Kith and Kin and the Road to Redemption
Kith and Kin, 801 Wharf Street SW, Washington DC (in the Intercontinental Hotel)
I never made it to Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s previous restaurant, Shaw Bijou. In my defense, it was only open for two-and-a-half months.
For those unfamiliar, let me briefly recap the spectacular flame-out that was Shaw Bijou because it’s critical to understanding the launch of Kith and Kin.
Shaw Bijou was the most talked-about DC restaurant opening of 2016. For much of the year, the buzz was relatively positive. Chef Onwuachi combined a compelling personal narrative (born in Brooklyn to a Creole mother and Nigerian-Jamaican father) with celebrity (6th place finisher on Top Chef) and cooking chops (a stint at Eleven Madison Park). Though he was only 26 years old and had never opened a restaurant, that didn’t seem to matter — at least not initially. He was a budding star bringing his talents to DC.
Then, in September 2016, still two months prior to opening, things began to turn. It was announced that Shaw Bijou would offer a tasting menu-only format priced at $185 per person before drinks, taxes and tip, making the newcomer one of the most expensive restaurants in town. Social media erupted in outrage. What could possibly justify those prices? Who does this guy think he is? All of a sudden, Onwuachi’s youth and inexperience mattered. Sure, there were other pricey tasting menus in town, but those chefs — from Johnny Monis to Eric Ziebold to Jose Andres to Aaron Silverman — all paid their dues by starting out more modestly and building up to fancy tasting menus once their reputation had been established. This whippersnapper doesn’t think he needs to pay any dues. Before it served a single meal, Shaw Bijou had become a symbol of millennial hubris.
Shaw Bijou finally opened in November 2016 and the reviews came fast and harsh. Restaurants typically get a chance to settle in before reviewers show up. Not Shaw Bijou. Tom Sietsema ate there the day it opened and reported in a First Look review that there were several duds, including dessert, and wondered whether the menu could justify the cost. Washington City Paper complained a few days later that not enough of the plates felt innovative and that some fell “a forkful or two short for the price.” Washingtonian piled on by mocking the restaurant’s pretentiousness: “The stories don’t add up to a narrative flow through the meal…you get the uneasy feeling that you’ve wandered into a cult when servers sincerely relate the story of the time Onwuachi discovered a dish of crabs prepared by a wise old Indian cook.”
And you should read the bad reviews.
Onwuachi tried to adjust by slashing the price of dinner to $95 and cutting back on the number of courses. He even ate some crow, acknowledging that “humility creeps up on you when least expected.” But it was too late. Shaw Bijou closed in January 2017, less than three months after opening. The principal owner said he pulled the plug because the restaurant was bleeding money and because he didn’t think the restaurant was listening to its guests. Chef Onwuachi didn’t know about the closure until it happened.
Fast forward nine short months to October 2017. Chef Onwuachi had been humbled — some would say humiliated — but he was ready to try again. He’d gotten to his feet, dusted himself off, and was opening a new restaurant in the District Wharf development called Kith and Kin. The new restaurant would permit Onwuachi to continue to tell his Creole-African-Caribbean story but this time in a simpler, more accessible way.
I made a reservation soon after it opened — not because I expected a repeat of Shaw Bijou. Quite the opposite. I love a good redemption story and this looked like it could be a doozy.
That new development smell.
Even the location feels like a fresh start. Kith and Kin is part of the first wave of openings at the new District Wharf in Southwest DC.
Windows on the wharf
The interior of Kith and Kin is cool comfort in black and gold. Unless you’re sitting near the windows around noon when the sun comes pouring in.
Crudite with Daikon Peri Peri, Brown Stew Salsify, Jerk Broccoli, Baby Radishes, Avocado Mousse, $18
My first taste of Kith and Kin threatened to blow my whole redemption narrative out of the water. This dish made me angry. A few tiny portions of veggies for $18, none of which were very interesting. The only thing jerk about the broccoli was how I felt for ordering it. The avocado puree could have been squeezed out of a plastic bag from Trader Jose’s. A few sad radishes strewn about only highlighted the dish’s shortcomings.
The one thing the platter had in abundance was crushed ice, reflecting the growing scourge of crushed-ice-laden “towers” around town. Typically these blighters are seafood-focused but not always. Their sudden profusion indicates they’re big money-makers, maybe by getting customers to order an additional course (“can I get you started with a tower while you’re looking at the menu?”) or maybe by dazzling customers with so much metal and crushed ice that they don’t realize how small the portions are.
Torched Mackerel with jollof rice, Nigerian red sauce
The second course featured a nicely-cooked piece of under-appreciated mackerel. Unfortunately the jollof rice lacked personality, making the overall dish a bit of a snooze. At this point it felt like Chef Onwuachi had about the same shot at redemption as Harvey Weinstein.
Brussels Suya with Suya spice, roasted tomato soubise, charred lime
Thankfully, things picked up with one of the better Brussels sprouts preparations in town. Smaller “baby” sprouts and careful frying make them tender and luscious. The tomato soubise and lime add richness and tang.
