Before you finish your meal at Kingston 11, owner Adrian Henderson is likely to bless you multiple times. Willing to wait while they clear off a table? "Bless." Enjoyed your cheesecake? "Bless." It's a secular pleasantry, on a level with "Have a nice day" from a diner waitress.
That's not to say deeper blessings aren't in store: Wait until you try the jerk chicken.
Open only Friday and Saturday nights, this home-style Jamaican joint has been colonizing Guerilla Café in Berkeley for just over a year. It's part of a wave of "permanent pop-ups:" restaurants that want their own space, but remain stuck in someone else's kitchen (thanks, economy). Japanese, Moroccan, and Mexican places have popped up and moved on from Guerilla, but Kingston 11 soldiers on.
When I first walked in on a Friday night, there was a momentary feeling of stumbling into a private party. Dancehall reggae thumped courtesy of a live DJ, and everyone was throwing up hands and belting out refrains. There's an easy grace to Kingston 11's staff, and lines were blurred between server and customer. Everyone was breaking bread and grooving, and I felt like a lost tourist.
Then Henderson emerged from the fray. Approaching everyone who enters, he gives the sense that yes, this is a private party, but you just happen to be the most honored guest. "Bless."
The diverse crowd was a well-heeled, fashionable mix, straight out of a Benetton catalog. It filled a tiny space: a handful of small tables, one big one up front, and a string of counter seats lining the kitchen. In such close quarters, everyone's your brother.
When I asked about the house sangria, the server brought a free glass to sample. Sweet and nondescript, its key charm was being ladled out of a Home Depot bucket. Fifteen dollars for a pitcher clinched the sale.
I started with plantain wedges, roasted then deep fried, set off by a splash of spicy black-bean purée. After too many mealy sweet-potato fries of late, I found comfort in these ineffably crisp-meets-creamy delights. Salt cod and potato fritters were airy little hockey pucks, served with a light-pink tomato cream sauce. These opening dishes augured happy times ahead.
First was the jerk chicken, the litmus for a Caribbean restaurant's chops. Chef and co-owner Nigel Jones gives his meat one and a half days in a pimento, cumin, and allspice dry rub, another day and a half in a fiery lime marinade, then he slow roasts it and gives it a run in the smoker. The resulting flavor is intricate, smoky, and deep, pierced with the lasting burn of Scotch Bonnet peppers. The meat is indescribably moist and tender, inspiring a fleeting bit of home-cook envy. Generous portion, too.
The menu advertises salmon steaks cooked in a ginger/rum butter potion, but I mostly tasted cumin and cayenne. The pan-seared flesh was a bit blackened, with the crisp crust enveloping a moist, flaky center. (A note from Mr. Mom: be careful of the pin bones.) Sautéed Swiss chard with pine nuts and dried cherries, served with a bit of balsamic tang, rounded out the dish. Again, the hearty portions were made for family-style sharing.
The oxtails were served in a thick, garlicky au jus gravy, spooned over a tall hillock of jasmine rice. Like the salmon, this dish is bone-in. You're left to gnaw on each two-inch tail segment by hand (though this can be a little goopy) or inefficiently pry it off the bone with a fork. More time tenderizing in the pot would have done this legwork for you, while cooking off some surplus fat. By contrast the rice was expertly prepared and not too clumpy, a light foil for the weighty stew.
Kingston 11's vegetarian entrée feels a bit like an afterthought, like the "veggie burger" at In-N-Out (lettuce, onions, and tomatoes on a bun). It's nothing more than a simmered vegetable medley served over brown rice: green beans, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, and potatoes. There's a light coconut milk curry drizzled over the top, but it's still a bit lifeless. A smaller portion of this dish was served with the chicken, a satisfactory side. It just didn't have enough oomph to stand on its own.
After our lumberjack meals, my dining companions and I felt that dessert would be overkill. Our defenses were easily battered by the server's charm, though; we were eating rum cake and tropical cheesecake within minutes. The latter came from Reuschelle's Cheesecakes in San Leandro, dreamy little coconut and mango disks, while the former is house-made. The rum cake was better-than-average angel food, a little dry but juiced up with booze and strawberry slices.
But let me revisit the charming service. The sizeable crew at Kingston 11, working at a roughly one-to-one ratio with the customers, is a genial, rollicking lot. There's a playfulness and warmth that bonds them together and uplifts the whole experience. Henderson says they're all family and friends, but you could've figured that out.
He and Jones started Kingston 11 as a Sunday night dinner party, a moveable feast to showcase their cooking styles to friends. When word spread and strangers started showing up ("I was like: Who's that dude?!" said Henderson), they took it to the next level. Even though the party is now for profit, they've retained the same homey, come-on-over feel.
After a year at Guerilla Café, the duo is itching for a permanent space, complete with a real kitchen (much of their menu is currently prepped in Emeryville) and a bigger seating area. Henderson thinks the food they're making now only hints at their potential. "Picture eating that jerk chicken fresh out of the smoker," he said. Yes, I'd like that.
Note: After two more dinners on December 2 and 3, Kingston 11 will be closed for the rest of the month. Chef Jones will spend December perfecting his cooking techniques in Jamaica, and will return on January 6.