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A New ‘Tropikàl’ Pan-Caribbean Eatery Settles on Saint-Henri’s Restaurant Row

Restaurant Tropikàl is the latest from chef Jae-Anthony Dougan, the founder of Seasoned Dreams and a contestant on this year’s “Top Chef Canada”

doubles Tropikàl/Supplied

Chef Jae-Anthony Dougan, the founder of Côte-Saint-Paul Caribbean restaurant Seasoned Dreams and a hopeful in this year’s Top Chef Canada cooking competition, opened the doors to a new restaurant — and someday rum cocktail lounge — over the weekend. The Saint-Henri newcomer, called Tropikàl, spotlights the variety, but also the many commonalities, across pan-Caribbean culinary traditions, with an expansive island-hopping takeout menu.

“A lot of people don’t understand how big the Caribbean is, but we got so divided because of slavery,” Dougan says. “If you go to a Haitian restaurant, you’ll see it’s very similar to Jamaican food, but it might be cooked in a different way with a different technique. If you look at curries from Trinidad and Guyana and Barbados, you’ll see that they are also very similar.”

On the menu, typical Trinidadian street food doubles (two pieces of fried flat dough filled with curried chickpeas) appear alongside Dougan’s famed pimento-smoked, jerk-spiced chicken served with Haitian-style rice, and the restaurant’s namesake vegan Tropikàl bowl, containing callaloo (a Jamaican stew of leafy greens), chickpea chana, plantains, and other veggies. The dish “brings different parts of the Caribbean together in one bowl,” the menu says, and serves as a kind of metonym for Dougan’s overarching approach, where the flavours of everything from Afro-Latino Panamanian cooking to those of Indian-inflected Guyanese cuisine, and the culinary imprints left during each of the island’s colonized pasts, interlace.

bowl Tropikàl/Supplied

Perhaps even more than a message of culinary continuity, Dougan intends to recast the perception of Caribbean food in Montreal as capable of occupying a place at tables other than those in the city’s beloved mom-and-pop shops. He cites now-shuttered Village restaurant Agrikol, remembered for, among other things, its lively nighttime atmosphere, as an exception to that rule. Dougan says Tropikàl’s location, nestled on Notre-Dame Street West’s restaurant row, counting the likes of heavyweights like Foiegwa, Joe Beef, Arthurs, and others as neighbours, was strategically chosen to overcome these preconceptions.

“We wanted to show that we deserve to be on the number-one restaurant street in Montreal, and I wanted to showcase my talent among them,” Dougan says, adding that he hopes the restaurant’s geographic placement next to some of the city’s most sought-after tables will help him nab a spot on Canada’s 100 Best. “But as a Black chef, that’s really hard. I don’t think people realize how prevalent systemic racism is as a chef in this industry. I think being in Saint-Henri will help me prove myself.”

Before Tropikàl, the West Island Montreal native ran the popular Tingz in Ottawa, where he says Black chefs are more warmly received than they are in Montreal. He believes Quebec’s French language charter, Bill 101, has played a role in stifling the city's non-Francophone Caribbean culture and cuisine. “Other than Paul Toussaint [formerly the chef of Agrikol mentioned above, now the chef-owner of Kamúy], it’s never a Black face in Montreal. It’s time for a change,” Dougan says, noting that with his partners in the venture, Jamaal Gittens and Kevin Selman, Tropikàl’s ownership is all Black.

In Montreal, Dougan is perhaps best known as the originator (though no longer the owner) of Côte-Saint-Paul breakout star Seasoned Dreams, where he says he devised the jerk chicken poutine, now a staple in other eateries across town. The business started in 2015 as a catering project out of his parents’ garage. Dougan went on to open his first brick-and-mortar on Anger street, sleeping on a basement couch, after getting a loan of $98,000 to install proper ventilation upstairs. “I started from nothing,” he says.

As for where he, and Tropikàl, are going? For now, the pandemic dictates that the restaurant remain a takeout and delivery operation, and the menu reflects these constraints, with a selection of easy-to-transport traditional fare as well as some of the creative takes on North American favourites (like mac and cheese and poutine) for which Dougan has become well-known. In the months ahead, Dougan says diners can expect a “very insane” summer menu, Tropikàl’s metamorphosis into a lively rum cocktail lounge on weekends, and the arrival of an upcoming sister location in Ottawa, too.

Tropikàl is now open for takeout and delivery at 3426 Notre-Dame West.