In Negril’s West End lies The Cliff Hotel — a gem of a property that is the epitome of “barefoot luxury”. From Thursday, May 12 through to Sunday the 15th, the hotel hosted its inaugural Gourmet Getaway with renowned chefs Cindy Hutson, Dean James Max, Johnoi Reid and restaurateur Delius Shirley.
Shirley, the son of the late grande dame of Jamaican cuisine Norma Shirley and his partner Hutson have opened restaurants in Miami, Las Vegas, Washington, DC; Baltimore, Grand Cayman, Bahamas, and Jamaica. Reid, who was mentored and trained by Norma Shirley, is The Cliff Hotel’s executive chef. Shirley and Hutson are the property’s culinary consultants and principals of the hotel’s restaurant Zest. The culture of cuisine at The Cliff is rooted in the legacy of Norma Shirley.
For the opening evening, Chef Reid took guests on a tour across Jamaica with his Flavours of Jamaica-themed dinner. The appetisers included red peas soup with pig’s tail, pickled watermelon skin salad with baby greens and radishes, and pulled jerk pork on crispy homemade bammy. There was a Jamaican twist on coq au vin — coq au jam served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes for the main course. There were also steamed red snapper served with turned cornmeal, pan-seared jumbo shrimp in a lemongrass coconut rundown sauce, and smoked local curry goat. And, for dessert, guests had their pick of Scotch bonnet cheesecake, Devon stout ice cream or rum and raisin ice cream.
Chef Reid is masterful at flavour-building. Not only is he using the best ingredients, but he is adept at amplifying their flavours. Take his red peas soup, for instance. It’s a dish that Jamaicans know very well. Yet, his take on the local Saturday dinner staple had us pause and wonder if all the other versions we’ve ever had were as good as we believed. From the rich texture to the flavours redolent with pimento, Scotch bonnet pepper, fresh coconut milk, and pig’s tail, it was a delight.
Another memorable dish was the snapper served with turn cornmeal and a vegetable Blaff. Blaff is a staple from St Vincent and the Grenadines; it’s their take on court bouillon (a stock made from wine and vegetables, typically used in fish dishes.) The precision cooking of the fish and the simple yet moreish flavours made the fillet sing. The turned cornmeal was light enough not to overpower the delicate fish, and the vegetable Blaff was an ideal choice instead of gravy or sauce.
Also, Thursday Food has to mention the curry goat. The idea of smoking goat before currying it has to come from the mind of a culinary genius! And that is exactly who Chef Reid is. Smoking enhances the goat’s alluring gaminess, imbuing it with the deep flavours that make Southern barbecue and jerk so popular.
The Scotch bonnet cheesecake was all sorts of delicious. The combination of caramel, pepper and creamy cheesecake made for the kind of dessert for which guests clamoured for the recipe.
The next night, the Zest team took the Cliff’s Gourmet Getaway guests on a tour of the Caribbean. The menu was inspired by the favourite dishes of Hutson, Shirley, Reid and guest chef Dean James Max whose company DJM Restaurants has a brasserie in the Cayman Islands.
There was also a choice of Trinidadian-style pepper pot soup, or Cayman-style cracked conch salad for appetisers. For the entrée, guests chose amongst Cuban mojo pulled pork, Bajan-style flying fish, and Jamaican rum-braised oxtail. For dessert, there was the option of a carrot cake roulade, local mango cheesecake, or gizzada with rum and raisin ice cream.
The cracked conch salad was beautifully composed, and each bite proved a symphony of flavours. The lime-tinged Cuban mojo pulled pork served with black beans, rice, and fried ripe plantains was satisfying, and each element was perfectly cooked. However, it was the oxtail that stole the show.
Specially cut into two-inch-thick pieces, the rum-braised oxtail was a throwback to the version served at Norma’s On The Terrace [Devon House]. It was a pleasant trip down memory lane for those who were fortunate to have eaten there. Those who never ate a Norma Shirley dish realised that they missed a bit of Jamaican culinary history. However, thank God for legacy and apt students who revere, honour and share those lessons on the plate.
The inaugural Gourmet Getaway at The Cliff hotel was a culinary triumph. Not only was it a beautiful tribute to Caribbean cuisine, but it was also a trip. Food is a passport. It can take us places with a whiff of aromas intrinsic to particular dishes. Whether it’s smoked curry goat, snapper with turn cornmeal or rum-braised oxtail, culture and history are locked in those flavours.
The second iteration of The Cliff’s Gourmet Getaway will take place in Spring 2023.