Former Jamaica Observer editorial assistant Kesian Bennett has always been a quick thinker. These days, she puts her wit on the table at her newly established Kingston 21 restaurant in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. After moving to the forward-thinking cultural heart of the UAE in 2018 with her commercial lawyer partner, the St Catherine native longed for the culinary traditions of home. Finding none, Bennett forged her path to becoming a restaurateur of the first Jamaican restaurant in Abu Dhabi during a pandemic.
The restaurant's name pays direct homage to the district of Jamaica's capital city Kingston. With 20 postal codes attributed to the city, Kingston 21 is the 21st code to visit, a play on the concept. Since opening her establishment in April 2021, Bennett has stayed close to her agricultural roots, choosing fresh ingredients where possible and working with her chefs to create fusion dishes. Cooking is nothing new.
“I came from a single-parent home. I learned to cook from an early age by watching my mum. Growing up in a small household, you get to interact with the cooking process,” Bennett shares.
“She kept a consistent hand in her culinary passions into adulthood. The menu doesn't hide spices, nor does it deny accessible flavours. Like the Jamdown Jerk Beetroot. The dish was created with vegans in mind. Marinated in jerk seasoning and sautéed, the cooking method coaxes flavour out of the humble beet. It has already become a best-seller, and some patrons even say it tastes like meat. Slowly smoked on the grill to capture the ancient techniques of the Arawak and Taino tribes, Bennett allows history to talk to us on a single plate.
But that's not the only crowd-pleaser. The Portland Grilled Lobster takes patrons on a seaside journey to Portland, home of the best Jamaican Jerk seafood. Golden from the basting of garlic jerk butter, white lobster meat soaks in this buttery combination. The result is a mouthful of sweet and salty tenderness.
With the restaurant overlooking a canal, water views are enviable. Just like the views around the island. Travels around the archipelago region remind Bennett of home. The Saadiyat island, for example, can easily be mistaken for Negril's Seven Mile beach. Silky white sands framed by architectural mastery are also a reminder of Bennett's Jamaica. Showcasing authentic ingredients from her home country is important. Abu Dhabi doesn't have proper Jamaican coffee, and there's where Kingston 21 has started to offer patrons something different.
“We are working towards branding our Jamaican coffee and offering it online as well as in supermarkets in Abu Dhabi. Both locals and expats love it,” she informs. With the pandemic providing ample opportunities for pivoting, her venue is also available for event hire and can offer tailored catering packages to businesses. Today, Bennett's journey is a far cry from proofreading and editing educational supplements. Instead of working with books, she's working with soul food. In an entire city, here stands a woman whose confidence is her strength and whose menu is from the soul of her country.
To find out more about Kingston 21, please visit the website www.kingston21.ae
Address: Ground floor of Al Raha Beach Tower in Al Raha Beach, Abu Dhabi
— Bridgett Leslie is an internal auditor by day and a media correspondent by night. She is passionate about Caribbean flavours and the community around this culinary cuisine. She is currently finishing her undergraduate studies in Gastronomy at Le Cordon Bleu.