Westmoreland. St. Elizabeth. Trelawny. At 14 Parishes, a new Jamaican restaurant in Central City, perusing the menu can read like a map of the Caribbean nation. Dishes are named for the cities and parishes that make up the country. Brothers Conroy and Charles Blake (who hail from Spanish Town) opened the Clio Street spot last fall, after running two Jamaican restaurants in Atlanta for the last several years.
The line separating Southern-style soul food and cuisines from the Caribbean and West Indies can be thin: smothered meats, rice and beans and stewed greens feature prominently across both regions. But here there is a clear demarcation, and the kitchen stays within the boundaries of Jamaican cuisine. The brothers travel frequently to Atlanta and New York to obtain hard-to-find imported Jamaican spice blends.
With the exceptions of rice and peas and mashed potatoes (both bland versions that failed to excite), the dishes here arrive full of flavor and complex character.
Jerked chicken, Jamaica's signature dish, is named after the parish, Portland, where the smoky, grilled tradition was birthed. Coated in a dark char, the chicken has subtle heat and the flavors of charcoal, allspice and smoke dominate.
Jamaican cuisine isn't known for scalding seasoning blends, except for dishes that employ the nation's native fiery Scotch bonnet peppers. Those are unleashed full throttle in the St. Elizabeth chicken, an addictively good dish, which comes swimming in a thick and sweet pepper-flaked barbecue sauce.
"Are you sure you like it that spicy?" a server asked me one evening while ordering. "Because it's really hot."
She wasn't kidding, and though the dish ended up being too intense for some of my dinner companions, I couldn't stop picking at the soft, succulent bird, savoring each sweet and scorching bit long after my eyes started to water and my brow broke out in sweat.
The short menu is filled with milder but no less flavorful stews and curries. A dark oxtail medley called Hanover was studded with potatoes and carrots and tasted earthy and warm. Its thick, glossy consistency is similar to a demi-glace but features characteristic gelatinous oxtail bits. Diners should be prepared to find a few bones and some not-so-pretty cartilage bits here and there.
The St. Ann chicken curry carried layers of flavor in a mild, turmeric-tinged sauce, and Spanish Town chicken soup is thick with pumpkin, sweet potato and mirliton and featured warm notes of rosemary and allspice — a good cold weather dish when temperatures dip back below 60 degrees.
Smaller dishes include wilted carrot and herb-packed braised cabbage. A flavorful mix of ground beef and spices fill tiny dough "patties," and caramelized plantains tasted like candy. Spongy and honey-tinged cornbread and starchy green plantain discs are plain on their own but great for soaking up some of the complex sauces. Stewed callaloo is similar to collard greens. There also is macaroni and cheese.
The only thing difficult to navigate here is lunch, since the restaurant doesn't open until 2 p.m. The space previously housed the music club Beatnik, and the restaurant's staff has begun taking advantage of the stage, where sometimes a singer-songwriter duo or an open-mic participant hold court. Otherwise, it's a safe bet that the sounds of Bob Marley and other reggae crooners will be playing softly in the background, which works well for the casual spot.