By Kelly Goodman, Contributing Writer
Island food often get a bad rap, so when I learned that I was heading to the Caribbean for The St. Croix Food and Wine Experience, I wondered if I’d be impressed. How many stories have you heard of overpriced, uninspired, and tired meals in the Caribbean? But no worries. I sampled creative, inventive dishes, as well as familiar classics, all with island flair. And the best part: I did it all in one evening.
At the annual A Taste of St. Croix, local chefs and restaurateurs come together at the Divi Carina Bay Resort to compete for the high honor of best in show. It’s a block party with over 60 food purveyors, and it’s on the beach with food, wine and cocktails as far as the eye can see. The judging is left up to the experts, a panel of food celebrities and chefs (who join in on the foodie fun all week long with dinners, events and competitions), leaving you free to find your favorites.
If I was going to scope out the entire restaurant scene in one evening, I had to develop a strategy. My first inclination was to watch the locals. Sushi wasn’t on my radar, so if it wasn’t for the line of locals, I wouldn’t have headed to Dashi and its temple of sushi. I had a few tasty rolls as well as a sampling of miso oxtail soup (which won second place honors).
Another long line formed quickly behind the Italian restaurant Bacchus, a crowd favorite that also picked up several awards. People could not get enough of their ravioli with duck confit and apple topping, and their pulled pork was moist and flavorful.
At a festival like this, you have to move fast. I hesitated on the “Through the Looking Glass” cocktail from the St. Croix Libation Society , because my hands were full. But by the time I made it back over, the clarified daiquiri with dehydrated coconut milk – paired with ca mini cotton candy made from coconut bitters – was gone.
Besides following the crowd, I also followed my gut. Which meant I didn’t worry about spoiling my meal and had dessert first. It’s important to know where your favorite cake is on an island (am I right?), so I had a huge slice of red velvet cake, as well as red velvet cupcakes from De Cake Ma, before I had any proper food in my stomach. Then I overheard a lengthy description of a fish taco: Local blackened fish tacos with a mango habanero chutney and a local green papaya slaw….I was intrigued.
I watched not so patiently as Rowdy Joe’s chef prepared my taco, but it was worth the wait. It was the one bite that I couldn’t forget that evening and it won best local fare. My inner food snob was satisfied that I not only found, but loved the winning dish.
There were a lot of visiting winemakers showcasing their wares, but I was on the search for something local. After my crushing defeat with the winning cocktail, I made it my personal crusade to try every other Cruzan rum concoction available, followed by a limoncello negro sampling and a non-local Belgian beer by the evening’s end.
If you find yourself at the Taste of St. Croix, here are a few tips for avoiding my missteps. First off, I moved too slow. It’s a huge venue, so you have to move to see it all. I also should have ditched the wine glass as soon as I had decided not to partake so my hands would be free for optimal consumption. Lastly, I ran out of steam. I had a full day of events prior to the Taste that evening, but really I should have spent the day lounging by the pool.
And most embarrassingly, I turned down the winning entree, The Best Burger. I just couldn’t bear to eat another bite. Luckily, I had time to stop by Tavern 1844 the next day. An umami explosion with wagyu beef, bacon, truffle mayo and topped with lobster, the burger formed a savory mouthful that made it a well-deserving first place finish.
By evening’s end, I had a full itinerary of restaurants for my next trip to St. Croix. Next year’s A Taste of St. Croix will be on April 19, 2012 (this year’s tickets were $95 for the three-hour event). If you make this your first stop, you’ll be tuned into the pulse of St. Croix’s food scene and know who’s doing what well, right now. And if you’re heading to St. Croix before that, check out the list of this year’s winners.
This trip was sponsored by the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, but the opinions are solely those of the writer.