I was having a particularly stressful day last week and I said to myself, You need to get away! You need a tropical vacation on a Caribbean shore! Yes, that's exactly what I said to myself. But before I dragged my suitcase out of the closet and pressed my swimming trunks and all that, I took a quick look at my bank account. I quickly realized that maybe I was being a bit hasty about a vacation that involved airfare, hotel rooms, cabana fees and actual sand. It might be more economical, I decided, to find a little bit of the tropics closer to home.
And that's when I thought of Lee's Summit, that sweet, sun-kissed hamlet just off U.S. Highway 50. A few days earlier, I had clicked on the Web site for one of the newer hot spots in downtown Lee's Summit, Braata Caribbean Grill & Bar, where I read this enticing description: "Come in and experience the sounds, smells and feels of the Caribbean at Braata Grill & Bar."
The sounds, smells and feels — I could just imagine the sultry music, the rush of palm fronds swaying on ocean breezes, the fragrance of fresh coconut and just-picked mango, the soothing splash of salty surf. Could such a miraculous getaway really exist, right across the street from the lumberyard? I called a friend of mine who lives in the southeastern suburb to see if Braata lived up to these dreamy expectations.
"It looks like a 1960s VFW hall," he said. "I went there once and had a cheeseburger and a beer and watched a basketball game on one of the TVs over the bar. It sounded, smelled and felt like any other bar in Lee's Summit except they do play reggae music."
Nonetheless, I decided to venture out and see Braata for myself. I even invited two friends, Will and Erin. They also live in Lee's Summit and had wondered about the little free-standing building on Southeast Main that blasts music out into the street from a couple of well-placed speakers. "We thought it was a Mexican restaurant," Erin told me, "probably because of the neon Corona Beer signs in the window."
I arrived early on a Friday night to immerse myself in the tropical ambience before my friends arrived. The place is long, dark and deep — like a VFW hall, all right, with a large dance floor at one end and a well-stocked bar at the other. The tables on the dance-floor side are draped in black linen, while the banquettes are upholstered in a snazzy faux ultrasuede — very tropical Halston.
"It's been Braata for about 18 months," the pretty waitress informed me after I turned down one of this restaurant's signature cocktails: the "Liquid Marijuana." She went on to explain that several different bars had been in this spot over the years. "It was a dance club for, like, a minute."
There's still dancing at Braata but only later in the night, when the "reggae disc jockey" begins cranking up the tunes and the kitchen business starts winding down. "I'm usually gone by then," the server added.
She left me to look at the menu. Before I left home, I had taken a peek at Steven Raichlen's The Caribbean Pantry Cookbook. "Caribbean cooking is a patchwork quilt of colors, textures and flavors," he writes, "a multi-ethnic tapestry woven from the cuisines of Europe, Africa, the New World and even Asia." This "multi-ethnic tapestry" must be the reason for appetizers such as fried mozzarella sticks, nachos, chicken wings and hummus. I ordered the hummus and fried calamari to share with Will and Erin, who looked completely puzzled by the Braata décor. "What's tropical about it?" Erin whispered. "And what does the name mean, anyway?"