The chlorophyllic punch of the bell peppers hits you first. Then, a dose of parmesan amps up the umami. A scattering of grilled shrimp emits a subtle salt air wave. Finally, a pile of cream-slicked penne — fortified with onions, garlic, and chiles — ratchets up your body’s internal furnace. Anyone who’s visited Jasmine’s Caribbean in the Theater District knows that chef Basil Jones exhibits an impressive fluency in the specialties of his native Jamaica, from fiery jerked meats to nourishing brown stew chicken. But he can also whip up a serious plate of that modern staple that he helped bring into vogue himself: the spicy masterpiece that is rasta pasta, or as he calls it here, “jazzy pasta.”
To truly appreciate New York’s diverse noodle scene, one must look beyond the foodways of Europe and Asia, and toward Latin America and the Caribbean as well. Many Dominicans, for example, love their empaquetadas, a beach time meal of spaghetti with evaporated milk-laced tomato sauce. Peruvians have their tallarines verdes: noodles slicked in verdant South American pesto. And Jamaica has its rasta pasta, a dish that, according to one origin story, stretches back to 1985 when Lorraine Washington, a chef from Negril, topped fettuccine with tomato sauce and ackee, a creamy island fruit.
Jones himself played a significant role in popularizing the spicy, Alfredo-like version that one can find throughout the five boroughs, food journalist Korsha Wilson wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2020. “Rasta pasta is a combination of my culinary background: a little French, a little Italian, and a little Jamaican,” Jones told Wilson. The chef took his recipe, which he originally created for a European restaurant in New York, to the Caribbean-minded Footprints Cafe in Brooklyn in 2001, where he cooked for more than two decades.
First-time restaurateurs Jasmine Gerald, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and her husband, Lloyd Hollie, opened Jasmine’s in late 2020 and appointed Jones executive chef in 2021, where he now serves his jazzy pasta. The location on 46th Street, also known as “Restaurant Row,” is an important one, as it’s a stretch of Midtown famous for feeding Broadway-goers with steaks, ramen, dim sum, sushi, modern Chinese fare, beer, Italian food, and other global and local specialties. If you believe, like me, that this block acts as an ambassador of sorts for New York’s culinary scene, it’s heartwarming to see a restaurant specializing in Jamaican and Trinidadian staples — which can be tough to find in this part of town — draw in tourists and city residents alike.
Gerald decked out the space in soothing pastels; shades of ocean blue, sunset orange, and seafoam green serve as a welcome counterpoint to the city’s grey winter days. When the weather was a bit warmer, I’d take a seat at the bar and order a plate of Jones’s brown stew chicken, a slow-cooked bird heady with the warming scent of ginger. But now that the cold has fully set in, I’ve found myself craving the jazzy pasta to fortify my insides. Jones deploys red, green, and yellow peppers, to evoke the colors of the Rastafarian flag (the dish itself is not Rastafarian, some of whose adherents refrain from eating animal products entirely).
Jones’s peppers add a distinct, primavera-style crunch, before the sauce takes charge and enrobes your tongue in luscious dairy fats. The chef uses a restrained dose of jerk-style seasoning and chiles (that he won’t reveal) for heat and aroma, just enough to turn the cream a handsome shade of tan. When you bite down on an al dente slab of penne, the spice level remains noticeable but subdued, sometimes only appearing a full 10 seconds later. To jack up the heat more aggressively, try pairing the pasta with a side of jerk chicken; Jones slathers his wings in a mix of thyme, allspice, chiles, vinegar, and molasses before smoking and grilling them. Dredge a forkful of penne through the inky sauce for a wallop of flavor that’s simultaneously sweet, tongue-stinging, and pungently woodsy.
You can surely tell where things are going: I’m rating the $20 jazzy pasta (add $10 for shrimp) at Jasmine’s a BUY, along with the jerk wings ($14) and the brown stew chicken ($20). For a different style of Caribbean cuisine in the greater Theater District, also consider swinging by any of the great Cuban restaurants or Dominican lunch counters nearby. But for Jamaican or Trinidadian food in Midtown West, there doesn’t appear to be any other sit-down options besides Jasmine’s. And that’s okay, because you’ll eat quite well here.