Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" (1942)
READ JOHN MARIANI'S ARTICLE ON DINING OUT IN PHOENIX AND SCOTTSDALE IN
JAMAICA by Nikki Buchanan
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Michael Mondavi Reclaims the Family Honor with “M”
by John Mariani
DOWN IN JAMAICA
by Nikki Buchanan
It’s a long and winding road that leads from Montego Bay Jamaica’s quiet South Coast. Within minutes of leaving the airport, I found the broad streets of the city had given way to the ruts and hairpin turns of the country, lush jungle advancing with every mile.
Passing papaya groves and fields of sugar cane, we lurch through hamlets with houses painted in soft shades of pink, yellow or blue, their deep porches enclosed by elaborately patterned wrought iron. Even the tiniest village, it seems, has one or two drinking establishments, many of them shacks the size of walk-in closets sporting jaunty names such as Buffer Zone, Bless Up, Survival Bar and Jesus Bikini Booze.
I was on my way to Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa, and when we pull up, at last, to the porte cochere at the resort, the hour-and-a-half drive suddenly seemed worth it. Built within a 500-acre nature preserve, Whitehouse is surrounded by verdant mountains and blue sea with a pristine strip of endless white sand for border. Okay, I’ll say it. It’s an exquisitely gorgeous postcard, an example of life imitating graphic art. Meanwhile, the buildings and grounds are a fantasyland of Disney-like proportion, a sprawling amalgam of architecturally themed villages--French, Italian and Dutch--burbling fountains, flowers, mansard roofs, incessantly chirping birds, Greek columns, enormous swimming pools, roaming peacocks and formal gardens. Miraculously, it all works, this eye-popping playground for adults.
As reggae music issues softly from “rock” speakers in flowerbeds, the workaday world quickly slips away. Mahogany four-poster beds, well-stocked bars and ocean views are part of every all-inclusive package, but top-tier rooms also come with butlers, available to unpack suitcases, draw bubble baths, arrange trips or reserve a private, candlelit table on the beach. Of five dining venues, two focus on Caribbean cuisine — upscale Eleanor’s and casual Bluefield Beach Club.
Consulting chef Walter Staib, who owns Philadelphia’s City Tavern, brings his prodigious knowledge of Jamaican cuisine to both restaurants. Given his commitment to all things Jamaican (he founded the Caribbean Culinary Federation), it’s tempting to stay on property for traditional beef patties, festivals, stamp & go, jerk pork, and snapper escovitch. However, seeing (and eating) the real Jamaica means hitting the road.
Billy’s Grassy Park (below, aka "Billy’s Roadside Pepper Shrimp") is in Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth. I never saw anything resembling a grassy park, but it’s safe to say Billy Kerr’s pepper shrimp represents a roadside situation. Everything happens on a waist-high brick pit, banked with glowing coals, the grill above them crowded with pots — all of it just inches from the road. A taxi driver pulls up and hollers out his order, waiting while Billy piles French-fried shrimp, potatoes and cabbage salad into a to-go container. So this is Jamaican fast food! Billy’s place sits on one end of a long building painted in the red, yellow and green stripes of the Jamaican flag. His dining area is essentially a breezeway, wedged between the kitchen and the river-fed pond where freshwater shrimp are caught. At lunchtime, tables are jammed with workingmen who invariably pay a little less for their food than, say, tourists arriving in buses.
On any given day, Billy offers 10 to 12 different dishes, including curried goat, peanut soup (right), stewed chicken, and brown stew fish. But Middle Quarters is the shrimp capital of Jamaica, so it’s not uncommon to find shrimp in three or four preparations. Pepper shrimp, the local specialty, are tossed in the pan whole with garlic, scotch bonnet peppers and vinegar, cooked just until their shells turn bright orange. Messy to eat and decidedly fiery, they’re wonderful. Spicy shrimp soup, thick with potatoes, carrots and rice, tastes like comfort food or at least Jamaica’s amped-up version of it. But my favorite dish is surely the simplest — crunchy curls of French-fried shrimp, their flavor sweeter and their texture fluffier than saltwater varieties.
