South Slope

A taste of the Caribbean in the heart of Brooklyn

"The idea was to honor mama’s cooking."

December 9, 2022 Andrew Cotto
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This is not another New York story about an enduring love affair between a petite Russian and a large Jamaican that began with a note stuck in a piece of mango cheesecake…

Through a bright red door on 5th Avenue in South Slope is a Caribbean restaurant of spice and joy and love. The narrow interior upon entry is barely wide enough to shake your booty to the festive soca beats, but the room widens into a hothouse of head-clearing aromas, conjured from the dueling kitchens on respective ends of the shotgun room. The long wooden bar between the cooking stations offers colorful cocktails to compliment the bold cuisine. The decor is a mish-mosh of West Indian bric-a-brac, with nods to Bob Marley and Red Stripe, national flags, family photos, a couple of two-spots, and splashes of bright colors amid the soft lights. There’s also a hidden treasure out back.

Stella’s Caribbean Cuisine opened in October of 2020, in the teeth of the pandemic. Acclaimed Jamaican-born chef Duwaine Harris had been looking for a small place to call his own. His long-standing tenure as a chef at bustling Negril Village in Manhattan was no longer tenable. He feared exposure to Covid that could endanger his beloved mother, Stella. Duwaine and his wife, Vera Kondratyeva, unsuccessfully scoured their home-borough of the Bronx for the perfect location. Then Vera went on Craigslist and found the cozy storefront in Brooklyn. They named their new eatery after its inspiration.

Duwaine Harris and Vera Kondratyeva. Photo courtesy of Stella’s Caribbean Cuisine

“The idea was to honor mama’s cooking, that Caribbean cuisine you had growing up that takes you right back home,” Duwaine says. 

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Even if you haven’t grown up in the islands, the visceral connection to the Caribbean is palpable through the food and hospitality of Stella’s. 

There’s a pan-Caribbean approach to the offerings, that leans heavily on Jamaican cuisine but includes notable touches from Trinidad and Tobago and other isles of the West Indies. It’s an extensive menu that features the usual suspects of and approaches to Caribbean cooking: braised or jerked meats or fish; vegetables steamed or grilled or mashed; cook ups; stews; soups; colorful salads; things crusted in coconut and things covered in curry; lots of rice; the nod to Trinidad with roti and bakes; a nod to American soul food with chicken and waffles, mac and cheese, collared greens. There’s lobster, steak, and a seafood pot of crustaceans swimming in flavorful broth. What distinguishes the menu, from apps to dessert, is the brightness of the flavors that results from the highest quality ingredients lovingly prepared by an expert staff and the head chef’s passion for dining as a shared experience. 

Mimosa. Photo by Andrew Cotto

“For me, cooking is the joy I see people have when they eat what I prepare,” Duwaine says. “When I think of food and cooking, I think of family gatherings and having fun. It’s the happiness I bring to people, and I love to do it.”

And while the food is up front at Stella’s, the party is in the back, where six aqua-colored picnic tables are stationed under a protective tent, socially-distanced within the vibrant and decorative graffiti murals on the brick walls.

Seafood pot. Photo by Andrew Cotto

Brooklyn born and raised soul singer Bette Smith knows the magic of Stella’s. She also happens to be of Caribbean descent and is trained in the culinary arts. “There’s no restaurant owners in all of Brooklyn more warm and welcoming than Duwaine and Vera,” Smith says. “Stella’s is a wonderful place filled with great vibes and authentic Caribbean fare. I highly recommend.” 

Now, for that cheesecake/love story (abridged version): Vera came to America from Moscow in 2009 on a summer work visa. She extended her stay and ended up working at a bakery in Greenwich Village. A regular customer was a Jamaican-born chef who came in for slices of cake to share with his staff. Vera’s love of cheesecake was shared, though their names were not yet exchanged. “I bet you never had a mango cheesecake, have you?” the man asked. Vera confirmed this. The man returned a few days later with a whole mango cheesecake, a card with his name and number slipped under the side. Vera Kondratyeva and Duwaine Harris have been married for 12 years. They have three children and a surrogate fourth child in Stella’s Caribbean Cuisine.

 

Andrew Cotto has been eating his way through Brooklyn for 25 years. As an author, the food of our borough has been featured extensively in his novels and journalism. In his new column for the Daily Eagle, Andrew will tell the tales of Brooklyn eateries, from the people behind the food to the communities which they nourish.


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