I'm baaaacck! I've returned from Aruba a refreshed man, ready to take care of a newborn in the coming months at home and tackle one of the largest software development projects I've ever had the privilege of managing the development of at work. So what did I do in Aruba? Basically nothing. I sat on the beach, read books, and I ate out a little. Ok, a lot. Don't hate me too much. This was the first vacation I've taken in...forever! I literally had 140 hours of vacation saved up at work from previous years and I had to use it before my company literally took it away. I really should have gone for two weeks, but Amy didn't have the vacation time for two weeks. She, unlike me, actually uses her vacation.
Aruba is typically known as one of the better places for food in the Caribbean, at least as far as the travel agent that sold me on the idea of originally going to Aruba. After returning to Aruba for a second time, I think I can announce that this travel agent either has no taste, or they were just plain full of shit. Most likely, it is the first, but probably partially the latter as well. In all honesty, I would not say that Aruba has the worst food out there, but they are one of the few places that has close to zero local delicacies. I searched far and wide for restaurants or eateries that served local fare - I talked to many locals, hotel staff. They all continued to refer me to the touristy restaurants that plague the island, almost all of them serving steak, lobster and seafood that hasn't been caught locally. The locals were probably just protecting their favorite eateries from the annoying tourists (which I couldn't blame them for). Nobody likes a tourist - especially one like me that's going to go home, write about your favorite local restaurant on my web site, and suddenly cause it to be overflowed by tourists from Washington, DC. LOL. I wish I had that much power...
The first of such touristy restaurants we ate at was a place called Sunset Grille.
"Tired of unfamiliar flavors and complex Caribbean spices? Looking for some flavors that you're more used to from America? Sunset Grille is your place."
This ad, which I read later in the week in a magazine, made me groan upon reading it. "Complex Caribbean spices"? Like what? Mango? Salsa? Coconut? Basically this ad translates to...
"Are you vapid and monotonous? Do you like you food bland? Do you hate to try new things and enjoy wallowing in your own sea of blandness? Then Sunset Grille is your place."
Sadly, I didn't get to read this ad before I actually ate there. If I had, I would have avoided the immediate area like a black hole. But I, like others that stayed at the Radisson in Aruba, was convinced to dine there by the utterly useless and rude concierge that occupied the hotel lobby. Our first night there, the concierge convinced me that Sunset Grille was one of the better restaurants on the island for Caribbean-style food, and there I was, not yet hooked into the internet and lacking my access to eGullet or any other online resources, at the complete and hopeless mercy of this saleswoman. Later in the week, heard her convincing another couple that Sunset Grill had excellent Japanese food as well which wasn't a complete lie depending on how you define Japanese food.
When we arrived at the restaurant and started looking over the menu, we saw that Sunset Grille had the standard touristy fare and billed itself as an "American Steakhouse." Yawn. The menu was a full of steaks, lobster, chicken and pork tenderloin. Oh, and there was one thing that stood out a bit...Sushi?? Ok, good old American sushi. The restaurant was actually quite booked and the only time we could get a reservation was for when the restaurant first opened at 6 pm. Once seated, the service tried as hard as it could to make up for the horrible food that was inevitably going to appear on our table.
In short, the dry-aged porterhouse steak I ordered was one of the fattiest cuts of steak I've had in a long time. The meat itself had good flavor, but the thick, vieny fat that it was strewn with completely ruined it. Amy's lobster was left under the heat lamps for far too long and had a thin layer of gelatinous crust on the top of it where the butter had come to a nice solid congeal. If lobster is overcooked, it tends to get this slightly bitter aftertaste that basically ruins the entire bite. Dessert was skipped.
I won't waste your time describing this restaurant more to you except to tell you a little story about some extra special diners that sat behind me at the restaurant. After we first ordered, we were offered a little sample of that "good old American" sushi - a simple little piece of tuna roll. Just off a long flight from DC and famished, we ate it as quickly as the waiter placed it on our table. It wasn't the worst tuna roll that I'd ever had, but it was worlds apart from the best. The couple that sat behind us was, I would say, startled by the presence of the sushi on their table. They pushed it to the far end of the table exclaiming, "I don't eat raw fish!" - Their accent somewhere between that of someone from Jersey and Minnesota - I was hard at hearing over the loud parrots squawking in the background. The man at the table almost didn't let the waiter put it down on their table. This all over a goddamn tuna roll of all things!
