There are no better parties on earth than Caribbean carnivals. Whether on the streets of Trinidad, Notting Hill or, indeed, East Oxford, there is something intoxicating about the pounding bass of reggae and dancehall, the hip-swinging rhythms of soca and the devilishly witty lyrics of calypso. And then there is the food!

If the islands of the West Indies put on the best street music, they also provide the best tasting street food: fiery jerk chicken, satisfying goat curry and sweet plantain. In fact, to be honest, it is not so much the tunes as the mouthwatering sizzle of jerk chicken being barbecued on old oil drums which really drags me back to Cowley Road or Ladbroke Grove at carnival time.

The rhythms of carnival and the smoke of ‘jerk drums’ have long since faded away, of course, and the days are getting colder and darker – but there is one little refuge of Caribbean flavours in Oxford city centre – albeit in the most unlikely of places.

Tucked away down the dingy alleyway of Friars Entry, off Magdalen Street, and signposted by strings of fairy lights and an advert for Red Stripe, is Turtle Bay.

Oxford Mail:

Now Turtle Bay is, of course, part of a chain – and, I assumed, one aimed at European tastes, so my expectations of an authentic feed were limited. Low expectations and a healthy dose of cynicism are always a healthy starting point though, and, in this case, were pleasantly challenged.

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For a start, the place looks cool. Modelled on the brightly-coloured faded wooden shacks you find everywhere from Tobago to Cuba, it oozes beachfront shabby tropical vibes. The bar is built inside a hut, there’s lots of blue wooden latticework and faux-faded timber signs, and the kitchens are open plan – giving a view of the all-important jerk pit barbecue.

Of course it’s a uniform ‘off the peg’ corporate look, no doubt replicated in dozens of shopping centres in grey British cities, but it’s still fun – and that slight sense of being at an (admittedly low key) party, extends to the cheery staff, who were quick to recommend their favourite dishes and cocktails.

Oxford Mail:

It was a midweek when we visited. It was also quiet, though a big family birthday party on the neighbouring tables kept the atmosphere buzzing.

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We were simultaneously too late and too early for the “2’4’1happy hour”, which runs until 7pm and, again, after from 9.30pm (10pm on Fridays and Saturdays) so we passed on the cocktails and instead had more sensible beers. Draught Red Stripe and bottles of Carib are familiar faves, but I preferred the tangy Jamaican Pale Ale (£4.10) which is brewed especially for ‘The Bay’ and goes well with the strong flavours of curry and jerk. The lad was not tempted by the mocktails and instead went even more sensible with an orange juice, which was served in a bottle with an old fashioned paper straw; a nice touch.

Oxford Mail:

Sharing is encouraged with discounts on ordering multiple plates (three dishes for £15, four for £19, and five for £23). Of course we went for five – jerk pit wings, jerk pit ribs, garlic flatbread, and, because they sounded so good, two portions of garlic pit prawns. The latter were fabulous – whole shell-on king prawns in crushed chilli and garlic, spicy on the outside and juicy within. The wings and ribs were fine, though nowhere near as juicy and flavoursome as the items you’d munch on at from a smoking barrel at carnival.

The garlic flatbread was extremely potent, being laced with scotch bonnet butter and chilli flakes. Being grilled, it was also bone dry and tough with the consistency of driftwood.

The lad was not a fan. The ribs and wings were a different story though, and were rapidly hoovered up. I had barely a look-in.

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For mains, I went for my old favourite, goat curry (£10.90) with, of course, rice and peas (what else!). It was very good. Again, not at all like the standard Caribbean street fare, but decent nonetheless with lots of lovely, rich sauce – and made pleasantly spicy with a generous dose of scotch bonnet. I’d have liked more lamb on the bone, in the traditional style, but accept most people would prefer chunks of meat.

Oxford Mail:

The others tucked into Browned Chicken Stew (also £10.90) – a delicious dish of tender chicken thighs simmered in allspice, thyme, fresh lime and garlic, which was rich, imaginative and satisfyingly moreish – and a Shack Stack Burger (£7.50) which was also interesting – though the jerk bacon, pungent roasted red onion and overly tangy BBQ sauce which accompanied the patty proved way too overpowering for a straightforward burger. Even the fries are spiced. You’ve been warned!

Still, at least they are trying.

Friends hailing from the Caribbean have told me what we already know, that Turtle Bay is not authentic, but also that they like the place. For true aficionados there are at least three good independent Caribbean eateries in the East Oxford and Cowley area, if that’s your thing. But for a fun feed, a bit of chilli heat on a cold day, and (if you time it right) cheap happy hour cocktails, it is hard to beat Turtle Bay.

You can almost pretend you’re on holiday – and not down an Oxford alleyway.

  • GO: Turtle Bay, Oxford is at 12 Friars Entry, off Magdalen Street.
  • BOOK: Call : 01865 242141
  • PARK: Leave the car in St Giles or Worcester Street car park. Better still, jump on a bus and enjoy a beer or cocktail.
  • TRY THE: The curry goat is a speciality and is the perfect winter warmer. If you are familiar with authentic Caribbean food, you’ll find the chilli heat toned down, but – be warned – a lot of the menu packs a punch so is best avoided if you, or your kids, have a gentle palate.