22 July 2013

Our Last, Perfect Day in Anguilla

The luminous waters of Rendezvous Bay
Unless you've been to Anguilla, you have no idea how terrible it is to wake up on your last full day on the island. Sure, you might be a little sad that your vacation is over when you're somewhere else. But on Anguilla? Leaving is nothing short of tragedy.

I was compelled to plan the perfect last day, eating breakfast and dinner at my favorite places, spending the day at my favorite beach location, and squeezing in a bit o' shopping at the last minute 'cause we hadn't done that yet.
The main pastry case at Geraud's 
Thus it was that after packing our beach bags, we began the day at Geraud's over coffee and pastries.  I got my confirmed favorites, lemon and coconut Danishes, and DH opted for boring ol' cinnamon roll, but of course even the plain items at Geraud's surpass the normal.
My breakfast perfection: iced coffee with coconut & lemon danishes
From there we stopped at the ATM to fortify our wallets and then made our way to Devonish Gallery, a place where we always stop in when on the island.  Courtney Devonish was out, but he had arranged for a friend to cover the shop. We made our usual passes through the aisles, pausing here and there to touch one of the many mahogany sculptures that are Devonish's trademark.  We picked up three of the carved hearts as gifts for folks back home (two already grace our home, along with a vase and a pelican sculpture), and I quickly de-fortified my wallet by finally purchasing a small original oil of a seascape by Antoine Chapon, an artist whose watercolors I've been admiring for years but which, alas, are beyond my budget.

One of the mahogany hearts: image from Etsy 
Some of the colorful images in the gallery
The painting, even unframed, was too big to take home in our suitcase, which we found out only after having taken it back to Caribella, so we drove it back to the gallery and I asked to have it shipped.  I'll post a photo of it once it arrives. Thus delayed, we finally arrived at The Place, where we had promised Mo and Dave the day before that we would be all day.

Interior shot of The Place
Thumbs-up from Dave
Some folks were already lounging on one of the daybeds, so we claimed the other one, but it was the first time in our multiple visits that we didn't have the separate little pavilion to ourselves.  We had a lot of reading to work into our busy drinking schedules, so we set to right away.

We were so engrossed in our books that we didn't notice that a storm was encroaching until we were in the middle of it.  The wind was really whipping the rain in, hard enough that we had to put our books (and in my case, an e-reader) back into our bags for protection, but there are few things I love more than enjoying the liquid sunshine of the Caribbean.

Cf: with photo above
Eventually the rain let up enough to go up to the dining area for lunch.  We both wanted to keep things on the light side so we'd be plenty hungry for the spectacular feast we had coming up for dinner, so I had the jerk chicken salad and DH opted for the grilled fish with salad.  His was definitely better than mine.  My chicken was only okay, and not spicy at all.

Jerk chicken salad
Grilled fish with salad
After lunch, Mo and I spent a few minutes planning our health pact: he and I both would like to lose a similar percentage of body weight, so we're going to be penpals, encouraging each other across the miles. The only thing was that he was already moving toward his goal, and I clearly needed to wait until I got home before starting anything in earnest. Because otherwise I wouldn't be able to say things like, "I'll have a BBC, easy on the colada, and keep 'em coming every hour or so." Okay, so by the time I said that, it meant I actually only had two of them, but still.  NB: BBC in this context stands for Banana Bailey's Colada.
Here we are, clinching our pact
BBC, easy on the colada
Eventually it was time for us to head back to Caribella, but we were sad to leave The Place for the last time this trip. We had one last dip in the water, made a few photographs, and hugged & kissed Mo goodbye until next year.
A very comfy chaise
Looking directly up at the palms shading my chaise
DH and Mo
Thank goodness we had the piece de resistance ahead of us: the tasting menu at Veya. It's no secret that Veya is my favorite restaurant in Anguilla, but it's also my favorite in the entire Caribbean.  It may not have quite the ambience of, say, The Cliff in Barbados with its flambeaux and over-water tables...
Photo courtesy of The Cliff website
...but Veya beats the pants off it for food and inventiveness of cuisine. Every. Single. Time. It also lacks pretension: I'll never forget a travel forum discussion about appropriate attire for dinner at Veya, where people were bickering back and forth about what was acceptable (the original poster wanted to know if long shorts were okay for men). Chef Carrie wrote in to settle the matter, saying that she would be happy to serve anybody in her restaurant, no matter what they wore, as long as they were dressed. Full stop.

