Come back to Jamaica

Starapple Grill opens, plus El Myr and an approximation of Kyma's yogurt

My life is passing before my eyes, I told Wayne, as we settled into Starapple Grill (1937-B Peachtree St., 404-350-0807) across from Piedmont Hospital.

"I guess we're going to be here quite a while," he replied.

I explained: It was Martin Luther King Day and in the '60s, there was a delicatessen nearby that was pivotal in the Civil Rights struggle here. It was called Leb's and was the sister of a deli downtown that was the site of a lengthy sit-in because it would not serve black people. Eventually, the deli relented, but the stain of its racism remained so that stopping by for the city's only good corned beef changed from a guilty to impossible act.

"Now," I said, "Leb's is long gone and here we sit in the same vicinity, so many years later, about to eat at a Jamaican restaurant owned by black people."

"Gah," Wayne said.

So much for the past. The present is better. It really is. Starapple is serving some of the best Jamaican food ever to hit our city. The owner, Ray Lee, and his chef, Caval Gordon, are both Jamaican and come here via New York, where they both worked in the hospitality industry. Lee and his co-owner/wife Michelle Lee have taken over the space briefly occupied by Olive Bistro. The tiny restaurant is colorful, decorated with Jamaican art, and has an open kitchen. It's all very uptown. Jamaican music, sometimes controversial, plays unobtrusively.

I've had a dinner and a lunch here and not had a bad experience. So far my favorite has been a dinner entree of escoveitched snapper - a whole fish deep-fried and then drizzled with a vinegar sauce with some julienned veggies, served with sweet plantains and rice cooked in coconut milk. You get the full range, from sweet to fiery hot. My second favorite dish so far is jumbo shrimp straightforwardly sauteed and served in a salsa of fresh chopped pineapple, yellow and red peppers, onion and carrots - with more of the rice and plantains on the side. Hurrah for any restaurant that manages to serve pineapple without making it part of a sweet dish.

Classic conch fritters are freshly made puffs served with a good, fruity salsa. (As usual, the fritters need more conch, but I've given up ever expecting that.) A don't-miss starter is the chicken patty. It's a luscious, fragrant chicken curry inside a hot, flaky pastry shell, also served with the salsa. Also try the "bammy wedges" - deep-fried chunks of cassava ground with milk and vanilla. At both meals, I must have seen half a dozen people come in and beg for the restaurant's mango-barbecued chicken wings, but none were available.

Two dishes did not make the cut. The menu cannot be lying when it says the pork loin has been marinated for days. You might like the resulting texture; I did not. It's a bit mealy and the flavor, even after grilling, was too processed-tasting for me. The other dubious dish was dessert - a small slice of cheesecake, very overpriced at $5.50, flavored with rum and some raisins. I know the kitchen isn't making it and I know it could do something better.

Besides these and other gourmet specialties, you'll also find traditional curried goat and chicken, oxtails and brown-stew chicken here.

Regressive gentrificationAnd then there's Little Five Points. While Buckhead gets ethnicized, Atlanta's answer to the East Village gets - what? - Buckheadized. There's all kinds of major development going on in the area. Think Home Depot with a piercing counter at the end of the fastener aisle.

The area is totally confusing. We decided to dine at El Myr (1091 Euclid Ave., 404-588-0250), which remains a holdout for the purity of grunge, with its Keith Haring-esque murals and its restrooms so incomprehensibly identified that when I came out of one, a young woman, waiting, covered her mouth to giggle and said, "Thass the one fer the gurls!"

My actual motivation was being copied on an e-mail from someone who slammed Editor Bill Addison for praising Chipotle Mexican Grill when he could be eating at El Myr. The experience only further inflamed my nostalgia - this time for Tortillas (which a disappointed friend, visiting from Austin, begged me to take him to last week).

El Myr's cooks like watery salsa and cheese dip. The stuff barely clings to a chip. The burritos actually aren't bad but do make you weep for Tortillas. I ordered the green chili and potato with steak added. When I asked the waitress to describe the chilies, she said: "You know, the ones that come in a can! They are good!" In fact, the burrito wasn't bad at all. Wayne's choice, a burrito made with grilled tilapia, was much less satisfying to my taste.

Of Kyma's YogurtI have received many e-mails from other fans of Kyma's dessert of yogurt, honey and nuts. Most beg for a local source to make it. Meg Goldman writes this:

"Ever since I had fresh Greek yogurt with local thyme honey, I have been in an epic struggle to re-create that which was handed to me by a Greek god from the back of a little storefront in Naxos.

"Almost three years later, I think I have something similar - perhaps not the Olympian ideal, but it should get you to the base of the mountain. All ingredients are available at the DeKalb Farmers Market. This has become a breakfast staple but could certainly double as a desert: organic goat's milk yogurt, Italian organic acacia honey, unsalted marcona almonds (not the salted, oiled ones from Whole Foods; they don't work in this).

"The goat's milk yogurt seems to have that light, creamy, airy thing going on and doesn't get that strange metallic taste that cow's milk yogurt sometimes does. The honey is more viscous than some and seems to coat the yogurt more evenly. The marconas add a mild sweet, crunchy element."

I'll be at the Farmers Market this weekend.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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