We've been back from a six day trip to the beach, and I am really upset that I have to go back to work after the irie days. I hope I won't bore anyone with length, but I thought it might help future travelers to read as much detail as possible.
First of all, Negril was not really a food oriented destination for us. So for the first time, we tried to put eating at the middle of the priority list (the beach came first of course). We didn't get out of the beach much, we didn't want to hassle taking a cab just to eat.The beach side itself is not a food destination (although there are good gems), but if you are willing to take a cab (instead of carelessly lying on the beach and waiting for your food to walk to you, which sometimes does), you can perhaps eat even better. The cliffs and downtown has better food options compared to the beach, or so they say. Still, we ate well, not impeccably, but still gloriously. Some highlights and lowlights are below. The addresses have no street numbers, and I try to give the approximate location, but the easiest way to locate them could be on the Negril map (http://www.talkofthetownnegril.com/ma...)
Biscoff cookies: Ok, this is not a Jamaican thing, and we were just served them on the plane; but may I say that this is the best airline food ever? I have to find ways to bribe the flight attendants to get more, because apparently they are only available by mail order. I am now exclusively flying Delta, just for the cookies.
Best in the West Jerk Stand: Midway on the Norman Manley road, across Idle Awhile. This is a small, bar/shack type of place inside a garden. I don't think they serve any other food than jerk, but what they serve is amazing. We ate there twice (ok, one for takeout) and both times it was good. Both times we ordered half a chicken, a Red Stripe and a Ting. They gave us no utensils, just a chicken wrapped in foil with some white bread that already started to soak up the juices. They put lots of napkins on the side; and there was a little open air sink to wash your hands nearby. We were happy that we weren't forced to use knife and fork; eating chicken thighs with a fork is such a mood killer. The chicken was moist, easily falling of the bone and slightly charred in select places. Watch out for stray bones though, the meat is chopped with the bone so there are lots of irregular bone pieces. I swallowed a very sharp one and had a scare about having to go to ER to get it removed from my innards during the next few days. The jerk was rich; the spice combinations felt both warm and cool; and interestingly it burned your lips more than your tongue. Our only complaints were the mosquitos and no-see-ums that resisted even the camper grade Deet; eating in a lush tropical garden didn't seem to help it.
Irie on the Beach: A little south of Best in the West, in the hotel "Rondel Village", beach access. Even though we stayed at another hotel, we had our many meals here. The first breakfast we ate at Irie would be the benchmark of the all breakfasts we had for the rest of our trip; unfortunately none of them surpassed it. We shared a fruit plate (ho hum, and not a good deal compared to getting your fruit from a number of fruit vendors at the beach) and a "Jamaican Breakfast". The Jamaican breakfast always changes, and at that time our plate consisted of ackee and saltfish, fried plantains, boiled green bananas and dumplings. Everything was great about the plate. Ackee and saltfish was lightly seasoned with (I think) thyme, green and scotch bonnet peppers and thin translucent onions. The plantains were the best I have eaten in my life, crispy on the outside, smooth inside with no oiliness at all. The dumplings were very good, and the boiled banana added an interesting coldness-blandness (but in a good way) dimension to the whole plate. The coffee was good for what it is. Everywhere in Jamaica claims that they serve Blue Mountain coffee, but what you get is the inferior grade. Still for a hotel breakfast coffee it was pretty alright. Yeah the fruit was really overpriced compared to what you could have gotten from the vendors, but it was a good start.
We had another breakfast there later during the week, but it didn't have the same variety. Even though the ackee and saltfish was still as good as the first, I missed my plantains and boiled banana. This time the partner ordered pancakes and declared that they were the best buttermilk pancakes ever. Even though they came with nothing but a pat of butter, he said they weren't boring at all, and they tasted impossibly fluffy.
