At Bull Bay, Flavorful Jamaican Food in an Upscale Setting
The menu at Wilmington's new Caribbean restaurant features everything from oxtail to lobster mac and cheese.
An entrée of whole snapper.//Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
On the corner of Ninth and Orange streets in Wilmington, there lies an oasis noticeable only by its bright yellow awnings: Bull Bay Caribbean Cuisine, an island retreat with blue skies, sandy beaches and tiny umbrellas in bright blue cocktails.
Bull Bay is owned and operated by siblings Rushell and Mark White, who have transformed the space into a direct reflection of their homeland—Jamaica—where they emigrated from in 1984.
The name is inspired by the birthplace of the Whites’ grandfather, the family’s source of love for the culinary arts. Bull Bay includes St. Thomas, the patriarch’s birthplace.
From left: Lobster mac and cheese; bananas Foster (plantains, caramel sauce and a plantain chip).//Photos by Luis Javy Diaz
Bull Bay provides great dining in an approachable setting with food that stays true to its Caribbean roots. The menu even incorporates the dialect through options like Lickle Peckish to describe appetizers, Hungry Bad for meats, On De Lighter Side for seafood and Watching De Waistline for salads.
During our first visit, we started with the national dish of Jamaica, ackee pie, which combines the ackee fruit and dried saltfish. Ackee is slightly sweet with mild bitter notes, a mouthfeel like avocado and a texture that closely resembles scrambled eggs. With four to an order, the ackee pie arrived atop festival, a fried dough of cornmeal, flour, sugar and salt. Festival—a refined version of its cousin the funnel cake—is crisp and sweet.
When we visited early on a Saturday evening, the dining room was quiet except for the Art & Dine Night participants led by local artist Eunice LaFate and a couple seated in the booth next to us. As we noshed on our ackee appetizer, the room filled with island music provided by local Caribbean steel drum band Dwight McIntosh.
The restaurant comfortably seats more than 100 customers on its two floors.//Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
Bull Bay is a cavernous space that comfortably seats more than 100 customers on its two floors. The atmosphere is warm and tranquil. Walls are adorned with paintings by local artists and mirrors that reflect the openness of the space. Furniture is minimal. Booths and tables are furnished with white linen and accentuated by small, white flowers.
The bartender provided service and was attentive, polite and unobtrusive, so much so that he did not ask for our drink order. Regardless, he guided us through the menu, explaining the traditional dishes with ease. There is a short list of beer, mainly domestic with Red Stripe, a lager brewed in Jamaica. The wine list is small: two reds, two whites, a Prosecco and a rosé. Handcrafted cocktails include island-inspired drinks such as the Blue Bay Punch and classic Rum Punch.
Entrées are accompanied by either a house salad or soup. Both of us opted for the miniature tureen of chicken Florentine. Though not a typical Caribbean soup, the soup of the day is “an opportunity for the chefs to stretch their culinary skills and be creative,” says Rushell White.
The soup was velvety smooth, and filled with hunks of roasted chicken and lovely strands of spinach. It was an unexpectedly decadent start to a meal that had us both loosening our belts.
All colors in the restaurant are a direct reflection of the Whites’ migration. Walls are painted yellow and aquamarine to evoke the sun and surf. The floors are a faded, dusty brown to mimic sandy beaches. And the logo is green to symbolize Jamaica’s tropical forests.
The selection of entrées highlights classic Jamaican dishes and foods—curry goat, fried dumplings, plantains and jerk chicken. My partner ordered the salmon “run down,” with a traditional sauce made from coconut cream, tomato, onion, and a special blend of peppers, thyme and other seasonings. At Bull Bay, it is a mélange of sweet, salty, sour and spicy (if desired), and it can be served with the salmon or snapper. The complexity of the sauce is intriguing, especially the acidic zing that comes from the lime that is squeezed over the salmon before it’s topped with the sauce.
The entrées are endowed with generous accompaniments of steamed cabbage and rice. Traditionalists will appreciate the option of rice and peas (kidney beans), coconut rice or plain rice.
The highlight of the night was the oxtail, which is what pork belly was to fine dining a couple of years ago. The small, circular, gelatinous hunks of meat are stir-fried with bell peppers, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, thyme and garlic until liquid is released, then the oxtails are braised for another two to three hours. The meat falls off the bone. The gravy is sumptuous. Don’t be surprised if you start nibbling on the bones (though I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re on a date).
The bartender recommended ordering extra gravy next time. I wish I had known sooner, since the rice and peas ended up being a touch stale.
I returned to try the to-go lunch box specials and one of the most popular Jamaican dishes, jerk chicken, served in a spinach wrap. The all-white-meat chicken was moist and well-seasoned—somewhat smoky and spicy, but not overwhelming. The romaine lettuce and a chutney of mango and pineapple made a perfect contrast to the heat. If you enjoy more spice, use the accompanying dip. The tangy jerk barbecue sauce—a sticky, ketchup-based dip that has a nice afterburn—was addictive.
Bull Bay’s focus is to meet the needs of the community and celebrate Wilmington’s cultural vibrancy, whether through the dining experience, community offerings, or arts and entertainment. It is a welcome addition to the Ninth Street corridor.
I have one regret from the evening. I did not have room for dessert. Staff recommended the “dropper”—plantains Foster flambéed with rum and sugar, then topped with ice cream. Next time, I’ll start dinner with dessert.