"I totally underestimated this restaurant," my dining companion says, contentedly looking down at her empty plate. "I don't know why." After a few minutes of consideration, she says, "Probably the name. And the location."
It's true. What would you expect from a restaurant called Stir It Up in Little Five Points? It's hard not to love this scrappy neighborhood and its dedication to every long-gone countercultural heyday. But food is not one of the reasons to come here. Vintage clothing, good beer, and good music, yes. Remembering and trying to relive the thrill of walking into Junkman's Daughter for the first time, way before Hot Topic had co-opted punk in the malls across America, sure. Lovingly prepared, built-from-scratch food? Not so much. Not until now.
Stir It Up bucks numerous trends, its location being one. But I also wasn't expecting such a suave, comfortable room when I first walked through the doors, and certainly not the chandelier and grey velvet-clad alcove that makes up the main dining room. I wasn't expecting the gracious, friendly service. And I definitely wasn't expecting food this good. Run by husband-and-wife team Christopher and Vivian Williams (he is the chef, she provides the service), Stir It Up serves Jamaican food prepared in a way that's rarely seen outside of Jamaica. That is to say, unless you have a Jamaican grandmother who refuses to cut corners and makes everything from scratch. And since most of us don't, the majority of the Jamaican food we've had has come from steam tables, prepared with sauces and seasonings from a jar.
Even in that form, Jamaican food can be delicious. Pre-made Jamaican beef patties are the food that ripped me from the lofty hands of vegetarianism when I was 16, and I'll gladly eat the jerk chicken dished out cheaply at most take-out joints. But what's served at Stir It Up is a different beast.
The Williamses seek to bring Jamaica's mishmash of cultural heritages to the plates of Atlantans. Christopher grew up in restaurants in Jamaica owned by his father, an Indian/Jamaican chef who specialized in Chinese/Jamaican cooking. It therefore makes some kind of crazy melting pot sense that my friend especially liked Stir It Up's mellow yellow curry, its turmeric, pimento and allspice heat sneaking up slowly on the palate. She said it somehow reminded her of her Filipino grandmother's curry. The restaurant's name, an obvious ode to Bob Marley, has a more poignant meaning in that global context.
Stir It Up's jerk chicken tastes of the careful layering of spices - thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice - each spice with its own distinct note, each contributing to a fragrant melody, tinged with heat. Bone-in chicken is brined in a house-made mixture for 24 hours, and then smoked in the on-site barbecue pit. The sauce on the brownstew chicken channels everything that's good about the scrapings from the bottom of a roasting pan, all those juices and caramelized fat merged into one luxuriant, deep auburn gravy.
Stir It Up doesn't currently have a liquor license - the owners hope to have one by the end of the year - but it does have Jamaican lemonade made with lime and brown sugar that varies from tart and bracing to slightly cloying, depending on the day.
There's a human element to this place that works for it and against it. You can taste the care and love in the food. But some of the cooking does fall flat. The beef patties just taste like regular beef patties. I wasn't enamored of the cabbage and saltfish - the veggies were greasy, the salt cod tough and chewy. It may be an authentic presentation, but if salt cod isn't already a favorite of yours, this dish won't change your mind.
Menu items tend to run out a lot. I never did get a taste of the curried goat, although the menu warns it isn't always available. At the end of the evening, almost the entire menu can become unavailable. You might find that a piece of the rum cake, a gorgeously moist yellow cake with a wicked rum-soaked exterior, is hard to come by. That's because the chef's sister bakes it ahead of time, and when it's gone it's gone. Stir It Up is a family-run establishment and it shows, in the warm vibe, the soulfully prepared dishes and the restaurant's inconsistencies. I'll take the human element with all its flaws any day. This food tastes of love.