Carnaby Street has had a reputation as one of London’s hip shopping streets since the swinging sixties. Nowadays, it’s not just Carnaby Street but the many little side streets, alleyways and courtyards that play home to trendy clothes stores, cafes and restaurants. One relatively new addition is The Rum Kitchen, upstairs at Kingly Court. Arriving at 7pm on a Saturday, the small dining room was still half empty, but it certainly didn’t lack atmosphere – with a mixed soundtrack of reggae and 1990s hip hop pumping out at a noticeable but not invasive volume, and an eclectic décor blending corrugated iron and mosaic tiles on the walls, brightly painted old oil drums on the ceiling, and shelves displaying spare stock from the bar, it was as if a shabby chic Caribbean beach shack had been transplanted into central London.
The menu, printed on brown paper, was slightly narrower than the one we had seen on the website, but still offered an extremely inviting selection of Caribbean dishes. To start, my dining partner chose sticky barbecue ribs, which were excellent and exactly as described. The ribs were a good size, the meat brilliantly tender and liberally basted in a sweet and slightly piquant barbecue sauce. The mound of salad on the side comprised peppery rocket, refreshing sliced peppers and just a few slivers of hot red chilli on top, all of which made for a pleasantly light accompaniment to the meaty ribs. My own starter of island spiced squid was quite simply some of the best calamari I have ever eaten. The rings were beautifully cooked, and wrapped in a light, crisp batter which had a warming spice to it. They came with a scotch bonnet aioli which had a fantastically smoky flavour and deep but quiet heat that only really kicked in after swallowing, and a pile of the same side salad that accompanied my dining partner’s ribs.
Many of The Rum Kitchen’s main courses, unsurprisingly, feature jerk seasoning, and neither my dining partner nor I could resist the jerk fried chicken thighs, served with shoe-sting onion rings, home-made slaw, and a rum jerk barbecue ketchup. This was a truly superlative main course. The chicken was almost impossibly succulent, delicately flavoured with the warming jerk spices – hints of garlic, chilli, ginger, coriander, nutmeg, and pepper, among others. The rum jerk barbecue ketchup was an interesting blend of similar jerky flavours with a distinct aniseedy tang and a strong chilli kick. It went well with the chicken, but we rather preferred two of the other house sauces that were brought to our table in squeezy bottles – an intensely rich ginger aioli and a blisteringly hot chilli sauce known as “swamp sauce”. The onion rings were made with red onion, which had somehow been cooked within its crispy batter to a melting texture and an almost caramelised flavour. The slaw had excellent crunch, with the slight bitterness of the cabbage and creaminess of the sauce giving some much needed calming respite from the spice of the other elements of the meal. Another small mound of salad (the same as the one that came with the starters) added further freshness to this mammoth main course. On the side, we shared a generous portion of excellent sweet potato fries – all crisp outers and fluffy middles, and a delectable dish of melt in the mouth fried plantain with a tangy chilli jam.
After all that food, it’s a wonder we could fit in dessert, but we were too tempted to pass it up. My caramelised banana pud with butterscotch sauce was utterly delectable – the slightly dense, distinctly banana-y cake was drenched in a liquid gold tooth-achingly sweet butterscotch sauce. The cake was served warm and the accompanying scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream was a welcoming contrast both in terms of texture and flavour. My dining partner’s chocolate rum cake with chocolate sauce was the only slight let down of our dinner – not rummy enough, with a texture more like a marginally over baked brownie than a cake, it was nevertheless a tasty chocolate dessert.
Drinks-wise, The Rum Kitchen has a short but inventive mostly new world wine list, which included one of my favourite South African reds (Arabella Cabernet Sauvignon). Although that was a tempting prospect, it would have been a sin to come to a place named after a spirit and not make that my tipple for the evening, particularly given the inviting cocktail offering. First up, I went classic with a Mai Tai, while my dining partner chose a Rubin Carter (gold rum, passion-fruit and other tropical juices). Both were excellent, and rather too easy to polish off, so part way through our mains we ordered a second cocktail each. This time, I went for the intriguingly named Rattle Skull Punch. Made with Wray & Nephew over-proof rum, Kraken spiced rum, and a blend of juices and spices, it was a wonderfully heady mix, served in an old fashioned copper mug to keep it perfectly chilled. My dining partner, having seen the rather impressive selection of rums behind the bar, decided to power order – a daiquiri made with Mount Gay Extra Old rum (as opposed to the Havana 3 suggested on the cocktail list). Simple, strong, brightened by lime and slightly sweetened with sugar, it was an excellent showcase for the natural flavour of the rum.
Service at The Rum Kitchen was unfailingly friendly, our main waitress seemingly genuinely pleased when we complimented the food. For the most part, it was also very efficient, though there was an element of over-attentiveness – between courses, at least three different waitresses asked us if we wanted to order, or look at the dessert menu, or needed another drink. This didn’t really bother us, but may frustrate some diners, and creates unnecessary extra work for the staff.
As for value, I admit to being a little shocked when I first saw our total bill, which came in at just over £46 per head. When I thought about it, however, I realised that close to half of that was spent on alcohol – our cocktails were priced between £8 and £10 each. With that (and the £10 optional service charge) in mind, the food at The Rum Kitchen actually seems quite reasonably priced.
We are full of praise for The Rum Kitchen, and while they didn’t quite reach the full five Forks-Up, they definitely deserve a strong four and a half – and if we marked in quarters, we would probably have stretched to four and three quarters. Needless to say, we will definitely be back.The Rum Kitchen 1st Floor Kingly Court Carnaby London W1B 5PW