The original plan was to spend the week in Trinidad and Tobago, starting with Meiling's fashion show on Tuesday, June 11, through to the T&T Table Talk Food Awards on June 15, at the Hyatt Regency on the Port of Spain waterfront. But, as they say, the best laid plans get gussied by the unexpected and I was not able to get to Trinidad until the Thursday night, June 13. That did not, however, stop my WhatsApp from buzzing before I arrived.
The Meiling and Anthony Reid Shirt Tales collection was apparently a resounding success! There were voluminous shirts and form-fitting skirts in signature black and whites. Bold stripes, clean lines and signature Meiling details were the order of the day. The dual-pattern pants for men were sheer genius. (I want to be the first to rock those duds in Kingston). The one negative of the show was, apparently, the heat. Many of the well-coiffed and wellheeled were Meil-ting. And then across the transom came the stories about the Lady in the Hat. The esteemed fashionista, senior associate editor -lifestyle and Table Talk Food Awards conceptualiser Novia McDonald- Whyte arrived in a Barry Moncrieffe fashion- forward construction and was naturally seated front row. She looked over-the-moon fab, much to the chagrin of the people seated behind her. When I finally caught up with her to ask about the poor people al dietro, she said that she “was mesmerised by Meiling's Collection; I was not looking behind me. Besides, if they really wanted to see they could have leaned to one side.” Indeed!
I arrived very late on Thursday evening, also missing the fashion extravaganza from the House of Jaipur. Exhausted and bemused, I was nevertheless ecstatic to receive an e-mail from restaurant designer extraordinaire Kami Jerome with an invitation to lunch at Aioli on Friday. Fellow Jamaican Judge Matthew Hogarth and wife Lisa had never been, so I invited them to join us. Executive chef John Aboud did not disappoint. Six courses, six pairings. Did I mention this was just lunch? The culinary tour included prosciutto-wrapped scallops on top of grilled watermelon paired with a Muscat. The otherworldly risotto funghi with an unbelievable five types of mushrooms including maitake, hen-of-the-woods, royal trumpet, enoki, brown and white beech, with truffle and Parmesan which was paired with a Viognier. On the dessert offering there was the Napoleon with crème pâttisière and basil-infused panna cotta with fresh berries. Lord, take me now! I have tasted of the heavens!
If there was a prize for culinary innovation John Aboud certainly would have won. He continues to experiment and surprise, pushing beyond the boundaries of what is usual for the Trinidadian palate. His strength is also his Achilles' heel. He needs a good sous-chef to rein him in to perfect some of the innovations. The mushroom risotto is divine; the duck still needs work to get the right flavours and balance. It is time for him to go deeper, not wider. Less will be more.
The virtuoso of this my second trip to our southern neighbours has to be Chef/Patron Pierre-Yves LeBihan of Zazou Bistro Modern, who delivers with a sense of culinary simplicity and discovery. The concept is a small but changing menu for a maximum seating of 14. Local director, producer, director and TV personality Lisa Wickham (sans her hot beau) and Eesa Mohammed joined the Jamaican contingent for the LeBihan presentation.
The seduction began with the roasted butternut ginger soup. Subtle but complex flavours blended for tasty explorations. The pièce de résistance was the slow-cooked beef cheek and oxtail shepherd's pie. For Lisa Hogarth and Herself, this pie will go down as one of the best entrées of the year. We wrapped with the caramelised banana crème brûlée.
All three courses are available for an incredible $55 US. This makes Zazou the best dinner value in Trinidad.
If Aboud is a full-on orchestral Rachmaninoff concerto, then LeBihan is the quiet Chopin nocturne. Aboud is on an aggressive adventure to expand and integrate everything into his repertoire. LeBihan has a vast repertoire and is doling out succulence slowly, to be savoured. Together, but in very different ways, they represent the far frontiers of the Trinidadian/Caribbean dining experience. Aioli and Zazou are the new must-dos while in Port of Spain.
