Tucked on a side street in East Liberty, Impressionz hides in plain sight. With an ambiguous name and a collection of DVDs for sale in a deli case by the entrance, it's not readily apparent that this is a Jamaican restaurant.
But this is not restaurant food. This is home cooking.
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
- Basics: Impressionz is a family-run restaurant serving authentic Jamaican cuisine.
- Dishes: Jerk chicken, curried goat, jerk shrimp, oxtail, calaloo, ackee and saltfish, rice and peas, plantains, meat patties.
- Prices: Oxtail, pepper steak, jerk chicken: small $10.75, large $12.75. Curry chicken: small $10, large $12. Curry goat: small $11, large $14. Meat paddies $2.50 each. Rice and peas $5. Ackee and saltfish $18. Calaloo and saltfish $14.
- Summary: Cash only, BYOB, street parking.
- Noise level: Moderately quiet.
A carefully chalked menu on a sidewalk sandwich board promotes oxtail, pepper steak, curry goat, meat patties, rice and peas, saltfish, calaloo greens and ackee.
I'm obsessed with the jerk chicken. For the rub, a whisper of thyme and the mellow sweetness of brown sugar pairs with Scotch bonnet chilis to deliver a complex tide of heat. Lime, vinegar and green onion juxtapose cinnamon and nutmeg, laced with dark, tannic allspice -- and lots of it.
In Jamaica, jerk preparation involves marinating meat and cooking it over a fire stoked by pimento wood from the Jamaican allspice tree. In Brooklyn where there's one of the largest populations of Jamaicans outside of the island, jerk chicken is often cooked over a grated steel drum filled with charcoal.
But there's no grilling at Impressionz. Instead, chicken is slow-cooked until the tender dark meat falls off the bone. And it is delicious.
Owner Cecelia Price-Knight is as memorable as this dish. Dressed in a flowy kaftan, she grabs a chair to tell curious diners stories about her family and how she's the first person among them to have graduated from high school and college.
As she talks during dinner hour, her son, Cecil, 12, works on algebra equations behind the bar. He has it to himself, since no liquor is served here. Her daughter Sierra, 7, dances to reggae, while Sienna, 5, loops a customer in a round of high-fives. Later in the night, she finds a seat on her mother's lap and wrap her arms around her neck.
Her husband and the cook, Desmond Knight, grew up in Jamaica, as his dishes display so well.
He also cooked here when the space had been home to Flavors, managed by different owners. This is their first restaurant. They live close by, right in East Liberty.
"I kept telling Desmond I wanted to buy this place," said Ms. Price-Knight. Things aligned four years ago so they could.
Decor is a charming hodgepodge of linen-dressed tables, spray-painted murals, blow-up palm trees and little American flags behind the bar. Bob Marley is portrayed in a Jesus-like mural and a Michelangelo hand reaches for another over the doorway to the entrance.
Two men come by for a takeout of curried goat, since the restaurant ran out of jerk chicken, as it often does. With braised chunks on the bone, the goat offers muted spice with a kick of ginger.
Cecil's favorite dish is the oxtail and it's my runner-up. The flavor is more robust than chicken, but just as aggressively seasoned, minus the Scotch bonnets.
Call ahead for an order of saltfish, cod sauteed together with onions, Scotch bonnets, tomatoes and spices. It's served with hearty calaloo greens or ackee, a tart, custardy fruit related to lychee that looks like scrambled eggs.
Whether in small or large portions, all of these plates are served with a respectable rendition of rice and beans as well as cabbage and plantains.
For a smaller meal, there's chicken or ground beef stuffed in tumeric-yellow pastry. They're pretty good, but not as memorable as the slow-cooked meats.
Desserts aren't an afterthought. There's the rum or chocolate cake baked in-house that Ms. Price-Knight displays on glass-covered plates. The rum cake is better, a dense black, boozy gingerbread.
Or skip the sweets and order from a selection of provocative Jamaican sodas with sorrel, dandelion, saw palmetto and dandelion roots. They're quite fizzy and potent.
Impressionz may not offer the glitzy theater of dining that's infiltrating Downtown and the main thoroughfare of East Liberty. Instead, it's a modest restaurant that serves honest fare, where the owner greets customers with warmth and a hug, introduces her children and dotes on guests.
"This place is about taking care of people," said Ms. Price-Knight. "We are serving something bigger than food."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart