CARIB NEBULA

Banana Bay, 6810 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale, 423-8010. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

A pricier and more domesticated outpost of Caribbean fare is Banana Bay. Unlike Coconuts Cafe, it's for the kind of folks who like to maintain eye contact with the cruise ship even when they take a shore excursion. The decor is pure, travel-brochure Caribbean. The far wall is cleverly painted to create the illusion of looking through windows and an open door onto a pristine beach with turquoise water. "You know, that may seem phony," said my pal Barb, giving it a critical eye. She spent a decade in the islands, until Hurricane Hugo blew away her house--while she was still inside. "But that's how it really looks." There are also colorful, tropical-themed paintings, fishing nets entrapping fake crustaceans draped across the wall and honest-to-God real banana plants. The appetizers have a gentle island touch. Plantains stuffed with ground beef are deep-fried and served with a thick, sweet peanut sauce, wonderful for dipping or eating by the spoonful. Banana Bay's cooks get around the conch problem--they're often about as tender as the rubber band holding the Sunday paper together--by grinding the mollusks up and serving them as fritters in the mild red pepper. The kitchen here doesn't rely on chile fire to make a culinary statement. Instead, other tropical flavors--rum, fruit and brown sugar--play a more important role. The dishes are sufficiently offbeat to tempt the mildly adventurous, without going too far toward native heat. For example, you won't find volcanically hot goat curry anywhere on this menu. But you will find a delightful chicken Aruba. It's big chunks of chicken breast in an intensely rich, mild curry sauce, thickened with mango chutney, peanuts, bananas, raisins and a hint of coconut. The platter is fruity and sweet, and quite filling once it's swirled into the accompanying mound of rice. The halibut gets an island treatment so thorough that you can hardly recognize it's fish. Halibut fillets are saut‚ed in butter and garlic, then heavily layered with lots of onions, pepper and tomato. A plentiful dose of banana rum completes the effect. I half-expected the server to strike a match and turn it into a flaming dessert. I'm still not sure how much I liked it--I was still making up my mind when I discovered I'd finished the fish off. Actually, my favorite dish was the least fussy, most straightforward menu option. Grilled Jamaican pork chops are wonderful, thick and tender, with just a hint of jerk seasoning. These chops have a satisfying, bone-gnawing quality. Only the skewers of shrimp and scallops didn't perform as well as they might have. At $16, it's the most expensive entree, but four scallops and five medium shrimp won't fill too many bellies. And the marinade of orange juice, garlic, brown sugar and Pick-a-Peppa sauce totaled less than the sum of its parts. After each bite, the dish seemed a little less intriguing, and a little more bizarre. The desserts come from elsewhere, and are hit-and-miss. The Kahl£a fudge cake is way too dry. The lovely banana rum cake, though, tastes of swaying palms, white-sand beaches and gently rolling waves. Looking for something new, but not too new? Banana Bay cooks up an appealing, unthreatening taste of the islands. If you're tired of sailing out for Mexican, Chinese or Italian, consider dropping your anchor here.

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