I could go on about the other tables around us, - the person that pealed the seaweed off the roll, ate the rice and left the tiny piece of tuna on their plate, or the person who complained that the wasabi was too hot and proceeded to drink a whole glass of water - but I won't. It is, quite frankly, too sad and depressing for me to think about.
Our second night in Aruba, we were looking to eat somewhere different, that wasn't serving steak and seafood. I remained unsuccessful in my quest to find a place that served Aruban food so instead, we decided to return to a place where we'd had good Indian food on our previous trip.
Alone in the vacuous wasteland of touristy restaurants in Aruba serving "good old American" fare, is Taj Majal. Taj Majal is the one Indian restaurant in Aruba and remains the most empty, even though it does make quite good Indian food. We were there two years ago in our first trip to Aruba and we were one of two tables taken in the entire restaurant. On our second night in Aruba, we were one of three tables, but who's counting? While Taj Majal doesn't serve the best Indian food I've ever eaten (it pales in comparison to Heritage India or Passage to India), it was by far one of the better meals we had on the island, especially when it comes to value. The entire meal cost only $70 compared to the average price of our other meals which came to about $150. Like our usual selves, we started with an order of samosas which were slightly dry, but the chutneys they came with were spicier than usual and made up for it. Continuing with our bravery, Amy ordered saag paneer and I, the lamb (or mutten as they called it which is really just a full grown sheep) rogan josh. On thing I noticed was that my curry was very oily. There was a layer of oil on top of my dish where the oil had separated from the rest of the ingredients in the sauce. The only explanation I had for this was that they were using regular vegetable oil in their cooking rather than ghee, but I am not an expert Indian cook. (Perhaps if Chef Sudhir is reading this, he can weigh in.)
On the side, we had some rice and puri. The puri were very, very good. They came out freshly fried and were only lightly greasy - crispy on the outside and soft and chewy in the middle. They also were about half the size of the usual puri (or poori) we get at Indian restaurants here in DC, which made them great for tearing in half, stuffing with some rice and curry, and then shoving in your mouth. I liked the puri so much, I ordered a third helping of it to finish off Amy's saag paneer. Yum! As usual, we skipped the Indian desserts.
Our third night was an absolute pleasure. We had made a reservation at El Gaucho in advance before even getting on the plane to Aruba. On our last trip, El Gaucho was our favorite dinner and I was pretty sure, the way things were going, that it would have a repeat performance. El Gaucho remains to this day, the best steak that either I or Amy has ever eaten - surpassing any steak I've eaten in DC or anywhere else. I stress I've eaten because I have yet to have the patience to call between 3 and 5 pm Monday through Saturday make a reservation for three weeks from now at Ray's the Steaks in Arlington. First of all, El Gaucho cooks their steaks over a wood fire, or it could possibly be a charcoal fire - I was trying to taste which when I ate my 28 oz. porterhouse. Yes, I did say 28 oz for which they charge the "market price". All of their beef is shipped in from Argentina as well. The important part is that they do flame broil their meat which is as close to what Jeffrey Steingarten names in The Man Who Ate Everything as the ideal way to cook meat - on a spit over fire. The meat comes out sizzling and perfectly charcoaled on the corners which gives it that nice, fresh-off-the-grill flavor. Also, El Gaucho marinates the crap out of their meat - I could taste the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar throughout the meat. They leave the fat on the steak, but it just melts away like butter. I usually go out of my way to clean every ounce of fat off each bite of my steak, but I didn't feel like I needed to do that here.
