Eat Your Heart Out in Barbados

Valerie Jones explores the restaurants of Barbados and finds some places you can't afford to miss

39 Steps. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerBagatelle Great House and Restaurant. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerLa Cage aux Folles. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerLa MaisonNiko’s. Photograph by Dan CristaldiOne of the salmon specialties from The Legend at Mullins Bay. Photograph by Eleanor CharlesSandy LaneShrimp aperitif at The Legend. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerThe clifftop setting of Carambola at Derricks, where the French- Caribbean menu has been extended to a Barbados first- Thai cuisine. Photograph by Dan CristaldiThe clifftop setting of Carambola at Derricks, where the French- Caribbean menu has been extended to a Barbados first- Thai cuisine. Photograph by Dan CristaldiThe ever popular Waterfront Café in Bridgetown. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerThe Legend at Mullins Bay. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerThe Schooner at the Grand Barbados resort

Until the early sixties, Barbados was not exactly a gourmet’s Mecca. Restaurants were few and far between, and most hotels — there were some notable exceptions — served expensively imported, indifferently prepared versions of what most travellers ate at home. But the rapid growth of the tourist industry and an increasingly discerning resident clientele has changed all this with surprising speed, and today Barbados has a cluster of really fine restaurants as good as anywhere in the Caribbean.

Hand-in-hand with this came a long overdue recognition of the merits of local produce and techniques reflecting the ethnic traditions of the country’s various settlers. The late Barbadian hotelier Victor Marson is generally considered to have blazed this trail at his Ocean View and Miramar hotels, but Greg Downie has elevated it to a fine art at The Legend Restaurant at Mullins Bay in St Peter.

The Legend has a romantic setting in a gracious 19th-century plantation house surrounded by a veritable jungle of foliage. Greg and his wife and co-manager Jan, both Canadian-trained (Greg is a former Chef Instructor at Toronto’s Humber College), have developed a “Nu Bajan” Cuisine, making maximum use of tropical ingredients. The resulting creations are as good to look at as they are to eat; they are served with wonderful sauces and dressings, and celebrate the flavours of the Caribbean with hints of everything from fresh ginger to citrus, but with a light and subtle touch. Easy on the pocket, The Legend presents some of the island’s finest food at comparatively non-scary prices.

Originals include Rosette of Smoked Red Snapper; Jumbo Shrimp in a Beer and Coconut Batter with Tamarind Tiger Sauce; Grilled Breast of Free-range Chicken stuffed with Savoury Dressing; and Medallions of Local Beef with Ginger Root Sauce. Desserts, with the exception of the fresh fruit sorbets, pose a serious threat to weight-watchers, and the Rum Chocolate Fudge Cake is worth dying for.

Further south, at Prospect, St James, La Cage aux Folles builds on the reputation it established eleven years ago at Paynes Bay. Now occupying a beautifully restored Edwardian mansion, it exhausts superlatives. Owners Nick Hudson and Suzie Blandford have long been noted for their style, good humour and their ability to make it all look like a piece of cake. Add a riveting menu and wine list, excellent service and unique ambience, and this Cage has no trouble holding its customers captive.

Superbly prepared and presented, the food is international, combining classic European dishes with everything from Middle Eastern hummus and tabbouleh to a very pukka Tikka Makhani tandoori chicken. The Caribbean connection comes by way of hot little numbers like rich local bouillabaisse, while a formidable selection of oriental specialities ranges from Sesame Prawn Fate to Hunanese Crispy and Aromatic Duck.

Nick has been a colourful figure on the restaurant scene since Nikita’s and Nick’s Diner injected some of the swing into the sixties Chelsea scene. In 1970 he purchased Bagatelle Great House “in a fit of madness”, transforming it into one of the island’s most magnificent gourmet restaurants. This tradition continues in splendid fashion under the present owners, Richard and Valerie Richings; an excellent art gallery upstairs adds to the restaurant’s attraction.

Exceptionally good food is also to be found in an enchanting ocean-front setting at La Maison in Holetown, St James. Here, Loire-born resident chef Sylvain Hervochon is a master of Nouvelle Cuisine, and his personal culinary style highlights local produce and exotic tropical sauces. Specialities include dolphin baked in callaloo leaf and served on a white wine butter sauce; chicken breast stuffed with lobster, steamed with anise and served with a creamy chive sauce; and grilled tenderloin with roasted onions on a green peppercorn sauce. Sylvain’s famous Trio of Chocolates is the star turn in an array of sinful desserts.

Many Barbadian hotels have now graduated to world-class culinary status. Out-standing food is to be found at Cobblers’ Cove, Sandpiper Inn, Treasure Beach and Neptune’s at Tamarind Cove, to name just a few. Oceanfront locations abound, but The Schooner at Grand Barbados is actually perched above the clear water of Carlisle Bay at the end of a 260-foot pier.

Elegant Sandy Lane on the west coast has two restaurants, Sea Shell and Sandy Bay; their menus were transformed last year with the arrival of master chef Mel Rumbles, who has built a reputation for outstanding international cuisine using Caribbean ingredients. His lavish Friday night buffet offers an enormous range of seafood and meats, including blackened loin of local Black Belly lamb.

When it comes to informal dining and casual lunching, the choice is just as wide. There’s marvellous and surprisingly affordable authentic French food at Ile de France (dinner only), simple good taste at the 39 Steps, and laid-back luxury at Nice’s Champagne and Wine Bar.

At the Waterfront Café in Bridgetown, Susan Walcott has taken a dilapidated warehouse and created one of Barbados’s most popular rendezvous in a picturesque location on the downtown Carenage. With al fresco dining at the water’s edge plus indoor seating in a congenial atmosphere, the Waterfront is in great demand day and night. The extensive all-day menu offers loads of choice livened up with daily Bajan, pasta and vegetarian specials. The emphasis is on seafood, but Sue serves anything from chicken satay and pepper steak to lasagne and steak and kidney pie, as well as luscious desserts. The island’s top jazz bands play Wednesdays through Saturdays, and sweet steelpan sounds accompany the Caribbean Night buffet on Tuesdays.

Not far away, on the outskirts of the city, Brown Sugar is renowned for top value Bajan buffet lunches, prepared and served in the traditional way, as well as its a-la-carte dinners. The spread includes soups from eddoe to pumpkin; seafood, including the local delicacy, flying fish; Bajan roast pork and fried chicken; stews, fricasses and pepperpot, as well as salads and side dishes from candied sweet potatoes to pickled bananas. Interesting desserts range from a knock- out walnut rum pie to ices and sorbets including an unusual nutmeg ice cream. Brown Sugar’s sister restaurant, Pisces, is noted for fine Caribbean seafood in a memorable ocean-front setting on St Lawrence Bay.

When it comes to dramatic ambience, few spots can beat the island’s east coast where the Edgewater and Atlantis hotels sit perched on jagged cliffs at either end of the Bathsheba “soup bowl” overlooking the Atlantic. Both are excellent choices for affordable Barbadian cuisine, offering Sunday buffet lunches with a parade of local foods — from pumpkin fritters to flying fish, and coconut pie for dessert. The Atlantis serves good value- for-money plate lunches during the week, and the Edgewater, a favourite haunt for the surfing crowd, serves an a-la-carte menu all day.