If you're a Bob Marley fan, the words "Stir It Up" may be familiar. They are the title of one of the reggae legend's songs and have been borrowed by Vivian and Christopher Williams as the name of their two-month-old restaurant, Stir It Up (1083 Euclid Ave., 404-963-2384), in Little Five Points.
Marley's song refers to cooking, but "stirring it up" is a metaphor for sex. Vivian told me she and her husband chose the name as a description of Jamaica's culinary history, a stirred-up fusion of Indian, African, Asian and Spanish influences, among others. "Out of many, one people" is the nation's motto and it is lettered on a wall of Stir It Up. Whatever the restaurant name's genesis, the food is sexy-hot.
Jamaican food is certainly not new to Atlanta. There are countless tiny restaurants in town, especially in the Stone Mountain and Lithonia areas, where many of the city's Jamaicans live. A popular example is Kool Runnings (4977 Memorial Drive, Stone Mountain, 404-508-0277), which I also recently visited. More about that later.
I'm not given to raves, but Stir It Up was one of the best experiences I've had in a restaurant in a long time. Chef Christopher Williams' cooking is simply fantastic. I should admit that I had difficulty getting a meal there, mainly due to my own failure to look up the hours. I showed up twice and found it closed. On my third visit, a family emergency had forced the restaurant to open late, so only one dish was available. I returned later the same day and ordered two more dishes to go. So my three meals were all cooked on the same day.
My one meal in the restaurant was brown stew chicken. Like everything else on the menu, this is a classic dish, but I've never tasted a version this good. Maybe it's the fact that Christopher starts with fresh tomatoes instead of the usual canned, but the remarkably complex sauce — with notes of sweetness punctuating escalating heat — had me spreading my rice around to get every drop.
The chicken included a leg and other meaty hacked chunks that were browned and stewed in the sauce. The dish was served with jasmine rice — the favored peas and rice weren't available — and sweet plantains. The kitchen does not turn the latter into virtual candy.
My server and the owners all told me that next time I had to try the salted cod with cabbage and fried dumplings. I ate a lot of Cuban dishes with salted cod years ago and totally burned out on it. So I've avoided anything featuring cod in Jamaican restaurants. But I ordered Stir It Up's as one of my take-out meals. Instead of the large, overwhelming hunks of cod I expected, this was diced fish tossed in a warm cabbage slaw, a delightful contrast.
The salted cod was served with two pancake-shaped fried dumplings you don't want to miss. I noted that the menu lacked the boiled dumplings I often have encountered in Jamaican restaurants. Vivian explained that unless they are made just before serving, boiled dumplings are unpleasant. Typically, they are made in advance and spend the day submerged in water.
I also ordered the restaurant's oxtail stew. This also was better than any I remember. The meat is almost caramelized in its rich sauce. You'll pick up the bones and try to get every morsel of meat. I ordered this with fluffy rice and peas. More of the cabbage and plantains were on the side.
The prices are ridiculously low. Most dishes cost $8, although a few, like the stewed oxtail, are market-priced. Lunch specials — chicken served three ways — are less than $7.
Finally, the restaurant is extremely comfortable. The walls are covered with photographs, paintings and clippings that provide an education in Jamaica's history. There's a bar — a liquor license is pending — and two dining rooms. One is more pub-like in its feel while the other feels a bit clubbier. It features rough-hewn tables with upholstered chairs. The staff is super-hospitable.
And, no, I did not sample the jerk chicken. I probably should note that none of the food I tasted was full-on, scotch-bonnet hot. People who know Jamaican food well can make better judgments about such details.
Now, an acquaintance who has grown up eating Jamaican food told me her favorite restaurant was the above-mentioned Kool Runnings (which has expanded from its Memorial Drive location to include several others). Wayne and I visited last week and found the food quite mediocre.
Part of the reason is that, like many other Jamaican spots, it serves most of its food from steam trays and warm cabinets. Its boiled dumpings, yams and bananas were so dry and dense, I could barely eat them, just as Vivian said. I likewise found the kingfish in Wayne's escovitch — originally inspired by the Spanish escabèche, by the way — repulsively dry and chewy. I did, however, like my curried chicken.
A troubling thing about this meal was that two regulars in the restaurant line recommended the dishes to us, waxing ecstatic about them. Maybe we hit the restaurant, which is open 24 hours, on a bad day.
Like Stir It Up, Kool Runnings has a terrific staff. I felt guilty that I didn't like the food much.