St. Kitts: Still Overlooked But Not For Long

You’re truly not prepared for the relative seclusion of St. Kitts until your 737 or propeller-driven regional plane lands at Robert Bradshaw Airport. There are no gates or jetways; you deplane in the middle of the tarmac and walk the windy 400 feet over to the terminal building, which is smaller than the average Costco. With surrounding mountains standing in as the airport’s natural boundary, the secluded Bradshaw airport looks the part of a Hollywood tropical destination.

After a short drive through neighborhood streets, the views of the mountains and sea reappear. As you approach your resort (probably in Frigate Bay), you’ll pass a few beach shacks, stores and restaurants, and that’s about it. Cruise ships drop anchor in Basseterre, the main port and commercial center of the island, but even on cruise ship days, the island feels uncrowded. And when the cruise ships don’t come in, you’re likely to share a gorgeous Caribbean beach like Cockleshell with only a handful of other people.

This seclusion on St. Kitts is not likely to last long. Though higher-end resort properties have been slow to develop–a planned Mandarin Oriental in St. Kitts was scrapped in 2013–a Park Hyatt is supposedly opening this year and Kittitian Hill, an upscale eco-resort, partially opened in late 2014. The latter, in particular, is poised to re-define St. Kitts’ reputation in the Caribbean, and it was one of the reasons the New York Times ranked St. Kitts No. 34 on its heralded list of 52 Places To Go in 2015.

For now, though, St. Kitts’ marooned-on-a-deserted-island vibe is still intact. The best way to enjoy St. Kitts is to go to a beach and grab a chair near a beach shack (a hut clad in corrugated metal painted with the name of the shack). When you’re hungry, take a table in the shack and order off the white specials board, and wait patiently for a full plate of Caribbean-inspired food made from fresh-caught seafood like Caribbean spiny lobster or snapper, or Jamaican jerk served with Caribbean rice and beans. Every island has its own signature hot sauce, and in St. Kitts, it’s Brimstone, made from local hot red peppers that is spicy with a tinge of sweetness. (Brimstone hot sauce is named for Brimstone Hill, the UNESCO heritage site built by the British beginning in 1690 that served as its fortress and military defense to protect investments in sugar cane plantations.)

In all their ramshackle glory, these beach shacks mask a culinary seriousness. They also serve an important purpose in providing clean bathrooms and sometimes showers when you’re at the beach, as well as keeping your beer or drink full.

Driving Around the Island

A car rental provides the important means to escape the resort for meals. It’s also the best way to explore the island. Taxis are expensive–even the shortest trip runs at least $12.00. It took me no more than 5 minutes to get used to driving is on the left side of the road, especially because traffic moves slowly due to liberally-potholed roads and hairpin turns around the mountains. The main roads run along the edge of the island, so there are spectacular views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic–sometimes at the same time on Dr. Simmonds highway, which bisects the narrow, winding Southeastern peninsula that splits the Atlantic from the Caribbean.

Beach Shacks

My favorite beach shacks are on the Southeast Peninsula. Jam Rock, located on South Friars Bay, was a particular favorite for food and sunsets. The beach at South Friars Bay is small and the chairs at Jam Rock are dilapidated, but there’s a lot of pride in this Jamaican-owned shack that produces faithful versions of jerk and island-inspired seafood. Through the spotless open kitchen, you can see the white-coated chefs proudly plating food on china and garnishing them with spices and finely chopped herbs.

I went three times to the Spice Mill, which is cradled in the bend of Cockleshell Beach on the Caribbean side and has a clear view of the island of Nevis. Calling the Spice Mill a “shack” is a slight misdescription, because its spacious, spruced-up interior distinguishes it from other shacks and attracts a more upscale crowd. It’s still a beach shack in spirit, though, even if the beach chairs are posher and the bathrooms are some of the cleanest in St. Kitts. The food is also good, and they make a mean rum punch (not red from grenadine, God forbid, or bright orange from too much juice). If you want to splurge on champagne on the beach (not admitting anything), they’ll bring it over in an ice bucket and give you glass flutes. All of this while managing to preserve a laid back, boho beach charm. The Spice Mill should be everyone’s first beach stop in St. Kitts.

At some beach shacks, it’s tough to distinguish between the food and the ambiance. Does the food taste better if there’s sand between your feet? That’s how I felt when I went to St. Kitts’ answer to Señor Frogs, Reggae Beach Club. Reggae Beach, which does a robust business in t-shirt sales, is located on attractive Cockleshell Beach. Despite the touristy vibe, it serves a decent plate of food. I gave a pass to their popular beach cookout on Friday nights (the only night they serve dinner), and opted for a more tranquil weekend afternoon lunch when the cruise ships haven’t docked. Unoriginal as it may be, Reggae Beach is still worth a visit.