As many times as we'd visited Veya (and we counted that this was our 11th visit over the course of seven visits to the island), we'd never done the tasting menu, but we decided that it would provide the perfect endcap to our vacation.

Fun with mirrors
More fun with mirrors
We started off each with a cocktail: DH with his usual gin on the rocks and me with the Sandy Hill,  comprising tequila, grapefruit juice, and Ruby Red liqueur.  Love it, with or without salt.  Omari Banks was playing that night, and it may be the first time we've heard him, but it won't be the last. Monica and Yolanda took care of us very well, and Carrie and Jerry also stopped in at our table multiple times--we felt completely spoiled!

The amuse-bouche turned out to be a red pepper & local vegetable bisque with sambuca:

I personally did not taste the sambuca, but it was delish.
After that, Jerry and Carrie came out to see if we had any food preferences or aversions, other than my known one for that foul herb, cilantro. We allowed that we did not, and that we were prepared to eat whatever she thought was best and fun. Moving on to our first course, she had prepared a tiradito of yellowfin tuna with cashews, pickled onion, with fried basil & chili threads.  Who knew you could fry basil and that it would be amazing?!  Unlike DH, I am not usually a fan of raw fish, but there was nothing about this dish that wasn't excellent. We both loved it.

The yellowfin tuna
At this point, we requested that Jerry pick out a glass of wine for us. Not knowing what lay ahead in the menu, we figured that was best.  He poured for each of us a glass of La Crema chardonnay.  Again, I'm not generally a fan of chardonnays, as I prefer the brightness and slight minerality (for lack of a better word) of sauvignon blancs, but this one worked really well with the upcoming courses.

For our second course, Jerry was suddenly a little cagey.  As he presented the plates to each of us, he asked if we recognized it.  Peering at it, I realized that while it looked a little like lobster and a little crayfish, it was actually neither.  He walked off with a smile, saying that he'd tell us what it was after we ate it.
Mystery course #2
As above, different view
Which was probably best, because if he'd said, "Here's your sea lice," it would have been distinctly less appetizing.  Thinking that sea lice were only the jellyfish-like larvae that can sting you, I was agape, but he explained that though that's what these creatures are known as locally, to the rest of the world it's known as Spanish lobster.  Well, I don't know about you, but I'd say that whoever first called this crustacean "sea lice" probably wasn't employed in the marketing field.

Sea lice provide less meat than crayfish or lobster, but it sure was terrific. Carrie prepared it similarly to the crayfish on her regular menu, grilled with a ginger-shallot beurre blanc.  This dish (or more probably its name!) also caught the eye of our neighbors, so we struck up a conversation about it, Anguilla, and food in general.  Jerry later obliged us by bringing out an uncooked sea lice (sea louse?) for us all to view, informing us that for every 50-60 lobster or crayfish that the fishermen catch, there's usually only 1-2 sea lice. Anguillians consider them a delicacy.

'Twas a brave soul who first ate this.
It was fortunate for us that there were pauses between these courses, as we were both filling up fast. Nonetheless, we did request that the next two courses be as small of a portion as could be managed (though not, naturally, the dessert course).

For course the third, we revisited the yellowfin tuna, but this time it was seared with smoked paprika, carrot sauce, and an herb salad. I've had carrot puree before (notably at Mango's), but this was of a higher order altogether. Again with the yum.

Seared yellowfin tuna
Our last savory course was a pork tenderloin with Thai flavors, accompanied by a coconut sauce, curry butter, and crispy parsnips. By the time we finished it (and truthfully, despite my best efforts to finish, I left a bit behind on my plate), we begged for a short breather before dessert.  Carrie came out again to verify that she remembered correctly that we're not big chocolate fans. We confirmed that, but allowed that a little bit of chocolate would be fine.

Pork tenderloin with crispy parsnips
We ordered a dram of rum to accompany our final course, which we sipped while we waited and enjoyed Omari's music.  When it came, it was actually a selection of four different desserts: chocolate hazelnut mousse bars, coconut-lime sorbet, mango sorbet, and my favorite of all favorites: the dense coconut cake with a caramelized toffee sauce, served with vanilla bean ice cream and a golden sugar crown.