Mushroom Forest with mushroom spread, charred eggplant dip, roasted mushrooms, crispy msmen
Get this dish if you like mushrooms. It’s like a plate of tasty duxelles topped with mixed mushrooms. The eggplant dip adds texture but can’t compete with the strong mushroom flavor. The pickled onions, on the other hand, provide welcome pops of acidity. Not pictured is the excellent accompanying msmen, a crisp-chewy flatbread bread indigenous to North Africa. Tear off a piece of msmen, spoon some of the mushroom mixture on top, and it’ll rival any mushroom crostini you’ve eaten.
Mom Dukes Peel and Eat Shrimp with Gulf shrimp, abita, citrus, butter
Chef Onwuachi posted a picture of this dish on Instagram and said it’s his favorite thing on the menu. And it’s definitely good, with plump crustaceans lounging in a shrimpy, almost gumbo-y broth.
The problem with this dish is a practical one. It’s hard to eat. You have two choices. You can pick the shrimp up and peel them with your fingers or you can go at them with a knife and fork. The name suggests you should use your fingers, like you would on a bowl of barbecue shrimp in New Orleans. But order barbecue shrimp at a place like Mr. B’s and they bring you a bib, extra linen napkins and a hot towel. None of that comes with the shrimp at Kith and Kin, leading most people I observed to go the utensils route. But that creates its own problems. Peeling shrimp with a knife and fork is like using a knife and fork to peel a hardboiled egg. It can be done, but it takes too long to be worth the effort. I’d either offer up some hot towels so people can use their fingers or cut a slit down the back of the shrimp to give knives and forks a sporting chance.
Curried Goat with roti, crispy potatoes, dahl puri roti
I’m torn about this dish. Goat can be tough and I appreciate the fact that Onwuachi bought good quality meat and coaxed it into fall-apart tenderness. The potatoes are another nice chef-y touch, adding a crispy counterpoint to the soft gaminess of the goat. Still, I feel like something’s missing. The curry is musky with cilantro and thyme but lacks the zing of spice or acidity. It’s as if the curry’s rough rustic edges have been filed away but in the process some of the soul was lost as well.
Stewed Oxtails with jasmine rice, pigeon peas, thumbelina carrots
A very similar reaction to the goat curry. Oxtail can be fatty and tough if not cooked properly. This oxtail is more tender and better rendered than most. Yet I find myself wishing for more — more sauce, more spice, and with all due respect to Ed Asner, more spunk.
Kith burger with American cheese, jerk bacon, romaine, caramelized onions, house pickles, garlic mayo
I assume there’s a burger on both the lunch and dinner menus because Kith and Kin is a hotel restaurant. Happily, it’s a tasty one. This is a burger of soft, melting textures with a touch of sweetness, sort of like a fancy Big Mac or the Brine burger in Merrifield. There’s melty American cheese, caramelized onions, soft shredded romaine, garlic mayo, un-toasted white bun, and no hard sear on the beef. The house-made pickles and the jerk bacon provide the only notes of crispness and acidity. That jerk bacon, by the way, is the burger’s only non-American element but doesn’t really register as anything other than bacon.
The cottage fries are good when right out of the fryer but quickly lose their luster if they’ve been sitting. Ask for fresh.
Ethiopian Hot Chicken Sandwich
These terrific Ethiopian chicken sandwiches are served only at lunch. No complaints here if Ethiopian berbere becomes the next Korean gochujang.
Habanero Peppers with white grape, saduchi, habanada
The second dish of the night to get on my nerves was this made-for-Instagram dessert. It looks like habanero peppers on a bed of crushed ice. But really the “peppers” are some kind of white grape mousse-like concoction formed into the shape of peppers and the faux crushed ice is really granita sweetened with elderflower. Get it? Me neither. Whatever bemusement I felt for a dish that looks like one thing but tastes like another lasted for about 2 1/2 seconds. Then I took a bite and realized the mousse tastes like Whip ‘N Chill from the ’70s. I also realized the visual joke was the dish’s only reason for being.
And of course when it comes to crushed ice — real or faux — I wasn’t in a joking mood.
Puff Puff, fried dough, vanilla sorghum anglaise, cashew granola
Doughnuts are everywhere these days. From a restaurant’s perspective they’re relatively easy to make and the margins are high. But they work for consumers too. They’re homey and dependable. It’s hard to make a bad warm doughnut. These darlingly-named Puff-Puffs are no exception. Their straightforward charms are particularly evident when served next to the too-clever-by-half peppers.
In the end, Kith and Kin has several good dishes but is still a work in progress. I didn’t get the Hollywood ending I wanted. But Act Two is just underway. Even Hollywood makes the protagonist struggle a bit longer before redemption arrives. So I’m looking forward to Act Three. In my movie, Chef Onwuachi triumphs by continuing to explore his roots, amping up his flavors, and renouncing all dishes with crushed ice — real or faux.
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