When you walk into the slim space that is Norman's Cay, in the Lower East Side, the idea behind the decor is immediately apparent. Using textures, sights, and colors of the Caribbean, the goal is a transportation to a warm island. I think this is difficult to do in such a tiny space so far north of that warmth, but most likely the mood of the patron is more important in deciding the success of this tactic. Either way, the slow reggae rhythms are there to accompany your meal.
I wanted to come here to try lionfish, a species native to waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans that is currently wreaking havoc on populations of reef fish in the Bahamas as well as many other reefs of the Caribbean. The management of Norman's Cay is proud to bring the fish to New York City and do what they can to help the problem.
In addition to the main dish, we tried a few other plates and had a great meal. Service can be a bit haphazard at times, which seems to be the consensus from other internet reviews, but with nowhere else to be that evening we did not really concern ourselves with hiccups. Before some mains, we went for the conch fritters ($11, below), breaded and fried balls served with a dollop of guacamole and a sweet and sour sauce.
Our first main course was the marinated jerk chicken ($18, below), served with a pineapple salsa, mixed green salad, and Caribbean rice and peas. While it is not the type of chicken that changes your life, it was the kind of chicken that makes your head nod while you look at each other in agreement that it is tasty. The sweet rice and peas are very well made and go perfectly with this dish as well as another we ate.
The photo below of our fried lionfish ($35) does not really show the scale well, as the fish is quite large. We were nibbling on the very meaty animal for quite a while. On their website, they describe the sauce as "cajun" served the way Bahamians enjoy it. We certainly enjoyed it as well, surpassing our expectations by far. Not only is eating a lionfish sort of a novelty, it is actually quite delicious and worth coming here to sample. The price is quite hefty for a whole fish here in New York, but it does not seem unfair.
One odd thing was that we were aggressively steered away from ordering the grilled version of the fish, told it would take over an hour to prepare. Without even mentioning it took the better part of an hour anyways, we found this a bit off putting, but thankfully the fried version was indeed good as promised.
Lastly, we had the braised oxtail stew ($21, below), also served with rice and peas. Fatty hunks of meat sat within the rich brown stew, which also contained fava beans. If anything, this was the dish that was not quite adequate for sharing, as all three of us wanted more than a third.
For those of us that have never been to Norman's Cay in the Bahamas, it is most likely to be recognized from the film Blow with Johnny Depp, based on the true story of a drug smuggling operation. Thankfully it has cleaned up its image over the years and now is just your typical tropical paradise.