In a glass-enclosed case near the prep kitchen, I find stamp & go, a popular Jamaican snack food: made with saltfish (typically, salted cod), flour, eggs, vinegar and scotch bonnets, they’re salty, crisp-edged fishcakes, patted out in a hurry and gobbled on the run. Like just about everything else at Billy’s, I could eat them by the plate load.
Little Ochie (below), on Alligator Pond, is located in a windswept fishing village on the south coast that doesn’t get the usual glut of tourists — probably because it’s hard to find and the sand on its beach is an un-photogenic gray. And did I mention the wind? Yikes!
Locals come for one reason, and it’s a good one: Little Ochie, a funky seafood joint owned and operated by Everald Christian, known to all as “Blackie.” He and his crew turn out lobster, shrimp and fish a half dozen different ways — grilled, curried, stewed, fried, roasted or jerked — all of them memorable. When Jamaicans say “lobster,” they mean spiny lobster (below), a warm-water crustacean that’s actually closer to crayfish than Maine lobster. They’re yummy, especially under Blackie’s supervision. Grilled and brushed with seasoned butter, their naturally sweet flesh tastes of wood smoke and their texture is more cotton-y than Maine lobster (not a bad thing). Escovitch is the Jamaican version of Spanish escabeche, a dish invented to preserve fish in vinegary marinade. At Little Ochie, crisp-fried snapper comes dressed up with an allspice-scented overlay of pickled carrot and onion. Fresh conch, cut into small pieces, is all smoke and spice, each chewy bite coated with brown curry. Jerked crab claws leave my lips tingling, but they’re so hard to eat I give up and go back for more lobster, not the rich garlic-butter-veggie version everyone else is swooning over, but the plain one, given nothing but a brush of butter.
Little Ochie is all about seafood, so side dishes are practically nonexistent. Orders arrive with bammy (a starchy flatbread made from grated yucca and salt) and festivals (cornmeal fritters akin to hushpuppies). Although Little Ochie’s bammy seems dry and plain (experience has taught me there are as many versions of it as there are cooks) the festivals (sweeter and doughier than a typical hushpuppy) are particularly good, as well as the perfect accompaniment to fried fish.
Of course, half the fun of this place is the al fresco dining arrangement, a series of raised, thatch-roofed huts scattered around the beach. Each hut, some resembling the hulls of fishing boats, boasts three or four weather-beaten picnic tables and benches, and on a slow day, diners — pilgrims, really, who come to Little Ochie in small groups — appropriate their own huts for privacy. Outdoor speakers blast reggae and hip-hop, much of it carried away on the wind.
Belinda’s Riverside Canteen (left, aka Miss Betty’s) is set off the Rio Grande River near Port Antonio , so there’s only one way to get to Belinda’s, and that’s by river raft, but it’s not a hardship. Raft trips on the Rio Grande are a popular tourist attraction, offering seven miles of scenic river from the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the bay of Port Antonio. Each narrow bamboo raft seats two people near the back, while the rafter stands at the pointy front end, working his bamboo pole like a gondolier. It’s all very pleasant, but the best part of the trip is finding Miss Betty (right) and her daughter Belinda. Their canteen sits on a patch of rocky beach at a bend in the river, a hand-painted wooden sign near the shore advertising “chicken, rice & peas, fried dumplings and coffee etc.”
Rustic doesn’t begin to describe the set-up. Accommodations include a makeshift kitchen, an open fire pit and a handful of wobbly tables and benches fashioned from bamboo. Plastic tablecloths are held in place with river rocks. There is no running water, and the bathroom is in the bushes. Ferrymen sit apart from the tourists, smoking cigarettes (among other things) under their own thatched-roof cabana.
