It's safe to say that food in the Caribbean has made huge strides from the sad "Continental" fare that was so popular a few decades ago. It's also safe to say most people don't go to the islands to eat.
But this is exactly what I did recently — and I was blown away.
I flew to Grand Cayman to attend a pop-up dinner hosted by Clare Smyth, the former Chef Patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey in London and one of a handful of female chefs (and the first British one) to earn three Michelin stars. She has plans to open her own restaurant in Notting Hill later this year, but decided to take a Caribbean tour, partnering with local chefs and cooking up a storm.
That dinner, held at the months-old Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa, started with a terrine of foie gras and tuna tartare and a bright and citrusy gelee, and ended with a chocolate truffle with eggplant cream, with Clare's snapper ras el hanout as the main event. It was definitely a highlight of my four-day trip, but more than any one meal, what really surprised me was how consistently great the food was.
From the pattie I picked up at a gas station to a seven-course tasting menu paired with the most creative cocktails I've tasted in recent history, Grand Cayman has definitely earned my vote for the most delicious Caribbean island.
Here is my guide to eating and drinking on Grand Cayman, with an important caveat: I flew in on a Thursday afternoon and left on Sunday, so did not have a chance to explore the east end of the island. This guide, then, focuses on West Bay, which is where the famous Seven Mile Beach is (and also where a majority of hotels are located).
A Food-Lover's Guide to Grand Cayman
The One Food You Should Try
I had heard that the food to try was turtle which, I'll be honest, did not really appeal to me. Still, I was prepared to try turtle in the name of research if that was required. Happily, I discovered that while stewed turtle is traditional, it's definitely not all that common — surely not as common as fish rundown (a fish stew with coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, and garlic) or heavy cake (made with cassava, and as dense as it sounds).
But if I had to pick just one, I'd say a pattie, preferably picked up at a gas station, which is what I did when I got peckish on a long walk to Georgetown one morning.
A pattie is a hand pie with an outer crust that's similar to a puff pastry, but quite a bit denser. It's filled with meat or veggies or some combination, and often quite spicy. Many locals have a fierce loyalty to Island Taste patties, but it's worth trying a few different ones and deciding for yourself!
The Frozen Beverage to Sip
You might think this would be something tropical, fruity, and spiked with rum, but no: The frosty beverage of choice on Grand Cayman is the mudslide, a combination of vodka, Kahlua, and Bailey's ice cream. Allegedly, the best on the island is to be found at Rum Point, on the north shore. But you can find versions elsewhere, including (conveniently for me) at Coccoloba at the Seafire Resort (where I stayed).
Tip: If you want to sound like a local, don't swallow the "man" in Cayman. It's pronounced Cay-MAN, which the emphasis on the man, not the opposite.
The Dish I'd Fly Back For
I ate a lot of great food on this trip, but — no contest — the coconut grouper at Heritage Kitchen is the one I'd fly back for. Lightly fried, topped with a mess of coconut and onions, and served with fried bread and rice, it is just what I want to eat after a day of sun and sand.
The Best New Restaurant
Kimpton's Seafire Resort is the brand's first international property and it is, by all measures, a runaway success. Everything about this resort — from the location on Seven Mile Beach to extras, like wine happy hour every night — is first class (and don't get me started on the bathtubs).
This is especially true of the dining program, which includes a Mediterranean restaurant, an all-day beach bar, plus a coffee shop with kombucha on tap and killer cronuts. But Avecita, the tapas-inspired dinner-only concept helmed by a French chef, a Spanish mixologist, and an Italian pastry chef, is the reservation to make.
With a grill as his only source of heat, Remy LeFebvre turns out tiny feats of culinary pleasure: butter-like abalone with onion cream, a trio of rabbit in vibrant coconut and herb sauce, cured tongue crostini garnished with beer gummy bears. You can opt for wine pairings, but my dining companions and I were charmed and delighted by the Spanish-inspired concoctions of Juan Martinez: a cava cocktail perfumed with sage to start, a riff on sherry and Sprite with honeydew melon in the middle, and a slightly more potent tipple that tasted like a Manhattan in a bikini to finish.
Too often tasting menus fizzle out when it comes to dessert, but pastry chef Claudia Barrovecchio delivered a DIY PB&J kit — with homemade everything — that struck just the right notes of nostalgia and creativity.
A Surprising Find
In Camana Bay, a planned urban community where you can live, work, shop, and play, Jessie's Juice Bar was my very favorite find. It's tiny and colorful, and the first thing I spotted were large jars of homemade kombucha. They're also known for their smoothies (I had two different ones — one with almond milk, cold-brew coffee, and bananas; the other with coconut water, papaya, pineapple, blueberries, and mint) and their "life-changing" gluten-free bread, dense, nut- and seed-filled loaves that you can have served with avocado and eggs (naturally).
What to Bring Home
Pepper jelly! I really wanted to bring home actual peppers, but I was afraid I'd get caught trying to smuggle produce through customs. Pepper jelly, made with a mix of local peppers including scotch bonnets and another kind known simply as "seasoning peppers," is a good compromise.
Next Time ...
As I mentioned in the preamble to this guide, I did not get a chance to explore the east end, which is where the island's best farms are (including Clarence McLaughlin's) and also where, from what I hear, you can find the best fish rundown and heavy cake.
Getting There & Staying There
I flew non-stop from New York to Grand Cayman Airport on Cayman Airways and there are a few other airlines, including JetBlue and United, that also have direct flights (although only Cayman Airways serves free rum punch).
The airport is on the west end of the island, a short taxi ride from Seven Mile beach, which is where most of the hotels are concentrated. If you're planning on a longer trip, or just wanting to explore on your own, the island is easily navigable by car (although remember that this is a British territory, so they drive on the left side of the road!).
It's also quite safe to walk and ride your bike, which is what I did — and there's a new ferry service from Camana Bay on the west end to Rum Point on the north shore.
I stayed at Kimpton's Seafire Resort & Spa, which opened in November, and is unparalleled in terms of service. Rates aren't cheap (from $339), but they're comparable to those at other nearby properties, and there are still grand-opening deals to be had (in the form of generous resort credits, which you will have no problem using).