Sunday, January 8, 2012

St. John

A week in beautiful St. John can cure just about any hangup that might be afflicting you. Just a 4 hour flight from Philadelphia, stepping off the plane onto an old school set of boarding stairs you are instantly transported to a slower pace of life, swaying palm trees and the warm tropical air of the Caribbean. Located just to the east of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, St. John is the quieter, cleaner and more relaxed version of it's close counterpart. There are much better beaches and way fewer people here. There's no airport and no cruise ship dock here so everything comes over on the ferry. 

Three quarters of the island is a national park (donated by John Rockefeller) so building is very restricted and wildlife abounds. We saw wild donkeys, deer, iguanas and birds aplenty. It's also more expensive on St. John, so most locals live on St. Thomas and commute across on the ferry each day if they work here. All this remoteness lends such a cool, sleepy vibe to the island. No one is in a hurry. For anything. What a perfect place to escape the frigid northeast for a week. 

We stayed with friends at a house overlooking Cinnamon Bay. The house was beautiful and afforded us the opportunity to drive to one of the many stunning beaches nearby, hike the various trails criss-crossing the island, or just lounge in the hot tub or by the pool with a good book. We also got to eat out quite a bit and sample the flavors of the local restaurants. We ate at some pretty fancy places for dinner, but also some great dive joints for lunch and of course a roadside chicken shack was not going to be passed by. Eating in St. John is not cheap. Be prepared for some sticker shock when you get the menu. Just remember that you're on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and you can always make more money. At least the drinks are cheap! Well, mostly. 

Carib - the beer of the carribean 
The standard of beer in the Virgin Islands, Carib is brewed in Trinidad and close in taste to a Corona but just a little sweeter - sugar is actually listed as one of the ingredients on the label. You don't see it too often at beer distributors up here, but it's great on a hot summer day if you can score a case. We drank quite a few of these, along with Presidente & a few Coronas to appease the Jimmy Buffet gods. 

The other standard of drinking in the Caribbean is rum. Lots of it. Mostly in mixed drinks like pina coladas and daquiris, but also on the rocks if it's a good one just like you would with scotch or bourbon. The rums you normally see in the states are pretty awful - captain morgan and bacardi are mass produced and taste like it. Cruzan was the most common at the bars and bodega liquor stores. It's not exactly small batch distilling, but the flavor profile is so much more complex than those other ones. 

Bars in the Virgin Islands also make a slew of unique blended drinks with that Cruzan rum. Ever had a Painkiller? How about a Bushwacker? No? Perhaps a Lime-n-d-Coconut?  Or a BBC? I don't know why these never caught on like the pina colada, but they are worth a shot making at home if you've got a good blender (read: VitaMix) or just get on a plane and try one at Woody's in Cruz bay. Don't mind the smell of the place - get a table outside and order your drinks thru the window, it's worth it.

Lunch at Ship Wreck Landing:
After a morning of hiking to the petroglyphs and swimming at Lamshur bay beach we trucked around the island to Ship Wreck Landing, a little bay with a no-name restaurant and a shop or two next door. That no-name restaurant serves some great food. Most everyone got grilled fish sandwiches. Lot's of mahi, some jerked tuna and even grouper with choice of fries or home made slaw. The service was a little slow, but she kept the drinks coming, so no complaints. 

there's no real sign for this place....or doors
The only side outside the place just says "Ship Wreck Landing". Guess you don't really need a name for the restaurant when it's the only one there. It's completely open air, with no doors or windows to block the perfect breeze off the ocean.

a lemongrass mojito - that's the lemon grass stalk over the wife's face
This place had good pain killers, but their lime-n-d-coconut's were the best we had all week. No bottled lime juice here. They blended a whole lime wedge into each drink, so you got tiny green bits of lime floating thru your drink. The lemongrass mojito was the special for the day, substituting a fresh lemongrass stalk for some of the mint. It wasn't as strong tasting as you'd think, just a subtle hint of the flavor in the background. Mixed with some good rum, these could easily sneak up on you.

