Ja' Grill Review - Passion Makes a Difference

Looking at Ja'Grill, vintage building with bay window

When a restaurateur invests his money, time and his passion, success is inevitable.   Tony Coates, owner of Ja’ Grill Restaurant & Bar in Lincoln Park, is passionate about Jamaican cuisine.   Coates has lived all over the United States, but living most of his life outside of Washington, DC has exposed him to the many tastes around the world.   From African to Chinese to Indian and Spanish cuisine to name a few, Coates fell in love with Jamaican cuisine.   Thus, reflecting the diversity of Jamaica, and perhaps that of Coates’s own life.    Settling in Chicago with his wife, who is Filipino, and 3 children, he met native Jamaican Chef Herbert (Erroll) Gallimore, who ran his own restaurant on the south side of Chicago.   Coates regularly trekked to the south side to eat Chef Erroll authentic Jamaican cuisine.   Their relationship reached its peak when Chef Erroll offered to cook in Coates’s own kitchen for an event he was hosting.   This lead to a collaboration which evolved into Ja’ Grill.   Chef Erroll runs the back, while Coates keeps things welcoming and comfortable in the front.   Together, they lend boutique-y Armitage Avenue a little Jamaican heat.  

Bob Marley mural

Copper tabletops, deep rose and gold banquettes and exposed brick walls give the casual room warmth. The Jamaican theme is underscored by Paul Alexander’s wall mural of Bob Marley and Phil Flash’s black and white 1970’s photographs of Jamaicans. Reggae music enhances the ambiance at a level that makes conversation easy. Darius, the dread-locked bartender, doubles as D.J. The muted sound on five flat-screened TVs allows patrons to see scores and news without taking away from the focus on food and drink.


Darius as DJ with vintage photos behind

Ja’ Grill prides itself on its rums showcased on a glowing back wall. Our friendly, attentive waiter, Devin Matloff, told us how much he enjoys working at Ja’ and suggested and thoroughly explained many of the drinks and dishes served at Ja'. My “Dark n’ Stormy” was a tall glass of Gosling’s rum carefully afloat Barritts ginger beer – a great drink anytime, and I’m going back for it as the weather warms. My friend, Becca, chose a “Negril Stinger” Appleton Special with Tia Maria, and described it as smooth and refreshing.


Looking at the bar

Becca’s starter was a beef pattie, a classic Jamaican turnover-like pastry stuffed with spiced ground beef.  The spice was gentle but had an after-kick - the Jamaican way to spice food. I chose fish soup, full of chunks of fresh fish, potatoes, carrots, and dumplings. The aroma was heady, the flavor deep and rich.

Becca had the half jerk chicken (also available as a quarter) – the white meat was tender and moist, and the dark meat grilled perfectly. It is served with a separate cup of jerk sauce for added heat, mild or hot.  It is the Scotch Bonnets (jamaican peppers) that adds the extra kick for the hot jerk sauce.  I chose curried goat, another signature dish emblematic of the country’s cuisine. The goat was fall-off-the-bone tender, juicy and delicious, and the pleasantly spicy gravy was great with the just-dry-enough rice and peas. The Jamaican hardough bread added another authentic note and it is sometimes used to soak up the wonderfully spiced curry. 


Signature dish, Jerk chicken, cabbage and carrots, and plantains

Other signature dishes include red snapper prepared escoveitch style (colorful medly of pepper, onions in a light vinegar sauce).  There is a broad selection of jerk dishes - shrimp, pork and a jerk skirt steak another customer clearly enjoyed. The menu also includes other fresh fish, vegetarian selections and interesting salads. All entrees are served with rice and peas, sautéed cabbage and carrots, and sweet plantains, but many can be ordered à la Carte.

Signature fish dish, Red Snapper escoveitch

Desserts are not a focus of Jamaican food - meals often finish with the wonderful fresh fruits of the island. But Ja’ is in Chicago, and there are cakes and sorbets on the menu. The Bomba is a thin white chocolate shell surrounding a ball of sorbet - half mango, half passion fruit centered with raspberry. The mango was mellow, the passion fruit a bright contrast. Becca chose the warm, light melt-in-your mouth bread pudding baked with apples and topped with warm caramel sauce.


Signature drink, Ja'rum punch

We ended a great, relaxed meal with the signature smooth Ja' Rum Punch (3 rums, special blends of tropical juices topped with fruit) and checked out the basement-level lounge, a place to wait in cold Chicago winters or continue after-dinner conversation.  Ja’ Grill looks forward to beginning sidewalk cafe service in spring and summer and to being part of Chicago’s Reggae Festival in August.

We look forward to a waking dream of Jamaica as we sit in the sun and sip rum punch at Ja’.

Ja’ Grill Restaurant & Lounge
1008 West Armitage
773-929-JERK (5375)

Open for lunch and dinner, Ja’ is kid-friendly - the kids have their own menu. Hours - Sun-Wed 11 am - 10 pm; Thur 11 am - 11 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am - 2 am. Reservations strongly suggested on weekends. Appetizers - $3-$6; entrees with sides $13 - $15 ($20 for red snapper); kids’ menu $4-$6. Metered parking available on Armitage.

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