Turtle Bay has perfected that nonchalant, ‘artfully distressed’ look so beloved by chain restaurants and hipster bars these days, and given it a thoroughly Caribbean slant. Bare light bulbs surrounded by bright multicoloured cages illuminate the warehouse-style ceilings and the tables bedecked with multiple varieties of hot sauce. Bob Marley posters line the walls, and expanses of bare brick are graffitied with the Red Stripe logo and other red-yellow-and-green homages to the West Indies. Signs above the open kitchen proclaim it to be the ‘Jerk Centre’ and ‘Hot hot hot’, while the numerous jars of apricot jam that festoon the central bar hint at the popularity of the ‘Jammin’ cocktail, a blend of white rum, apricot liqueur, mint, ginger, lemon, apple juice and the aforementioned jam. If you’re anything like me, the sight of another bare lightbulb in a restaurant or coffee shop is likely to induce an attack of ennui, but fortunately Turtle Bay’s menu is fresh, lively and exciting, with food to match (although those bulbs don't do wonders for food photography, so apologies for the grainy pictures).
The menu proclaims rum to be ‘tropical Caribbean sunshine, bottled’, and proudly announces the fact that Turtle Bay have sourced over 40 rums from across the Caribbean to use in their cocktails, including some that are 126 proof. I was pleasantly surprised by the cocktails, having expected them to be both lethal and over-sweet. Instead, the vanilla and passion fruit mojito is a tangier, fruitier take on the original, with none of the cloying sweetness implied by vanilla, and the rum punch (126 proof rum, strawberry liqueur, lime, orange and pineapple) is zingy and fruity. The list of soft drinks is impressive, as is the hot beverage provision – they do a proper ginger tea, the likes of which I’ve never been able to find outside south east Asia: fiery, mouth-tingling, slightly sweet and infinitely refreshing, a far cry from the watery bland stuff you get in teabags that churlishly claim the title of ‘ginger’.
Tables are laid with proper napkins and decent cutlery – never underestimate the importance of the small details. Staff are very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, and the atmosphere is casual and happy, occasionally punctuated by a dramatic burst of flame from the open kitchen. Starters blend the familiar with the unusual and exotic: fried squid comes with a sprinkling of fresh mango and a lime mayonnaise; pulled pork is accompanied by orange and coconut; jerk wings are served with a sour orange chutney. The squid is delectably crispy, not too chewy, with a perfect sweet seafood flavour complemented by a chilli kick. The stand-out starter, though, is the ‘Trini Doubles’, an unusual mixture of puffy bara roti (a thick flatbread), curried chickpeas, cucumber chutney and coconut shavings. The more I ate of this, the more I enjoyed its contrasting textures, temperatures and flavours.
The Caribbean one-pots make a perfect filling meal for one – accompanied by rice and peas and dumplings or flatbread, they are a good approximation of Caribbean home cooking. I enjoyed the fish curry, which combined chunks of meaty, fresh snapper with mango, onion chutney and spices in a slightly sweet coconut sauce, and the rice and kidney beans were a lovely starchy accompaniment. The jerk ribs are a luscious, sticky, spicy homage to the pig, smothered in a honeyed glaze with sour orange chutney and a refreshing, crunchy slaw, and the sweet potato fries are ridiculously crispy and moreish. Turtle Bay also offer a good selection of cheaper lunch dishes, like the ‘Street Burger’, a mix of beef, pulled jerk pork, sweet onion chutney and herb mayo in a brioche bun with Caribbean slaw, which our waitress told me is her favourite thing on the menu, and an enticing range of salads (‘chicken festival salad’ features watermelon, jerk chicken and raisins) and flatbreads. The jerk BBQ and Caribbean one-pots are probably the closest you’ll get to authentic Caribbean cuisine, if you’re curious – the curry goat, Trinidad curry chicken and goat burger sound delicious. Side dishes – or ‘provisions’ – include the aforementioned excellent sweet potato fries and Caribbean slaw, but I went for a bowl of crispy, fudgy, slightly sweet plantain, which I haven’t had since my trip to Costa Rica last year and which brought back wonderful memories of central American breakfasts. They are pretty starchy, so you don’t really need them alongside all the rice and peas and flatbread, but they’re delicious and a lovely taste of the Caribbean.
The dessert menu is, I think, the work of an evil genius. There is absolutely no way you will have any stomach space for dessert after these generously portioned starters and mains, but it is completely impossible to resist items such as ‘grilled sugared pineapple, rum caramel sauce, coconut ice cream and shavings’, rum and raisin bread pudding, or ‘warm golden mellow rum cake’. Rum features a lot in the dessert menu, as does caramel. See? Evil genius.
We ordered the pineapple, and the banana and toffee cheesecake with rum caramel sauce, and basically rolled home in a state of sugared repletion. The pineapple was gloriously sweet, its honeyed char offset by the creamy coconut ice. The cheesecake went straight onto my mental list of ‘top 10 cheesecakes of all time’ (which is, I promise, a thing – if you don’t have such a list, you’re leading an inferior life). You’d imagine it to be hideously sweet, but it has the perfect amount of crunch and butter in the base, and a delicate mousse-like texture in the cheese, to stop it from cloying completely. No, it’s never going to be recommended by your dentist, but life is short and sweet cheese is delicious.
Although it’s a chain, and the contrivedly haphazard nature of the décor might not be startlingly original, Turtle Bay offers exciting Caribbean flavours which are somewhat lacking in the city of York. The service is excellent and the place has a buzzing, lively atmosphere that makes for a fun dining experience, particularly if you partake in a couple of the rum cocktails (happy hour, i.e. 2-for-1, is before 7pm and after 10pm). There aren’t many Caribbean restaurants in my part of the world, and I’m always looking to try new cuisines, so I thoroughly enjoyed my momentary sojourn to a land of sunshine, rum, coconuts and pineapple.
I dined as a guest of the management at Turtle Bay; all opinions are my own.