We also had two dinners at the Irie. Mostly it was very very good. Again, our first dinner became the best dinner we had on the island. We were each served some warm bread rolls, single serve butter, and pumpkin soup that came with our mains. It was a very good soup with cubes of vegetables and a large dumpling in it. I had the oxtail stew; perfectly braised, fork tender and warmly spiced; I am already craving for it now. Matching it with an excessively malty, almost lactic Guinness Foreign Extra was also a good choice (even though I still prefer the original). The oxtail came with rice and peas, and a nice cabbage/carrot/green mix that was lightly sauteed in oil. Partner had the escovitched fish. I had concerns about the freshness of the fish since we were the only customers at that time (read: low turnover); but it was very very good. His only complaint was the baked potato on the side: compared to my rice it was very boring. It was funny to hear our server to warn us about the head and bones of the fish while we were ordering; I guess most American tourists don't like to be reminded of the fact that they are eating an animal. We the barbarians sucked everything that is edible from the head, and got a big "good job" from her later. The dessert (like all the desserts in the town) was our biggest letdown: a small bread pudding that wasn't horrible tasting, but very very overshadowed by the rest of the meal.
Our second dinner at Irie was also good, but not as memorable as the first one. The dinner was brown stew snapper and curied goat this time. We were happily served the same pumpkin soup, perhaps it was made fresh that day again, perhaps not; but it was still good. My snapper was lightly fried and coated with a traditional brown sauce that reminded me of the Chinese sauces. It again came with excellent rice and vegetables. Partner's goat was not as excellent, it had some tough collagen that wasn't adequately softened by cooking, but the curry in which it was cooked was really good. We needed dessert, so decided to try our chance with the brownie with ice cream on top. It was not inedible, but both the ice cream and brownie had some off taste, something like carob (perhaps they add it to the cocoa to reduce the costs). After our vacation, I realized that I either don't like the style of the Jamaican desserts, or most the places outsource their desserts from the same company. I guess the smarter thing is to stock up some fruit and eat them after the restaurant, or better yet, order a dirty banana as your dessert since it is one damn sweet cocktail.
Cosmos: At the north end of the 7 mile beach. We shared a plate of fried conch, some goat curry with ice cold beer on the side. This was my first time with conch; and while it wasn't bad, I don't think it will be something I will crave for. The curry was pretty good albeit being a little bit too salty. It came with a side of rice with peas and callaloo that was cooked in some broth or animal fat (had a pleasant meaty taste in it); very good. The beer took of the saltiness of the goat nicely; we were happy.
Mis Sonia's: On the Norman Manley road, midway to the south of the beach. The legendary Mis Sonia's patties were huge and complex compared to the roadside or vendor types. When we were there, Mis Sonia was happily eating some papayas and his teenage sons (or nieces) cooked our food. Not sure if it affected the quality, but the patties were a little bit too dense. Lots of fish, vegetables and seasonings were stuffed in a giant patty, and the ingredients were very fresh so no complaints. They only had ketchup on the table, so we asked for hot sauce, and they gave us their own pepper "chutney" type mixture in a jar. It was blistering hot and very very good tamed with a little bit of the ketchup. Had I knew about the fried chicken that Mis Sonia serves, I would have ordered it; apparently it is one of the best in the world (or so says some people).
Selina's:A little bit south of Sonia's, on the road again. I don't think the place deserves the hype for the food we ate, nor all the attitude it came with. The coffee that people raved about wasn't different than the stuff we had elsewhere, and the breakfast was bland compared to what we got at other places. The callaloo was boring (compared to say Cosmos' rich braised one), ackee and saltfish was OK, but the famous pancakes were the biggest disappointment. They had some dense unfluffy centers and the fruit they came with were amounted to three minuscule bites. The atmosphere, on the other hand, was great; and just we were leaving a reggea band was setting up for live music brunch.