Lunch before the evening of the T&T Table Talk Food Awards ceremony was at Chaud with Jamaican fashionista Anne Marie Vaz and the effervescent Tricia Thompson, who flew in to support. Chris Reckord selected the Asti to start, which he then deemed too sweet. Anne Marie and I just rolled our eyes as we were happy with the crisp flavour. Herself and fashion stylist and make-up pro Murrien Mitchell joined us at the end after a morning scouring for fashions and styles appropriate for the Jamaican sensibility. It was clear why Chaud won the award for its extraordinary food styling. Chef Khalid Mohammed's chicken salad to the seafood neuberg and the Moroccan lamb balls filled the eyes and mouth with wonder. Our table shared the trio of chocolate desserts, which gave us goosebumps. Chaud est Chaud!
The undisputed award winner of the evening was Buzo Osteria Italiana, which won for Restaurant of the Year. Did someone say mouth-watering handmade pasta, fresh herbs, meats and cheeses? How about finishing with a sublime chocolate soufflé? Want to pair every course perfectly with the recommendations of the in-house experts? Best Wine Experience. Check. Best Décor. Check. (Aioli décor is a very close second.) Best Service. Hands down the best restaurant service in the islands. In a country that often struggles to deliver good customer service, Buzo is the Four-Seasons-Michelin-Star service done with Caribbean warmth. The staff is attentive, friendly and accommodating. For a quick meal or special occasion Buzo is the glove to fit any hand. From the moment you arrive until your cheque is paid, what's happening on the floor is near miraculous. Moreover, regulars (and there are those who go every week) attest that it is consistent. In the T&T culinary universe of very very bright stars, Buzo is the sun.
All the categories in the competition were keenly contested, which is testament to the sheer quantity and quality of restaurants and bars in Trinidad and Tobago. The Hyatt on the Waterfront won for best Sunday brunch because of its extensive, sumptuous offering in an incredible setting. Linger with family or friends. The sexy and sultry Dream Ultra Lounge & Bar, which won for Best Bar Experience, is a fabulous participant in the emergence of San Fernando (in Southern Trinidad) as an entertainment hub. Adam's Bagels in Maraval, which won Best Coffee Shop/Pastry/Dessert, which was perhaps the battle royal of all categories, steered off Pêche Pâtisserie by the narrowest of margins. Kariwak Village, one of the jewels in the Tobago crown, was winner of the Best Lunch Value Award. Cynthia Clovis and her husband Alan have earned a reputation for excellent creolestyle food and friendly service. Digicel's People's Choice Award for Best Street Food was “D” Green Shed, which I have not had the opportunity to experience but will definitely do on my next trip. The popular winner of the Trini rich and varied street food has to be sought out and tried.
Raymond Joseph was the dark horse of the evening as Chef of the Year, from a field whose finalists included Pierre LeBihan, Cristian Grini, Khalid Mohammed, Khalil Ali, Nicholas Hardwicke, Bernard Long and Annette De Gannes. You could hear a pin drop when Joseph's name was announced. Raymond Joseph did not win so much for his culinary skills as the executive chef at the Courtyard Marriott, but really as the Captain of the National Culinary Team, which has won the annual Taste of the Caribbean Competition an unprecedented five times. In addition, part of the judging criteria included the presentation of a signature plate from each chef. Joseph's presentation included pink salmon with oil dung purée and lamb rib with strawberry and mango chutney. As an aside, he added Asian noodles wrapped in a pak choi leaf and fried saada roti with eggplant choka. You salivating now? Dat’s right! Oh, to be a Trini judge. Joseph seems to perform best in competition. Bring it on! Someone in Trinidad needs to back this chef in his own bistro so he can work his magic more regularly.
I have promised myself that the next time I am in town I will pull together a small coterie of foodies at Fanatic Kitchen, with Raymond Joseph as guest chef. If I make it back for Meiling's November fashion show. “An evening with Raymond Joseph” will most definitely be on the agenda. Thanks again to Donna Wyke-Reece and her team for coming to Jamaica to celebrate our Table Talk Food Awards with us and sharing her wisdom from the Fanatic Kitchen with our culinary students.
The Scotiabank Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Joe Brown, currently in residence at Jaffa at the Oval, the place for affordable buffets and high teas. With over 30 years of service in the industry, he raised the bar in the country by introducing the first fine-dining establishment, Solimar, which paved the way for the amazing culinary landscape we see today. He is also about giving back by creating an internship programme for T&T Chefs and has trained many of the current practitioners.