Upscale Evening Dining

The few truly upscale dining options in St. Kitts are in new developments like Kittitian Hill or Christophe Harbor. The Pavilion in Christophe Harbor is a private club that is open to the public for dinner only. The cliffside “Pavilion” denotes the well-appointed bar and restaurant that serves carefully-prepared though conceptually-safe food, undoubtedly the result of The Pavilion needing to satisfy the tastes of its private club patrons.

Even more upscale and infinitely more ambitious is The Kitchen at Belle Mont Farm, part of the determinedly aspirational investment property on Kittitian Hill. Kittitian Hill is an eco-resort and working farm that was built by Asia-based architect, Bill Bensley, who has designed other Conde Nast-caliber resorts. Located on the Northeast side of the island, you’ll need either a car or driver to get here, but definitely get here before the sun sets on spectacular views of nearby St. Eustatius and St. Barths islands.

Getting here is an adventure in itself, especially if you’re doing the driving. As you turn off the main road onto Kittitian Hill, your car dips and bumps along a dirt, potholed road that is gashed every twenty feet or so by drainage ditches. After driving for a few miles past fruit orchards–when you really start to wonder if you’re in the right place–you reach a small security shack, and after checking in, continue on to what they’re calling the “potting shed,” a decidedly un-shed-like building. There, you switch out your car for a chauffeur-driven golf cart that takes you up to the reconstructed sugar mill where The Kitchen is located. (Because it was raining after dinner, the resort treated us to a posh black car ride back down.) Once at the top of the hill, you walk through a grand stone entry past what they call the “Great Wall,” an arcade canopied by stone archways that lead you past the hotel’s secluded pool and the largest, best-equipped gym you’ll ever see at a hotel. (When I walked by, there was nobody using either the pool or gym.)

Who is Kittitian Hill appealing to? A resort employee told me they get a lot of writers, as the seclusion allows them to work. I have a feeling it’s meant to appeal to the Gwyneth Paltrow Goop jet-set who are tired of simple luxury but want to commune with the locals who carefully farm the fruit that goes into their energy drinks for their cleanses. Time will tell, though, if this is a new model of luxury — certainly Kittitian Hill’s lack of beach access and 30 minute drive from the airport are downsides. (I understand that the owners have acquired another beachside property that will provide the resort with a Northern black-sand beach in the future.)

The Kitchen serves as the resort’s restaurant but is appointed like any four-star restaurant. No expense has been spared–tables are made of thick carrera marble, and the custom, saloon-style stall doors in the bathrooms soar over ten feet high. As only a few travel bloggers have ever written about the place, it’s no surprise that only five other tables were occupied the night I was there in mid-February. The restaurant has only been opened since December, so the service, which aspires to provide the sort of polished, team-style service common in the world’s best restaurants, is still a little rough around the edges. The menu is a flexible tasting menu where you can order four or more dishes from a selection of 12. (Why don’t more restaurants do this?) The dishes are listed on the menu from lightest to heaviest, so ordering down the menu means you’ll be served them in the proper order. The food focuses on seasonal produce and local fish and meat (even so, the menu is fairly vegetable-heavy). A seven-course menu ran about $95.

It’s odd that I’ve heard almost nothing about The Kitchen’s chef, because the food was uniformly delicious, elevated and focused on clean Caribbean flavors. The plating and preparation was flawless. The website touts its local suppliers, perhaps rightly so (there’s a video of an islander catching fresh lobster) but does not mention the name of the executive chef who was in charge when I was there. I learned this information by googling press releases issued last year (his name is Christophe Letard), which might denote an uncomfortableness the resort has either with Letard or an executive chef period. Anyway, according to Chef Letard’s online resume, his prior experience is at the government house in British Columbia and a few other high-end Caribbean resorts. Given the dearth of other upscale resorts in St. Kitts, there is no feeder system for staffing, so Letard seems to be taking on the task of training The Kitchen’s workforce for a more ambitious, refined operation. His presence in the open kitchen was forceful, often loudly admonishing the servers for standing around instead of attending to diners, and correcting the cooks for not firing up dishes more efficiently. As abrasive as he seemed at times, there is no doubt that St. Kitts needs someone like him to get the island’s service into shape.

Which goes to my last thought – as friendly as the people are in St. Kitts, the service can sour very quickly, as they are often slow, untrained, or lacking a clear understanding of what their job is. This is not to discourage anyone from visiting, but I think as more resorts come on the island, the training will be more clear and consistent. But with that refinement comes a chipping away of the unspoiled seclusion that St. Kitts currently offers. Go now before that happens.

