On the subject of criticism, a friend recently told me, "Critics work under the assumption that someone is trying to impress them." After two visits to Negrill on the Hill, I've come to understand that the folks who run it aren't trying to impress anyone. They're just cooking the kind of food they love and are happy to share it.
Formerly located on Forest Avenue in Walnut Hills, Jamaican-born owner Dennis Morrison opened Negrill in 2000, and the restaurant moved to its current Winton Place location last May.
I heard about Negrill from my workmate, Ray, who lives in Winton Place. On my first visit, I fell in love with the Curry Goat ($7), sweet, earthy meat stewed in a rich, yellow curry and ginger sauce. For my second trip I rounded up a few friends, including Ray, for Sunday dinner.
We couldn't have picked a better night for Jamaican soul food. As my girlfriend and I strolled up to Ray's porch, a small flurry of snow hit our eyelashes just as we were admiring the blossoming trees. Ray stepped outside to turn off the grill and take a platter of barbecue inside for his family, and we headed over to Negrill.
That it was an unseasonably cold March day and there were no palm trees outside was immediately forgotten once we stepped inside.
Steam from slow cooking, spiced meat wafted from the kitchen and clung to our faces like soft, tropical humidity. Across the room, a built-in crowd was playing chess, watching TV and quietly lounging. One man swayed contentedly to the Reggae/Hip-Hop mix that was playing. Someone's beautiful young daughter flipped through magazines at a table alone. For the duration of our 90-minute stay, she quietly entertained herself. She didn't notice our gazes of admiration, and I doubt she would've been interested in them if she had.
At Negrill, someone will take your order, cook the food and deliver it to your table — but it feels more like casual hospitality than service, more like a neighborhood barbecue than a restaurant. At one point, our server delivered a plate while cradling a cell phone on his shoulder.
We were the only people eating in the restaurant that night, despite a steady stream of take-out traffic. Nevertheless, our meal progressed slowly. Procuring a round of waters took about 30 minutes, and we didn't even attempt to ask for refills.
Many of the items we tried to order from the menu, including the Curry Goat, were no longer available that evening. We finally asked the server what was available and went from there. Dishes arrived slowly and sporadically, and one that we thought we had ordered, Stew Beef ($6.50 small), never arrived at all. No matter. We just reset our internal clocks to island time, and as the Jamaicans would say, "Everything cook and curry."
Negrill's menu offers a variety of fish and meat in rich, exotic curries and stews. They serve Jamaica's national dish, Ackee and Saltfish ($12). A vegetarian section includes seitan and tofu options, as well as a Vege Ackee dinner (tropical fruit with fleshy white pulp, $7). Negrill doesn't have a liquor license, but their homemade beverages are delicious, when available. The Carrot Juice (a large glass for $3) is the best I've had, with lively hints of ginger and lime. On the weekends they serve a Fish Tea that I've heard is excellent.
Ox Tails ($7 small) were a new experience for me: slow-cooked, rich, succulent meat. I wasn't much for sucking the marrow from the bones, but a small bite of the flavorful meat mixed with our sides — Callalloo (greens from the taro root) and Rice and Gungo Peas (also known as pigeon peas) — was delicious.
Jerk Chicken ($6.50 small) was a little dry, but the subtle, smoky back-heat was delightful. Allspice-seasoned BBQ Sauce ($.50) was a necessary partner, and one friend thought they should consider having a Caribbean hot sauce called Matouks available as well.
My favorite dish that night was Brown Stew Whiting ($8.50), a long fillet of mild, cod-like fish basking in a sweet, tomato-based stew with onions, garlic, peppers and carrots. (Pin-bones aren't removed, so it's best to chew with caution). Finally, no Jamaican meal is complete without an order of sweet fried Plantains ($2), which left everyone at our table moaning in ecstasy.
Negrill isn't for everyone: You have to have an appetite for adventure and an inclination for lounging. After plates and bones had been licked clean, one friend commented he could have eaten more. I asked if he wanted to order something else, and he replied, "Yeah, but I don't think I have that kind of time." ©
Negrill on the Hill Grill
Go: 701 E. Epworth Place, Winton Place
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 2-8 p.m.
Payment: Cash, Visa or MasterCard
Red Meat Alternatives: Fish, ackee, tofu and seitan
Other: Check for upcoming events. They host celebrations for Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King Day, as well as meetings for groups like the Black United Front.