The original location of Daniel Patterson’s Alta CA was among the few Mid-Market spots to thrive. When it closed in late December to make way for chef Nigel Jones’ Kaya, another project under the ever-expanding Patterson aegis, the team had barely a couple of holiday-shortened weeks to switch things over. If that caused any consternation, it’s impossible to detect. Fun, approachable places have done best in that microhood, and Kaya continues the tradition, keeping one foot planted in Jamaica with the other free to roam.
The menu is practically identical to Jones’ first restaurant, Kingston 11 in Uptown Oakland — and if the prices seem noticeably higher here, it’s only because of Kaya’s inclusive-tipping policy. It’s a lively place with films projected on the wall close-captioned in Spanish, and while Jones evinced a bit of hesitation in interviews that his cooking would find fans in the West Bay, there’s no questioning that he’s a perfectionist pro.
Happily, most things are great. The salt-fish fritters ($13) were thoroughly excellent, and chimichurri is the perfect sauce for them — as it is for so many other things, really — but especially so as the fritters’ appealing gooeyness contains a nucleus of heat that kept burning long after the sauce’s tang wore off. Their full depth reveals itself in your mouth. To my surprise, the caramelized carrots and squash ($12) were even hotter, taking what could almost pass for a Thanksgiving side dish and giving it an exuberant personality, with a ginger-molasses glaze that makes you want to dab your index finger in it.
It was hard to adjudicate the grilled wild Gulf shrimp ($17) fairly after either of those two, as its tamarind sauce got lost like a viola in an orchestra. In almost any other context, shrimp is always the first thing to disappear from a platter, but even when it’s overshadowed, you can still take it as further proof that Jones’ obsession is with sauces. The pickled-papaya-and-green salad ($11), on the other hand, is the perfect counterpoint to all the Scotch Bonnet peppers that may precede or follow it, and not merely because it comes with plantains on top. It’s juicy and tart and refreshing, and if the papaya shavings are a fraction of the plantain by volume, that’s not a problem because you savor them more. (And it might look like wellness-in-a-bowl otherwise.)
All this sets you up for the jerk chicken ($20), which is one of two standouts among the “Big Eats.” Since probably three out of every four tables orders it, it’s basically pouring out of the kitchen — and with good reason. It’s perfectly cooked and light on its feet, the rice and peas that accompany it being excellent in their own right. And you’re not going to find jerk chicken at a lot of other places, either. The other dish that can’t be overlooked is the black pepper crab ($28), whose sweet-and-sour sauce is as viscous as motor oil and considerably more delicious. You crack the crab yourself, so be prepared to get some sticky fingers, but the intensity of this sauce is almost frightening. It dials the Kingston up to 11, you might say. That was my favorite dish, hands down.
Pretty much the only thing that spoiled the uniform positivity was, oddly enough, the $20 goat curry. Whenever a dish flaunts its own limited availability — in this case, it’s around only on Friday and Saturday nights, one night fewer than at Kingston 11 — it’s basically shining a light on itself. Here, the bone-to-meat ratio was simply off. What little meat there was was tender and flavorful, but no one at the table could get past what seemed like a miserly sleight-of-hand.
Cocktails are, by and large, superb, and they’re all made with rum. Between its vegetal side and its effervescence, the Rude Boi (Matusalem Platino, cucumber, soursop, and Midori) was a great match for almost any of the stronger dishes, while the absinthe-and-Creme de Noyeaux interplay in the Remember the Time (made with Appleton rum, maraschino, and Cocchi Americano as well) was a shrewd reworking of ingredients that show up on cocktail menus again and again. I wasn’t a fan of the Negril-oni (Smith & Cross, Campari, and sweet vermouth), which was oddly chlorine-y and a bit overpowering. But the Ginger Shandy (Don Q passion fruit rum, ginger, lime pineapple, and Red Stripe, served in a copper mug) was a light and witty mule variation with a paper straw emblazoned with pineapples.
There are also two absences of note. For a place that calls itself a rum bar, and where what separates the kitchen from the dining room is a restaurant-spanning set of shelving lined with liquor bottles, there could be more of an emphasis sipping rums or on making the immense varieties of that spirit better known to wider audiences. This is less a criticism than a request: Please do more, because all signs point to a sure bet that our palates could learn a thing or two.
Second — and on a positive note — there’s an absence of theatrical puffery. Maybe it was on my mind because there’s a portrait of Steph Curry on the same wall as Bob Marley, but I couldn’t help but feel relieved that servers don’t present cloche jars full of vapor for diners to inhale the way International Smoke is doing. So good on Kaya for staying true.
A word on Kaya’s inclusive-tipping policy: It’s not some sneaky auto-grat that can easily deceive someone who’s used to adding 20 percent and signing off without breaking their conversational stride (or worse, people who have trouble seeing in low light). The tip line on the credit card slip is clearly marked as an “optional gratuity” and on two of my three visits, the server had circled “Service Charge” on the initial bill. Which is thoughtful and all, but I might be won over more by those pineapple straws.
Kaya, 1420 Market St., 415-590-2585 or kayasf.com