Pigeon peas (also known as gungo peas, Congo peas and no-eyed peas) are actually beans, not peas. Of African origin, they grow in long, twisted, fuzzy pods that yield cute brown beans a little smaller than garden peas. If you want to see pigeon peas in action, just take a drive out East Baltimore Street to Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen, where Esme and Alfred Braznell have been educating Baltimoreans in the culinary ways of the Caribbean for 15 years.
Their place has a marooned feeling: the lone restaurant in a neighborhood of mostly residences and small offices, with little other night life. So I was surprised when, twice running, I called for a reservation and was turned away by a solemn female voice. On the first occasion, a private party was using the restaurant, and on the second, we were told no tables were available until much later than the time we'd requested.
Taking our chances, we showed up unannounced late one Sunday evening and were escorted to a table in a bar-dining room by the somewhat dour host. The room contains about a half-dozen tables. (An upstairs dining room with 30 seats was closed that night.) A monochromatic brown mural depicts an island beach scene, complete with palm trees and herds of coconuts on the lam. A few perfect and luminous seashells and a blowup of our host proudly holding up a menacing sport fish finish the decor.
The menu is a short, single, photocopied sheet that looked as if it had accidentally been laundered. The night we were there, no appetizers or desserts were available. We did hear other patrons asking about desserts they'd had on previous visits, and we learned that the restaurant does usually offer at least one appetizer. So we concluded that Braznell's is a quirky Caribbean kitchen.
We nonetheless departed happy and full after a Jamaican Red Stripe beer and a bunch of bewitching entrees. Our favorite entree was a vegetable sampler platter. A scoop of soft white rice was ladled with mild lentil stew, providing an impeccable contrast to fried plantains and Trinidadian stewed cabbage. The latter was a spicy, curried dish of big, toothsome shreds of green cabbage. The plantains were sweet, mushy and piping hot. The entree also contained a jumble of sauteed zucchini and yellow squash.
As with all other entrees, this dish was preceded by a small, crisp tossed salad of iceberg lettuce, carrot and cabbage tossed in a choice of French dressing, creamy Italian or a mild oil and white vinegar.
Jerk chicken made a fabulous showing at Braznell's. Jerking is said to be a secret Arawak Indian method of seasoning food, but at many restaurants it just means some jerk in the kitchen adds a lot of spices to a dish and then sends it out to the dining room. Jerk chicken, served as spicy bar food in hosts of casual American restaurants, is offered as an entree at Braznell's. Our drumstick and thigh were moist and flavorful, rubbed with a complex paste of what tasted like dried chilies, onion, thyme and a faint Christmas-cookie flavor (perhaps allspice?).
The dish was served with a big scoop of rice speckled with pigeon peas, which are savory and similar in taste to black-eyed peas.
Our other two entrees were similar to each other in seasoning, and both were accompanied by spicy rice and pigeon peas. Curried goat (for the adventuresome) and curried chicken (for the more timid) were stewed in chunks with onion curls and pieces of carrot. The sauce was intricate and fragrant, with less heavy-handed curry taste than Indian curried dishes. The dark goat meat was flavorful and gamy (although a little mushy), and the chicken meat was juicy and tender.
The dining room may not quite transport you to Kingston town, but Esme Braznell's cooking will certainly take you to the warm islands of the Caribbean. Remember though, as with any flight, it's advisable to make a reservation. Don't go by our experience.
Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen
1623 E. Baltimore St.
Hours: Open Tuesdays through Sundays for dinner
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Prices: entrees, $9.99-$15.99
Pub Date: 12/19/96