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Taking the Simple And Complicating It (Formento’s, Chicago)

My server at Formento’s began the night with reciting rapid-fire recommendations for dishes I should order off the menu. Had I listened, it would have resulted in enough food for an Italian-American army. When I asked him for guidance on how I should order off a menu divided into snacks, antipasti, soups and salads, macaroni, fish, meat and contorni, I received two incoherent spiels that devolved into a who’s-on-first back and forth that would have been amusing if Formento’s was going for cinematic comedic value:

Me: Is this to share or for one person?

Server: This is for one person or maybe two people. For two people, you want to order 1-2 appetizers, maybe you want to share a pasta, wait, you can share anything on the menu. I suggest the calamari, it is excellent (kisses his hand).

Me: So all of these plates are meant for sharing then?

Server: No, they’re individual, but I would share the crab dip, and maybe this calamari, but if you want the Caesar salad, which is excellent, that’s okay, it’s not too big, and if you want the Sunday Gravy, that’s okay too.

Me: So the pastas are entree-sized, for one person?

Server: No, if you don’t have an antipasti, then have the pasta and an entree, wait, maybe have a salad too. Yeah, that would be okay.

And on and on. We settled on a starter (eggplant parmagiana) and two pastas that we ended up sharing (the orecchiette and the Sunday gravy) with the caveat that we might order an entree depending on whether these dishes ending up being too big or too small.

Ordering wine proved no less complicated. The wine list is about four inches thick and weighs about ten pounds. The development of this varied, interesting, well-written list is an accomplishment in a city where restaurants seem to have pared down wine service to a minimum. But, I was left alone to navigate this list while the server disappeared and the sommelier breezed by my table three times, even made eye contact with me, but never actually stopped to assist me in making a selection. (Bewilderingly, we were the only table seated in our section at the time.) By the time the server came back, he began anxiously pressuring us for our food order (after spending ten minutes deciding on a wine, I can understand why he started to feel like the restaurant needed to turn our table as quickly as possible). So, I gambled and ordered a less common varietal from lesser known region; I say gamble because it was a bottle that I had never had, a vintage I was skeptical about, and it cost about $90–an expensive mistake if I didn’t love it.

As a side note, indifferent wine service in a restaurant that aspires to provide it can rapidly send a meal in the wrong direction. Terrible wine service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns–in which the sommelier disappeared to schmooze high roller tables and I ate 50% of my tasting menu without any wine–forever colored my experience even though the food was stellar. I can’t tell you how many sommeliers point me immediately to a California Chardonnay regardless of how inappropriate it is with the food, as if we are all Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Getting back to Formento’s, it’s a disservice to wine–which can be very intimidating to begin with– to curate a list the size of a Russian novel, and then not have the proper support to every table that wants to order wine. I hear many wine professionals complain that too many customers order certain rote wines by the glass (California Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons), and do not delve deeper into the more interesting, nuanced bottle lists they worked hard to put together. But if the wine service professionals leave customers to navigate a huge list, then the customers will likely default to ordering cocktails or less interesting wines-by-the-glass (which are accordingly marked up).

My experience with the less-than-welcoming service, unfortunately, didn’t improve with the food. The eggplant parmagiana was bland but was the least offensive dish of the night. The Sunday gravy came with overcooked canestri that was in a pretty-good pork neck “gravy” but served with spongy meatballs and mealy sausages. It seemed like the romance of the idea of Sunday Gravy got in the way of the reality. The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage was a total misfire–the ears of pasta were gummy and congealed to each other, it was oversauced with a salty, overly acidic liquid that didn’t marry the flavor of the fennel sausage with the bitterness of the rabe. A couple of bites and I was done.

I hesitated to post this because Formento’s opened recently and has had its share of opening hiccups, including a halt in Friday-night service due to a fire suppression system going off. But, on the other hand, since its opening and friends-and-family meals, the accolades have steadily rolled in (especially from people who attended the latter). I wish Formento’s the best, but I think the relatively simple, ubiquitous concept of Italian-American is proving too difficult to grasp. People eat at Italian-American restaurants, even mediocre ones, because they are simple, uncomplicated, warm, and welcoming. At least Carbone’s in New York–which is wildly expensive–understands the underlying nostalgic, comforting aspect of this genre of restaurants. Formento’s, which seems to shoot for the stars but misses the underlying premise, hopefully can settle down and make the necessary improvements to keep this ambitious operation going.