Nowadays, Belinda (called Miss Wissy, below) does most of the cooking, leaving Miss Betty to answer stupid tourist questions and emote Jamaican charm. She could act like the wicked witch of the west and it wouldn’t matter. This soulful food, made from generations-old recipes, speaks for itself. One bubbling pot contains "mannish water," a pungent soup brimming with garlic, onion, scotch bonnet, chocho (chayote), green banana, starchy yam, honeycombed bits of tripe, and various parts of the goat, including its head and rubbery testicles.
I blurt out Stupid Tourist Question #1, “Why is it called ‘mannish water’? Does it make you strong?” Wissy rolls her eyes at her assistants and answers, “Yeah, big muscle.” Later, I’m told the soup is Jamaican Viagra, dispensed on wedding nights. And you know, it’s pretty good, once you get past the smell of it.Curried goat, however, is wonderful, its assertive flavors achieved with garlic, tomato, curry powder and vinegar, stewed for hours until the meat barely clings to each tiny bone. As is true of so many Jamaican dishes, bay leaf and allspice are the fragrant threads running through it, while steamed white rice provides the perfect tabula rasa. For everything else, there’s rice and peas—white rice simmered in coconut milk with kidney beans or pigeon peas, which tint the rice red as they soften. It makes soothing accompaniment to browned chicken fricassee and beef stew with spinach and small doughy dumplings.
Soupy red beans simmer in one pot, bok choy in another — the latter vinegar-sharp, like southern greens. Plump fried dumplings, browned and savory, serve as juice-mops for all the stews and gravies.Miss Wissy’s strictly traditional desserts include gizzadas (sticky coconut tarts in pastry shells), empanada-like plantain tarts (their jellied insides pink from food coloring) and blue drawers, which look remarkably like Central American tamales. To make them, a thick pudding made of cornmeal, green banana, sweet potato, coconut milk, nutmeg and cinnamon is wrapped in banana leaf, then boiled. The rustic result is reminiscent of tamales too.
In season (November to May), Miss Wissy and Miss Betty are generally waiting around the bend. To be safe, you might want to call them a few days ahead of time at 876-389-8826.
Nikki Buchanan is a Phoenix-based writer who has been restaurant critic for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Magazine. She currently writes for Metromix Phoenix.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
NEW YORK CORNER
hard to believe in a space being "jinxed," especially when it is one of
the loveliest two-story locations on one of the tonier streets of the
Upper East Side. Yet for some reason the premises at 135 East
62nd Street have seen numerous restaurants come and go, always after an
initial flurry of bustling business. There are always reasons for
restaurant failures, but the new installation of Fishtail, its name
appended with star chef David Burke's, is reason to believe that its
run shall be long and enduring.
open nightly. Appetizers run $11-$35, main courses $21-$39, with whole
fish priced by the pound.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Mondavi Reclaims the Family Honor with “M”
in the global wine market
have the words “supply and demand” had more impact than right now. With
the world’s wineries full to the brim with product as prices drop for
even the most illustrious bottlings, the idea of introducing a new
California cabernet sauvignon at the cult wine price of $200 a bottle
seems like either sheer folly or canny marketing.
Chef Thomas Keller of Per Se in NYC and
DON’T’ FLATTER YOURSELF!
"So, there's my first look at Dallas – and
your first look at me. I understand that there's a 9-year-old
photograph of me making its way around town, my author's photo that
appears in one of the books I wrote. Though I wish I still looked the
way I did then, alas, I don't think I do. Still, restaurateurs and
chefs will no doubt try to 'make' me."—Leslie Brenner, "Notebook," Dallas Morning News.
TO SEE THE CHUBBIER, HUMAN SIDE OF DER FÜHRER
According to new documents by a Nazi officer who dined with him at least 30 times, Adolf Hitler had "shocking table manners, ate a prodigious amount of cake," and suffered from flatulence. The dictator also bit his fingernails at meal times and nervously rubbed his index finger back and forth across his moustache, the newly discovered papers disclose. Late at night the Führer would go back to his rooms, drink "health tea," and listen to his phonograph.
