Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Carib Cuisine Tour Begins at Cruz Bay, St. John

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By Cathy Jacob Gaffney

Mature Life Features

I don’t travel to the Caribbean to eat the same fare I can get back in the States so forgive me if I sound a bit snobbish. Unfortunately, the immense popularity of St. John, the smallest and least-developed of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, which also includes St. Thomas and St. Croix, has made this vacation paradise a victim of its own success.

Case in point: Over the past few decades, the swelling throngs of honeymooners and sun worshipers who flock here during the December-to-April peak season have fueled a demand for menus ballyhooing  buffalo wings, jalapeno poppers and — gasp! — hamburgers

So what do we  dyed-in-the-tastebud foodies, who enjoy exploring  the culinary oases of down-home joints boasting true West Indies fare as well upscale venues home to aspiring young chefs making bold new statements of gastronomic Caribbean creativity, do?

We take strength from the good news that St. John still boasts a smattering of eateries from both sides of the spectrum. But it pays to know where to look.

Arguably, the oldest and most respected fine-dining spot on the island is the fusion-oriented Asolare, a romantic gem overlooking Cruz Bay. The view is spectacular at night and, as might be expected, reservations are a must. Executive Chef Jonathan Balak was busy in the kitchen knocking out globally-inspired versions and visions of the traditional Indian samosa during our visit. This is prepared with black beans, sautéed Honshimeji mushrooms and red-curry Spanish romesco sauce, all of which arrived at our table as easy on the eye as it was pleasing to the palette.

Asolare’s eight-item menu reflects Chef Jonathan’s emphasis on quality over quantity: “I’d rather have a few things and do them really, really well, than have a large menu any day.”

Hands-down the newest kid on the cutting-edge dining block is Cruz Bay’s La Plancha de Mar, a casual, airy den. A trio of young chefs and co-owners – Mike Prout, Jonathan Fritts and Jason Howard — prepares everything on a traditional Spanish-style flat-top grill and draws inspiration from the culinary traditions of both southern Spain and southern France. All of which explains the uncommon pairing of French-style moules fritte (mussels in saffron-fennel broth served with garlic-herb fries) on the same menu as a Spanish-flavored romesco-stuffed chicken and a dish called Deconstructed Paella (risotto served alongside a skewer of shellfish, chorizo sausage, and braised chicken in a paprika broth).

If the crab-claw-shaped pastry filled with parmesan-and-bleu-cheese mousse is on the menu, order it.

Another don’t-miss upscale spot is Coral Bay’s Sweet Plantains, which specializes nightly one of several rotating West Indies-style fusion cuisines, including French-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean. The latter features a memorable cardamom-spiced tapioca dessert.

To enjoy bona-fide Caribbean flavors St. John’s inhabitants began creating at home more than a century ago requires a brief drive from Cruz Bay to Windy Level Restaurant. Owner Glycerus Hernan oversees a special board of time-honored family recipes handed down over the generations that include curried goat and Creole-stewed chicken (both served with rice and peas), oxtail, and a hearty side dish called Provisions — a mix of cassava, plantains, yuca and banana. Wednesday’s outdoor barbecue grill draws a colorful mix of local laborers and in-the-know visitors.

Tucked into the east end of St. John since 1979 is Vie’s Snack Shack, a roadside stop operated by 11th generation resident Violet “Vie” Mahabir. On the menu are traditional island staples like garlic friend chicken and johnnycake, a New Orleans-style beignet that replaces powdered sugar with syrup.

Back in Coral Bay is Sylvia’s New Clean Plate Kitchen. Bob Marley plays on the stereo while St. Lucia native-owner Julietta Messon and her Jamaican-born cook Sylvia Nicholas woo patrons with tried-and-true West Indies staples ranging from jerk pork with bammie (cassava bread) to fungi (okra hush puppies) and Jamaica’s national dish of fresh salt fish and ackee. Wash it all down with a drink called Brush, a blend of bananas, molasses, strawberry and cream.

 Mature Life Features, Copyright 2012                                                                                  

 

  Photos  by

James Gaffney

 

West Indies-style curried goat with bammie

                      Asolare’s samosa 

 

 

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

April 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

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