Thick slices of roseate steak catch our eyes as they glide to the table astride a mound of pale orange jollof rice sweetened with crab. The beef is impressive, but its base, among the most popular dishes in West Africa, steals the show once everyone has had a taste. Let’s just say that rice cooked in a paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers, fiery Scotch bonnet, curry powder, garlic and ginger compels some of us to inhale it.
Another lesson learned at Kith and Kin, ensconced at the Wharf: Cucumbers excited with lemon juice and white balsamic vinegar, gooseberries tarted up with housemade piri piri and chunks of creamy avocado create a vivid, modern snapshot of Trinidad.
Google Kwame Onwuachi, the ambassador behind the aforementioned dishes, and you’ll read about a chef who starred on “Top Chef’s” 13th season; in 2016 opened Shaw Bijou, which flopped as quickly as Kevin Spacey’s last movie; redeemed himself last October with this, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in the InterContinental hotel; then seemed to lose his grip on the wheel for a bit.
That was then. “Have you been to Kith and Kin lately?” is the question making the rounds on the food circuit now. Return visits in September reveal a restaurant that has hit its stride and a chef who weaves into his menu a life story informed by his upbringing in the Bronx, time spent in Louisiana and grandparents with ties to Jamaica, Nigeria and Trinidad. As befits a restaurant with a water view and an entree average of $30 at dinner, the chef offers some of his rich memories with refinements. No less than wagyu short ribs are crisped on the grill and staged with shito — “Ghanaian XO sauce,” explains the chef — for the meatiest of appetizers.
Goat curry sopped up with warm roti hasn’t gone anywhere, and neither have braised oxtails. Both dishes were among the best reasons to find yourself at Kith and Kin when it opened its doors, and both continue to make carnivores’ hearts skip a beat. The glossy oxtail, seasoned with allspice and brightened with carrots, goes down like an island version of Sunday supper. Turnovers stained gold with turmeric contain crumbled beef that is sometimes dry, other times pitch perfect. (Of all the pit stops the menu makes, and with the exception of the oxtail, Jamaica is the least successful. Jerk chicken lacks the teasing heat that resonates in the role models.)
Diners have the chef’s Creole mother to thank for “Mom Dukes” shrimp cooked with what sounds like an entire Louisiana pantry and served with slices of crisp brioche. The seafood is served on rice that acts like a sponge, soaking up the wine, the herbs, the heat and the sweet that make up the sauce.
Kith and Kin is a mindful host. Customers settle in with coco bread, subtly sweet and cotton-candy-light, and if you order chicken wings (and you should), cool moist towelettes follow on a silver tray. Island-inspired cocktails are dressed up with fanciful pineapple garnishes, and an order of espresso involves chocolate-covered almonds. That condiment on the table? It’s the chef’s grandfather’s hot pepper sauce. There are no obvious shortcuts. The wings, for instance, are brined for two days and smoked with pimento wood, from Jamaica, before getting fried and glazed. Onwuachi makes five spice blends, one of which combines cumin, coriander and curry powder and makes for haunting plantain chips, an accompaniment to the seductive king crab curry.
Onwuachi rides the bandwagon of chefs who use only half the plate to present some of their food. A riff on a Caesar salad, featuring spiky mizuna, comes with room to spare. Before you call it quits with Brussels sprouts, try the overworked vegetable as it’s made at Kith and Kin — fried and seasoned with a blend of alligator peppers, groundnut powder, cayenne and ginger, a combination known as suya and a distinguishing characteristic of street food in West Africa. Like the new salad, the bowl with Brussels sprouts is only half-dressed.
The heat and heft of much of this cooking is best followed by something light for dessert. The end of summer brought a silken corn ice cream with blueberries and my first, but hopefully not last, encounter with plantain granola. Anytime, sorbets in refreshing flavors, including mango-coconut, make good sign-offs. A mount of granita, whose flavor changes with the season, doubles the pleasure.
Kith and Kin’s colorful food and cheerleading service help you forget you’re in a dining room that looks like the hotel venue it is, a study in gold and brown serving three meals a day, $19 hamburger included. The restaurant’s prime visual asset is a view of the busy waterfront, unless you include Onwuachi, a frequent presence who graciously poses for photographs with what he calls “a rainbow of people” who clearly seem happy to meet the man behind the food they recognize as their own.
Did I ever doubt the chef? Suffice it to say, I don’t think it’s polite to talk with my mouth full. I’ll let the stars speak for me.
Kith and Kin (Good/Excellent) 801 Wharf St. SW. 202-878-8600. kithandkindc.com.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $10 to $24, sandwiches and main dishes $18 to $55 (for whole red snapper).
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.