LIGHT YOUR FIRE
My friend Fran and I were enjoying dinner at San Juan‘s Puerto Rican/Asian restaurant, Budatai, when she bit into a miso-and-honey-swathed carrot dish and declared: “Damn, these are sexy.”I surveyed the rich, plum-hued walls draped in opulent red curtains, took a bite and realized that yes, they were sexy. A familiar food made mysterious in preparation and bold in presentation, served in a restaurant with a stylish sense of place – that carrot moment evoked everything about Caribbean dining that’s so stimulating these days.Part of the region’s innate culinary appeal lies, of course, in the lushness of its flavors, particularly the homegrown fruits. What could be more inviting than a vivid orange mango bursting with juicy flavor, or the earthy taste of a papaya? Then there are the exotic fruits we don’t see much at home: sweet-tart soursop, acidic yet addictive tamarind and unbelievably sweet Antiguan black pineapple. Nothing gets the juices flowing like a taste of the unfamiliar. The purple-black skin of a ripe passion fruit bursts with the promise of pleasure. Slice into it to reveal the yellow flesh filled with soft, round pips. Slurp it all up in one magnificent mouthful and taste the tangy sweetness, feel the effortless smoothness. This most sensual of Caribbean fruits transforms an ordinary dish into something that makes you want to scream. Now you know why they call it passion fruit
Yes, Caribbean flavors are unabashed. Seafood harvested that very morning still bears that distinctive sea-salty taste. Islanders have long praised the aphrodisiac powers of conch; served virtually raw, ceviche-style, and savored inches from the pounding waves at a place like Big D’s conch stand on Exuma in the Bahamas, it’s plain to see why. Pick up some spicy jerk chicken from Jamaica‘s famous Boston Bay stands and take it to the surprisingly underpopulated beach nearby. Inhale the aroma as you dig into the tender yet peppery meat. Is that a touch of cayenne? Jamaicans say it “gets the blood flowing.”
Restaurants designed for maximum effect intensify the vibrance of exotic regional flavors. Couples snuggle on the couch at Pinchos as the Aruban sunset blazes beyond the pier. Torches cast their flickering light on honeymooners dining amid the ruins at Caneel Bay’s sugar mill on St. John. In St. Martin, a woman blushes when presented with a rose at the end of her meal at La Vie en Rose. Love is in the air.
The Caribbean’s signature rum libations provide the perfect aperitif for whatever’s on your personal menu. In Martinique, it’s a sybaritic ritual to quaff a potent ti punch while hip deep in Josephine’s Bathtub, a shallows surrounded by islets that’s named for Napoleon’s empress, who took the waters there. St. Maarten‘s rich and woodsy guavaberry liqueur stirs the imagination, and a Grenadian rum punch lightly dusted with nutmeg perks you up even as it mellows you out. And while you might not know exactly what’s in a Naughty but Nice at Avalon restaurant, you’ll certainly appreciate its suggestive power. The rest is up to you.
WET YOUR APPETITE
Waterfront dining is the ultimate Caribbean culinary fantasy, one easily realized in countless evocative seaside spots: Waves wash rhythmically ashore just beyond the deck at Antigua‘s Indigo on the Beach as you share tender bites of seared scallops. A cool evening breeze infuses a salty accent into succulent grilled lobster at Aquarium, on Grenada. A scarlet Virgin Islands sunset sets the scene for a dessert of Key lime mini-tarts at St. Croix‘s Beach Side Café. At Aruba‘s Flying Fishbone, the water laps at your feet as you savor the cool fire of vintage rum. Dinner may be over, but the achingly beautiful Caribbean night is still oh so young.