IT'S a kind of good news, bad news story. The good news is that there is a Caribbean restaurant in Chester. The bad news is that it never seems to be full. In fact, there rarely ever seems to be anyone in the establishment
"Too many restaurants in Chester," suggested the chef. He may have a point since they seem to come and go with alarming regularity. The established venues have a kind of permanence whereas those prepared to strike out and do something new and different fall, all too often, by the wayside.
The fact that Vincent's seems to be rather on the quiet side is a bit of a shame, since the menu is refreshingly different - challenging, even - and that's as good a reason as any to visit a restaurant.
Take, for instance, their wild boar pate, or pumpkin chowder. Or blue marlin. Even goat curry. As they say on their menu, Caribbean cuisine has developed over many centuries, each island offering something different and all influenced by original Arawak Indians as well as British, Spanish, French, Dutch, African, East Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern flavours.
An exotic mix, indeed, especially as all the dishes appear to originate from different islands. Mustique grilled sardines, for example, or Barbados papaya fantasy.
However, the night we went could have been, on the face of it, something of a disaster. We asked for tequila as an aperitif - but there was none. When it came to ordering, the crab was off. So was the marlin and the snapper.
"The fish ran out on Saturday," we were told, "and the order doesn't come in until later."
That was almost enough to put us off, sending us in search of somewhere which could produce what's on offer on the menu.
But we persevered and we were glad we did. Part of the reason for that might be the over-proof rum which we tasted while studying the menu. That particular brand of fire-water certainly whetted the appetite for some of the Caribbean creations on offer.
We had passed, it must be said, on the perhaps rather familiar cocktails on offer: Plantation rum punch, pina colada or blue Caribbean. But we certainly didn't regret our choice.
Having been told that the crab, my fishy favourite, was off I decided to try the Antigua avocado and tiger prawns. The scooped out avocado - probably more Chester market than Antigua, I guess - was ripe and the six prawns added something.
The green lime and avocado sauce was far from overpowering, though the accompanying salad was a little disappointing, if only because it was somewhat tired, with some of the lettuce leaves looking just a little brown.
Mark's Caribbean seafood chowder was a rich soup which included conch meat, prawns and marlin. "It's the best chowder I've ever had," he proclaimed, recalling that he'd been put off the stuff while on the San Francisco tourist trail. There, they offer thick, fatty, tasteless, clam chowder.
"But this is the perfect consistency. It's fishy, thick and creamy and, I'd say, thickened with potatoes rather than flour."
For my main course, coming to a decision was decidedly difficult. I thought about wild boar steak tropicana, where the meat is pangrilled with mixed Caribbean spices and presented on a black cherry and rum glaze. But then I spotted Italian-style baked lobster creole, in which a whole half lobster is served in a creamy mustard and cheese sauce.
The lobster was quite wonderful, not remotely tough and the sauce did not mask the delicate flavour of the fish. To be honest, I'd be hard pushed, without the menu, to identify the sauce. The promised jumbo shrimp tails were a slight disappointment, since they were nothing more than ordinary prawns.
Mark chose sea island surf on turf: prime sirloin of beef pan-grilled with pink peppercorns on a tasty Creole sauce with - guess what - tiger prawns.
"This steak is recalcitrant," he said. I think he meant rather on the tough side. "I think it would also have been rather ordinary without the sauce, too. I've also cut a lot of fat off the steak, which is disappointing. But, that apart, it's good. It's rare and if it was bad meat I'd not have eaten it."
The accompanying selection of vegetables was different. The plentiful rice and red kidney beans were baked with coconut cream and island spices and provided a filling alternative. The traditional Caribbean vegetables turned out to be spicy roast potatoes and sugar snap peas. "The absent salt cellar was certainly not needed there," suggested Mark.
To accompany the meal we chose a Chilean wine - which turned out not to be what was mentioned on the menu. The Casa Alvares Cabernet Sauvignon was a medium-bodied, velvety red with definite blackcurrant overtones. Perfectly acceptable.
The wine list is not massive. House red or white costs £10.95 a bottle while the whites, from Italy, Australia, France and Chile, range from £13.25 to £15.75. The reds, from Italy, France, California, South Africa and Chile, are rather more pricey, starting at £12.75 and rising to £24.50. Champagnes cost between £30 and £40.
The desserts were particularly memorable. Mark's Caribbean green lime pie was, as he put it, "a real pucker-up job: not for the faint hearted". It was lighter than similar pies he'd sampled and not remotely on the cloying side.
Contrast that with my dark chocolate rum truffle which could best be described as something midway between Mars and Milky Way - which suited me, though my waistline might protest.
And there was more rum to follow, as we asked for a Jamaica coffee, which rounded an interesting meal off perfectly. A different place, certainly. And one which, on balance, we'll probably return to in future.
* Vincent's Caribbean Restaurant, 58-60 Lower Bridge Street, Chester, CH1 1RU. Tel: 01244-310854.
* Open: Monday-Saturday, 6pm-10
* Ambience: Colourfully Caribbean
* Service: Friendly, unhurried. Food is cooked to order.
* If you want goat curry, order in advance to allow for marinading.
* Disabled access: Not easy. Too many steps.
* Parking: On street, so take a chance
Two rums: £4.00, Bottle of wine: £13.95, Avocado: £4.50, Chowder: £3.50, Surf on turf: £13.75, Lobster: £15.00, Lime Pie: £4.00, Rum truffle: £4.00, Coffees: £7.00, TOTAL: £69.70