Restaurant Review: Canje – Food

canje (Photos by Jana Birchum)

Avocado Escabeche

Avocado Escabeche

Named after the national bird of Guyana, Canje is the passion project of chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, co-owner and executive pastry chef of Emmer & Rye. Canje offers Caribbean cuisine rooted in Bristol-Joseph’s native Guyana and spanning flavors and traditions from Puerto Rico to Jamaica.

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

Caribbean food goes unnoticed in Austin, even though Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Puerto Rico are all represented in Austin’s restaurants and food trucks. Some might confuse all Caribbean food with Jamaican pepper profiles, but there are more nuances to the spice palette: allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, paprika. Alongside native ingredients like plantain, guava, and cassava are remnants of colonialism and slavery, like curry, okra, and pigeon peas. All of these ingredients are represented at Canje.

Wild boar pepperbox with roti

Wild boar pepperbox with roti

Canje’s menu is divided into four sections: Wah Gwaan, Suppa, Tryating and Likkle Muore. Before ordering, the waiters inform the customers that the meals are served to share and offer a quantity of plates from the first three categories according to the number of people at the table. When we were a party of two, our server offered four to five plates; a group of five, 10-12 plates (which ended up being too many). Diners are also expected to order all of their savory dishes ahead of time so staff can plan the coursing accordingly.

Island Hopping Cocktail

Island Hopping Cocktail

The menu changes regularly and I regret missing the roasted okra as it rotated off the menu between my visits. In the Wah Gwaan appetizers section, we ordered the bacalaíto fritters and grilled avocado escabeche. The salt cod fritters were good on their own but brightened up significantly by the surprisingly spicy Cuban inspired mojo rojo sauce. We particularly liked the escabeche, which delighted with a smoky, spicy flavor; the contrast in texture between the silky avocado and the crunchy, tangy pomegranate arils and pumpkin seeds made this a standout dish.

Dark chocolate flan

Dark chocolate flan

Some of our Suppa menu selections included Wagyu Beef Curry, Wild Boar Peppercorn, and Jerk Chicken. From Tryating we ordered the Guyanese roti to go with the curry and the pepper shaker and the Carolina Gold rice and the black eyed peas with the jerk chicken. The curry was basically a high (and flavorful) beef stew, but we were intrigued by the choice to use wagyu for this purpose. The boar, hailing from Pflugerville, played second fiddle to his spectacular sauce, a savory mole with brown sugar and cinnamon. Bristol-Joseph’s uncle launches cassareep (cassava root reduction) for this dish in Guyana; it is then transported to Austin for its final preparation. The rich, buttery roti—essentially, a rolled flatbread—was the perfect tool to mop up the scrumptious sauces of both entrees. The jerk chicken was by far the spiciest dish we ate in Canje, and the hazelnut rice and peas tempered the heat beautifully.

The outdoor terrace

The outdoor terrace

Our two favorite desserts from the Likkle Muore menu were the tres leches cake and the dark chocolate flan. The cake was light and feathery without being soggy, topped with a layer of tart guava paste and airy white chocolate cream, giving the dish a lime pie effect. The dark chocolate flan was firm and slightly salty, anchored by cassareep syrup and lightened by pink pineapple and crunchy pecans. It was a confident, sophisticated take on a dessert that is too often cloying and spongy.

Canje has a respectable wine list and, much to the chagrin of my beer-loving partner, a very small beer list. Because the cocktail menu is placed at the forefront of the menu, my companions and I focused on these. A friend ordered the Bacchanalia, a potent gin concoction that she said would lead to a rough morning the next day. Another friend described it as having a distinct caramel browned butter taste. The vodka-based Island Hopping, according to a companion, tasted like “holiday” but had too much ice. I loved my Tamarind Sour; it was like a boozy Sour Patch Kid that involuntarily made my eyebrows twitch. I couldn’t get enough.

When we first visited Canje in mid-December, Omicron had arrived in Austin. We dined inside and there was not an empty table in the dining room. We were 2 feet away from other parties on all sides, and our unmasked server stood between the tables to take orders. The whole experience felt like a marinade in a COVID slow cooker. On our next visit, I insisted on sitting on the terrace, especially since Austin had just moved into Stage 5. On this visit, all floor staff wore masks, which which reassures us more.

The patio is eminently Instagrammable, with pothos and Monstera ivy popping out of wall-mounted planters, and a colorfully painted graphic mural. Even on a 45 degree evening, we felt safe and comfortable, and able to focus on enjoying the meal and the company rather than worrying (much) about COVID.

Canje offers diners the opportunity to sample an array of Caribbean cuisines in a relaxed setting that doesn’t cater to “reggae and rum” stereotypes or compartmentalize any given cuisine. Bristol-Joseph finds the guideline of ingredients and flavors from across the region and presents them thoughtfully and in a way that recognizes the diversity of history and experience of its people. I can’t wait to see the menu evolve with the seasons, especially when it comes to this okra.


canje

1914 E. Sixth, Ste. VS
Fri-Sat, 5pm-12pm; Sun-Thu, 5pm-10pm
canjeatx.com

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