P.R. CONTACTS: OWING TO THE HUGE NUMBER OF
ABOUT EASTER-RELATED EVENTS, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO LIST ALL BUT THE MOST
UNUSUAL UNDER QUICK BYTES.
* On Monday nights in NYC Macelleria is offering an
all-you-can eat) gnocchi bowl for only $12.99. Call 212-741-2555.
* In celebration of Tabla’s
10th Anniversary in NYC,
Chef Floyd Cardoz introduces a new menu - “Tabla’s 10” - a selection of
small plates for $10 and under, offered every Wed. evening. Call
* On March 27 Le Titi
De Paris in Arlington
Heights, ILL, will feature Perigord for its next Tour de
France Gastronomique Wine Dinner, hosted by Sommelier Marcel Flori and
Chef/Owner Michael Maddox will expertly. $85 pp. Call
* On March 30 in Washington,
DC, 40+ chefs and mixologists will gather for Share Our Strength's Taste of the
Nation® at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium with a VIP
reception. Chef Chair RJ Cooper and Chef Kaz Okochi lead demos and
desserts by Dessert Den. This year’s honorees are: Jeffrey Buben
of Bistro Bis and Vidalia, Roberto Donna of Bebbo Trattoria, Bob
Kinkead of Kinkead's, Ris Lacoste of Ris, Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi
Bistro, Michel Richard of Citronelle Michel Richard and Central
Michel Richard, Jeff Tunks of Passion Food Group and Robert
Wiedmaier of Marcel's, Brassierie Beck, and Brabbo. Call
1-877-26-TASTE or visit http://www.strength.org/washington. General
Admission, $85 and VIP $150.
* From April 8-16 in NYC,
Commerce offers Passover
Specials, incl. Chef Harold Moore’s kosher-for-Pesach Matzo Ball soup
with truffles, homemade matzos, smoked salmon with beets and
horseradish, and roast beef with kugel and spicy carrot salad.
* From April 9-15 Chef Julian Medina celebrates Passover
at NYC's Toloache, where his Mexican heritage
and Judaism .A traditional seder plate is available upon request. A la
carte dishes are complimented with a selection of kosher wines, kosher
tequilas and cocktails. Call 212-581-1818.
* InterContinental Hong Kong is offering the “Gourmet Getaway” and “Stay and Dine” packages, incl.: “Gourmet Getaway”—1- or 2-night stay, breakfast, lunch and dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants, with each restaurant’s Executive Chef preparing a tasting menu of signature dishes; airport limo transfers; bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne ; 25% off additional a la carte food & beverages not incl. in the package. US$757- US$1,143; “Stay & Dine”-- Guests who reserve accommodations at InterContinental Hong Kong’s “Best Flex” room rate will receive a US$150 dining credit to enjoy in any of the hotel’s restaurants. From US$333- US$384. Call 852-2721-1211; www.intercontinental.com.
Easter Paris' Hotel Fouquet's Barrière
Pastry Chef Jean-Luc Labat will teach guests how to make gourmet
chocolate from scratch with a complimentary workshop on April 13 from
2-5 PM at the hotel's restaurant, Le Diane. Each guest receives an
apron embroidered with a "D" for Le Diane, a cooking spoon and
chef's hat. A special one-night Easter Package incl.
accommodations, chocolate treatment at the U Spa,
access to the swimming pool, aqua-slimming trail, fitness
center, sauna and steam room, daily breakfast, lunch or dinner for 2,
VIP welcome amenities. Available from April 10-13 at 850 Euros
(approx. $1,105). Call 011+33 (0) 140 696 040;
* The Scottsdale Culinary Festival runs April 14-19, held at a variety of locations and will feature: food and drink demos by renowned chefs and guest sommeliers; mixologist and cocktail parties; live music from acclaimed bands; social soirees; and a unique Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner at which guests can mix and mingle with culinary icons including Chefs Michael Smith , Robert McGrath and Roland Passot. Presented by the Scottsdale League of the Arts (SLA). Tix range from $25 to $225, Visit www.scottsdaleculinaryfestival.org.
