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DINING OUT

Taste of the Caribbean

Blue Mermaid Island Grill
409 The Hill, Portsmouth, N.H.
603-427-2583, www.bluemermaid.com
Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
All major credit cards accepted
Not accessible to the handicapped

On a recent weeknight at the Blue Mermaid Island Grill, it felt like vacation.

It started with the decor of the Caribbean-inspired, downtown Portsmouth spot. My dining companion, an interior designer, described it by saying, ''Someone went crazy at People's Pottery."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The place is friendly with colorful light fixtures and welcoming wall art. It's cluttered without losing its dignity.

Almost instantly, our service matched the restaurant's interior -- employees were overwhelmingly friendly and relaxed, yet dignified. We were served by a waitress named Sasha, who offered suggestions.

The menu was also warm, from start to finish. Our start involved two appetizers. One was recommended to us by Sasha and was called ''saddle bags" ($9). The dish was a plate of fried wontons. Each was about the size of a bloated Hershey's Kiss and filled with an almost granular mix of herbs, spices, and Jack cheese. The second starter was our favorite. The veggie roll ($8) was a fresh mix of vegetables such as chickpeas and spinach, packed in a phyllo-style puff pastry. At the Blue Mermaid, you have the option of choosing from a list of specialty entrees or ordering from a mix-and-match menu of seafood and sauces. One of my dining companions opted for sea scallops and wasabi vinaigrette ($20). (Other options were shrimp, tuna, ''sun splash salsa," and chipotle honey vinaigrette.)

Her scallops were fresh and tasty and were served on skewers. The wasabi vinaigrette was presented as a dipping sauce on the side, not as a marinade, which bothered my companion, but pleased me (I'd rather dip). We were disappointed with her side dish choice, described on the menu as ''sticky herb potatoes." Turns out, they're just potatoes with herbs on them. She regretted not opting for other sides such as grilled bananas or island rice.

I was satisfied with the first specialty, the pan-seared mahi-mahi ($20). The very fishy fish was tamed with a smoked tomato Shiraz reduction and palate-cleansing, smashed sweet potatoes. The potatoes were somewhat benign, but they were a nice complement to the flavorful seafood.

Of the three dishes, the Bimini chicken ($18), ordered by my second companion, seemed to be the real specialty. The meat was juicy and tender. It tasted like candy when sampled with the topping of bananas and walnuts sautéed in a bourbon-coconut sauce.

The chicken -- like my mahi-mahi -- was served with a ''chef's vegetable," a delicious blend of veggies such as squash and onions, seasoned with Caribbean flavors in soft stewed tomatoes.

We ended the meal with two sweet plates. Sasha steered us toward the ''layers of love" ($7), made of three layers of chocolate and espresso mousse. While the layers were a dream, we felt more love from the coconut layer cake ($7), which we decided was the highlight of the entire meal -- a large slice of soft cake topped with lime frosting, a perfect dish to celebrate the start of a new, warmer season.

MEREDITH GOLDSTEIN

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