HE ATE

By MARK NIXON

is a tale of two kitchens, which may leave lovers of Jamaican food hopeful if not exactly over the moon ecstatic.

As I write this I’m about to flip a coin that decides which of two visits to this Okemos restaurant gets first billing. Heads is the good visit, tails is the bad. Flip.

OK, bad it is. It was our first time at Kingston Kitchen, and I marveled at the Jamaican-themed decor, including references to the quirky movie about a Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, “Cool Runnings.”

A map of Jamaica on one wall brought back memories of evening beach strolls and wading across the mouth of Dunn’s River.

Those were the days, some 30 years ago.

Reality snapped me back to the present, and I ordered the Red Stripe sandwich. The best part of it turns out to be the name; Red Stripe is the unofficial king of Jamaican beers. The menu’s description sounded appetizing — a fried chicken patty topped with pork belly bacon, avocado aioli and honey mustard blended with Red Stripe.

Red Stripe was a red-hot mess. The pork was tough. I detected no bacon smokiness. The chicken was soggy and tasteless. The aioli and honey mustard underperformed as accents. The overall effect was dull.

I fared better with a bowl of pork and bean soup, It was rich and savory, but I’m conflicted. There were small chunks of bone in the soup. That indicates scratchmade authenticity. Yet it also poses a risk of choking or chipping a tooth to diners unaccustomed to chomping on bones amid the soup. I recommend that if the bones stay in, the customer should be forewarned.

Judy and I shared a split of smoked jerk chicken wings. They were the best thing I tasted on this visit. The exterior was crisp, browned skin. The lightly spiced meat inside was juicy and flavorful. They were the closest thing to real Jamaican food I tasted during two visits.

Judy ordered a plate of traditional Jamaican patties, orange-colored pastries stuffed with minced, spiced beef. The verdict was a split decision. Judy liked them. I thought they were a pale imitation of patties I’ve tasted in Jamaica.

A side of fried plantain chips were served at room temperature, which I suppose is fine. Except they were practically tasteless. They needed salt, sauce, spice — something.

A second kitchen revealed itself on our second visit; the good kitchen. I tried the Irie Mac n cheese, freshly made with a sixcheese blend. It was obscenely rich and creamy with hints of garlic and topped with juicy strips of jerk chicken. “Irie“ is Jamaican for “the best”, and I concur that this version of Mac n cheese was one of the best I’ve ever tried.

We ordered a side of bammy, another traditional Jamaican dish made from cassava root. The side looks a bit like deepfried potato patties. The taste is somewhat bland, but I detected a whiff of cloves. A lightly spice cream sauce was a fine counterpoint to the bland bammy.

Kingston Kitchen 4749 Central Park Dr., Okemos

Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

(517) 708-8322 thekingstonkitchen.com

Judy had the Cool Runnings Salad, perfect for a hot summer evening. Avocado, greens, brown rice and caramelized walnuts are tossed in a spiced olive oil vinaigrette. Oh, and there are bits of ackee in the salad, which reminds me of scrambled eggs but is actually a tropical plant. If not cooked, ackee is poisonous.

Overall, our entree meals were spot-on and generous enough that we took home sizable leftover portions. With a nod to the environment, we were told the to-go boxes were made of compostable sugar cane pulp. Nice touch.

Our community needs and, frankly, deserves greater diversity in cuisines from other countries. I say this as someone who remembers a time in Lansing when egg rolls and tacos were considered exotic fare. We’ve come along way.

So I am pleased that a taste of Jamaica is now in our midst, and happy that Kingston Kitchen’s owner, a native Jamaican, chose Mid-Michigan as his culinary homage to the homeland. I want this place to be better, and am fairly confident it will be. Let’s just say It should strive to be the “Irie” it can be.

SHE ATE

By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE

I can point to a few locations around town that just seem to be, for lack of a better word, cursed. The gas station at the corner of Grand River and Homer that was going to be the site of Punk Taco and now sits vacant. 4749 Central Park Drive in Okemos has been a veritable revolving door, vacillating from a jewelry store to a Sultan’s to another location of Lou and Harry’s to the current occupant, Kingston Kitchen. The space is plenty big, airy, and in a prime location for people to grab a quick dinner after leaving the office.

While the physical size of the restaurant is enviable, the size of the menu gives me pause. I tend to espouse the philosophy that less is more, especially for a menu that focuses on a particular cuisine.

I don’t need a pasta section, and a burger section, and a separate sandwich section, all of which are included on the Kingston Kitchen menu. I would much rather see a carefully curated menu, featuring only the best dishes that could possibly come out of the kitchen.

However, in the interest of experiencing as much of the vast menu as possible, Mr. She Ate and I started our dinner with the coconut shrimp. While “jumbo shrimp” is one of my favorite oxymorons, these babies slapped the jokes right out of my mouth.

While there are only four shrimp to an order, they are palm-sized and could easily be the entire protein portion of my dinner. The coconut batter was perfectly light, the shrimp were fried to a beautiful golden brown, and the orange pineapple marmalade and frizzled onions were flavorful and complementary accents to the dish.

I chose the jerk chicken sandwich, which came with fries, and almost immediately regretted my decision. The fries were thick, uninspired, unseasoned, and had very obviously come out of a bag shortly before arriving at our table. The brioche roll was overwhelming, as brioche rolls tend to be, because there’s just so much puffy, vaguely sweet bread to contend with.

The biggest oversight, however, was a problem that has persisted for other friends who have ordered the same thing — the thick slice of pineapple atop the chicken bread hadn’t been cored. When I chomped down on the core, I pushed the rest of the sandwich aside.

He had the jerk chicken fettuccini Alfredo. Jerk seasoning is the signature of Jamaican cuisine. The spice blend features allspice and can include variety of other seasonings, such as scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, black pepper, thyme, cayenne, paprika and garlic. It sounds delicious and is mouth-watering until it become mouth-searing, which was the situation with the fettuccini.

On our return visit, we started with the boom boom cheese balls. These were, in a word: hushpuppies. I believe the menu, which states they were fried jerk cheese balls, but I’ll be darned if they didn’t taste exactly like hushpuppies.

I was dying for more shrimp, but was also eager to explore more of the menu, so I chose the Caribbean classic. The menu claims that sautéed chicken and shrimp are tossed with onions and peppers in a spicy sauce, and while the sauce hit exactly the right savory and spicy notes, I yearned for more than three shrimp. My side of Jamaican cabbage was, surprisingly, the start of my show. It was a bit sweet but still crunchy and melted in my mouth.

He had a burger, which was fine, but might as well have been a holdover from the Lou and Harry’s days. Anybody can buy a bag of frozen steak fries, and I unapologetically expect more when I choose to go out for a meal rather than eat at home.

I hope that Kingston Kitchen is able to pare down its offerings and focus on what they do so well: coconut shrimp, for one, and other dishes that rely on Jamaican flavors and preparations. Get rid of the clutter, and let the obvious passion for Jamaican cuisine shine.