From April 14-18 The St. Croix
Food Wine Experience showcases the diverse cuisine and
wine available on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands with gourmet dinners,
wine seminars, wine auctions, and the annual culinary competition, A
Taste of St. Croix. Participating chefs incl. Kevin Rathbun, Johnny
Vincenz, Catherine Driggers and Willy Diggelman. Modavi, Benziger, Masi
Planeta and wine makers from more select wineries will be participating
in 2009. Visit http://stcroixfoodandwine.com.
From April 15 – Dec. 14, the
island of Barbados will offer savings for 2009 with the
introduction of the Barbados Gourmet Card, giving 25 % savings
on meals at participating restaurants throughout the island. For
more information, www.visitbarbados.org.
On April 15 in Chicago,
Chef Heather Terhune of Atwood
Café will ‘give back’ to all diners on Tax Day, by
offering all meals tax-free at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Call
312-368-1900. Visit www.atwoodcafe.com.
* From April 16-19 The Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival will be held throughout Austin and the Hill Country, to celebrate the multi-cultural, culinary and viticultural achievements of Texas, with wine tastings, culinary masters dinner, and the grand festival tasting Stars Across Texas, which will showcase a variety Texas’ celebrated chefs and restaurants. Events incl.: Hill Country winery luncheons; Culinary Masters Dinner ; reserve wine tasting; “terroir Meets Tradition”; “Red, White and New”; Stars Across Texas; “Big Dog Reds”; and more. Visit http://www.texaswineandfood.org.
* From April 16-19, California’s Pebble Beach Resorts will host the
2nd annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine with more than 60 prominent
chefs (incl. Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Michael Mina
and Jacques Pepin) and over 250 wineries (incl. Harlan Estate,
Cristal, Pisoni state and Chateau Margaux). Tix begin at range
* On April 16 in Dallas,
Nana will hold a Fisher
Vineyards Wine Dinner, 5 courses by Executive Chef Anthony Bombaci for
$165 pp with proprietor Juelle Fisher. Call 214-761-7470.
April 17 in Carmel,
CA, Aubergine, at
L’Auberge Carmel, presents the Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux estates of
Château Lagrange and Château d’Issan at a dinner with
special guests Emmanuel Cruse, wine maker and owner of d’Issan,
and Bruno Eynard, wine maker and g-m of Lagrange, with cuisine by Chef
Christophe Grosjean. $150 pp. Call
* On April 17 on St.
Croix, US Virgin, Chef Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun Restaurants in Atlanta and
winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez of Robert Mondavi Winery in California will
hold a fundraising dinner at Government as part of the St. Croix
Food Wine Experience, to support the St. Croix Foundation. $1000
pp, limited to 20 guests. The 2009
St. Croix Food Wine Experience is April 14-18. Visit
* On April 18 Bruno Serato of the Anaheim White House will be recognized for his extensive philanthropy benefiting Orange County's "motel kids." Serato, whose nonprofit Caterina's Club feeds more than 50,000 underprivileged children each year, will receive the honor at the Anaheim Boys & Girls Clubs' annual gala that will be at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel. Call 714-491-3617 X105.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEW FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up with four excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below: THIS WEEK: LOOKING FOR THE REAL IRISH PUB; CARIBBEAN VILLA DEALS; OPENSKIES DROPS FARES
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). THIS WEEK: TIPS ON TENNIS TIPPING.
Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement. THIS WEEK: TURKS & CAICOS ITAOLIAN VILLAGE
All You Need to Know Before You Go
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.