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Best Bites: Caribbean Buffet

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12 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington 865-4514

At first glance, Caribbean Buffet might look slightly fly-by-night. It's certainly no-frills, with paper napkins and bottles of hot sauce on each table that appear to be eligible for social security. Forget about appearances. An evening at the hole-in-the-wall is more like a private dinner party with a witty, eminently genial host.

Patrick Brown serves flavorful home cooking on gilt-edged pink rose-covered china with a light, old-world Jamaican touch — but there's nothing frou-frou about the food. The best deal is the Taste of the Caribbean. For $18, you start with a mighty meat pie, with vividly yellow dough. The curried beef inside is simultaneously exciting and soothing and pairs wonderfully with the extra-potent ginger tea that Brown presents at the start of the meal. He also makes a fresh fruit punch with the meal deal; I've had both strawberry-banana and guava-passion fruit concoctions.

A feast of jerk chicken, chicken curry, rice and beans, collard greens and mixed vegetables includes yellow carrots and broccoli. The jerk chicken thigh is crisp with tiny shards of ultra-hot bonnet peppers lending some serious spice. The creamy chicken curry bears little resemblance to the Indian dish. In fact, it's more like dark brown, flour-based Japanese curry. Either way, it's a delicious, cuddly winter pick-me-up. The collard greens are ideally seasoned and pair well with the mild rice and beans.

You will be full after all this, but there's more. At my last visit to Caribbean Buffet, Brown, a UVM professor and activist, presented crystal dishes of guava and mango slices, between Stedman Graham stories. He followed those with what he called a Jamaican dessert favorite — pineapples prepared in cream and topped with cinnamon. Think rice pudding with a healthier, tropical twist.

The dishes that comprise the Taste of the Caribbean are also featured on the titular buffet Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On weekends, Brown offers dishes of curried goat or saltfish and ackee, a Jamaican fruit full of essential fatty acids. Guess where I'll be one weekend soon?

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