"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.
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.
La Route des Épices Colombier, St. Barthélemy; 011-590/27-78-82; dinner for two $140.
Maya's Public Beach, St. Barthélemy; 011-590/27-75-73; dinner for two $90.
La Route des Boucaniers Rue du Bord de Mer, Gustavia, St. Barthélemy; 011-590/27-73-00; dinner for two $84.
Tastey's Café South Hill, Anguilla; 264/497-2737; dinner for two $40.
Malliouhana Hotel, Meads Bay, Anguilla;264/497-6111; dinner for two $154.
Oliver's Morgan Hill Beach, Long Bay, Anguilla; 264/497-8780; dinner for two $90.
Village Pub Blowing Point, Anguilla; no phone; lunch for two $16.
Santorini Restaurant CuisinArt Resort & Spa Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla; 800/937-9356 or 264/498-2000; dinner for two $140.
Le Bistro Nu Rue Perinon, St. Martin; 011-590/87-97-09; dinner for two $50.
Chez Pitou Îlet Pinel, St. Martin; 011-590/87-38-17; lunch for two $40.
Talk of the Town Grand Case, St. Martin; 011-590/29-63-89; lunch for two $20.