Kwame Onwuachi remembers, as a kid growing up in the Bronx, how much his Trinidadian grandfather loved goat roti. Curry goat, as Trinidadians call the spiced meat at the center of the dish, would be bundled with potato into griddled flatbread with the weight of a light blanket. A portable and sustaining meal, its layered flavors trace back to the foods of indentured laborers from India who migrated to Trinidad beginning in the mid-1800s.
As the executive chef of Washington, D.C.’s Kith and Kin, 28-year-old Onwuachi refashions the dish to his own history and memory and ingenuity. He marinates goat shoulder in his version of Trinidadian green seasoning, a paste that includes celery, thyme, culantro (a pungent herb with many names, including recao and sawtooth, and a bigger personality than its cousin cilantro), ginger, and garlic. He sears the meat — adding a distinctly Caribbean curry powder flickering with allspice, yellow mustard, anise seed, and fenugreek — then braises it for five hours.
Onwuachi then employs European techniques he learned at the Culinary Institute of America and during his time in kitchens like Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park: Green seasoning’s herbal intensity is reinforced by glossing the meat in veloute flavored with the herb mixture; the seasoning also appears in an aioli that coats the crisped potatoes set atop the goat. The unorthodox creaminess of these additions pulls the curry goat into its own unique and wonderful dimension.
Meat and bread don’t come traditionally wrapped as they’d be presented in Trinidad — here, dhalpuri roti, an extra-thin version of the flatbread stuffed with spiced and pulverized yellow split peas, comes on the side as a vehicle for grabbing hunks of meat and spuds. But eaten together in this way they merge masterfully, and though the goat roti appears on Kith and Kin’s menu as an entree, I’d urge ordering it as a shared appetizer — the better to plunge straight into the heart of Onwuachi’s synergistic, autobiographical cuisine. At Kith and Kin, Onwuachi gives equal deliberation, with similarly delicious returns, to Nigerian suya (beef skewers), West African jollof rice, Jamaican oxtails and jerk chicken, and Louisiana Creole shrimp over buttered rice — all expressions of his heritage, all chapters in his life story.
Chefs channeling their ancestry and memoirs through their cooking will be logged as a hallmark of modern American cooking this decade. Onwuachi’s narrative culinary skills have developed rapidly in the last couple of years, though with a famously rocky start. In November 2016, shortly after a star turn on Top Chef’s 13th season, he opened his first restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, a long-planned tasting-menu extravagance. It arrived at a time when the national spotlight was burning especially bright on D.C.’s energized dining scene, and when established chefs like Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury had launched expensive tasting-menu restaurants as second acts. The media zeroed in on Onwuachi, a newcomer with deep-pocketed investors who was charging prices that could easily ring up to $500 per person.
Shaw Bijou was certainly in my line of vision as a national critic, but I didn’t make it in time. Early reviews were damning: The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema described his dinner as essentially an overrambling, underdelivering, exorbitant misadventure. The restaurant scrambled to rejigger its approach and cost structure, but the dining public had already turned its back for good. It shuttered after only two and a half months in business.
Onwuachi rebounded 10 months later, in October 2017, with his lead role at Kith and Kin. The restaurant resides at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Wharf, a new 24-acre development, rife with dining options, that stretches out along the waterfront in a previously forlorn section of Southwest D.C. The area has become a clogged attraction; it takes some lyrical cooking to stand out amid the cacophony.
I came to Kith and Kin for dinner last holiday season, when the restaurant had been open a couple of months, and the meal felt like a swirl of in-progress ideas: jerk broccoli on a crudité platter; gumbo with grilled quail; and a smaller, slightly undersalted version of the goat roti. Onwuachi’s vision for the restaurant’s Afro-Caribbean cooking was still clicking into place, but his singular take on underrepresented cuisines kept drifting into my thoughts.
Returning for the first of several recent meals, I dipped into a lush king crab curry, shoveled in jollof rice topped with mackerel and carrot jam, and vanished into the goat roti, now an equal demonstration of technique and gusto. What came to mind while eating was some long-forgotten television graphic in which parts of an engine float and circle around one another, and then they suddenly join and lock precisely into place. That’s the wizardry Onwuachi commands these days over Kith and Kin’s kitchen: It’s ignited and firing at peak level.
