Austin restaurant review: Canje brings Caribbean flavor and soul to East Austin
Laugh at your tablemate as he attempts to flag a server to bring another fruit-forward cocktail to quell the jerk chicken fire escalating into his sinuses. Swipe like an inspired painter at the inky remnants of fragrant curry with a glistening fold of laminated roti. Order that second bottle of Côtes du Rhône, because why the hell not?
Dinner at Canje reminds us of how much we missed nights like this during the first year (or two) of the pandemic.
Those days padding around our own houses created in us a need for comfort, excitement and connection over shared experiences. And despite how good I got at grilling steaks, searing tuna or dicing vegetables, our prolonged period of isolation made me desire food made by professionals. Things I couldn’t do or think to do, like delicately smoking an avocado and lacing it with expertly plucked pomegranate seeds, or coaxing depth of flavor from a spice rack I couldn’t fathom and a hunk of boar I couldn’t find at the grocery to create a Guyanese pepperpot.
All of these reasons make Canje the perfect restaurant for our times. It’s a place of celebration and revelation. A restaurant fueled by personal narrative and smart cocktails. One built on expertise, not pretense. It’s there for you to discover something new and remember something old. If you like bold flavor, varied texture and culinary exploration, it’s where you want to be.
Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, a native of Georgetown, Guyana, arrived in Central Texas from Arizona (by way of New York City) about eight years ago. He realized a sad fact that has troubled local diners for some time: Austin lacks the kind of culinary diversity you’d hope to find in a city its size. He specifically lamented the paucity of Caribbean food. It’s hard to relate to a city when you don’t see yourself reflected in its culinary offerings, he thought. So, he figured he’d do something about that.
After a half-dozen years spent operating five different concepts with the Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group, the chef and his partners used the relative downtime of the early pandemic to focus on Bristol-Joseph's long-simmering idea: Bring modern Caribbean cuisine inspired by his home country to his new home in Texas.
The chef, honored as one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs in the country in 2020, describes Canje’s menu as modern. And he makes it clear that it's his interpretation of his home country's cuisine, a mashup of influences from Africa, India, Europe, East Asia and Indigenous cultures.
“The beauty of the Caribbean is all of these influences. I want to make sure the food represents that, because I think we need it now more than ever,” Bristol-Joseph told me recently.
Those jewel-like pomegranates perched on smoked avocado escabeche ($13), a dish dreamed up by Bristol-Joseph’s culinary partner Kevin Fink, evince the Indian influence on Guyanese cuisine. The effects of colonization and the Indian and West African slave trades can be seen throughout Guyanese and Caribbean cuisine. People torn from their homes by slavers brought with them flavors and techniques that live on in dishes eaten today.
Southeast Asian ingredients that passed through European hands on the way to the Caribbean are also represented with the sour orange that perks up translucent snapper ceviche you can scoop with taro chips. Those nutty-flavored crisps, peanuts and sweet peppers give a trio of expressive textural components to the supple fish ($18).
If you took a Guyanese Cuisine 101 course, you’d undoubtedly learn about pepperpot. One of the country’s national dishes, the stew runs thick with viscous and bittersweet cassareep, a liquid made from cassava root that gives the dish, here studded with tender wild boar, its dark complexion. You can also taste the warming winter spices of cinnamon and clove ($26).
Canje, named after the national bird of Guyana, differs from its sibling restaurants Emmer & Rye and Hestia in that it takes a less didactic approach to the cuisine. Bristol-Joseph relates to food on an emotional level. While he is happy to impart knowledge if you catch him patrolling the floor of the restaurant — where chef de cuisine Harvard Aninye oversees nightly kitchen operations — Canje is more about giving you a feeling than an education.
You get swept up in the thumping reggae music and transported by the tropical light fixtures and palm fronds painted on the airy dining room’s walls. Wanna get away? Try the tart and savory Sun Washed cocktail made with tequila, a low-ABV grapefruit beer and coconut fat-washed Cappelletti ($15). Crack into an appetizer of bacalaito ($14), the salted fish fritter armored with exterior crackle and creamy through the inside with mashed potatoes.
Bristol-Joseph won’t put a dish on the menu unless it has a story, Fink told me recently. You don’t need to know the story to love a dish, but I always wanna know more. And if you were to ask, you might discover the green sauce pooled astride the fire-grilled tiger prawns the size of plantains ($21) was made with the kitchen-sink (garden-sink?) green seasoning composed of celery, cilantro, green peppers and more, commonly used as a marinade in Guyana. The pungent tingle in the rich curry beef, perky with pickled rutabaga, comes from a vegetarian pineapple “fish sauce” ($26). And the pork guisado ($29) and its umami-blast of housemade XO sauce derives inspiration from executive sous chef Stefanie Torres’ Puerto Rican mother.
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But Canje is more a story of Bristol-Joseph than any other person. It’s a rare thing to enjoy a chef’s food for almost a decade only to discover he’s been, if not holding back, at least slow-playing you. Bristol-Joseph has applied an elegant hand to his pastry programs at Emmer & Rye and Hestia. The savory portion of Canje’s menu introduces diners to a more soulful and unrestrained side of the chef, and the change of pace and the personal reveal are thrilling.
Anyone who has dined at one of the group’s other restaurants will undoubtedly recognize Bristol-Joseph’s work by the time dessert rolls around, with dishes like the chef’s (might as well be trademarked) salted cream dusted with roasted white chocolate shavings atop gentle tres leches, and simple orbs of sorbet that pack the essence of their flavors (sorrel, grapefruit and coconut lime). But the pour of El Dorado 12-year rum over the rounds of sorbet remind you that you’re not in one of the chef's previous venues. It’s a home game now.
If you go to Canje
1914 E.Sixth St. 512-706-9119, canjeatx.com
Rating: 9 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Prices: Starters, $10-$21; entrees, $20-32; desserts, $10
Highlights: Pink pineapple, snapper ceviche, rock shrimp, curry wagyu beef, pepperpot, roti
Expect to pay: $50 (price per person before drinks, tax and tip)
Notes: Free parking lot and paid street parking
The Bottom Line: The array of complex flavors on offer at the celebratory Canje nod to the myriad culinary influences on Guyanese and Caribbean cuisine.
A note from Matthew Odam
I’ve decided to return to the practice of regular restaurant criticism after a 27-month hiatus. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant world, with some places shuttering and most flipped on their heads. But many restaurants survived the economic turmoil we feared. Diners started flocking back, hungry for the good ol' days.
At the same time, restaurants have seen supply chain problems and an exodus of workers fleeing the hospitality world, leaving some owners hanging on in a whirlwind. The problem wasn’t getting customers back into restaurants, as it turns out. It was handling the incredible surge of demand.
Given those less-than-ideal circumstances, I held off on reviews. The old thumbs-up, thumbs-down felt a little unfair to restaurants. Now, things seem to be rebounding.
Criticism is meant not only to tell readers the places I think are worth visiting, but to put restaurants in the city’s cultural context. I’ve missed this part of the work, and I’m excited to be plying my trade once again. I hope you feel the same way.
P.S.: You can read my profile of Canje chef-owner Tavel Bristol-Joseph now at austin360.com and on Sunday in the printed edition of the American-Statesman.