East Liberty's cycle of flourish, decline and, lately, revival is one that's got everyone in Pittsburgh buzzing. No, it's not a fairy tale about food -- unless we're talking about a couple new grocery stores. But food is central to the East Liberty experience. In good times or bad, people gotta eat. Even in its bleakest days post-Penn Circle, the neighborhood has been fertile ground for restaurants owned and run by African Americans.
More recently, the trend took on a foreign flavor when Pittsburgh's first Ethiopian restaurant opened on Highland Avenue, fast becoming the neighborhood's restaurant row. Perhaps encouraged by its success, an excellent new Caribbean restaurant next door is East Liberty's newest comer.
Royal Caribbean is the creation of owner and chef Ben Crownie. In a small storefront midway between the tony new shops on Centre Avenue and the hip-hop beat of Penn, he has created a mellow, welcoming dining room colored with pastel versions of Jamaica's iconic red, yellow and green. A takeout counter is built of bamboo to evoke a beachside cabana, though it's strictly bring-your-own-fruity cocktails.
Such libations should taste pretty good with the sometimes-fiery flavors on the simple, enticing menu, which focuses on chicken and seafood, jerk and curry. In particular, nearly half the menu consists of fish and shrimp dishes, with several preparations available for either whole or filet tilapia or red snapper.
We began with seafood fritters. The puck-sized patties were chewy on the inside, crispy on the outside, and packed with flaky white fish and tiny, succulent shrimp. Their slightly spicy flavor warmed us up for jerk-chicken salad. Our waitress cautioned us that the jerk was hot, but we found it well on the tolerable side of palate pyrotechnics, balanced by the cooling properties of crisp greens and ranch dressing (Royal Caribbean's house dressing, made with cucumbers, was unfortunately unavailable). A big, juicy wedge of mango reminded us that jerk was born to accompany tropical fruit.
Around here, it's safe to say that not every restaurant offers goat, so when Angelique saw goat curry on the entree list, she looked no further. Meaty yet tender, hearty yet mild, the goat kept company with a few soft potatoes in a warmly seasoned, lightly piquant sauce. It was excellent with a side dish of rice and beans.
Jason tried tilapia escovitch, a vinegar-cured preparation related to ceviche (citrus-marinated seafood) and escabeche (pickled vegetables). In this case, it was a gorgeously sautéed filet topped with a mildly tangy, but not sweet, vinaigrette and lightly sautéed onions and tomatoes. The combination of warm cooking with a salad-like presentation added delightful dimensions of temperature, texture and flavor to this wonderful dish.
Though tropical cocktails aren't on the menu, you might not miss them if you try Royal Caribbean's special beverages. The juices come directly from the fruit, not a can, and the homemade ginger ale packs a zing that makes the stuff from the supermarket taste like sugar water.
As East Liberty's star continues to rise, we're thrilled to see it become home to restaurants like Royal Caribbean, whose unique offerings and unpretentious, intimate atmosphere say, loud and clear, "Welcome to the neighborhood."