5 Bites of Kingston, Jamaica
By Caribbean standards, the Jamaican capital Kingston is an enormous city with a large number of international residents, which means that as culinary influences go in both directions, the city’s movers and shakers have developed a hankering for upscale dining. To wit, after years as a star chef in London, Jamaican-born Collin Brown has decided to return to the island to collaborate with celebrity hotelier Jon Baker, and in a few short years, the country's Restaurant Week in November has become a national success, proving that fine cuisine isn’t limited to the high-rise international hotels like the Wyndham Kingston Jamaica and Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in the New Kingston business district.
But a serious cuisine scene is still perhaps not the top reason the casual traveler books a trip to Jamaica. Thankfully, Kingston restaurateurs have by no means lost sight of the island’s basics and continue to play on the nation’s mix of ethnic influences, from British, Iberian, Sephardic, and African to Taino Indian, East Indian, and Chinese, the latter whose community many credit with broadening the appeal of the ubiquitous beef patties. And who’s going to argue with a diet that produced the fastest man in the world? Six-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt famously grew up on yams.
Breakfast: Traditionally, Jamaicans start the day with a protein dish served with fried and boiled sides, and ackee (a creamy, yellow-flesh fruit) and saltfish (cod) are as much a national dish as any. Saltfish with beans or saltfish with callaloo and stewed chicken are also popular choices, and Johnny cakes (fried dumplings) and fried plantains are frequent breakfast accompaniments. Even the most nondescript strip-mall outlet serves high-quality breakfast fare; what you lose in aesthetic surroundings in going to chain outlets like Tastee and Juici Patties is made up for in the heartiness of their ever-popular beef patties. At your hotel buffet, you’ll find yourself skipping over the bacon and omelettes for all of the above options as well as items like vanilla-and cinnamon-enhanced cornmeal porridge. After feasting on the breakfast specialties in Jamaica, don’t be surprised when you go home and find your cereal and bagels as boring as cardboard.
Lunch: Maintained today by the state as a heritage site, the Georgian-style Devon House is one of the West Indies’ great surviving mansions, built by George Stiebel, who was Jamaica’s first black millionaire. Somewhat reminiscent of a tiny Colonial Williamsburg with brick workshops (today they are boutiques) built around a courtyard, the house is worth a tour in its own right. It also hosts several fine lunch and dinner spots, including The Grog Shoppe on a patio off the main house. After lunch, stop into the adjacent pub area for a cool Red Stripe beer. Everyone from regular families to Kingston’s elite — beauty queens, politicos, and media hosts — and even Prince Harry come to dine on the porch shaded by centuries-old trees or indoors in the high-ceilinged former servants quarters. Specialties include traditional ackee puffs flavored with ginger and a teriyaki dipping sauce, which make for a light appetizer, and the escoveitched snapper fillet, a salty main dish with a peppery crunch to it.
Snack: Three years ago the Spanish Court Hotel opened as one of Kingston’s few boutique properties. Its second-floor Sky Bar is an outdoor lounge and a fine place to kick back under an umbrella with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee (85 percent of which is exported to Japan) and to take in the view of the famous range that produces it. Their jerk roll with callaloo is a Jamaican twist on fried spring rolls, served with Scotch bonnet peppers and thyme dipping sauce. And with a long infinity pool stretching through the middle of the lounge, snacking is sometimes for the eyes, too. For something sweet, the hotel’s well-appointed lobby café serves a popular lychee cake made from locally grown fruit.
Dinner: Located in an American-style bungalow, the Redbones Blues Café in New Kingston is run by a gregarious Jamaican with his American wife and daughter helping run the show. Its bar/café has jazzy murals, while its main house where couples can canoodle over dinner is filled with vintage posters and photos out of the American jazz pantheon. On the terrace, after-work groups party it up over appetizers of smoked marlin salad served with papaya slices and capers. Whichever area one dines in, the seasonal grilled lobster in garlic butter cream may not seem a very Caribbean main dish, but it goes well with the casually elegant jazz theme. The enormous patio has an outdoor stage for live jazz shows (Maria Muldaur of Midnight at the Oasis fame has played there).
Dessert: As Central Kingston isn't that large, it’s an easy trip back to Devon House for an ice cream shop that routinely shows up on the world’s great ice cream lists. Of the I Scream shop’s 27 flavors, their mango doesn’t just taste like real fruit, it’s so creamy as to redefine the word. And how often do you ever taste a cone of tangy sour sop, and where else would you ever be served a cup of stout beer flavor? The tiny shop may not have seats, but no matter; step into the Devon House courtyard and lick away on benches or under a gazebo. For those who prefer dessert with a little more buzz, the one-room Bin26 Wine Bar is just 30 yards to the left in the courtyard. Besides wines from around the world, it serves nibbles including chocolate mousse and fresh fruit kebabs.