On top of everything else, the wine list is one of the better ones in Aruba. I ordered a 2000 Stag's Leap Syrah which just completely blew both Amy and me away - we could taste chocolate, pepper, blackberry, and just the slightest hint of a nutty Edam cheese. Yes, Amy did drink - only one time on this vacation - a whole glass and a half worth. It was about the time that I ordered the wine, on top of the 28 oz porterhouse and told the waiter that we would be ordering dessert, that he got a huge grin on his face and thanked me profusely. I think I made his night. For dessert we had a deliciously yummy crème brulee which hadn't been charred enough on the top but was still very tasty. It was missing a little bit of the crunch that you'd expect in a crème brulee.
The only problem I have with El Gaucho is the fact that when you make a reservation, you still end up waiting a half hour or so for your table. A reservation, it seems at El Gaucho, only reserves your place to eat that night and not at a specific time. While you wait, they encourage you to go across the street to their cigar lounge to have some cigars and cocktails. How convenient. The total price on this meal was the most expensive we had at $170. If we had skipped the $65 bottle of syrah it probably would have been considerably cheaper. I think my steak alone was $45.
Our next two nights were not our favorite meals. We ate at an Italian restaurant called Sole Mare with three White Zinfandels on the wine menu. THREE I SAY!! No self-respecting Italian puts White Zinfandel on their wine menu. If you'd like a comparison, the food was somewhere between Olive Garden and Maggiano's. I had the veal parmesan, the same that a woman in the table next to me ordered. When she saw that I had started eating, she asked, "Isn't the veal parm incredible here?!" To which I replied, "Oh yes, it's wonderful!"
Amazonia Churrascaria was the next restaurant we dined at. This is one of those all-you-can-eat Brazilian steak places where they walk around with meat on spits and ask you if you want some. This all controlled by a red and green piece of wood that you flip to red when you have had enough and to green when you want more. It's the ultimate in gluttony and I can only imagine how much meat is wasted in a place like this. Moving on...
Our final night in Aruba, we went to a place that came with high recommendations from our friends that visit Aruba often - Madame Janette. I can say, without a doubt, that this was the best meal we had on the island - at least it was for me. I think all the eating we were doing had finally caught up with Amy and her stomach was acting up on her. I tried to keep my moans to myself as I ate my food.
The atmosphere at Madame Janette is casual. There is an indoor and outdoor dining area - the outdoor dining area surrounded by Caribbean trees covered with lights. They also have a live guitar player to serenade you during your meal. A+ for atmosphere (not that I care about such things).
Madame Janette's specials menu is quite large, and has a wide variety of dishes, that I hadn't encountered anywhere else in Aruba. If you ignores the annoying way they name their specials like "Le Filet Mignon Gianni Versace" or "Veal Loin Paris Hilton" and actually read the ingredients, you see that something special lies underneath. I actually ordered the Paris Hilton veal loin. It was prepared in an unusual way. Two large slices of veal loin are seared, then mixed with chanterelle mushrooms, capicolla and tomatoes, and finally placed pan and all in the oven and broiled. The final product in front of me was two perfectly cooked veal loin slices in a flavorful sauce - they even serve it to you in the pan (I'm sure it wasn't the pan it was cooked in, but it gave the dish a nice effect). Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Foodgasm central. This dish made the night for me. I ate every last morsel of it.
One thing I didn't like was that the wine list was a little weak. I was very difficult to find a decent wine. They had one too many Merlots on a wine menu where you only had a choice of five reds. Hell, the photo on the main page of their web site shows one of the chefs proudly brandishing a bottle of Luna di Luna Merlot-Cabernet blend. I ended up ordering a French Pinot Noir which I thought was a little too bitter. They say that a good wine can turn an average meal into an outstanding meal. A bad wine can also turn an outstanding meal into and average one. This wine wasn't that bad, but it did detract from the overall experience I had.
Comparatively, Madame Janette is very reasonably priced - with an average entrée price being at least $5 cheaper than other competing restaurants in Aruba. At this point in the trip, I was picturing my enormous credit card bill and I was starting to wonder if I would have enough balance to cover the final charge from the hotel. I shrugged it off, but I appreciated the "moderate" prices at Madame Janette (comparatively speaking).
We had some coffee, listened to the guitar player for a while and then left, holding our stomachs proudly like trophies. Tomorrow, we would be on our way home and Madame Janette's was a great way to end our vacation.