Our dessert assortment 
Close-up of the coconut cake
They were all amazing, with my least favorite probably being the chocolate hazelnut mousse bar because duh, it's chocolate, but even a least favorite in this scenario was pretty special.  The mango mousse was without a doubt the best of the various ice creams and sorbets we'd sampled on the entire trip. But nothing compares to the coconut cake in my book.

My opinion of the chef's tasting menu?  Worth every penny and possibly then some. It will stay with me as one of the most memorable meals I've ever eaten.

Post-prandial smiles

16 July 2013

No Crayfish Left Behind: The Sweet Life at Dolce Vita

Image of Dolce Vita courtesy of Trip Advisor
You know how sometimes everybody raves about a place and the praise is so universal that you find yourself unable to take it seriously?  That was us re: Dolce Vita, up until our most recent trip to Anguilla. The miracle is that we found ourselves there purely by happy accident.  Ever since my first trip to the Caribbean (St. Lucia, 2001), I've been a little leery of eating Italian food on vacation down there.  The first hotel I ever stayed in offered Italian Night once per week and I remember being shocked to find Osso Bucco as the night's special.  That's right: veal shank bone marrow. In 85 degree heat. Thanks, but no thanks!

Dining at Zozos on St. John and at Trattoria Tramonto or the now-defunct Luna Rosa on Anguilla did nothing to prepare me for Dolce Vita.  (Sidebar: what is it about these restaurants on Anguilla and not having websites? How do they get by?)

image courtesy of Dolce Vita
It was our penultimate night on the island, so our first thought was to go big or go home: Jacala.  But when we called, they had no openings for the night.  Huh, that's odd, since it's the first week in July and it's a slow time.  But fine. Our second choice was to try Flavours, the new restaurant at La Vue, but something was wrong with their telephone service and we couldn't get through. Stymied, we decided to give a new-to-us place a try based on the recommendation of JP & Adria, the couple from Texas whom we befriended on our visit: Dolce Vita.  We struck culinary gold.

Sunset over Sandy Ground
 We arrived just in time to watch the sunset across the harbor and we had the place to ourselves for practically the first hour (6:30-7:30). I settled in with a mojito, incidentally one of the best I've had largely due to the plentiful number of muddled mint leaves, and debated my food strategy for the evening.  We were dangerously close to leaving the island without my having ordered any crayfish.  We were to do the chef's tasting menu at Veya the next night (about which, more anon), but I couldn't guarantee that crayfish would be part of it, so it was now or never. Thus began my second annual campaign of No Crayfish Left Behind.
My near-perfect mojito
After consulting with our server (Victoria, I believe), I decided to go for broke, despite the fact that the restaurant could not prepare a smaller-than-usual portion of crayfish for me. DH opted to sample a couple of small plates, with the promise to help me finish off the crayfish if need be.

DH, pondering his menu
The one contingency I hadn't planned for was irresistible bread. As in, so irresistible I couldn't hold back from eating it, no matter how much crayfish I knew lay ahead. Hands down, it was the best bread accompanying any meal we've eaten in Anguilla, including, I'm sorry to say, the johnny cakes at Veya, which had been my favorite up until that moment. Upon inquiry we learned that the bread was from Le Bon Pain in the east end and it was good enough to make us consider driving the hour or so, roundtrip, for breakfast some morning.

Pothound on the beach
DH's first course arrived while we were watching the various dogs stake out their beach territories in front of the restaurant.  It was an eggplant rollatini, and it was really quite special. Thin and tender slices of eggplant, rolled around a cheese filling, topped with tomato sauce and parmesan.  Sounds heavy, but it was exquisite.

Eggplant rollatini
DH's second course of gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce rolled out with my crayfish, and these were both excellent.  As good as my crayfish were (and they were among the best I'd ever eaten), those gnocchi were pretty heavenly.  Light, pillowy bits that melted in the mouth.  They didn't look like much, but let's just say we should have renamed our dining campaign No Gnocchi Left Behind. Lest you think this review is spurious, I will allow that the broccoli on my plate was overcooked, and worse, oversalted.
Grilled crayfish
Gorgonzola gnocchi
We weren't feeling especially hungry by that time, but I'd heard rumors that dessert comes accompanied with complimentary shots of limoncello, and who am I to mess about when limoncello is at stake? The usual Italian suspects were available, like tiramisu and semifreddo, but we opted for the limoncello cheesecake, which was perfect, and also quite pretty.

