Category Archives: Restaurants
Whenever my husband Martin and I go on holidays, we are excited to try new food experiences. The last few years in Jamaica we have been lazy and relegated our enthusiasm to within the walls of the resort. We did enjoy trying local fruits, and traditional dishes like curried goat, jerk chicken and gizzadas (coconut tarts), but this year I wanted to kick things up a notch and rub elbows with some local foodies. I did an online search and found Zimbali Retreat, a small property in the hills above Negril that offered a demo cooking class and tour of their organic farm garden. It seemed right up our alley! I was excited and invited a couple we know who are also foodies. They had shared our Vegas experiences so I figured they would like this taste of Jamaica. We had no idea just how much fun we were going to have…
We arrived at the gate after a bumpy ride up a narrow road that bordered sugar cane plantations and an old stone church. Martin was afraid we were going to have to carry the car or abandon it if the potholes got any bigger or the road got any narrower. The sugar cane stalks knocked along the side of the car as we drove through plantation land, and as we mounted the hill a local dog lying at the edge of the road didn’t even look up. It was only a half hour drive, but I felt as though I’d been transported to another place. A short walk down a palm-covered pathway revealed mahogany beams that covered a cozy kitchen and airy sitting room, all overlooking the farm below. I felt a bit like I was visiting the Swiss Family Robinson on their deserted island! We were served a refreshing sorrel ginger drink while we cooled off. Just as we finished our last sip our tour guide arrived.
Clifford, who has been at Zimbali since the beginning (9 years ago), led us over much of the 6 acre terrain, stopping every hundred steps or so to show us another plant, most of which provided some benefit for the kitchen. We saw banana and coconut trees, pineapple plants, Caribbean oranges and grapefruits, June plums, star fruit, lemongrass, annatto, turmeric and ginger roots, breadfruit, all kinds of pumpkins and zucchini squash, beans, and then the crowning glory – noni fruit. This fruit is highly regarded as having great healing powers; the juice is said to be a cure-all. The bees on the farm love it too, said Clifford. Noni bloosom honey is his favourite.
Clifford showed us the right way to crack open a coconut (hit the 3 corners of the outer shell), and he told us about using cinnamon leaves in cooking. We learned that the bark of the mahogany trees was used to make the rich reddish-brown dye still common in Caribbean textiles. He showed us the massive African tulip trees taking over wild sections of the jungle, and how the rain brings on mango season (in May), when the fruit is so plentiful it sits in piles by side of the roads! The gardener in me was trying valiantly to remember everything he said as I tasted and smelled and strained my neck to see in every direction, absorbing every detail.
On our return from the tour we met the owners of the resort, Alecia & Mark. Alecia grew up in these hills, and learned much from her grandfather about the land and its secrets. She is a Rastafarian and has been all her life. Mark grew up in a military family and his travels as a youth gave him a desire for understanding cultures and experiencing life on a more simple scale. Both of them are “living the dream”, existing almost off the grid with solar power and the harnessing of rain water, not to mention that the farm provides about 70% of their food. This is not just an agritourism resort, it is a lifestyle, and their passion and sense of inner peace is evident when you talk with them.
We returned to the lodge dripping in sweat from the humidity. It didn’t matter. A quick splash of water on my face and a few sips of water and I was ready to get to the kitchen. Zimbali’s two chefs, Raymond and Rudolph, were already hard at work of course, and their counter was almost overflowing with the bounty from the farm. We were truly spoiled as it was only us and our friends there that day. We saddled up to the bar to watch, learn and eat.
The first course was a breaded fritter that was juicy and delicate, green in colour. It was served with an escovitch, a Jamaican pickle made with onions & peppers in a chili vinegar brine. Raymond asked us to guess what kind of vegetable he had used on the fritter and we thought we had it – zucchini! Nope, he said, guess again. It was the person in the group who is least a foodie who nailed it – green tomatoes. Not as firm as our green tomatoes and not as tangy, rather velvety soft and slightly sweet in contrast to the pickle. The sorrel reduction that garnished the plate was the crowning glory, refreshing and tart.
The next course was a sort of cake, like a crab cake but made with vegetables again, said Rudolph. Again we were stumped – cassava? No. Yam? (They had real yams as well as sweet potato on the counter, two very different things, and both used often in a Jamaican kitchen. Sweet potatoes are orange, yams are white – more fibery, not as sweet.) No. They gave us a few hints and we finally figured out it was cauliflower. It tasted much richer than I imagined cauliflower ever could, and was served with a banana purée and a sort of tropical succotash of corn, peppers and tropical fruit. It was delectable.
We were able to choose our main course, and I picked jerk shrimp, while Martin chose escovitch fish. Our friends had curried shrimp. They were all intensely flavoured and beautifully tender, and were served with a quick coleslaw, veggies in a seasoned coconut milk and a green plantain and banana rosti (shredded and pan-fried in a patty). Everything was prepared as we watched, even the coconut milk – we saw the coconut opened, the meat cut out and then shredded in the food processor, and the milk squeezed through a strainer.
But wait, there was dessert too! I groaned under the weight of lunch, but my enthusiasm kicked in. How could I miss out on a slice of Raymond’s banana rum cake with caramelized melons & papaya? The cake had no eggs but was not heavy, rather silky with a hint of Jamaican spices (allspice, ginger, nutmeg). Raymond explained that he had long ago mastered baking without eggs, as he doesn’t eat them himself. His skill was evident in the finesse of the final product. It was the perfect end to a real gourmand afternoon.
We hugged the chefs to show our appreciation and thanked our hosts profusely for their hospitality, all wishing we could return to stay and soak up the relaxing vibe. (I think on my next visit I might like to stay and experience a massage, yoga class, and a Rasta Tour!)
