Members of The Times meal squad visited Chef Deon’s kitchen Feb. 21, and had a terrific time.
The single-room restaurant is part of the VFW Hall on Towanticut Avenue in Oak Bluffs. We arrived for dinner, and promptly set out for drinks before ordering our food. Chef Deon Thomas runs his restaurant on one side of the hall, and VFW activities take place on the other side. Restaurant patrons are allowed to pass down a short hallway and through a door to the VFW barroom to order drinks. And so we did. Toting beers and a Cape Codder, your correspondent, along with Times photo editor Lexi Pline and Times reporter Brian Dowd, returned to the restaurant and took seats at a large, round table. For all intents and purposes, this was akin to a chef’s table folks often pony up extra money to sit at, because Chef Deon was both our server and our chef, and his open kitchen afforded a clear view of everything he prepared.
We ordered a medley of starters and an entrée to share: Island garden greens and avocado balsamic vinaigrette ($12), Fried Calamari with Buffalo Butter ($12), Buttermilk Chicken Tenders with ranch dip ($10), Island Conch Fritters with roasted pepper aioli ($12), Jerk Chicken, rice, and beans, seasoned vegetables with sweet plantains ($20), and a side of collard greens ($6).
The calamari became the first target for everybody. The batter was refreshingly light, and the texture of the squid inside firm but not rubbery. When a forkful was dunked, a little kick of heat rose from the Buffalo butter dipping sauce. Smiles all around. Chef Deon is known for his Buffalo wings. They fly out the door in the summer, and are a frequent order next door in the VFW barroom. The meal squad, no stranger to his fabulous wings, opted to sample the tenders instead. Rewarding. More chicken fingers than nuggets, shape-wise, the batter of the tenders was crisp and textured, and paired well with the ranch dip. Chef Deon said the secret of the batter is buttermilk, plus beer.
Conch fritters are a Chef Deon signature dish. Colloquially called conch, the fritters are actually made from channel whelk, and are the product of Vineyard fishermen. The fritters themselves had a light crust and were pleasantly moist inside, with a mixture of tasty minced whelk and roasted vegetables. When dipped in the roasted pepper aioli — heavenly.
The jerk chicken came easily off the bone, each mouthful a whirlwind of spices and heat. Chef Deon said back in Jamaica, jerk chicken wasn’t a staple dish like curried or stewed chicken.
“Jerk chicken was not an everyday thing on people’s tables in Jamaica,” he said. “It wasn’t something you find at home. Jerk chicken was a treat. When we go out. You go to the beach, you go to the party or the clubs, you find the jerk chicken. Nobody was making — hardly — in my time … jerk chicken.”
Chef Deon said the capsaicin intensity of the pepper he chooses for jerk chicken varies both in the variety of pepper and from pepper to pepper of the same variety. Sometimes he uses Scotch bonnet and sometimes he uses habañero. “Sometimes the habañero is mild, and sometimes the habañero knocks your socks off,” he said. He adjusts accordingly, based on the peppers he has and what the customer wants for heat.
“I ask my guests if they want it ballistic or if they want it civilized,” he said.
The collard greens were flavorful and not overcooked. Chef Deon said he makes a point of keeping them vegetarian. “I do not braise my greens with meat,” he said. So, too, with his kale soup. “And it’s still flavorful,” he said.
Chef Deon is one of the very few Vineyard chefs to prepare “conch” (channel whelk). Most of these shellfish are exported to Asia. Not only can you enjoy various conch dishes at Chef Deon’s restaurant, but his popular chowder is available in large Mason jars at Vineyard Grocer on State Road in Vineyard Haven.
Chef Deon’s kitchen is located at 14 Towanicut Ave. in Oak Bluffs. Lunch hours are 12 to 3:30 pm, and dinner hours are 5:30 to 10 pm.