If you're opening, as The Free Press reports, the first new sit-down restaurant in a beleaguered neighborhood in 30 years, you want to get it right. For Norma G's, it's a leap from a food truck and pop-ups to a stylish 113-seat place with a full bar. But Trinidad-born Lester Gouvia has made it look easy.
Reading about Norma G's in advance (the restaurant reviewer's homework), I was pleased that Gouvia wanted to stay away from a "tiki aesthetic" or anything "cheesy." No paper umbrellas in this Caribbean restaurant. Instead, he painted whole walls of the former Comerica branch in Jefferson-Chalmers in bright shades of peach, yellow, and aqua, with chair seats to match and an exterior that's all floor-to-ceiling glass. It's spare and sophisticated while friendly (and hostess Tina Ellis goes out of her way to add to that vibe).
The cuisine is Caribbean comfort food, Gouvia says, based on the cooking of his mother Norma, who is Trinidadian.
More than a third of Trinidadians are of Indian heritage, and it shows. Trinidadian street food is represented by "doubles," what Indians would call a samosa and Michiganders a pasty. Norma G's lovely and filling tropical version is flaky, falling-apart fried pastry with a chickpea and onions filling and a side of very hot mango chutney.
I recommend ordering an appetizer because the wait for an entrée is long. Perhaps oddly, neither jerk chicken nor oxtail is on the regular entrée list, but are there as appetizers — wings or sliders — or in a sandwich. (Other appetizers are Jamaican beef patties and codfish balls.) But on both of my visits, oxtail and jerk chicken were specials, so no worries.
The big heap of oxtail was glorious in its fatty goodness, and super-tender. A friend pointed out the "facet joint" — yes, you have to work around bones, but it's worth it. The jerk chicken had so much more flavor and moistness than most restaurant chicken, maybe because it was a thigh — good choice, chef!
Another night, a special was stewed chicken with cabbage. It didn't really have the promised gravy and was generally less interesting without the jerk spicing. Like all the entrées, it came with two slices of sweetish fried plantain. My party agreed we would have liked more. You can get them by ordering a side dish. All of these came with red beans and rice.
I loved my mellow goat, sautéed in a yellow curry and served over jasmine rice. Those who fear gaminess or some other imagined goaty attribute can relax in Gouvia's hands.
I didn't give the vegan section of the menu the love it deserved; I have the old-fashioned notion that when it's cold outside, I want some meat, to stick to my ribs. (Imagine if that were literally true.) But the list is impressive: I know I would love melongene, which is eggplant and onions in marinara, or pelau (rice, squash, pigeon peas, and peppers). I did try "curry," which was potatoes, green beans, and chickpeas in a yellow sauce, and found it fine but pretty much all one generic curry taste.
Vegan coocoo and callaloo is a quintessentially Trinidadian dish. The coocoo part is polenta with okra; Gouvia explains that Jamaican-style callaloo is more like American greens while Trinidadians purée it to a spinach-okra soup, using a stick from the swizzlestick tree — seriously. This natural swizzle stick was in use long before the immersion blender.
Gouvia has also brought along his creamy mac and cheese from the food truck, a winner.
Gouvia has paid attention to dessert, enlisting the aid of Wally's Frozen Custard of St. Clair Shores to custom-make Mango Tango and Trini Trifecta. The latter is Wally's high-fat vanilla custard, softened with Trinidadian rum and cinnamon, a huge hit with our party. The former is the custard mixed with Gouvia's own mango chutney, also excellent.
He's also paid attention to the drinks. Our server could reel off the attributes of a red blend like a sommelier in a fancier joint. I found a Shiraz exceptionally smooth, as he predicted.
Cocktails include coconut water with rum or scotch (the latter sounds like a violation of everything holy, to me, but I didn't try it). A Caribbean Mule with rum and ginger beer didn't quite make it — the original Moscow Mule is far superior — but it was strong and, like most spirits, it improved the longer I sipped. Al's Rum Punch was better, not too sweet, and citrusy with lime juice and grated nutmeg.
A non-alcoholic "sorrel beverage," a jewel-like deep purple, is dried hibiscus flower with cinnamon and cloves — an exquisite flavor. For winter, Gouvia heats it with rum. Now, winter flavors but with island ambiance — I'd even take that with a paper umbrella.
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