On a nice day two weekends ago (?I think--I'm losing track of time), we went for a long walk from our base camp near Harvard Square, up to Fresh Pond, around the reservoir, and back down Huron Ave and then Concord. By the time we got to Huron, we were getting pretty hungry.
We stumbled across Ortanique, which has had regular praise here, but which we'd never visited. This is a very small and sweet Jamaican place with reasonably-priced meals. The owner and his wife were both there, serving up lunches and keeping half an eye on the wildlife documentary playing on the little TV that sits in the kitchen. I had the soup of the day, a red bean soup which was slightly spicy and fully filling at $5.00. My colleague-in-chow got the jerk chicken, which she reported was excellent. The soup was nothing fancy, but it was delicious. My colleague's jerk chicken was flavorful and nicely (and freshly) cooked. "It was spicy, but not that spicy--just enough to linger a bit" she reports in retrospect. She had the home-made ginger beer; as a fan of ginger she loved it, and as not-such-a-fan-of-ginger I acknowledged that if you love ginger you will love the ginger beer. I liked the slight ginger tinge in the sorrell drink, made from a Jamaican plant that the owner tells us has all sorts of excellent anti-oxidant properties; if you like the pomegranate-cranberry side of the juice spectrum you'll like this. The soup came with some tasty Iggy's bread--the only touch that seemed more of the neighborhood than of the food's origins. Other than that the food does not feel at all Huron-ified; it is not a nouveau interpretation of Jamaican food, it is Jamaican food.
This place is a paradox, as its owner acknowledged: this is about as far from a Jamaican neighborhood as it gets. Contrast this to Flames, the two-restaurant Caribbean place in Boston (I've only been to the one on Huntington Ave.): there the emphasis is big starchy portions sitting in warming trays, and then when you select them, jammed into styrofoam containers that can barely hold them. Really great in its own way, and certainly authentic-seeming, but different. Ortanique is trying to walk a difficult line. It wants to fit into the neighborhood, but it also wants to be authentic. The food doesn't feel like its conceding to the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of fusion cuisine; there's no lemongrass jerk chicken or whatever. It's just nicely presented as if you were an honored guest at the house of sedate, family-oriented, middle-class Jamaican people. Not knowing much about Jamaica or its cuisine I can't comment on its authenticity but it seems like a nicely done and fresh version of other Jamaican food I've eaten that was being served to Jamaican people in other places, so take that for what it's worth.
The owner says he based his business plan on his observation that the people in the neighborhood are worldly, and can appreciate food from other parts of the world. Although his restaurant has been going along for some time now, he is apparently still anxious about its future, urging us to promote it to others. I'm glad to. This restaurant is frankly improbable in its combination of cuisine and location, but in that combination it encourages a kind of worldliness I appreciate--the worldliness of chow and of cross-cultural kindness expressed through making chow, selling it, buying it and consuming it. For all his apparent worries, the place clearly had plenty of regulars; we hope to become semi-regulars ourselves.
There was a very different kind of worldliness down the way, at Formaggio Kitchen, where we topped off our Jamaican meal with some samples of their crazily tasty and impossibly rich 30+ cheeses fondue which they make on the weekends, and a cookie for each of us (mine was a chocolate-almond macaroon, and it was delicious). We tried to hold off on buying some of the expensive and delicious cheeses of the world, though we did eat a couple of samples; the fondue sample was just a nostalgic reminder of the time several weeks before when we'd driven there and shared take-out fondue in our car while parked at Fresh Pond--before an earlier walk around the pond. (That time we had bought the cheeses, and were very very happy when we ate them that week, though considerably poorer for it.) Anyone who's missed this place--as I had, idiotically, for some time--would do well to come here for a spectacular set of options of fancy cheeses, desserts, and other gourmet tastiness, with nice helpful folks ready to provide their expertise. Finally, the coffee they serve at FK (who knew?) is spectacular--rich, dark, full of flavor without bitterness--and was a great way to end our break from our long walk.
As the weather gets warmer I would strongly recommend this trek for folks in the area.