Photo by Zuzia Whelan

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Nick Reynolds mimes the art of making a Jamaican patty, pastry stuffed with spiced meat and Scotch bonnet chilli peppers. He makes half-moons with his hands, and acts out using a rolling pin on a table.

“It’s maybe fist-sized and half-moon shaped. They’re yellow in colour from the lemon juice and the turmeric, so you get the smell first,” he says, on Thursday afternoon, in the café Kaph, on Drury Street.

His granny used to make them, says Reynolds, and when they knew she was over, his friends would start dropping by. “The doorbell would be ringing a lot more than usual; people with their hats in their hands going, ‘Hey, I was just in the neighbourhood.” He laughs.

Reynolds was born and raised in Dublin. His dad is from Roscommon, his mother’s family are Jamaican. He spent a lot of time in East London with his grandmother, who came over as one of the so-called “Windrush generation” of immigrants from Commonwealth countries to the UK after the Second World War.

Whenever he went to his granny’s house, there would be rice and peas, a bit of chicken, and pepper sauce on the table right away. “She made sure of that,” he says.

He last went to see her in November. “I didn’t question too much how she got it through customs, but she brought this crayfish stew over from Jamaica,” he says. “It was still frozen.”

Six years ago, Reynolds moved to Argentina on a whim. He stuck around for a while, starting supper clubs, helping to run an event-management company, hosting creative dining experiences, and laying the foundations for his latest project, back home in Dublin.

Two weeks ago, he held the first run of his new pop-up restaurant, Lil Portie, in the café Two Fifty Square in Rathmines, tucked down a small road near the Swan Leisure centre.

With Lil Portie, he says, it’s not just about the food. “It’s a gathering; it’s not just about a photo on Instagram. It’s a candlelit dinner, good people, a long table.”

He wants to bring back that feeling of togetherness, the one he gets from his grandmother’s cooking. “If you can bring that feeling out, it transcends everything,” he says.

“There are so many things that can just happen in two or three hours of being in a place, that you deny yourself if you go for the one thing,” Reynolds says.

Lil Portie

Locals in Port Antonio, Jamaica – where Reynolds’ maternal family come from – are called “Porties”. Hence, Lil Portie.

Reynolds knows what kind of aesthetic he wants. Black and white photos, stories and songs. Flowers, candles and fairy lights.

The menu is built around the dishes and foods he has grown up eating.  “What I’m trying to do with Lil Portie is create a new atmosphere around that,” he says. 

He also knows what kind of aesthetic he doesn’t want. “I don’t want it to be stereotypically Jamaican … and it would be so easy to do that. I don’t want to put up the Bob Marley flags, and the marijuana leaves,” he says.

“I want to create a sense of nostalgia for a place people have never been,” he says.

Reynolds has cooked for friends for years. “When we were teenagers, around 13 or 14, his house was the focal point of where we’d hang out,” says Ross Garvey, a friend since they were single-digits old.

“There’d be ten hungry fellas and he’d be in the kitchen experimenting. It probably cost his dad a fortune,” he says. But there was always someone hungry enough to warrant the cooking.

Reynolds would try to make anything you were in the mood for, says Garvey. “Nothing was too much of a challenge.”

He came by Lil Portie on its first run two weeks back. “It’s not like going for dinner in an established high-street restaurant, where you can feel rushed,” he says.

Building Heat

The first menu listed jerk pork, jerk chicken, rice and peas and arepas – the last being a nod to Reynolds’ time in South America. It also had a vegan option of plantain with gumbo beans.

He has tricks to try to get people into the food, says Reynolds. “I figured out a technique to get the sweetness first so you’re not scared away from the heat, and then the heat builds.”

He uses the sweetness of lime syrup, drawn from the leaf and and skin of limes. “The fragrance of the leaves stimulates the nose first. The sweetness of the sugar, a delicate layer on top of a dish [to] get you before you’ve made up your mind about a hot dish,” says Reynolds.

Scotch bonnet peppers are slow burners too. “The body starts to warm rather that the mouth getting burnt,” he says.

In Argentina, Reynolds would try out some his recipes on friends, and these early trials are what the dishes in Lil Portie are built on.

“For about three years, we had a deal that I would wash and he would cook,” says Dan Thompson, a friend, business partner and housemate in Buenos Aires.

The pair put on events, closed-door restaurants, and supper clubs. “We made every mistake possible,” says Thompson. They mis-timed events on public holidays, or made the food too hot.

Later though, they opened a private members’ club with a full restaurant. “Nico really came into his own,” says Thompson. “Nico lives for food. It’s all about food.”

He mixes odd ingredients, always with a twist. “I just stopped even asking him, and would just try and decipher it while I was eating,” he says.

Thompson spoke to Reynolds just before Lil Portie got started. He asked Reynolds about the Scotch bonnets, and his “grandmother’s special secret sauce” brought to Ireland in four-litre bottles, as Reynolds tells it.

“We spent many a night eating jerk chicken and using those Jamaican spices,” says Thompson.

For now, Reynolds wants to keep Lil Portie small. “I’m looking to be doing it twice a week,” he says. “From the personal and company side, it’s about finding your voice. I don’t want to shout, I want to start telling a story first.”

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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