No matter how loud “Pressure Drop” plays or how enormous the bowl of rum punch, mid-Market Street, unfortunately, will never be Jamaica.
But it’s fun to pretend. “That looks like vacation,” my friend said, eyeing the Zap Pow: a tall, curvy glass brimming with blended rum, passionfruit, blood orange, grenadine, and jerk bitters over crushed ice, adorned, as vacation cocktails always are, with a slice of pineapple as well as a hollowed hunk of banana — which our server filled with rum, then set aflame. It was beachy and pretty, but too Hawaiian Punchy-sweet for my taste. I could barely drink the whole glass, but I appreciated the idea of it.
I also appreciated Daniel Patterson’s mission: to bring a bit of the Caribbean to San Francisco, to bring Oakland’s Jamaican-born chef Nigel Jones across the bay, to bring more people of color to the front of house in conjunction with ROC United, to bring goat curry and oxtail stew and perfectly fried plantains (so many plantains) to a city long lacking island cuisine, or really, much cuisine of the African diaspora.
It’s not ideal that it took a white male restaurateur (and his access to capital) to open San Francisco’s first high-profile Jamaican restaurant, but Patterson is doing more than most to try and shift the inequities of San Francisco’s restaurant scene.
“Kaya is more or less the same menu as Kingston 11,” explained our server, referring to Jones’s original Oakland restaurant, Kingston 11, which he opened in 2013. “They just bougie-d it up for San Francisco.”
I wish they hadn’t. Can’t San Francisco, even the new San Francisco, appreciate a place without a kale-beet salad or $13 cocktails? I haven’t been to Kingston 11, but I have a hunch, and it’s confirmed by what I hear, that it has less swank and more soul than its two-month-old sibling.
It took just two weeks for Patterson’s Alta to become Kaya, and it kind of feels that way — as if he decided to throw together a Jamaican-themed-party for the Uber-Twitter set — with framed black-and-white prints of kids playing cricket, pineapple straws sticking out of colorful cocktails, and a projector playing Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 film The Harder They Come.
They are all very cool touches — along with bright turquoise paint and an abundance of leafy-green plants — but still something at Kaya felt… off. Maybe it was that reggae doesn’t really go with blazer-clad tourists grabbing a bite pre-show or with guys in tucked-in button-downs glued to their iPhones.
Maybe it was that I overheard one customer look at a photo of Usain Bolt on the wall and ask: “Is that the owner?”
Maybe it was that for a restaurant hoping to create black community, the customers were — apart from a smattering of African-American families and a lone dude in a knit cap and dreads at the bar — pretty much San Francisco’s sea of monochromic white.
It's not Kaya’s fault, of course, it’s this damn city’s, where the African-American population is dwindling by the day and black culture is too.
Perhaps, if Kaya keeps cooking, it can help change that. Still, a restaurant alone cannot alter the demographics or trajectory of an entire city. Nor can a menu that caters to it.
The crispy salmon skin with Brussels sprouts was the best “big eat” of the bunch — fleshy and flavorful, if a tad salty — yet there was nothing especially Jamaican about it; just another well-cooked, sustainable, $29 salmon in San Francisco.
The black-pepper crab was covered in a sweet, spicy, chile-ginger sauce so sticky it was near impossible to manhandle and get to any meat. (A small fork would’ve helped.) I’m not afraid of getting messy, especially for a meal, but this just wasn’t worth the effort.
I actually gave up, and turned my attention to the black-pepper tofu, a “small eat,” which was doused in a similar sticky — yet delicious — sauce. The tofu, caramelized in soy and ginger, was a much better vehicle for it. The caramelized carrots, tender chunks in a pomegranate molasses sauce speckled with toasted pine nuts, was another star of the small eats. The salt fish fritters, set over a bed of collard greens, looked like arancini of the sea: a trio of panko-crusted balls with a deep-fried exterior so thick it overpowered the fishiness and subtle kick of the whipped habanero-spiked salted cod and potato inside.
The piri piri chicken had no kick whatsoever, despite its chile pepper-smoked paprika marinade. A few splashes from the bottle of Scotch Bonnet on the table helped. It tasted like roast chicken, suitable and succulent, but in a city suddenly teeming with chickens, it didn’t stand out from the flock.
The jerk chicken, however, did (though there’s not much competition in these parts). Mary’s organic breast, drumsticks, and wings, rubbed, 48-hours marinated, smoked, and blackened, was satisfyingly spicy. Juicy one night, too dry the next. Nonetheless, it was jerk chicken to enjoy. Though I’d probably enjoy it more at Kingston 11, where it’s $19 — not $24.
Our server only gave us the lengthy list of rums after we’d drank enough — and out of curiosity asked for it: “Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a ‘rum bar’? Why is all the rum buried in cocktails?” Note to Kaya: Put those 4-ounce tasting flights front and center on the menu and we probably would’ve started with one. (Not the $213 one. Though, according to our server, it is a popular order.)
That’s the thing: At these prices, in these digs, in this town, it's tough to pull off a place like Kaya. In an earlier interview with Eater, Jones said he wants "people to leave Market Street and get into a Caribbean state of mind." I mean, flaming bananas and pineapple-stamped straws, boozy black cake and Bob Marley tunes, help create somewhat of an island vibe. The food has a transportive moment or two, too. But at the end of the day, at Kaya, you are, most definitely, still in San Francisco.