Norma's: Midway at the beach, at Seasplash hotel. Norma Shirley is named as one of the best chefs in Jamaica, even referred as the Caribbean Julia Child. The menu looked interesting, and the offerings were definitely "fusion" (unlike Charela Inn, see below). I wasn't too hungry (had jerk chicken only a few hours ago) so I made a meal out of curried mussels and coconut shrimp appetizers, hoping that for the prices they were quoted for, I would get a good meal. Nope five pieces of medium size shrimp coated in coconut flakes, fried and served with a coconut based dip 8 or 10 bucks, I cannot remember (not ridiculously expensive, but still not worth it). The mussel dish was perhaps 6-8 limp mussels in curry; for 14 all-American bucks. The mains were also between 15 to 30 something range; we were surprised by the prices given that we were not in NYC. We all hoped that the food was worth it, but it wasn't. The partner had the coconut chicken and complained that his chicken was too dry and boring; the irony was that its execution was almost identical to my coconut shrimp, except that chicken breast replaced the seafood. The food was good, but way too simple for the price point and had many execution errors (overcooked chicken, not enough contrast between the coconut coated shrimp or chicken and the coconut sauce it came with, no bread for the mussels), which meant it was expensive for the price you paid or the hype you read. Perhaps it was because Norma Shirley didn't cook our meal personally (she heads the Kingston branch), perhaps her resident chef wasn't as good, but in the end we felt we were ripped off especially compared to the other places that served honest food at half the price and tasted much better. Three other things also annoyed us: The menu listed a sauvignon blanc as the white wine by the glass, I thought it will go with my mussels. But it didn't exist and instead we were offered a lukewarm watery pinot grigio that was at best fast food restaurant quality. While this would have been OK at a casual restaurant, I was surprised that a self identified fine dining institution served it, and served it warm. I overheard the group at the next table also complaining about it. I chucked down the water (umm wine) and ordered a Red Stripe, oh yeah! Our server brought my beer in a bottle -my preferred way for this type of beer... but-, but surveying the room I realized that everyone had their beers in a mug. Did I prove that I was the mademoiselle mis-manners by eating my shrimps with my hand and sucking all the pieces inside the tails (unlike the ladies at next table that used their fork and knife) and even making some noise? Did I not deserve that mug?.
But perhaps the biggest abomination was the lack of bread with the mussels. I think if you order any mussel dish that comes with a broth, you would expect some bread or other starch to sop up the juices. Any chef respecting the food they cook should do that, otherwise they are simply implying that their broth is not worth eating. I would especially expect this much attention to detail in a reputably "fine" dining institution. Unfortunately no bread arrived accompanying my mussels and our server was not much available for us to bring some even if we asked. Fortunately, I didn't regret leaving the broth in the plate that much; perhaps I was too underwhelmed with the whole experience that it didn't look that appetizing. We decided not to order dessert, and hit the road.
Marley at the Sea: Midway at the beach, at Coco LaPalm hotel. Even though we stayed at this hotel, we never ate a meal there because we've read many reports that kitchen never put out good food. But one night, craving some desserts we decided to drop in. My key lime pie was one of the few plates of food that left the table almost untouched, in my life. After 10 minutes of receiving it, I had only tried two bites (one to taste it, second to confirm that it was that bad); so our server asked if I didn't like my pie. I said yeah; so she took it away without asking. Perhaps I could have tried finishing it, but it was gone and I was kind of happy to let go of that responsibility. But I also felt bad... I come from a culture that looks down on leaving food in your plate, and I rarely throw away food, unless I am sure that it will kill me; but this was simply really literally bad: chalky (too much cornstarch to thicken it maybe?), acidic, weirdly oversweet and had a bad texture. I felt bad for wasting so much food, but I would have felt worse if I had to digest it. Partner had a carrot cake, and it was also not good; but he managed to finish it before the server arrived to fetch it. After that, we decided that we don't want to risk it again by eating at the hotel.
Coconut International: We stopped there for a late breakfast. As in most cases throughout our vacation, we were the only customer in sight. The owner pretended to complain that it will take her a while to make some food for just us, but she looked like she was half serious (or did she subtly tried to kick us out?). She said it is hard to cook some labor intensive dishes during the off season, because the demand is very low. But after I told her that it was my last Jamaican breakfast she softened up and headed to the kitchen. To help her, partner and I both decided to order the exact same thing, so that at least she doesn't have to cook two different meals for both of us. The result was another almost perfect Jamaican breakfast. The dumplings were the best, but I still preferred the plantains of Irie better.
Fruit vendor near the Firefly cottages: For/ or after many meals we had fresh cut pineapple, papaya, coconut and mangoes from a stand near our hotel. You pick your fruit from the stand, and the lady or her niece (depending on the time of the day) will cut them and put the slices in a plastic bag. She will get a machete and cut a hole in your coconut and give you a straw to suck it up. When you are done with the juice, she will butcher up the coconut so that you can eat the flesh as well. There are also walking fruit salesmen, but most of their fruit is pre-cut, earlier during the day; so why not get them cut to order? I am pretty sure there is a huge markup on the market prices of the fruit, but since we didn't have much transportation and wanted to support the locals, we were ok with their prices especially for the quality of the fruit. For example, I was never a fan of pineapple before, I found the fruit too acidic and turpentine like, but this was very good, with almost a coconuty undertone. Mangoes were ok, we first picked the small yellow ones hoping that they could be good; but they turned out to be a little stringy. The larger green/orange ones we tried on another day much much better. Papayas stole the show all days; I moaned with every bite, every time.
