As a kid, Jaime D’Oliveira washed dishes at the Newport Creamery in Wayland Square. Last July, the chef and restaurateur established the affordable, informal Red Stripe, self-described as “An American Brasserie,” in the same location. Not only are the dinner prices as low or lower than at indifferent restaurants, the preparation standards — and imagination — are in the league with his prestigious and more expensive Mill’s Tavern across town.
The place wasn’t named for a Jamaican beer for nothing (although, oddly, it offers only bottled beers). It’s loud and lively, bracketing diners on one side with an open kitchen and on the other with a busy bar. The décor is casual but careful: white globe lighting dangling above, black bentwood chairs at tables covered with bistro paper over tablecloths, and tiny black-and-white octagonal tiles underfoot.
But atmosphere is just so much hot air without good food. Red Stripe’s menus tantalize with interesting-sounding items that invite second visits. For brunch, oatmeal cooked in cider; for lunch a cured salmon BLT with sliced egg and avocado; for dinner, cod loin wrapped in prosciutto and roasted on a cedar plank with gum drop-delicious sweet 100 cherry tomatoes.
The dinner menu, honchoed by Executive Chef Terrence Maul, strikes a balance of diner-esque comfort food and intriguing taste combinations. The appetizers, for example, range from deviled eggs ($5.50) and a sweet potato latke ($6.50) to escargot bordelaise ($9) and crispy duck roulade ($8.50). As if to say, “You gotta try this one,” the only available pizza ($10) is topped with just your basic marinara sauce, mozzarella, and basil.
For a starter, we had one of Red Stripe’s nine preparations of moules & frites ($12.50). Thin, skin-on fries spilling out of a wire breadstick holder were served with a heaping pile of Maine mussels. The “Greque” variation involved coriander, fennel, lemon juice, and olive oil, but the options range as wild as the “Normande,” with bacon and mushrooms, finished with apple brandy and cream. The mussels, varying widely in size, were fresh and minimally steamed to keep them tender.
One senses that the kitchen decisions have been made by D’Oliveira and Maul as a spirited competition, optimizing flavor complements (pickled jalapeno tartar sauce with the stout-battered fish and chips), and innovating the expected (a ziti option of a half-pound, slow-cooked meatball).
For the main course, Johnnie had to have the tea-smoked tofu “steak” ($13). She does love her soy products. The main component was deliciously flavored and smoky, as indicated, infused with mixed teas in a steamer basket before grilling. She wasn’t satisfied with the accompanying vegetables, which were steamed and served in a paper bag; the technique didn’t allow them to be cooked sufficiently, so the carrots resisted biting like little orange logs. Fortunately, she had ordered an appetizer to be served as a side. The roasted tomato risotto ($6) was quite good, rich with Parmesan cheese and punched up with green and calamata olives and broccoli rabe.