St. John… aahhhhh St. John.

For the uninitiated, St. John is a postage stamp of an island in the Caribbean, part of the semi-sovereign United States Virgin Islands. Think “Puerto Rico adjacent” and you’ll be in the right ballpark. And, yes, it’s utterly beautiful. Palm trees, pristine beaches, hazy tropical vistas, all the travel article clichés apply here. It’s the kind of place where when you encounter an ex-pat you cannot help but ask them two questions: “Where are you from?” and “How did you end up down here?” Those are not questions that will emanate from you out of some newly found genuine interest in the lives of others. That would be way too unselfish. Those are questions that you’ll ask out of sheer desperation. You won’t really care where they are from. What you’re really asking is, “HOW DID YOU FIND THE BALLS TO ESACPE AND LIVE DOWN HERE? TELL ME YOUR SECRETS!” You’ll be politely asking that waiter from Concord, New Hampshire his particulars, but, trust me on this one, you’ll be screaming on the inside. It’s that beautiful.

It’s also home to many a choice eatery. High end temples that cater to the well heeled tourist, funky fried fish shacks for the cruise ship day trippers and an array of food trucks and humble food stands for the local clientele. In the week I spent there with my family recently we did our best to sample all the island had to offer, visiting some old favorites, making family meals inspired by the island flavors and getting blown away by a prominent new addition to the island’s restaurant scene.

A couple of housekeeping items here in case you ever use this article as your culinary sherpa if you have the good fortune to visit.

The island is small, only about 19 square miles, and while it is well paved and easily navigable, there are about five road signs on the entire island. I cannot give you a street address for any of the following establishments, I can only tell you that they are all pretty easy to find.

You absolutely have to listen to 103.5 FM the whole time you are on the island. Why? You’re doing this for island flavor and because a big portion of their format consists of turbo charged reggaeton interspersed with the DJ inexplicably taking phone calls in the middle of each song only to kick back into the song nine seconds into the call. Everything about the station’s style is so foreign to a typical mainland radio experience. It has to be heard to be believed. Check this: one of the tunes actually incorporated the “Angry Birds” theme song into it and every tune, commercial, and bumper has a sample of someone with a deep baritone yelling “REMIX” at some point. I drove everyone crazy with my random “REMIX” calls all week, even more so once our four year old son joined in on the act.

At dinnertime, no matter where you eat, whether it’s the swankiest joint on the island or a roadside shack, mosquitoes that are like ninja assassins will attack you. I came home with about 38 bites all over my tanned and bloated body and I saw a mosquito once! One time! They come out at dusk and strategically bite your legs and ankles with silent precision. Use bug spray if you can but also accept your fate as the likely victim of these invisible pests.

The Sun Dog Café

Mongoose Junction, Cruz Bay

When you arrive in S.t John, unless it’s on your private yacht you’ll be getting off the ferry in Cruz Bay, the hub of the island. Much of the island’s shopping and dining destinations are within a short walk from the dock. Right up the hill from there is Mongoose Junction, a stone laden, multi-tiered shopping center that winds its way up the hill. It contains a combination of shops and restaurants and smack in the middle of an immaculate stone walkway lies the Sun Dog Café and Gecko Gazebo Bar. After you get off the aforementioned ferry, walk up the hill, order a drink from the bar and commandeer a table. From there you can marvel at the fact that the cooks at the café are able to ply their trade in a kitchen that is essentially stuffed into a garden shed, albeit a nice one. My wife and I split a jerk chicken quesadilla while she unwound with a bushwacker, the island’s signature drink, a combination of a banana/chocolate milkshake along with a dash of every liquor on the top shelf. I think there is an unwritten requirement that all the bartenders on the island are required to serve their bushwackers in uniform fashion. A bit of chocolate sauce lining the side of the glass, a foamy mix of banana and booze in the center, everyone exactly the same from one establishment to the next. Not a bad thing mind you, but there is some sort of uniform bushwacker conspiracy among the island’s bartenders.

Waterfront Bistro

Cruz Bay

Bless the staff at the Waterfront Bistro, a charming high end establishment mere feet from Cruz Bay. We mistakenly arrived a half an hour before they opened, intending to meet the extended family. The maitre d’ graciously let me in so my extremely cranky four year old son could use the bathroom when he easily could have turned us away as the dinning staff was in the middle of setting up the room. You could tell that the maitre d’s attitude filtered down to the rest of the staff. The chefs in the open air kitchen looked relaxed and confident, the waitresses were attentive and the food was superb. For our first course we split a charcuterie plate, named “The French Paradox” on the menu, that was highlighted by a superb house made duck pate studded with pistachios and dried cherries, rimmed with apple wood smoked bacon. Jack, the previously cranky four year old, ate the pate without prompting and went back for seconds and thirds. I’m a fanatic for all things duck and I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so proud. A simple plate of tomatoes, house made mozzarella and spherical balsamic vinegar came next. The self-contained dots of balsamic, tricks of the molecular gastronomic trade, impressed the crowd. Continuing my personal duck fest was an entrée of perfectly cooked duck breast sauced with red wine, blueberries and served atop a mound of truffled mash potatoes and shredded duck confit. Plates of butter poached lobster, and deconstructed tuna niçoise drew raves from the table. We watched the sunset over Cruz Bay, marveled at the well-behaved children, and left sated courtesy of the excellent staff at the beachside enclave.

