"You're going to love this food," a woman sitting next to my table of three announced. She put her hands on the table and smiled.
"Really? So you like the food," I said.
"Yes," she said. "Try the goat."
I told her I wouldn't. Why, I wondered, would a woman of such regal presence be pushing goat? As a kid, I played with one.
"We'll see," the woman said.
We were at the otherwise empty Negril Village, a new Caribbean restaurant in Midtown. Located in the old fire station that most recently was occupied by Engine 11. Negril is sister to a very popular 10-year-old restaurant of the same name in Greenwich Village. Altogether, the owners have been in the business for about 20 years.
The redo of the interior is luxe. Dark wood, elaborately carved like that of 19th-century pubs, backs the 30-foot marble bar and wraps the arched, windowed doors. The wood also backs booths with marble tabletops, while velvety, tufted banquettes — gold and pale green — surround much of the dining room. Gold chandeliers provide bright but not harsh lighting. I dare you to find some cleverly disguised allusions to the old fire station.
Some of the New York restaurant's promotional material refers to its cooking as "New York Savvy Caribbean Cuisine." Here, the better name might be Southern Savvy. While there are classic Jamaican dishes like jerk chicken, the South shows up in shrimp and grits and brunch fare like buttermilk pancakes and fried chicken with biscuits. The restaurant also culls the trendy for the likes of ginger-lime brick chicken, and the classic, like hamburgers and steaks.
As we reviewed the menu, staffers fussed over our neighbor. Finally, I asked, "Are you the owner?" It was indeed the famous Marva Layne, who, with her husband Carlton Hayle and two others, have owned the Negril properties since their inception.
"I love the look of this place," I told her, "and the menu looks great, but I don't quite understand why a Caribbean restaurant would have a dish like ginger-lime brick chicken."
"That's for people like you," she said, laughing. Ouch. I think she had generalized my goat squeamishness to Jamaican food. It probably didn't help that I ordered the lobster shrimp and grits.
I asked Layne how that qualified as Caribbean. She explained that the grits are made with coconut milk and the seafood is sautéed in some island spices. Honestly, neither my friend nor I picked up those flavors, but we were both shocked by the large chunks of lobster and number of shrimp afloat in the grits. Roasted cherry tomatoes provided some needed acid to cut the almost overwhelming richness of the coconut milk. It's available, like other entrées, as a single portion or double for sharing. Order it.
Oxtails, braised with lima beans and served with rice and peas, were probably the best I've ever tasted, with a thick gravy that layered flavors from the slightly funky to a fleeting sweetness.
Halfway through our dinner, our server appeared with a small bowl of — you guessed it — the curried goat. The menu says it's organically raised. You can expect that initial gamy bite. Take a second or third bite and that recedes as the stew's mysterious spices take hold of your palate. But, honestly, I just can't eat an animal that used to chase me like a big dog.
We tried only a couple of starters. The carrot-coconut-ginger soup bordered on deliciously fiery. The kitchen goes heavy on the ginger, which I love, but — don't panic — the coconut milk eases the burn. We also ordered the codfish fritters with a citrus-avocado purée. The breading, quite dense, eclipsed the codfish's flavor. It was my least favorite dish.
You should know that Negril Village is not inexpensive. But this is no hole-in-the-wall like so many Jamaican spots here. That said, know you can easily spend more than $20 at lunch and double that at dinner — without alcohol. Splurge anyway and don't miss the rum-raisin bread pudding topped with grapenut ice cream.
I returned to the restaurant three weeks later for lunch. I knew I'd be remiss if I didn't try the jerk chicken. It comes with sweet plantains and a choice of a side. I wanted the highly recommended mac and cheese but it was unavailable, so I settled for rice and peas — a weirdly huge portion for a side dish.
The chicken, a quarter of a bird, was a bit disappointing. The spices were surprisingly mild for a concoction that features scotch bonnet peppers, and the meat was on the dry side. I took a cue from a nearby diner and ordered some jerk sauce to boost flavors and moisture. The stuff was flat-out awesome — not particularly hot but bursting with ginger and other spices.
As it happens, I was recognized at lunch and chef Christopher Walters came out and introduced himself. He has a background in corporate venues, including Club 755 at Turner Field. My first question was predictable: "Why is the food so tamely spiced?"
He sighed and said, as countless chefs in Atlanta have told me, that it's about accommodating the city's mild palate. "Now, I can make it hot," he said. He told me that a diner recently insisted he make the jerk chicken as absolutely fiery as he could. He agreed and made the man happy. I guess I can't slam the heat-resistant when I can't face the goat.