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Irie Rasta Caribbean Bar and Grill showing a tough start in Manitou Springs 

click to enlarge Vegetarians will find a light eggplant-chickpea coconut curry. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Vegetarians will find a light eggplant-chickpea coconut curry.
It’s a trope in our collective unconscious: When we’re overwhelmed with stressors, many of us dream of retreating to a remote island, a place we’d have all to ourselves. Of course, then we remember watching Cast Away and we get the reality check about how much it would suck to live off coconuts until becoming a proficient spear-fisher.

I’m thinking of this as I’m sitting inside Irie Rasta Caribbean Bar and Grill, somewhere around minute 30 of what ends up being a 40-minute wait for our food. We’re the only customers at the time. I’m looking around at the vibrantly painted walls, a Bob Marley picture, and fake foliage set on tables, thinking the place looks great. Incoming owner Lateisha Scaffe — who recently sold Island Grill Take-Out on South Nevada Avenue to launch this — has done a nice job brightening the former Castaways, a cavernously large spot with both a big sunroom and patio, plus a whole other dining room not even in use, all once home to staff dressed as pirates and no comestibles praiseworthy.

My problem: This island retreat’s more of a mirage, which presents alluring, but once ashore, we face harsh realities. Food can’t take this long to arrive, and when it does, it needs to be on point. Our jerk chicken tastes like it spent too much time on the grill, the dark meat dry, too much char, and topped with a sauce that tastes like KC Masterpiece with scotch bonnet peppers blended in: a lot of heat, but in a thin, fleeting way with no expressive finish. Curried goat, for $18, rates pretty bland, such that the meat’s gaminess plays too large a role; where’s the floral essence and Caribbean spice?
Location Details Vibes and Irie Rasta
107 Manitou Ave.
Manitou Springs/Ute Pass
Manitou Springs, CO
309-6100
Event Center
An off-menu vegan item (from a menu expansion Scaffe gave two prior dates for, yet hasn’t launched, citing trouble finding reliable kitchen labor) described to us as a chickpea sandwich in plantain bread by our server arrives as an insipid side of chickpeas — from the can, it seems — next to sautéed veggies with a little zesty herbal essence, tucked into a fold of cooking oil-logged ripe plantain (double-fried green plantains, tostones, would be a better “bread”).

On another visit, during which the food also takes unusually long when we’re virtually alone, the plantains are equally oily under ackee and saltfish as an appetizer, though it’s a rich and creamy, onion- and pepper-flecked treat. We try a vegetarian dish of soft eggplant and chickpeas in another yellow curry with rice; it’s again mild curry, light but enjoyable enough with two beignet-like johnny cakes. A tropical kale salad’s in need of a massage to soften the greens; they’re too tough in a disjointed mix with tomato, mango and chicken ($5 more on top of $11) in a sweet citrus vinaigrette added too late to tenderize.

At least Appleton Estate Jamaican rum punches, strong but balanced, go down without fuss. Then our bill for two arrives at $52, with a 27-percent tip auto-grat’ed on to make a $70 lunch (server error?). Scaffe clearly has her work cut out for her, to grow from a tiny take-out window to a culinary auditorium, and restore the quality she formerly displayed. She appears out of her league here, adrift seeking land (grounding), in possession of the oasis but not its treasures. We’d love to see her refine, train- and staff-up and ultimately succeed; this doesn’t feel real yet.

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