Jimmy Ray Keech, the eponymous owner of Jimmy Ray'z Island Grill, says he gave his restaurant a Caribbean theme to set it apart from all the sports bars in the area. And because he likes the Caribbean, of course.
He and his business partners -- Rick China and Jim Zulick -- certainly had fun decorating the place, which opened eight months ago in Sykesville's Princess Shopping Center.
The first things you see when you walk in are several fake skeletons dressed up in pirate costumes. Then you notice that two walls are painted with a giant mural of pirate-dressed skeletons carousing in the Caribbean. Every other available space is crammed with movie posters, newspaper photographs and other stuff.
And the first thing you smell when you walk in is cigarette smoke. Carroll County isn't one of those smoke-free counties, and Jimmy Ray'z is the kind of place where people smoke.
The restaurant is still a sports bar, just one with a Caribbean theme. Any place that has 13 flat-screen TVs, all turned to sporting events, is a sports bar. The other tip-off is that the tables are all hightops, with no booths or comfortable seating in sight.
Live reggae, rock, country and blues on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays seems to be a big part of the Jimmy Ray'z experience.
Customers seem happy to contribute to the mellow vibe of Jimmy Ray'z. On our visit, nearly everyone who walked in wore a Hawaiian-style shirt. Many sat at the bar, reading a newspaper or watching car races on television as they sipped beer and nibbled a meal.
The menu at Jimmy Ray'z includes some Caribbean-style fare, such as coconut shrimp ($7.95) and a jerk chicken sandwich ($8.95), but Keech calls the menu American with a Caribbean flare. Mostly, it's basics like cheese steaks ($8.95), crab cakes ($19.95) and even a tuna salad sandwich ($6.95)
No restaurant is aiming for culinary gold if it claims to have the "world's best grilled cheese sandwich" ($4.95), and describes it on the menu as being made with American cheese and white or wheat bread. "Just like mom used to make!" But mom doesn't serve grilled cheese for dinner, and she rarely makes it for anyone older than 7.
For the most part, the food at Jimmy Ray'z is fine, for bar food.
Those coconut shrimp were plenty crunchy, the sweetness of the coconut nicely tempered by the saltiness of the batter. They were served with two dipping sauces, a fruity duck-sauce-like concoction, and a tangy tartar sauce, described on the menu, inaccurately, as a "hot Cajun dip."
The seafood skins ($10.95) pleased us with their generous pieces of scallop, crab and shrimp. We had expected gooey crab dip stuffed into greasy skins, but instead found some real seafood inside steaming-hot potato skins that still had flesh in them. The whole thing was topped with melted provolone, and the only flaw was a slight overdose of Old Bay.
A special of ribs in a habanero-pineapple barbecue sauce for $8.95 seemed too good to be true, and it was. Ribs are usually twice that price or more for a reason. Though the sauce delivered a pleasant mix of sweet and heat, the ribs were so tough they were difficult to chew. They were the opposite of falling off the bone and required real work. These came with a side of boardwalk fries that had nice flavor but were greasy.
One of the better entrees was a blackened tuna and shrimp club sandwich ($11.95), with a piece of tuna that was moist and, thankfully, not smothered in blackening spice. It included whole shrimp, crisp bacon, a decent tomato slice, a leaf of lettuce and a slather of mayo with a bit of sweet-hot bite. The whole thing came together nicely, but it would have been even better on a substantial roll rather than untoasted white bread.
The fried catfish po-boy ($7.95) was saved by the same slather of mayo. Without that, the fish and bread would have been far too dry.
Jimmy Ray'z serves a rotating roster of desserts, not made in house, that might include coconut cake or Key lime pie. The night we were there, the choices were cheesecake or creme brulee. We decided to stop by the local snowball stand for dessert instead. By then, we were tired of the smoke-filled island atmosphere and wanted a little Maryland fresh air.
Jimmy Ray'z Island Grill
Princess Shopping Center, 1207 Liberty Road, Sykesville
Open: daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$10.95, entrees $4.95-$16.95
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
*** (3 stars)
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Outstanding: ****, Good: ***, Fair or uneven: **, Poor: *