Chris Jerk is Caribbean bistro in Scarborough where the main attraction is jerk shawarma - two words that strike fear into my heart as I imagine a fusion of Caribbean and Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients I'd never dare pair together.
What got me out to Birchmount and Huntingwood at last, more than a year after the restaurant opened, were the constant rumblings from strangers and readers. First it was one of the regulars at Mona's Roti who told me as we waited at the hot counter, "You know where you need to go? Chris Jerk." Then a barrage of online praise - and finally, when the restaurant landed on our list of the best new cheap eats of 2014 , I knew it was high time I checked it out.
When I finally visit the restaurant (in the same plaza where Hunter's Pizza resides), I'm hit with a sense of relief. Sure, there's shawarma spinning up front, but otherwise this is decidedly a Caribbean joint.
Chef Chris Taylor is Jamaican born, but prior to opening his own shop, he worked for years at Me Va Me . He's adopted the vertical rotisserie technique, but otherwise he's returned to his first love, "YARD" - a.k.a. Jamaican food.
The shawarma, built of jerk-marinated dark meat, turns slowly on a spit, letting juices drip down and coat and caramelize the meat. It is shawarma in appearance alone - taste-wise, it's just really flavourful, moist, and boneless jerk chicken.
The shawarma makes its way into wraps ($6.95), jerk shawarma dinners ($8.95), and jerk shawarma poutine ($6.95).
The poutine is a must - this photo hardly captures how good it is. The frites and shredded cheese are unremarkable, but it's the gravy and the shaved bits of jerk chicken that makes the dish memorable. The gravy is homemade and starts with chicken bones ordered just for this purpose; it's reduced to a deep brown colour and seasoned with the house jerk mix. If Taylor bottled it, I would buy it.
For comparison's sake, I try the jerk quarter chicken dinner ($8.95) too. In this traditional rendition, the meat on the bone is tender and juicy, the skin is thoroughly spiced and rendered to a crisp. It's served in a hearty portion with vegetables and caramelized plantains over a pile of basmati rice flecked with beans.
The jerk baked salmon ($14) is one of few alternatives to chicken on the menu. It's nicely cooked, pan-seared just enough to toast the jerk spices, then finished in the oven until it's flakey, still glistening, and moist. This is the dish that makes me really appreciate the house jerk blend - it is not nearly as spicy as it is flavourful.
I leave feeling like a convert. The jerk shawarma is indeed an improvement on traditional jerk chicken - especially if you like to eat boneless and skinless chicken. I'm craving it as I write this. Just be warned: it sells out for the day before dinner hour sometimes. It really is that good.
Photos by Jesse Milns