Coconut battered shrimp
Appetizers for the table - conch fritters & coconut battered shrimp. The fritters were ok. Too much filler and not enough conch made them more of a hush puppie than a real fritter. The shrimp were terrific though. Huge butterflied pieces, battered in a very freshly shredded coconut mix and fried golden brown. Served with a lemon wedge and house made cocktail sauce these were tropical perfection. Mmmm...I can close my eyes and still taste them.

Blackened Mahi-Mahi sandwich
Both our fish sandwiches were good. Mahi-mahi is a staple of the island diet, as you'll see throughout the rest of this post. Simply seasoned with blackening spice, grilled, and served on a very soft roll with lettuce tomato and onion, it's such a quintessential Caribbean lunch. The "jerked" tuna sandwich was done similar to the mahi, but with the addition of their jerk sauce right before plating. Now the jerk sauce was good, but to really be considered jerk, doesn't it need to be marinated and grilled in that sauce from the start? I thought they were phoning it in on this. I was also disappointed in the tomatoes. More pink than red, they reminded me of the hot house ones we get in winter back home. I was expecting the deep red type you get in the middle of a hot Jersey summer. The house made cole slaw was great though. Cabbage seems to be on a lot of menus here. I assume because it's cheap and easy to grow. This had crisp strips of cabbage & carrots, and just enough mayo. Yumm.

Grilled jerked tuna with homemade coleslaw

Key Lime Pie
The desserts didn't last long enough for me to get good pictures. I suppose that's a compliment. The key lime pie was best, with a soft graham cracker crust and a tangy, rich filling. The cheese cake had a similar texture but without the lime tang and plus a chocolate ganache topping. 

Cheese cake with chocolate 

Sugar Mill - Caneel Bay Resort:

Caneel Bay resort is one of the swankiest places in the Caribbean. Private cottages nestled in the palm trees along a perfect white sand beach attract celebrities and the very well to do. The rest of us can still use the beaches ($20 for parking though, unless you buy something at the resort) and can eat at one of the many restaurants on the grounds. We had lunch at the cafe here on our first day, and I had a killer veggie burger. Their rum drinks were also tasty and very strong. If you're paying $60 for lunch, at least you get your money's worth. 

We went to the Sugar Mill restaurant for dinner on the third or fourth night there (we were on island time by that point, days blur together). The dining room is situated on the second floor of - you guessed it - the remnants of an old sugar refinery from the 1700's. It's a huge round structure, slightly sloping towards the ocean and open on all sides to let the breezes and mosquitoes in. Wear bug spray. 

grilled shrimp over crisp red cabbage
Dinner was great. Lot's of fish and other seafood dishes. They had steaks on the menu, lamb chops and some other land lubbers, but it only seem right to eat what came out of the ocean down here. An appetizer of fresh large shrimp, grilled and served over bright red cabbage was delicious. The best dish of the night was the tuna ceviche. Marinated in citrus and coconut milk, with hunks of fresh avocado mixed in, it was savory and bright and rich all at the same time. 

tuna ceviche with coconut and avocado
seared scallops
The entrees were decent, but not as good as the appetizers. Seared scallops were good, but not particularly memorable. The grilled mahi was impressive just for it's size. But it was served with a funny pink sauce and a gaggle of little sea scallops that tasted like that had been froze shortly before. 

grilled mahi-mahi with sea scallops

One of the highlights of the entrees was the tuna "roll" with a beautifully seared piece of tuna wrapped in nori and served over some grilled squash. Tuna was excellent, and the presentation was so creative.

lightly seared tuna "rolls"

Waterfront Bistro - Cruz Bay: 

Wharfside Village
Cruz Bay, St. John

Our final dinner in St. John, on an absolutely perfect evening at Waterfront Bistro in Cruz Bay. A table right next to the beach, with the sun setting across the Caribbean. This is one of the more expensive restaurants on the island, but for good reason. The food was great, and the views are worth the upcharge.

