Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017
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Bajan Bounty

Barbados' culinary renaissance is part world-class talent, part island inspiration

Barbados' magnificent beaches, lush gardens and historic buildings make the island a favourite of Canadians, my husband and I included. But its culinary treats are less well known. My husband, a Toronto family doc, and I set out to explore the island's eateries. Even though we thought that we had eaten our way around the island on previous visits, the offerings once again delighted and surprised us.

Barbados is undergoing a food renaissance. Traditional Bajan (the name for anyone or anything originating in the Barbados) dishes are garnering newfound respect. They're not only served in neighbourhood restaurants but are also getting a makeover at upscale eateries. At the same time, the Bajan food scene is attracting chefs from other countries who are adapting their cuisine by using local ingredients.

Such is the case of Marco Festini-Cromer, executive chef at Daphne's restaurant, next door to The House, a casual but luxurious hotel on Payne's Bay. Daphne's is an offshoot of a trendy London restaurant and has become one of the most sought-after reservations on the island. While its beachside locale is certainly a draw, the gastronomic pleasures are what really entice.

Festini-Cromer learned his culinary craft in Lake Garda, northern Italy. His menu at Daphne's adds local ingredients to popular Italian fare, offering a taste of his home region. "But new ways of cooking these dishes are needed," Festini-Cromer explained. For example, one of his favourite dishes is rabbit. "In Italy, you cook them just a little and they're tender. In Barbados, rabbits run around so the meat can be tough." Rather than sautÄing or grilling, he braises them for more flavourful and tender results.

He also sought out a local supplier of fresh mozzarella. Combined with island tomatoes — which he says are not pretty but taste delicious — he's found a delectable marriage. He shows his creativity with his iced plum-tomato soup with basil, which is one of the most flavourful tomato soups I've ever tasted. It was so incredible that I had to stop my husband from using his fingers to clean the bowl.

Festini-Cromer's treatment of local seafood is no less stellar. Seared tuna with cucumber and sweet-mustard dressing, or mahi mahi with fried zucchini are just a few of the offerings. His pappardelle with rabbit ragout and black olives is also a popular choice.

Prodigal Chefs
Then there are the natives who have returned to Barbados after finding fame as world-class chefs. They charm food lovers on the island. Michael Harrison, Chef de cuisine at the stunning Palm Terrace restaurant at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion Hotel, is a perfect example. Harrison has honed his trade at top spots all over the world. He's cooked at Relais & Châteaux properties in Europe, at the renowned golf haven of Glen Eagle, Scotland, and even in Kennebunkport, Maine for the Bush family.

But Harrison decided to return home. While he prepares food for a five-star hotel, he's also gone back to his roots. As a child, he made dinner each night while his aunt worked. He has incorporated old family favourites and local staples. Whipped breadfruit, avocado-and-mango salsa and cilantro oil accompany his grilled chicken breast. Green bananas are paired with pan-fried dorado.

Harrison, like Festini-Cromer, has literally cultivated his producers or, rather, he has made an impact on what his producers cultivate. He works with local farmers to grow various herbs and vegetables that he wants to include. By doing so, he's opened doors for farmers as they find new markets for these goods.

Harrison also benefits from close connections to other suppliers: his fisherman friends provide him with the best of their catch before they send anything to be shipped off for export. On the menu, the Bajan origin of the delectable tuna appetizer is proudly noted.

Barry Taylor, executive chef at The Restaurant at Southsea, is another example of a local who returned and is reaping rewards — and awards. He was listed in Condé Nast's Traveler's 2004 Hot Tables and received the Four Diamond award from the American Automobile Association just two years after opening.

 

The 29-year-old Taylor has lived in both Brazil and the US and trained in Miami. Together with his father Alfred, who manages the eatery, they looked long and hard for the right spot. The spectacular oceanfront setting on a romantic cove of the bustling south coast of the island is perfect.

The extensive menu reflects Taylor's inventive fusioning meld influences from South America, Asia and the Caribbean. He sears ostrich fillets and serves them with local arugula, shaved Parmesan, caramelized onions, and a lime-, sesame-and-garlic vinaigrette. Oven-roasted lamb is accompanied by a mint-infused sweet potato mash.

Culinary Casual
For a hip and casual taste of Barbados fare, don't miss the Waterfront Café, a local institution. It's a great spot to have lunch and people watch in Bridgetown. Better yet, make an evening of it. Located on the Constitution River marina, The Waterfront Café not only offers delicious local specialties but is also known for its live jazz.

The menu covers both American and Caribbean dishes, and the Bajan dishes, in particular, are superb. For fans of flying fish, the combinations are endless, among them flying fish melts — the roe crisped in oil and served with a spicy horseradish aoli — or, my husband's favourite, a flying fish sandwich on a hoagie. I also loved the fish steamed in fish broth and served with cornmeal Cou-Cou (Caribbean polenta) and plantain. Susan Walcott, who opened the café in the 1980s, knows all the locals and their favourite dishes, but also takes the time to guide visitors to make sure that they get a real taste of the island.

Champers is another favourite haunt. While most of the patrons are island residents who frequently stop in at the oceanfront bar, some visitors return year after year looking for the same divine meal they savoured on their last trip. The menu does vary every few months, but removing some dishes, like the coconut shrimp, would lead to a full-scale revolt.

To sample local fare while communing with nature, check out Naniki Restaurant. Tom Hinds, who owns the restaurant (soon a health spa and resort), first chose the lush setting on the east coast to grow anthuriums, spectacular looking tropical flowers that even when close up make you think they can't be real.

From his hectares and hectares of flowers, he supplies anthuriums to restaurants and hotels around the island. But Hinds knew that he couldn't keep the magnificent setting to himself and thus Naniki was born.

Situated among towering trees and lush greenery and overlooking the Atlantic, the setting is spellbinding. The menu offers an assortment of Caribbean and Bajan specialties with plenty of vegetarian options. Cou-Cou, yam, sweet potato and breadfruit figure prominently, sometimes combined in dishes with curried and jerk chicken, stewed lambie (conch), or alongside seared flying fish and grilled dorado.

For another island tradition, head to Oistins' Fish Fry, a Bajan event. The fry takes place each night in the fishing village of Oistins and is a south coast gathering for locals from every part of the island. But Friday nights are when the town really gets hopping. Island music fills the air and line-ups at the numerous vendors are long — very long. But on Fridays, it's expected and everyone socializes as they wait and maybe dances a little too.

Tourists come for the freshest of both fried and grilled fish, sweet potatoes, plantain, and macaroni pie. It is all washed down with local Bank's beer. Fridays are an experience to see even if you're not eating. Come back another night for the freshest grilled tuna at George's (ask a local where it's located as there's no sign). Take your plate and walk to a table by the beach. Afterwards you can wander down the shore to see the fishing boats and nets.

 

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