Delage's appetizer platter is a primer in Caribbean flavors: black pudding, stuffed crab back, salt-cod fritters, and a stuffing-like conch mixture scented with clove. Dried cod also turns up on the sampler in an avocado salad and as fibrous, deliciously chewy flakes barely moistened with fiery Creole sauce. The signature main course is a giant, shallow bowl of fish and shellfish nestled in earthy red beans, some whole, some collapsed into a velvety purée. The mahimahi, served with yucca sliced into coins and individual copper pots of rice and beans, is ringed by a rich emulsion of court bouillon and "beurre rouge," the quintessential Creole condiment–actually spiced and salted lard.
After the agricultural poverty of St. Bart's, Anguilla looks like Eden. The terrain is largely flat and featureless, but at least the soil gives something back. A basket of wild island-grown soursop, also known as prickly custard apple, is enough to make you go warm and fuzzy.
The milky fruit is made into tangy ice cream at Tastey's Café, a roadside institution-in-the-making run by Dale Carty, the man through whom every Anguillan's hopes for a revival of indigenous cooking are channeled. The ebullient 29-year-old native worked since he was a teenager at the restaurant in the posh Malliouhana Hotel, whose menu is designed by Michelin two-starred chef Michel Rostang of Paris. (The best-seller there is black Angus beef with escalope of foie gras and red wine sauce–it's that kind of place.) Having opened Tastey's while still at Malliouhana, Carty resigned from the hotel last spring to expand and add dinner service to the café, where islanders and tourists welcome the chance to be stirred together. Tastey's eschews the white-tablecloth vibe of another upstart restaurant, the Rendezvous Bay Hotel's Cedar Grove Café, in favor of plastic chairs, pink crepe at the windows, panels of trelliswork–and an ooh-baby-let-me-make-you-mine Lou Rawls sound track.
If it weren't for Carty I would have missed out on the one Caribbean dish I left New York wanting to taste: conch salad. The mollusk is beaten, cut into strips, and marinated with onion, green pepper, tomato, celery, garlic, thyme, olive oil, and white wine vinegar. Then it's tossed with salted cucumber and crowned with arugula–real hot-weather food, the kind you can eat in industrial quantities without feeling logy. But the tonic salad barely registers on the islands' culinary radar. Bizarrely, cool refreshing fare is scarce.
Many of Carty's recipes have the same loving, "that's the way my grandma made it" coda. A molded blend of cornmeal, pigeon peas, and yams accompanies whole steamed butterfish. Chicken pieces are colored in melted brown sugar, then stewed with vegetables in a huge cauldron. The pot-fish sandwich stacks bluefish or triggerfish, grilled onions, and creamy plantains between slices of white bread.
Anguillan crayfish are distinct from the familiar freshwater variety found in the American South. Clawless and an average of eight inches long, they're the pride of the island, with flesh similar to the spiny lobster's, only sweeter and more delicate. At Tastey's, the diver-caught shellfish are grilled and napped with garlicky tomato sauce. (Crayfish pizza is the specialty at Oliver's, an intimate, dreamy dining terrace run by Carty's pal Oliver Mac-Donna on Morgan Hill Beach.)
As Carty notes, "The great thing about Anguilla is you can eat high and low, and at both extremes you can eat well." At the low end is the Village Pub, a rickety chicken-and-rib shack near the ferry terminal where slackers assemble to play dominoes and watch Judge Judy on the television behind the bar. Big Jim presides in his Donny Hathaway cap, dispensing excellent fried or baked johnnycakes, succulent ribs, and shots of a homemade mixture of Campari and Pernod (!) in which the roots of wild Caribbean plants have been steeped. Regulars know the stuff as "Viagra."
On the high end is CuisinArt Resort & Spa, a sprawling complex with a ham-fisted Greek-island theme, owned by food processor and Conair hair dryer king Leandro Rizzuto. A million-dollar, 1.5-acre, state-of-the-art hydroponic farm supplies the hotel's three restaurants with lettuce, broccoli rabe, bok choy, eggplant, cucumber, and more. But in its second season, the resort is still battling people's natural suspicion of food grown in water spiked with fertilizer. Still, while the salad greens are, er, watery, chef Denis Jaricot's cooking is brawny and lusty. Lyons-born Jaricot apprenticed with Paul Bocuse and put Truffles restaurant at the Toronto Four Seasons Hotel on the map. His trademark dish at CuisinArt's upscale Santorini Restaurant, "Mediterranean-Caribbean" bouillabaisse, has a deep roasted flavor, the result of searing or grilling the fish and shellfish before poaching.
Sharing an island with Dutch Sint Maarten, French St. Martin has a slightly gritty, rough-and-tumble quality not found on Anguilla or St. Bart's. Gastronomically, it appeals to the kind of Parisian who travels with his own Camembert: at Le Bistro Nu you can tuck into a dinner of duck confit with sautéed potatoes, helping yourself to butter from regulation French stoneware. Down a shadowy alley in the main town of Marigot, the restaurant also serves big helpings of West Indian atmosphere, with its colored Christmas lights, bar trimmed in fretwork, and daisy-patterned tablecloths.
For lunch, don't even consider the big resorts. Instead, take a five-minute boat ride to Pinel, a pinhead of an island with neither electricity nor running water. Two outdoor restaurants–the rather chichi Karibuni and the more populist Chez Pitou–feature the same specialty: grilled spiny lobster, which you can choose live from traps at the water's edge. Like a lot of Caribbean chefs, Pitou isn't too bothered about cooking times, so protect your $17-a-pound investment: stand over him as he ladles on the garlic butter, and tell him when to take your lobster off the fire.
If you need a reality check, shop St. Martin's down-and-dirty lolos, or food stands, in the village of Grand Case. A full rack of baby back ribs at Talk of the Town is just $8. Regulars anoint them with Matouk's Calypso Sauce, made in Trinidad with Scotch bonnet peppers. Parkay Squeeze is squirted on corn on the cob. "The flavor says 'butter'!"
Unless you disagree.