There’s a reason new kid on the block Kingston 21 is making waves in Abu Dhabi’s thriving culinary scene.
The restaurant opened doors mid-April, and prides itself on being the first authentic Jamaican restaurant in the capital. That's because although there are a handful of Caribbean restaurants in Abu Dhabi, Kingston 21 is the first to be Jamaican-owned and run, complete with Jamaican chefs, a menu featuring authentic dishes, and hard-to-find ingredients imported directly from the island country.
The menu offers a blast of nostalgia for anyone who is from Jamaica or has visited in the past, and is craving a taste of the nation's hearty fare. On the menu are all the favourites: jerk barbecue wings and jerk chicken, curry goat, plantain chips, oxtail stew and traditional toto – a wholesome coconut spice cake.
Meanwhile, brunch lovers can sample some ackee and salt fish – Jamaica’s national dish – or sip on the famous Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.
Even the space pays tribute to Jamaica. Enter and you’ll find a laid-back and casual ambience, with reggae posters plastered on the wall while the outside seating area features plenty of water views from its Al Raha location.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Kesian Bennett, 28, who noticed that Abu Dhabi didn’t have any Jamaican restaurants when she moved to the capital in 2018. However, with a career in teaching, it was the pandemic that drove her to discover a dream of opening her own restaurant.
"Being indoors all the time in 2020 made me quite sad. I'm a home chef, so I ended up doing a lot of cooking," she tells The National. "My Instagram page became full of my cooking and I started a YouTube channel for it, too. That's when I revisited the idea of launching my own restaurant."
The Jamaican national worked with the chefs to recreate dishes she had grown up eating. There has been a purposeful focus on keeping it as traditional as possible, with ingredients such the Blue Mountain coffee brew, imported from Jamaica, and the use of traditional cooking methods and spices (the restaurant even has a charcoal grill for jerk chicken).
However, the chefs have also tweaked some items, as a tribute to Abu Dhabi’s multicultural community – the oxtail ragu and pumpkin risotto being prime examples.
Even its name, Kingston 21, stems from the fact Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, has 20 postcodes, and the 21st is their hypothetical extension of the capital in the region.
The hard work and effort is also paying off.
“The response has been phenomenal,” says Bennett. “The people of Abu Dhabi are very much open to trying new things. We have a lot of locals who are very interested in the coffee, and we’ve picked a great location where we’re getting a lot of curiosity over the menu.”
The love from the community is the icing on the cake, she adds.
“I ventured into this to find myself and find my passion. But it’s amazing to be able to add value to Abu Dhabi, and share my culture and food with the people here.”