The evening was very well organised and the ceremony moved at a quick pace. Nicely styled in white and reds and managed by Krista Clarke, event manager, Ultimate Events Ltd, the styling worked well against the waterfront backdrop. The speeches were mercifully short and on point, and the exchanges were jovial. One consulting judge did commandeer the microphone to rail against high wine taxes and fast food, but almost everyone forgave the diversion in the spirit of the evening.
An impressive contingent of yardies came down to show support. At one point, Herself in a tender off-guard moment choked up on realising how many of her peeps were actually there. “To friends and believers,” she toasted raising her glass. Then the Jamaicans, en masse, took to the stage to take a yardie photograph against the T&T Table Talk Food Awards backdrop. As a Trini friend whispered to me as we descended the centre stage, “You Jamaicans are a trip.” I shook my head and smiled knowingly. A just so we roll.
Post-Awards the local and Jamaican judges and friends descended on the hip Paprika, which in my book is one of the coolest bars in this hemisphere. Moving under the grand chandeliers through the multi-aged head-bopping crowd, I was all ready to order my much dreamed about ginger mojito, only to be told that when the bar is full they don't do “complicated cocktails”, only beer, wine and “straight mixes” like gin or vodka tonics etc. Really? How absolutely dreary! Cool bar? Most definitely! Great service? Maybe not. I did run into the dashing co-owner, Gustavo Molina, and I suppose I could have asked a favour, but I actually hate asking for “I know the owner” favours because I prefer to experience an establishment the way it is designed to be experienced. And so Grey Goose and tonic it was. Molina opened up the raised private area for us and we tore the house down! As the liquor flowed, the booties shook and the hands crawled, I did manage to snap a few scandalous photos for my private collection (read: blackmail at some later date). We trailed home around 4:00 am.
On Sunday morning, I grabbed a quick coffee under deep dark shades with Matthew and Lisa Hogarth, Danville Walker and Herself to debrief on the event before they hopped the private jet back to Jamaica-“a jus so dem roll.” After which, I managed to crawl to a Father's Day Brunch around 2:00pm at Jaffa on the Oval with local judge Rhys Campbell, JMMB marketing manager Lisa Marie Alexander and interior designer Darren Bart. There was a decent cut of beef, some savoury flaky samosas and lots of pastas and salads. It felt fitting to brunch the morning after at the establishment owned by the Lifetime Achievement Award winner Joe Brown.
I ended my T&T culinary sojourn with a simple thin-crust margherita pizza and wine at La Cantina with T&T Table Talk Food Awards coordinator extraordinaire Gracia Whyte. It was great to unwind with the talented hub and spoke who connected the Jamaican process and procedures with the Trinidadian politics and personalities. I can only imagine the landmines she helped us all avoid. Bravo! She is quiet and gentle, but she tallawah and productive.
An absolutely extraordinary trip had come to an end. As a foodie, I must confess I love Trinidad. There is simply so much to eat. I will welcome any reason to go back often. Looking forward to becoming an elite member of Caribbean Airlines frequent flyer programme as I jet back and forth for my T&T food fixes.
We were there, a band of believers, grateful to have been a part of history Contrary to what the naysayers thought, a team of Trinidadians and Jamaicans worked harmoniously together to build an incredible event and forged friendships through food. This momentum will grow, must grow. And so to Peter Elias, Peter George, Paul Prudent, Gracia, Charlaine, Kami, Karen, John, Lisa, Wendy, Meiling, Maria, Khalid, Anya, Joseph, Nyssa, Alicia, Christian, Anthony, Murrien, Khalil, Leslie-Ann, Joe, Donna, Pierre, Zanifa, Gustavo and all the others who made us feel so incredibly welcome and supported, we drink long and deep in your honour from the well of Caribbean lifestyle and abundance. Let the cynics suck raw eggs and eat our dust while we share and build caviar and champagne dreams! Let's brew and stew the culinary melting pot! We will be back for Trinidad and Tobago Table Talk Food Awards 2014. After this incredible bi-country enthusiasm and momentous start, it can't miss!
Perhaps the Trinidad Express said it best: … “in unity, there is strength”.