I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigel Jones, founder, co-owner, and head chef of Kingston 11, prior to dining at his restaurant. The first thing you notice about Nigel is how genuinely warm and welcoming he is. Opening up the doors of his restaurant early to give us enough time to talk, he gave me deep insight into his background as a native of Kingston, Jamaica and the people and situations that guided his path. Nigel gave me the history of the restaurant, whose idea was partially driven by the lack of Jamaican food in the Bay Area and started as a successful pop-up in Berkley. He detailed his approach to the business and the food, both rooted in a celebration of diversity and community.
Nigel led me to a wall adorned with photographs of people of different ethnicities wearing dreadlocks, historically connected to Jamaican Rastafarians and broadly introduced to the masses by Kingston’s favorite son, the late great Bob Marley. Nigel explained to me that the collection of pictures that included females and males, old and young, Caucasians, Asians, Latinos, and others proudly donning dreadlocks symbolizes the restaurant’s acceptance of all walks of life and embracing a global community. Nigel even teased out future plans, one being a new restaurant in 2020 through a collaboration with Iranian and Malaysian chefs that further punctuates his focus on diversity and community.
The gracious chef invited me to come back for dinner in order to get the full vibe of the restaurant. During this time, he introduced me to his business partner Adrian Henderson and each of his staff, even inviting me to the kitchen area [add link to video]. My earlier discussion with Nigel and subsequent interactions with and observations of the staff gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the food and the restaurant as a whole.
The Ambience and Service
True to Nigel’s vision, Kingston 11 is truly a community gathering space. I estimate that the large dining room can comfortably sit more than 80 diners, and the high ceilings along with large, scenic artwork placed high on the walls make the restaurant seem even more expansive. The dimmer lighting gives the restaurant a lounge/club-like vibe, which makes for an easy transition for patrons going to or coming from another nightlife venue in the area. Meanwhile, the wood furniture, brown walls, artwork, framed photographs, and live tree in the middle of the floor gave it a bohemian touch. There were varying sized groups in the dining area, including a couple with more than 10, and it made for a very convivial, festive atmosphere. I didn’t have the privilege to be there during one of these times, but Kingston 11 ramps up the jovial ambience by hosting a DJ or musician playing live music. I sat at the bar next to other single diners, and they seemed upbeat as well. For one, Nigel individually greeted and spoke to each one of them as one would greet a good friend visiting their home. Secondly, the staff behind the bar were very attentive, kept the glasses filled, and interacted with the diners at a commendable rate. The friendliness was contagious as one of the diners next to me perused my dishes and did his best job to sell me on his go-to dish, the oxtail stew.
As delicious as the oxtail stew sounded (and I’ve read countless reviews on how great that dish is), I was zoned in another menu item – the curried goat. Kingston 11 makes this dish available on Thursday through Saturday only, giving it that Supreme-like limited edition hype. However, before the curried goat, Nigel served me a cocktail and a couple other signature dishes.
Nigel is really proud of his robust selection of cocktails and mentions his stock of more than 60 types of rum, noting that a Jamaican bar without rum is like a Mexican bar without tequila. I chose one of their most popular drinks – the Oakland Ting, a blend of Jamaica’s beloved grapefruit soda Ting with Town-favorite St. George’s Gottanavore gin, along with Peychaud bitters. It was refreshingly sour and easy going down.
My meal started with the salt fish fritters, which is a very important native Jamaican dish. It is rooted in a time in Jamaica when plantation owners needed to feed their slaves and wanted to do so on the cheap. With no access to refrigeration, fish was heavily salted as a preservation technique to stretch out the supply over months. Kingston 11’s version of this dish is composed of two lightly breaded fish patties, fried until golden, and served with an organic dairy and nut-free chimichurri. Salt fish is usually cod, and as with other non-oily whitefish, the faintly sweet meat largely takes on the flavors of the breading, spices, and sauces with which it is cooked or accompanied. The light crunch of the breading and flakiness and juiciness of the cod dunked into the chimichurri dip made for an extremely flavorful bite.
Next, I was presented with a dish that exemplifies Nigel’s creativity and incorporation of other cuisines – the black pepper tofu, served on a bed of jasmine rice. Kingston 11 serves jasmine rice as a healthy alternative to traditional white rice, but you it would take a refined palate to tell the difference. Kingston 11 prepares their jasmine rice so it is fluffier and stickier than other jasmine rice I’ve eaten. This makes it “act” more like white rice, and is the perfect complement to the menu items that incorporate rich stews and sauces, as each scoop of rice soaks up a ton of liquid goodness and it doesn’t fall apart on the way to your mouth. Each tofu cube, caramelized with ginger and soy, had a sweet and sour taste to it, and the rice picked up the glaze nicely. The dish could hold its own on any contemporary Asian restaurant’s menu.
Then the dish I had been waiting for was delivered – the curried goat. The dish is prepared using halal goat and stewed for 24 hours. Kingston 11 plates this dish with a jasmine rice in the middle separating a group of three perfectly fried plantains from more than a dozen pieces of goat, with meat falling off the bones and some of the stew soaking into the rice. In many of the goat dishes I’ve eaten in my lifetime, the goat had a strong gamey taste, a quality that appeals to some while turns off many others. Personally, I can enjoy a gamey goat dish to a certain point, before I start envisioning the farm animal.
That being said, Kingston 11’s curried goat has absolutely no gaminess to it, which basically means I can eat bowl after bowl. And as good as this dish tastes, I absolutely would. Amidst the chunks of goat, there were smaller pieces of potato. I couldn’t decipher the stew’s individual ingredients for certain since it was a beautifully single liquid conglomerate upon plating, but I could taste hints of garlic, curry powder, tomatoes, and onions.
Kingston 11’s curried goat dish is that rare dish you hear about being great, you look forward to eating, and after you eat it, you realize it is just as good as you imagined.
Chef Nigel Jones initially started Kingston 11 to fill the void of Jamaican cuisine in the Bay Area, but I believe he has achieved something more special. He is accomplishing his goal to provide a gathering place for the community, which not only encompasses the omnipresent diversity of Oakland but extends beyond the East Bay. His ideology is based on “One Love,” and he practices this through his and his staff’s welcoming demeanor and through an innovative menu that masterfully borrows from and incorporates other cuisines. I highly recommend Kingston 11 on anybody’s short list when visiting the Bay Area. Locals should have already visited this restaurant, but if not, don’t pass up something special in your own backyard.
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