"If you can get past the food, it's wonderful."
Last season alone, 11 friends returned from the Caribbean voicing that hungry refrain. My favorite bet-you-can't-top-this story fingered a hugely expensive golf resort where the eggs Benedict take a final turn in a browning oven, reducing the hollandaise sauce to curds. Yum-my!
You don't want to know about the grilled tuna with blue cheese.
But could it be true that "good eating in the Caribbean" is oxymoronic?To answer that question, I planned a trip in which the silkiness of the sand and translucence of the water were not the priorities. Just as I had been warned, there was no shortage of sea legs passed off as crabmeat or pre-tossed salads that were Caesars in name only. Happily, I also discovered that there is life in the Caribbean after bacon bits. Following an unblemished day on the beach, food lovers no longer need to look forward to dinner with dread. At a handful of restaurants on three West Indies islands within puddle-jumping distance of each other, dinner means delight.
St. Bart's in the French West Indies and St.-Tropez on the French Riviera are often compared because of their high trendiness quotients. They also have in common a lot of mediocre food–muddy tuna tartare, that sort of thing–plus cynical restaurateurs who think a prime beachside location is a good excuse for bad cooking. Travelers who assume that just because St. Bart's is French the eating is automatically going to be wonderful need to check their confidence at the door.
In this context, François Beret, owner of La Route des Épices, is a hero–the island's gastronomic conscience. During his 30 years on St. Bart's he has launched a yogurt factory, two boulangeries, and a rotisserie that, on a recent Sunday, had no trouble selling 400 chickens to churchgoers seeking an easy solution for lunch. With La Route des Épices, which is part of François Plantation, an inland hotel with 12 cottages high over Baie des Flamands, Beret has created the most elegant, refined, and properly French restaurant on St. Bart's. To flatter the cuisine of chef Thierry Clion, whose cooking is on the level of a one-Michelin-star chef in France, he also established the island's greatest wine cellar. A $4,000 bottle of 1989 Romanée Conti?Not a problem.
To get the most out of a meal at La Route, arrive early. Order a coupe of Bollinger and stroll the lush garden, painted with sizzling tropical colors and scented with potted gardenias and trailing jasmine. The veranda dining room is so peaceful, so distractingly beautiful, you may find it hard to focus on the menu. Gleaming mahogany pedestal tables are laid with lace place mats, tiny bowls of bougainvillea, and hurricane lamps that the young, exquisitely professional waitstaff spend the afternoon polishing. Stan Getz, in his snake-hipped bossa nova period, furnishes the music.
For those in too much of a dream state to order, Clion is happy to design a menu. It might begin with a morsel of rare foie gras with a half-dozen chopped herbs and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. Scallops and superbly crunchy medallions of spiny lobster are faintly smoked and served with a passion-fruit beurre blanc, a sauce whose sugariness and unctuousness is cut by a tangle of peppery watercress. But not even the Caribbean needs another chocolate cake with a molten center. Bor–ing.
While everything at La Route, down to the last chive, is imported from France at unbelievable expense, Maya's makes an effort to bring in fruits and vegetables (such as mangoes and chayote) from Guadeloupe, chef Maya Gurley's birthplace and the only island in the West Indies with a broad network of farms. Gurley offers a reliable assessment of her own cooking: "Clean and healthy–wonderful ingredients simply prepared." But her restaurant is also scene central, a lodestone for swaggering New York publishing pashas, fashion designers, and other factions of café society, all sipping guava Bellinis. Its closest competitor, Boubou's, tries to lure this constituency with its jumped-up Middle Eastern décor, but Maya's is invincible.
Open to the air on three sides, the restaurant is set directly on the water, beside a cemetery, at what might generously be called the unlovely end of Gustavia harbor. Director's chairs with cheerful navy, red, and yellow canvas are pulled up to simple white-painted wooden tables. This being St. Bart's, even the salt and pepper shakers are chic. They're wrapped in wicker.
A little bit French, kind of Caribbean, flittingly Asian–Gurley's menu presses all the right buttons. Niçoise olives are bathed in a peppery marinade and set alongside carrots and onions. Soupe de poisson, containing yellowtail snapper, is dark, rich, tomatoey, and spicy. Shrimp are paired with yams for a salad dressed in briny, puckery tamari vinaigrette. Meaty, pan-cooked mahimahi needs every drop of Gurley's take on Creole sauce–oil and lime juice infused with onion and chili peppers–to relieve the fish's dullness. The fillet of beef is incredibly buttery, but the teriyaki sauce could easily be retired in favor of a friendlier (considering the climate) dribble of olive oil and sprinkling of fleur de sel. All desserts are house-made, including a charming orange pound cake drizzled, if you like, with orange syrup.
The difference between the local dishes at Maya's and those at two-year-old La Route des Boucaniers, also on the harbor, is the difference between a whisper and a scream. Francis Delage, the Boucaniers' owner and the author of a five-volume Creole cookbook, conceived the place as an amusing stage-set version of a sea-sprayed, pirate-friendly rum shack. There's even a boat wreck.