We hardly noticed the bumps in the road on the way back, being lulled into a sense of total relaxation after our retreat visit. Rain drummed on the car windows as the scenery went by in a blur. By the time we returned to our resort I had my second wind and was happy to tell anyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t seem to care) about what fun we had. I felt I had sampled a true taste of the tropics along with a healthy dose of Jamaican hospitality and respect, and having enjoyed it I was proudly displaying my enthusiasm like it was a diploma of achievement.
Okay, that got your attention, didn’t it? The expression was one used by a friend on our recent trip to Vegas, where we enjoyed a number of meals that were absolutely wonderful. I think what she meant to convey was that feeling you have when something is so close to perfect it makes you hold your breath. There is a euphoria that comes over you as you soak in the experience. I’ll try to show you what I mean with my next few posts. I will start with the classic foodie “wow” and then proceed with other special experiences.
One night we booked at a restaurant owned by a chef my husband has followed since he started working in kitchens. For 30 years Martin has been looking through Joel Robuchon’s cookbooks and following his restaurant endeavours. Of course, Chef Robuchon was not in the kitchen the night we were there, but his touch was in every dish. A kitchen that arranges salad leaves with tweezers is not your everyday kind of place.
We really wanted to sample a range of items, so we booked at L’Atelier, where the a la carte menu is larger.The kitchen is open so that you can see much of the work as it happens. There is also the potential to spend a little bit less money, although this is not a cheap evening. But then like I said, we don’t eat like this every day!
We all chose a few courses, and decided to have wine with dinner. As we sat marveling at the room with all its food displays, we truly felt in the presence of greatness. The sense of anticipation was exciting.
They set the tone with an “amuse bouche” and boy, was this first taste amusing! A parfait with foie gras and milk foam. Not for the faint at heart, certainly, but that’s one of the reasons we work out, after all.
My first course was “Soy glazed kampachi with endive salad and light mustard dressing”. Kampachi, or kingfish, is a beautifully tender and flaky white fish. The glaze was perfectly balanced with the dressing in the salad, both providing intense flavours to lift the more delicate fish and salad but not overpower them. Martin had a classic dish, “Traditionally poached chilled duck foie gras”. It was served simply with a few toast points that were perfectly crisped. Such decadence is almost enough to make one feel guilty, it’s so enjoyable…At least with your clothes on! But we had only just begun.
We went on to our second courses, and our friends had similar moans of delight with their dishes. How could pork chops be so delectable? Martin’s Crispy langoustine fritters with basil pesto” was ethereal they were so crispy. I had “veal sweetbread with fresh laurel and stuffed romaine lettuce”… yes, stuffed lettuce! I adore sweetbreads, and they are not an item on many menus. They were crispy on the outside and deliciously melt-in-my-mouth rich and smooth on the inside. The lettuce had a complimentary savoury flavour to it, I believe created by the foam they had made for it. I was in heaven.
But there was still more. The service team would be gliding back in to deliver more delights. They were practically invisible until we needed them, and their knowledge of the food was impeccable.
For the last savoury course, I chose “Caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras served with mashed potato”. Martin had “Maine lobster salad with a sherry vinegar dressing”. Our friends enjoyed a sea bass in a coconut curry (poured over the fish at the table, enveloping us all in its exotic aroma), and more foie gras (why not!) My quail was exquisite, delicate and rich at the same time with the foie gras stuffing and the potatoes that were whipped within an inch of their life. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, eating this miniature dish. Martin’s lobster was prepared “a la minute”; you could practically smell the sea air. We hummed as we ate, we were so contented.
Of course, I could not leave without having dessert. And really, at such a place, why not order the souffle? “Green chartreuse soufflé, pistachio cream” was the description on the menu. I was completely intrigued. It is prepared to order, so we sipped the last of our wine as it cooked, and then had just started stirring our cappuccinos as it arrived, like a piece of art to a museum exhibition. The ice cream was in a frozen ceramic egg, and the souffle was still rising as it arrived I’m sure. We all gasped in awe as it was set down. I took the first bite of souffle, and drifted away on a cloud with the elegant texture and subtle liqueur flavours in my mouth. The ice cream was an exciting contrast to taste, being richer and cold versus hot. I felt as though I had just watched the grand finale at a Broadway show. I was completely satiated.
We spent hundreds of dollars for dinner that night, and it was worth every penny. It’s not something we do often, but that’s okay, because the memories last a lifetime. To share the evening with friends who were equally as interested and impressed with the experience was also a real treat.
Cheers to the fellow foodies out there who love this kind of stuff. For anyone who thinks I’m a bit nuts, well I hope you can appreciate this as an enthusiastic hobby, just like a football fan or a keen scrap-booker 🙂
My dad always made a big deal about drinking his coffee in a “real cup”. He would never visit Starbucks because they only offered “to go” cups and he was NOT going to bring his own cup if he had to pay for the coffee. I used to think he was just getting to be an old-fashioned curmudgeon. Now that I’m sitting here with my delicious latte in a ceramic mug and homemade banana bread I completely understand what he meant.
Perhaps part of my understanding comes from not having my dad around to share a coffee anymore. I value highly all those coffee breaks we did get. He left us far too soon; I had so many more conversations in me to have over so many more cups of coffee.
I went to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” at the theatre this past week – it was delightful, full of one-liners uttered by wise old characters who know how absurd the world can be. The best line of all was “the best present is time”. So true.
So, I’m taking this moment … To remember my wonderful Daddy and to leave you with my thoughts 🙂 Take a moment for yourself soon, even if you feel you have to steal it. It’s the best present you can give yourself and your loved ones.
And thanks to Giobean Cafe in Kelowna for the wonderful coffee and goodies. My Dad would have loved you guys.