Country Peppa’s Bar and Grill: At Country Country cottages, midway through the beach. We stopped by for a late dinner. I made a meal out of two appetizers again. The crab coconut dip was very refreshing, made of fresh crab and coconut juice and not much else; but it wasn't a dip, nor it came with anything that you can dip in it. I could have described it as a salad, and it could have benefited it they used a more mature coconut's juice for added flavor. Still, it was memorable. The fried calamari was tough and the sauces that came with it tasted too astringent; so I was unhappy about it. But partner was lucky this time, ordering the jerk chicken pasta. I thought the angel hair pasta wouldn't stand a sauce made with cream, tomatoes, spices and jerk chicken; but all the pieces came together; I was jeleaous of not ordering this dish. I ordered a dirty banana as my dessert, but stubborn partner insisted on another bread pudding. This time it was better than other desserts in town, but still didn't like it that much. The best part of our meal (I would say after the pasta, but I couldn't eat much because of some certain someone guarding it with his fork) was the breads. We were served two rolls each, one was a not too sweet nutmeg/cinnamon roll and another one was garlic/olive oil. Warm with butter they were really good.
Things we didn't eat:
I regret not trying an "exotic" mushroom omelette, which was perfectly legal in Jamaica (unlike the ubiquitous ganja). I chickened out, damn I am getting old.
We proudly didn't go to Margaritaville. What a tourist trap! I wanted to kick our taxi driver in his butt when he showed it us on our way assuming that we would be interested. I guess many tourists are, because unfortunately it was always packed (unlike most restaurants in the off season).
We didn't go to Rick's Cafe, worrying that it will be another tourist trap. I was too happy at the beach.
I also regret not trying a slice of sugarcane from the fruit vendors, or not eating more papayas, or not smuggling some papaya seeds to Canada. Yeah right, the papaya seeds will feel right at home at warm and fuzzy Montreal winters!
We didn't eat as many patties as we wished, and we missed some of the famous beach vendors. They usually come around noon hours, and the sun was simply too much for us to stay at the beach during lunch time; instead we took naps in our rooms after hours of swimming. Perhaps our biggest regret was not eating more patties, but we really didn't want to turn into giant red monsters after a few days under the sun. Seriously, you can get a sunburn from swimming at 8:30 AM!
We didn't eat at Mel's another patty place. She tried charging 5 bucks for an ackee and 10 bucks for a shrimp patty; no thanks we are cheap!
We also "missed" eating at Charela Inn, by choice. We had previously passed by Charela Inn's La Vendome and checked it out. The menu with Duck L'Orange, escargots and crepes sounded too classic French for us Montrealers who are blessed with this type of food at home. And while they claimed they had a "fusion" of French and Jamaican cuisine, the menu read more like a mix of food that are either independently French or independently Jamaican. One would expect dishes that "blended" the two together, but it didn't look like that. But one night we wanted dessert... So what a chowhound would do? We decided to go to Charela Inn, hoping that we can get some of their famous homemade ice cream. But the minute we entered, we saw the large sign "casual elegant attire required" and decided to leave, even though were were ironically dressed to pass their test that day. Simply, we didn't want to submit ourselves to this kind of symbolic power. The partner even had a collared shirt and all (albeit it was a little bit too funky), but so what? I know I might regret missing a food opportunity, but I have a point of not going to restaurants that impose dress codes. I find it elitist and borderline fascist; especially when idiotic footwear restrictions are imposed at beach restaurants. There are other issues regarding the social class and gender implications of fine dining culture I have to face with every day, and sometimes I give in; but I can't stand someone telling me what to wear in order to "deserve" their food.
Overall it was a very good experience. If we just went there for food, we would have been underwhelmed, but we were perfectly happy with what we got and the generosity and kindness of most people we met. RESPECT!