crab, roasted poblano & ricotta crepes
After an extremely overindulgent week, we decided to split an appetizer that sounded too good to pass up. Crab, roasted poblano & ricotta crepes were outstanding. The slightly spicy, smokey pepper goes so well with the luscious crab and rich ricotta. Quickly cooked, super thin crepes gave way to the side of a fork. One of the best things we ate all week.

seared scallops with coconut shrimp risotto
More scallops and mahi for entrees. Seems repetitive, but they are both so good down here that it's hard to pass them up. These were the best scallops I had in St. John and they were served over a bed of coconut shrimp risotto, which only made the dish better. That sounds like a strange mix up, but the results were surprisingly good. The rich coconut milk coated the starchy risotto, and hunks of tender shrimp tasted like they were poached just from the heat of the risotto. Not something that would probably translate well to a restaurant in the city, but works so well here. The mahi at Waterfront Bistro was good, mostly because of the citrus herb vinaigrette that it was dressed with. The arugula and orange slice offered a nice peppery and sweet counterpoint to the fish.

mahi mahi served over crab smashed potatoes with citrus segments, arugula and  citrus herb vinaigrette

Probably the most interesting dish of the night, and the week, was the tamarind glazed tofu. They cut concentric rings out of the tofu block, glaze it in tamarind and then fry it till crispy. Some sauteed haricot vert & rich curry quinoa made this a vegetarian dish that could satisfy even Food Baby. I might be giving the tamarind glaze trick a try on some tofu at home. I'll be sure to post the results.

tamarind glazed tofu with haricot vert & curry quinoa

Margarita Phils:
Located just off the main road in Cruz Bay, Margarita Phils apparently does a decent lunch, but their claim to fame is the enormous margaritas. $15 for the large, it will definitely get you in the tropical mood. I was disappointed when they pulled out the gallon jug of pre-mixed margarita though. They tasted of sour mix and artificial sweetener - much like the ones you get on south street or old city meat market bars. I was hoping for fresh squeezed lime juice, cointreau, good tequila. It was not my night though. The margaritas did, however, have ample tequila in them and set up the rest of a very memorable and forgettable night in town.
$15 for pre-mixed uber sour margaritas. At least they get you tipsy.

Street vendor chicken:
I do love me some street food. This is probably the best part of traveling to a non first-world country. Cheap eats that are made with heart and soul, and speak to the real culture of the place. The islands are filled with great chicken and fried fish stands where locals line up and wait very patiently for their lunch. We found a good one right by the ferry dock serving bar-b-q chicken. There wasn't really a name outside, but if you're there you can't miss it. 

BYO! - A sixer of Carib from the local store
One of the beauties of St. John is the complete lack of open container laws, or at least the lack of enforcement. You can buy beers in one store, then wander the streets and into another bar down the block. We did just this with a six pack of Carib to go with our lunch. Only five of the beers made it though, as one was offered up to a local for knowledge on where to get the best chicken in town. Well worth the investment.

View of "downtown" Cruz bay
Cruz Bay is not even close to a city. There's not a single stop light - just one roundabout that doesn't see much traffic. The streets are very pedestrian friendly with cars rarely making it above 15 miles an hour. A great place to spend a Saturday afternoon strolling from shop to shop, bar to bar, in the warm Caribbean sun. 

The bar-b-q chicken we got was great. Slow grilled over a low flame for what must have been all morning, it was near falling off the bone. Right before serving they slather it in a sweet bar-b-q sauce that gets all over you while you eat. Bring a Tide-to-Go stick if you stop here, it gets messy. And don't even try using the silverware, this is a hands meal all the way. The corn I could have done without, but the slaw was good (like most places on St. John). Add a couple Carib's and some new friends made while waiting and what you've got is a great lunch. 

bar-b-q chicken with corn on the cob and slaw

An absolutely great vacation in St. John. Lots of great food, fantastic beaches and some good friends. Only wish it could have lasted longer.

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