Limoncello cheesecake
As above, but with actual limoncello in background
By the time we settled our check, the restaurant was nearly full and seeming quite congenial.  At least two large boating/sailing parties were present, plus a handful of couples we'd seen elsewhere around the island.  This may have been our first foray to Dolce Vita, but it certainly won't be our last.  Rather, this restaurant quickly made it to our list of must-do restaurants for all future visits to Anguilla.

15 July 2013

Straw Hat: Twice is Nice

Anguilla is one of those vacation places where, if you pay attention, you notice that you keep seeing the same families and couples around the island.  That group you saw at Elodia's on Saturday has expanded when you see them again for lunch at The Place later in the week.  The family of three whom you remember from breakfast at Geraud's because they, too, have their noses buried in their books (in fact the same one: Gulp by Mary Roach), you later notice trying stand-up paddling on Shoal Bay East.  The young couple from Cap Juluca's Blue, presumably honeymooners, are also having dinner at Veya on your last night.

And so it goes.  Anguilla is a pretty small island and the kind of people who vacation there are fairly likely to venture out beyond the confines of their resort or luxury villa to see some of it. I'm perpetually approaching strangers when I see them taking various permutations of photos and offering to take their collective photo so that nobody has to be left out of it, and it's an easy way to strike up a casual conversation: are you honeymooning? first time to the island? how do you like Anguilla? etc. It's about the level of interaction that I'm comfortable with most of the time on vacation.  I'm on Anguilla to escape all demands, save that of savoring the moment with my husband, whose presence I unfortunately but necessarily end up taking for granted during the year, due to the demands of my job. Anguilla time is Us Time, with capital letters.

What is unusual is that this year we really connected with one of those couples whom we met, and then kept on meeting around the island: Adria & JP.  After breakfasting with them one morning at Las Esquinas, we met up again with and spent an afternoon at The Place, and on another evening we decided to meet up for sunset drinks and dinner. At Straw Hat. One night after DH and I had gone there already.  That's right -- it's a fun enough place to do two nights in a row.

DH at the vestibule in Straw Hat 
The bar area at Straw Hat
DH and I arrived there early so that we could purchase a gift certificate for Ronnie Bryan and his new bride as a wedding present.  We explained that we were meeting friends who wanted to enjoy drinks and watch the sunset, then perhaps stay for dinner, but the restaurant was pretty full. Oh, no--the one time we show up with no reservation!  But Shane set us up with a primo table for cocktails while we waited for JP and Adria to join us.

We ordered a first round while we waited and made some photos, but the sunset just didn't look like it was going to provide much spectacle.  Luckily, our conversation flowed spontaneously and widely, flitting from topic to topic.

DH and JP: they clearly have the same barber
JP & Adria
Adria & me
After our drinks, we inquired with Shawn if there was a table in the back we could move to for dinner and he worked a little bit of magic to keep us at that front table for our meal.  We would have been quite happy to move, not having had a reservation, but that's just the kind of folks they have at Straw Hat. Instead we ordered another round of drinks while debating our order for the night.

A subdued sunset
Straw Hat is one of the few upscale places that features goat on the menu, and DH usually orders it, but our lunch was late that day, so we ordered modestly. JP tried the crispy snapper, Adria selected the warm tomato tart from the appetizer, I had the grilled snapper, and DH ordered the spring rolls, also from the appetizer menu. All of them were excellent, but I think JP and Adria won.

Crispy snapper
Warm tomato tart
Spring rolls
Grilled snapper with coconut rice and creamed spinach
It's impossible for me not to order the caramelized bananas, and JP & Adria apparently are constitutionally incapable of passing up on a creme brûlée when they see one.  Just to mix things up a little bit, I requested the salted caramel ice cream instead of the usual vanilla and it was wonderful. They said that they enjoyed their creme brûlée, too, and we lingered a long time over desserts and coffee until the night was no longer young. Doris, the wonderful manager, came by and chatted with us for a little while and then it was time for us to depart.

We eventually bid our new friends goodnight.  It was their last night on the island and they had an early departure the next day and we made our way back to Caribella.  We reflected that it was one of the nicest nights we've had on the island.
Straw Hat chandelier

They have lots of colorful tees for sale
Another eponymous hat lamp