In the past, we restaurant critics rarely needed to check the weather forecast before heading out for a reservation. Severe blizzards sometimes made travel challenging, but in general neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night kept us from our appointed meals.
Everything is all messed up now, as you might have noticed. For one day last month it looked as if Kokomo, a new Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn that I kept hearing about, was going to be shut down by a thunderstorm. That morning I’d gotten a text that said, “Due to the inclement weather, we will not be able to accommodate outdoor dining.” Since this was the only kind of dining allowed, all reservations were being canceled.
In the afternoon, “after reassessing the forecast,” Kokomo texted again to ask if I still wanted the reservation; an awning was in place to keep the sidewalk tables dry. I answered yes.
So did a lot of other people, it turned out. The corner across from the Williamsburg waterfront where Kokomo has been serving since July was in a mild state of pandemonium. As the rain fell, gently at first, a single employee was hauling tables, chairs and patio umbrellas out to an exposed platform in the street. He was also in charge of the list. The only other server was barely keeping up with the diners who had already been seated.
Just when I’d decided that slipping away quietly and coming back another night was the only humane response, the employee in charge of setting up furniture counted everybody who was waiting, apologized very kindly and promised to seat all of us quickly. Amazingly, he did. And then it started to pour, a real lock-the-windows monsoon. He looked straight at the sky, spread out his arms and started to laugh. Somebody started to clap, and soon everybody on the sidewalk and street was applauding. Forget the rain. The celebration was underway.
Every night is a celebration at Kokomo, which may be the pandemic’s best scene restaurant — a social magnet for the age of social distancing. In a summer without nightclubs, it inspires people to dress up as if they were going to one. Forced to operate without its intimate, velvet-upholstered dining room, it simply moved the speakers and D.J. table outside, and made a good stretch of North 10th Street into an outdoor lounge. (Kokomo is in one of the neighborhoods where Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to rescind indoor dining, a notion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo eighty-sixed on Monday.)
In some ways, Kokomo had a head start on the pool-party approach that restaurants across the city have adopted since outdoor dining began. It opened with a cocktail menu that was already full of tall, colorful drinks, some of them drawn from the tiki canon (like the nutmeg-dusted Painkiller) and all of them appropriate for sipping through a straw with a beach towel draped around your neck.
And, of course, it has a menu that looks to the Caribbean. This may put you in mind of Negril, or it may make you think of central Brooklyn and southeast Queens. Neither of these reference points would be wrong; Kokomo’s owners, Ria and Kevol Graham, come from West Indian families, were married in Grand Cayman and live in Canarsie.
If you are one of those people who like to order the dish that is most likely to fall on its face, you are going to notice the Rasta pasta flatbread right away. Penne coated in the Jamaican equivalent of Alfredo sauce cannot possibly be a great pizza topping, you think, with or without peppers. It is not a dainty appetizer; if you eat a whole one your stomach will know it. But it is very good, as is the flatbread dotted with bits of braised oxtail among caramelized onions and sweet tomato confit.
If Kokomo can put Jamaican pasta on pizza and make it work, you think, it can do anything. And you may be on to something. The substantial line of vegan main courses is conceived with flavor in mind, like the whole roasted cauliflower in a cashew sauce flecked with allspice and other seasonings.
Even if you think most of jerk chicken’s flavor should come from its marinade and not its sauce, you will probably agree that Kokomo’s sauce does its job very effectively. You might want a little more punch in the ceviche, but then the little islands of Peruvian-style sweet potato purée win you over. The vinegar and Scotch bonnet sauce you throw over the snapper escovitch is not the brightest and sharpest you’ve ever had, but it’s got the right idea.
The first time I ate at Kokomo, the chef was Christian Aranibar. When I went back a couple of weeks later, he was gone and Mitchel Bonhomme had been promoted to replace him. If the cooking changed, I didn’t notice.
What I did notice was that the platform in the street where the heroic server had stood in the rain was now covered with a corrugated roof. This is probably all right, but under it were plexiglass walls on at least two sides that threatened to turn this outdoor space into an actual room. And this was where the restaurant seated its biggest groups.
This leads to a caveat about Kokomo — only one caveat, but it is the size of Miami. Even when my meals there were going well, I had the sense that things could fall apart at any minute. The scene at the host stand that first night, for instance, could easily have ended with a mass exodus. (As it was, I saw one person just give up, apparently after calling in a takeout order and failing to extract it from the kitchen in a timely fashion.) Some restaurants flirt with chaos. Kokomo is dating it.