On one side of the rectangular ceramic tray sits a mini cast-iron skillet filled with aromatic brown-stew chicken in voluptuous dark gravy; on the other, a bowl of perfect rice and peas. Where I’m from, rice and gravy like to get all touchy-feely on the same plate. So why in the devil does Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar make you work so hard to get these sexy partners together in the same spoon?
Call me picky. But I’d rather eat jerk chicken and curry goat in a shack than struggle with the niceties of modern-day food presentation and pretty plating.
With its sweet-natured staff, strong libations and sleek urban vibe, Ms. Icey’s, the new Clairmont Road endeavor from Negril Village owner Sim Walker, feels like a place that wants you to have a good time. Co-chefs Yusef Walker and Lorenzo Washington have designed a menu that reflects their Creole commonality: Southern fried chicken and etouffee represent Washington’s hometown of New Orleans; oxtails and jerk lamb ribs evoke Walker’s Caribbean roots.
But often, in this mishmash of cuisines and glamorous trappings, the realness gets lost. The Walkers, who are brothers, named the place for their Jamaican grandmother, Icelyn; it also pays homage to their mother, Marva, who runs the original Negril Village in New York, but I don’t get much of a down-home family vibe.
Cocktails are a big thing at Ms. Icey’s, which Sim Walker described to me via email as “urban, funky, very hip-hop and more.” The #MiRass, concocted with house-made sorrel (aka hibiscus) syrup and Wray & Nephew Rum, is bright red and punchy and it kicked my butt. The Graffiti Grandma (Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain, cucumber, house-made ginger beer and mint) was a nice cooler on a stifling summer afternoon. The Dark and Stormy, made with Gosling’s Rum and that same ginger beer, was robust and spicy. Even better was Mama Mavis’ Crusta, an elegant, smartly balanced cognac cocktail with lemon, cherry and orange curacao. The beverage was missing its namesake sugar rim (or crust), but I liked it anyway because it evoked the boozy, brandy-and-lemon zing of a pisco sour. Well done, bartender.
You know the food is sweet and sticky when the staff puts out moist towelettes at the start of the meal. Indeed, the so-called Strip Club Wings are drenched with thick teriyaki sauce and cooling lime yogurt. But when you get down to it, the chicken remains fundamentally dry, and it’s so messy to eat. Our server was big on the Skillet Cornbread as a starter. But with its honey crust, bourbon-praline butter and blueberry compote, it felt like dessert.
Moving on to the mains, my server assured me that Cassie’s Fried Chicken — served with a sweet-potato waffle and a dab of that bourbon-praline butter — was classic bone-in bird and not a boring boneless breast. (Thank you, Jesus.) With a side of loaded mac and cheese (smoked Gouda, cheddar, Parmesan), this felt like a bona fide Southern supper, though (quibble, quibble) it’s rare to see a chicken thigh hacked and fried up as two separate pieces, like the kitchen does here. One piece had a splendid little curlicue of crispy skin, but for the most part, the technique just dried out what should be choice, tender dark meat.
Grandma’s Oxtail sounded like a winner, and certainly the charred baby carrots and pearl onions that came on the plate were wonderful. But it was hard to find a morsel of meat on these skinny, gristly cow tails, and the mashed potatoes were quite the opposite of rich and creamy. Next, please.
Blackened Georgia trout was gently seasoned and came with a lovely risotto made with asparagus and corn — simple, good but hardly a knockout overall. Hands down, the most pleasing choice of my two ho-hum meals was that brown-stew chicken. And once my dining companion suggested I dump the rice and peas in the skillet with the gravy, these two beauteous classics of the Jamaican repertoire came together like a song. Still, is it asking too much to bring a clean dinner plate to the table so I can moisten my rice with minimal awkwardness? Thank you.
There are any number of Atlanta restaurants cooking this genre of contemporary Southern food — fried chicken, mac and cheese, greens, and so on. Several of them do it better. Perhaps this place would want to play up its Caribbean accent: Atlanta could use more good Jamaican. Right now, it’s not even serving jerk chicken. For Ms. Icey’s to be hot, the owners will need to turn up the flame.
MS. ICEY’S KITCHEN & BAR
6-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 6 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. 1371 Clairmont Road, Decatur, Ga. 30033. 404-963-7871, msiceys.com.
Recommended: Mama Mavis’ Crusta cocktail. Brown-stew chicken. Mac and cheese. Peach poundcake.