Fatty Crab

Cruz Bay, across from the Winston ball field

The newest addition to the Cruz Bay dinning scene since we had last visited, Fatty Crab is the southern outpost of New York City chef Zakary Pelaccio. If you had to pigeonhole the type of food put forth it could be called Malaysian barbeque served in a causal setting. I would settle for just terming it good. Remarkably, unbelievably good. Easily the meal of the trip, plates of green papaya salad dressed with chiles and peanuts, tuna crudo with a habanero dressing and crispy pork belly with watermelon amazed on our visit towards the end of the week. The kitchen’s feel for how to utilize spices to complement and elevate the chosen ingredients instead of blowing out the palate was remarkable. That’s a skill that takes discipline and finesse, and the staff at the Fatty Crab displayed that talent in spades. Sides like fingerling potatoes with curry spices and coconut rice highlighted that ethic. As did a simple dish of sautéed okra and bok choy, served with in a tamarind-scented broth. As our waiter said, “If my mom made veggies like this I would have eaten them every night.” Crispy pork belly, so often a poorly executed cliché in many restaurants, was sublime. Crispy on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside and ingeniously served atop anise scented cubes of fresh watermelon aside pickled watermelon rind. I don’t think I’m looking through St. John-tinted glasses when I say that this is my favorite dish I have eaten all year. The desserts were no less inspired. Coconut panna cotta, flavored with cardamom and served with rehydrated raisins and peanuts kept in line with the kitchen’s approach to subtly layering flavors. We devoured it, along with the lemon/strawberry bar served with chili whipped cream that was primarily gobbled up by our two sons. Someday I’d like to meet Chef Pelaccio and shake his hand. It was that good.

Fish Tacos, A recipe interlude

We couldn’t eat out for every meal. To capture the feel of the island the family sat down one afternoon for a meal of simple fish tacos. The market at St. John is no different from your local supermarket. Everything in this recipe can be easily replicated with ingredients you can find locally.

Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa

2 lbs of Tilapia

½ Tbsp paprika, salt, and pepper

1/8 cup olive oil

2 cups of finely diced mango

1 cup of onions

¼ cup chopped cilantro

3 Tbsp olive oil

As many soft tacos as you can fill

Season the tilapia with the paprika, salt and pepper and coat with the olive oil. Set aside until ready to grill. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, cover, and put in the fridge until ready to serve. Grill the tilapia over medium heat, four minutes on each side and then serve with the tacos and salsa.

Aqua Bistro

Coral Bay

There are two ways to get to Coral Bay, along Route 20, which winds its way along the north shore of the island, or Route 10, which rises along the spine of the island. Either provides spectacular vistas and both meet up in time for the descent into Coral Bay, a spectacular free fall down mountain terrain that leads to endless, plummeting views to the bay that seem to go on forever. It’s a tradition for my wife and I to throw the boys in the back of the car and go exploring on the mellow side of the island when we visit. When we do we always stop at the Aqua Bistro, a charming outpost nestled in between a market and some small shops 20 yards from the protected harbor’s water. For lunch, strips of impossibly light fried grouper proved to be more than ordinary fried fish. A sandwich of grilled portabellas, red onions and melted cheese proved to be more than just a “veggie sandwich.” On an Island that is laconic by nature, that vibe gets ratcheted up 10 fold along Coral Bay and if I could pick one place to enjoy the company of my family for the rest of my days, Aqua Bistro would be it.

Asolare

Cruz Bay (up Caneel Hill, overlooking the harbor)

For our final night out, we left the boys in the capable hands of their grandparents and went to Asolare. High above the harbor in Cruz Bay, perched on the edge of Caneel Hill, Asolare is home to endless views towards neighboring St. Thomas and down to the bustle of the harbor. You can watch pelicans work the edges of the harbor in tandem, the sailboats return from their day cruises, and throngs of locals make their way into the town from the open air edge of Asolare’s dining room, all while the sun makes its way behind St. Thomas for the night. It’s the sunset that’s sold a thousand dinners since 1994, when Asolare opened. The view is meditative, the food a worthy complement to the main event. Our highlight: an entrée of sautéed bay scallops with wood ear and shiitake mushrooms. Topped with an incongruous wedge of puff pastry, whose purpose is only revealed once you realize it behooves you to mop up the creamy broth. It must be said that I wonder whether the Frenchified Asian fusion menu doesn’t seem a little tired albeit well executed, but the view alone is more than worth the price of admission. Remember to make an early reservation to ensure a seat on the outdoor patio, lest you be stuck on the inside squinting through rows of tables for your piece of the view.

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