it sounds like — gelatinous ribbons of beef tendon — in a bowl made alive with lime juice, pickled peppers and culantro (think cilantro, but bolder). The green base is reprised in other dishes (read on) and electrifies everything it touches.
Jerk wings were part of the attraction at Spark and remain so at Cane. Prime marinates the chicken in allspice and habanero before smoking the wings over pimento wood and grilling them to order. The result merges zest, crackle and char, and comes with a coolant of mayonnaise blended with tamarind chutney and pickles — an island remoulade, if you will. Jerk wings best the sticky, cloying-with-caramel drumsticks, but not the chopped, cumin-spiced pork belly that Prime fries to frizziness and piles atop a swab of the aforementioned green sauce. The snack, geera pork, is referred to as a “cutter,” something island rum shops or bars typically sell to help keep you drinking, says Prime. No matter the recipe, his presentations underscore the finesse he honed at the French Culinary Institute in New York and restaurants including the much-missed Citronelle in Washington. Note the flourish of chive and thyme flowers scattered on the mound of pork belly.
Pepperpot is a feast of Guyanese origin that Prime and his family enjoyed at Christmas and that meat eaters in Washington are sure to embrace. Brisket, beef tendon and oxtail are pressure-cooked to softness with cinnamon, thyme and orange peel. To eat the loose stew is to understand its holiday role, and to make quick work of it. The menu has its lighter moments, too. There may be no more alluring whole fried fish in town than Cane’s snapper escovitch, strewn with a kaleidoscope of sliced pickled chiles, herbs and flowers. Entrees come with steamed rice in a bowl fashioned from a coconut shell.
Co-owner Jeanine Prime, the chef’s sister, is responsible for the look of the place. Shutters on the host stand evoke the beach cottages of Trinidad, and ripples on the right wall near the tiny bar are recycled sugar cane. Nice. Not so much fun is the cramped seating. Getting in and out of a table requires more concentration than a rum fancier might wish to expend.
The tight quarters are one reason for the tiffin boxes, stackable metal containers used to transport two multipart, shareable entrees. (Eating here underscores the melting pot nature of Trinidad, whose food is influenced heavily by India, where tiffins are commonplace.) “Herbivore” rounds up three changing vegetable curries. “Omnivore” consists of chickpea and potato curries, plus beef and chicken stews, tender and terrific. The arrival of a tiffin adds a little drama to the scene, as a server deconstructs the silver tower and crowds the recipient’s table with steamy and fragrant metal bowls of food.
Both boxes come with paratha, the loose, flaky flatbread that doubles as a scoop for the curries, and an assortment of housemade condiments. Based on fire-roasted vegetables and pickled fruit, the convoy includes sweet-tart tamarind chutney, pineapple relish, roasted eggplant dip and house pepper sauce. The chef hopes to bottle some of his enhancers and make them available for purchase this summer. I’ve already prepared a spot in my pantry for his searing, lava-colored Scotch bonnet pepper sauce. The condiments can be ordered a la carte with other entrees; nine bucks nets you all of them. Go for it.
Another splurge on the menu is rum. For $33, you can taste a flight of “Caribbean Classics,” shots of four aged spirits in colors that range from pale gold to dark amber and that are fun to mix and match with the food. Of the cocktails, Purple Passion, made with white rum and a sorrel-basil syrup, ranks among the most refreshing. Alone, its garnish of lime studded with fragrant cloves summons the tropics.
Just one catch. Liquids take so long to reach you after they’re ordered, you figure the water must be coming from a well, the rosé still making its way from France. In the opening weeks, service held Cane back from greater stardom. A request for extra napkins — the finger-licking-good food can be messy — might yield two small bar napkins. “I feel like I’m eating first-class — in coach,” a friend mouthed. Did I mention the music is played at a volume better suited to rock concerts, unless someone asks for a reprieve? (I did, once, and it came, bless whomever.)
Then again, the best food in Trinidad tends not to be found in restaurants, but on the streets, at cafeteria-style counters and, says Prime, “everyone’s mom’s” kitchen. Also, I see signs of improvement every meal at Cane, its name an homage to the African slaves who worked Trinidad’s sugar plantations and to the rum derived from sugar cane. Plus, says the chef, Cane “sounds cool.”
The most entertaining dessert arrives when you ask for bread pudding to be served a la mode. The kitchen simply plunges a soft-serve, goat milk ice cream cone into the confection, made with leftover rolls called hops. Truth be told, the ice cream cone is the best part of the mash-up.
Fans of Caribbean food have asked Prime to add rice and (pigeon) peas and callaloo — a side dish traditionally made with a blend of greens, okra and peppers — to his menu. Come fall, he says, he might. “I have to make sure I’m doing everything right first.”
Prime is off to a stirring start. Let’s hope his crew in the dining room catches up.
Cane (Good) 403 H St. NE. 202-675-2011. cane-dc.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $6 to $9, entrees $19 to $32 (tiffin boxes for two). Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The entrance has a slight lip. The narrow dining room and tightly packed tables would be difficult to navigate in a wheelchair.