Caribbean cuisine, all dressed to party at Kokomo in Brooklyn

In the past, we restaurant reviewers rarely needed to check the weather forecast before setting out for a reservation. Severe snowstorms sometimes made it difficult to get around, but in general, neither the snow, nor the rain, nor the darkness of the night prevented us from having our meals.

It’s all screwed up now, as you may have noticed. One day last month, it looked like Kokomo, a new Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn that I kept hearing about, was going to be shut down by a thunderstorm. That morning I had received a text saying, “Due to the bad weather, we will not be able to have meals in the open air. As this was the only type of meal allowed, all reservations were canceled.

In the afternoon, “after reassessing the forecast,” Kokomo texted again to ask if I still wanted the reservation; a canopy was in place to keep the sidewalk tables dry. I answered yes.

It turned out that a lot of other people too. The corner across from the Williamsburg waterfront where Kokomo has served since July was in a moderate state of pandemonium. As the rain fell, slowly at first, a single employee carried tables, chairs and umbrellas to an exposed platform in the street. He was also in charge of the list. The only other waiter barely followed the guests who were already seated.

Just when I had decided that quietly slipping away and coming back another night was the only human response, the employee in charge of installing the furniture counted everyone waiting, apologized very kindly and said. promised to get us all to a seat quickly. Surprisingly, he did. And then it started to rain, a real key monsoon. He looked straight up at the sky, spread his arms and laughed. Someone started to clap, and soon everyone on the sidewalk and in the street clapped. Forget the rain. The celebration was underway.

Every night is a celebration at Kokomo, which may be the best stage restaurant in the pandemic – a social magnet for the age of social distancing. In a summer with no nightclubs, it makes people dress like they’re going to one. Forced to function without his intimate, velvet-covered dining room, he simply moved the speakers and DJ table outside and turned a good portion of North 10th Street into an outdoor lounge. (Kokomo is in one of the neighborhoods where Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to cancel dining inside, a notion Governor Andrew M. Cuomo set at eighty-six on Monday.)

In some ways, Kokomo was a step ahead of the approaching poolside parties that restaurants in town have embraced since al fresco dining began. It opened up to a cocktail menu already filled with tall, colorful drinks, some pulled from the tiki cannon (like Painkiller sprinkled with nutmeg) and all suitable for sipping on a straw with a beach towel draped around your neck.

And, of course, it has a Caribbean-like menu. It can make you think of Negril, or it can make you think of central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. None of these benchmarks would be wrong; Kokomo’s owners, Ria and Kevol Graham, come from Caribbean families, got married in Grand Cayman, and live in Canarsia.

If you’re one of those people who likes to order the dish most likely to fall on their nose, you’ll notice the Rasta pasta flatbread right away. Penne pasta coated in the Jamaican equivalent of Alfredo sauce can’t be a great pizza topping, you think, with or without peppers. It is not a delicate aperitif; if you eat a whole one, your stomach will know. But it’s very good, just like the pancake sprinkled with pieces of braised oxtail among caramelized onions and sweet candied tomatoes.

If Kokomo can put Jamaican pasta on pizza and make it work, you think he can do it all. And you can be on to something. The substantial line of vegan main dishes are designed with flavor in mind, like roasted whole cauliflower in a cashew sauce sprinkled with allspice and other seasonings.

Even if you think that most of the flavor of jerk chicken should come from its marinade, not its sauce, you would probably agree that Kokomo sauce does its job very effectively. You might want a little more oomph in the ceviche, but the tiny islands of Peruvian mashed sweet potatoes will blow your mind. The vinegar and Scotch Bonnet sauce you throw on the snapper escovitch isn’t the brightest and crispest you’ve ever had, but it has the right idea.

The first time I ate at Kokomo the chef was Christian Aranibar. When I returned a few weeks later he was gone and Mitchel Bonhomme had been promoted to replace him. If the cooking changed, I didn’t realize it.

What I noticed was that the platform on the street where the heroic server had stood in the rain was now covered with a corrugated iron roof. That’s probably fine, but underneath were plexiglass walls on at least two sides that threatened to turn this outdoor space into a real room. And this is where the restaurant installed its largest groups.

This leads to a caveat regarding Kokomo – just one caveat, but that’s the size of Miami. Even when my meals there were going well, I felt like things could fall apart at any time. The scene at the hosts’ booth that first night, for example, could easily have ended with a mass exodus. (As it is, I saw one person give up, apparently after calling for a take-out order and not getting it out of the kitchen in time.) Some restaurants flirt with chaos. Kokomo is dating him.

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Michael M. Tomlin