We were at a table in Negril, appreciating the framed photos of Caribbean resorts on the walls, and eyeing a suspiciously motionless and silent red-and-yellow parrot perched nearby.
A young woman walked in and stood in front of the counter, studying the menu and the contents of the glass display case, eyes downcast, not saying a word.
After a minute, the tall, smiling man behind the counter boomed good-naturedly, "Talk to me, lady!"
The startled woman's response was a reflex: "How are you doin'?"
"When I was younger, I did much better," said the man in a melodic island accent, laughing large, channeling Trinidad-born actor Geoffrey Holder, once famous for his "uncola nuts" TV spots for 7UP.
The man turned out to be Cleve Geddes, who is "Jamaican and West Indian" and whose Negril restaurant features "foods with a Caribbean flair." Remember, Negril is a beach resort town in Jamaica.
Today marks his 45th day in business on J Street, in a space formerly occupied by My BBQ Spot. Which is not to say that Geddes is a novice restaurateur.
In the mid-1980s, he and his wife had Cleve's Place Barbecue in Natomas, then he managed the former Chanterelle at the Sterling Hotel for 10 years. Along the way were gigs at Virgin Sturgeon, the Blue Cue and other places.
Now he's smoking baby back and St. Louis-style ribs (rubbed with "Caribbean spices"), brisket, pork shoulder, jerk chicken, hot links and fish, with the usual sides.
Not many 'cue joints are willing to invest the hours in smoking brisket, opting instead for the far less time-consuming tri-tip. Problem is, the usual template is to smoke it till it's overdone and tough.
It's great to find brisket on a menu, and Negril's is juicy and flavorful, but it's served only on Thursdays and Fridays (there's that time factor again). The bump, Geddes said, is "brisket doesn't move as well as tri-tip. Everybody comes in looking for tri-tip, which I will (probably) carry once the (customer) volume is up."
My two lunch pals and I jumped on the Super Combo of brisket, jerk chicken and baby back ribs, with from-scratch potato salad, rather dry coleslaw and wet "bar-b-que" beans ($26.75). We also ordered smoked salmon and sturgeon, hot links, a pile of pulled pork, crisp sweet- potato fries and crumble-at-the-touch corn muffins on the side. Meats and fish are also sold by the pound.
Later, we ranked them. The tender baby backs ("The best ribs I've had in midtown," said one lunch pal) and brisket tied for first place. No. 2 was the slightly charred (a good thing) hot links ("This link is hot!"), followed by pulled pork ("It needs some fat and could have been cooked longer") and jerk chicken ("Surprisingly dry").
The best side dishes were the house-made pinto beans – soft and mellow, with nice heat – and crisp sweet- potato fries.
On the phone later, Geddes said, "I really wanted the smoked fish to be the mainstay of the place. I would like to smoke some trout and other fish, too. That's where my mind is set about today."
Frankly, we thought the salmon (too salty) and the sturgeon (too fishy) were dense and in need of more seasoning, though we loved the concept of house-smoked fish playing a key role.
As for the house-made jerk sauce on the chicken (a couple of pieces were undercooked at the bone), Geddes said he got the basic recipe from cooks in Jamaica and has "been playing with it for three years. It (contains) scotch bonnet peppers, ground allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cumin, in mojo de ajo (olive oil, garlic, lime juice and salt)."
"My wife is half Jamaican and half West Indian, and I would bring her and my mother-in-law here," said one lunch pal. "They would love it."
Geddes cooks meats and fish in two Bradley electric smokers, burning "hickory, pecan, cherry and alder 'briquets,'" he said.
Why electric and not wood-fired?
"Because I got to baby-sit the traditional smoker," he said. "(With electric) all I got to do is press a button, and I am most satisfied with that."
Yes, electric is a lot easier and cleaner, but what gets lost in the final products is the smoke flavor. And isn't that the point?
Tracking down a favorite
We dropped by Capital Confections at Town & Country Village the other day for a big scoop of coffee-almond gelato (916-973-0249, www.sacchocolate.com).
Then we went on walkabout to see how the vintage shopping center has handled its partial demolition in preparation for reconstruction to host new tenants.
For four years, one of our go-to's there was Buonarotti Ristorante, where chef-owner Daniel Alcantaro served outstanding minestrone soup, panko-coated calamari with lemon-basil aioli, crisp-crust pizza, panini, linguine with clams, three-cheese ravioli, hearty lasagna and seasonal dishes such as softshell crab, cioppino and osso buco. The house-made red sauce was so good we used to eat it with spoons, like soup.
Alcantaro left Town & Country in September 2011, but his original 10-year-old Buonarroti Ristorante in Lincoln is still going strong, serving the same menu.
"I do love the crowd here, but I miss the people at Town and Country a lot," Alcanataro said when we visited one recent Saturday. Four of us had handmade gnocchi, fluffy pillows of pasta in three sauces – creamy gorgonzola, traditional red, and pink vodka sauce with shallots. Some things are slow to change, thank goodness.
Visit for lunch or dinner at 460 Lincoln Blvd., Lincoln; (916) 645-7951, www.buonarrotis.com.
Where: 2502 J St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
Food: ★ ★ 1/2
Ambience: ★ ★
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 440-1088