At first glance, the very beige, very hotel-ish dining room seems to not match such revved-up, breakout cooking. Beyond its smooth, soothing woods and stony tiles, and the light fixtures that resemble giant foil cupcake liners, the floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the constant streams of life along the sidewalk just outside the building; you might glimpse some ripples in the narrow Washington Channel past the Wharf.
Given its whereabouts off of the hotel lobby, it makes sense that the restaurant needs a few dishes with broad appeal, like smoked chicken wings or a pretty cucumber and avocado salad scattered with puffed quinoa. A silky corn velouté with lump blue crab signals summer’s last gasps. The saucy, busy double-patty burger with caramelized onions, American cheese, and jerk-spiced bacon is a force unto itself.
It’s obvious, though, on which dishes Onwuachi most focuses his attention — and for whom he’s gratified to be cooking. “The local support has been a beautiful thing,” Onwuachi said over the phone. “People of African and Caribbean descent come here to celebrate anything — not just to celebrate an occasion, but also a cuisine.”
Everyone in the restaurant should have on their table one of his variations of jollof rice. He cooks the grains in Nigerian red stew, a dish that during an interview Onwuachi compares to an Italian-American grandmother’s Sunday gravy in its home-country belovedness. His version includes tomato, red pepper, fermented habanero sauce (also served as a condiment), toasted curry powder, and (crucial) Maggi Cube, a bouillon brand out of the Middle East that’s ubiquitous in West Africa.
Jollof comes in two ways: underneath mackerel that’s been rubbed with jerk spices and lit by a bright jam of carrot juice, pickling liquid, ginger, and garlic, or overlaid with steak and a thick, gentle crab stew that I want to scarf separately in a large bowl. Both are rewarding; both show off Onwuachi’s love for this food and the devoted steps he takes to stack flavor atop flavor.
That zeal fuels the preparation of jerk chicken, a multiday affair that involves brining the bird, and then marinating it in jerk paste, smoking it, frying it, and finally grilling it (well, and basting it while it grills). This rendition isn’t about heat so much as it is about the campfire fragrance and the contrast between the smirched, crinkly skin and the plump, deeply seasoned meat. Beer-braised cabbage on the side provides the same astringent disruption that coleslaw does for fried chicken.
White rice, rather than jollof, is an appropriately neutral complement to sticky-chewy-tender-crisp oxtails, glazed with chicken-feet stock to make their surfaces as reflective as mirrored sunglasses. Onwuachi shows off so much virtuosity with texture in his cooking; the only time I’ve found it falters is with his miniaturized beef patties, which were consistently dry and crumbly — and, as first bites, counter-indicative to the other glories ahead.
Bartenders make some apt cocktails to pair with the food (look especially for the Papa Bois, with rye, rum, coconut water, pineapple shrub, and pimento bitters), but mains such as oxtails and jerk chicken also call for an aged sipping rum like Papa’s Pilar 24, with its whiffs of dried cherry and sherry. That kind of potent spirit can carry over into dessert, to be sipped alongside a chocolate rum cake or puff puffs, distant cousins to beignets served with marionberry jam.
The quality of service varies by server; one overexplained the menu and then disappeared for long stretches, another paced herself — and our dishes — with impeccable timing. The uneven moments never fatally detracted from the big-picture dining experience, from the food’s pleasure and specialness.
The level Onwuachi now achieves with his African and Caribbean repertoire puts him in culinary conversation with a small cache of game-changing restaurants around the country, including Compère Lapin, St. Lucia native Nina Compton’s New Orleans triumph, and Edouardo Jordan’s JuneBaby in Seattle, where he deeply considers the roots of the African-American lexicon. But Onwuachi’s heritage is no one else’s; his food honors his individuality. At this point in his still-young career, he’s a chef holding his own council. He’s found a depth of wisdom to draw upon.
Kith and Kin: 801 Wharf Street SW, Washington D.C., (202) 878-8566. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Smaller plates $10 to $24, larger plates $22 to $55, desserts $6 to $14.