Monday, August 16, 2010

Is this love that I'm feelin'?

Love is a funny thing. It certainly did not take a whole lot of love on my part to follow Vronsky down to Nassau in the Bahamas for a few days while he fed his own insane love of UNC basketball by watching them play two Bahamian teams on a pre-season training trip. I enjoy watching the games with him almost as much as I enjoy watching that vein in his forehead throb with every missed shot or un-called foul, but that is a whole other post for another time.

I have only been to the Caribbean one other time, and that was two years ago when Vronsky and I rented a house in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands with 3 other couples. I feel that is a bit unusual, given that it is so easy to get down there, it's damn gorgeous, and my mom actually spent her high school years in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, this trip to the Bahamas was only my second time, and unfortunately, it did little to change my admittedly preconceived notions about the region.

While I have no doubt that Nassau is rich in its own unique culture and traditions, I found myself a bit hungry for even a hint of something below the otherwise glossy "resort-town" surface. I am completely aware that us Americans/Europeans have done absolutely nothing to encourage the growth of Caribbean/Bahamian culture over the centuries, and perhaps it was a lingering bit of guilt that made me so cognizant of the fact that the primary industry there is by far and away tourism, that local restaurants make way for McDonalds and Wendy's, and that people rarely leave the mega-resorts that are akin to war compounds--the only time you really ever need to leave is to get to and from the airport, stifling perhaps any urge to seek out something beyond the walls of your respective hotel. And don't even get me started on resort food. It is just plain old depressing from a gastronomical perspective, akin to airport food: limp fries, overdone mass-produced steaks and burgers. In keeping with every bad stereotype of the American tourist, I saw one girl at our hotel order a Domino's pizza delivered to her room. The food at the Angus Beef restaurant in the hotel was apparently too exotic.

Hanging out at the basketball arena with a smattering of obsessed UNC fans and Bahamian basketball fans was one of the highlights of our trip for me, and our short time on the island did not allow for much exploring, especially as the gorgeous beaches were enough to keep me occupied for several hours everyday. But no trip for me is ever complete without at least a valiant effort to find great local cuisine, and there were two places that did not disappoint.

The first one was a little haunt called The Fish Fry that served fresh-caught seafood right on the beach. Fried conch and fried lobster were personal favorites of mine--the lobster is specific to the Bahamas and has a richer, albeit chewier, taste and texture than New England lobsters and is smaller in size. I was already in love with conch from my trip to the Turks and Caicos Island, and was beyond thrilled to enjoy it again.

The other place was the restaurant and the Marley hotel. I know, I know, I just went on a mini-rant about getting away from these resorts, but the Marley doesn't quite fit the mold of an Atlantis or a Sandals.

The Marley is owned and run by the Marley family, of one the great Bob Marley acclaim. I have always loved Marley's music, along with millions of others, and even though I've heard his songs a billion and one times, they never get old and I enjoy them tremendously. Some, of course, find an even deeper spiritual meaning in his music, and one of the managers of Marley's told Vronsky and me a bit about what it really means to be a Rastafarian, and it isn't just about smoking pot and wearing dred-locks, although he himself did both.

Marley's is nestled on a cliff side in Cable Beach, overlooking the water and surrounded by rich tropical foliage. Only 16 rooms are available, giving it a very intimate vibe, and the strong scent of patchouli put me in a groovy mood the minute I set foot on the premises. The menu is small but every dish I ate (and we ate there three days in row) was absolutely incredible.

My personal favorites were the Marley salad, the spicy grilled shrimp, and the "catch of the day," which was red snapper for us. The lobster duo was also spectacular, if pricey. For starters, everything, even the salad, capture what I always imaged to be "island flavor," that indelible mix of fruity yet spicy that is somehow exactly what you are craving on a muggy night. Wash it down with a super-chilled white wine or Kakalik, the Bahamian beer, and I am in sheer heaven!

I usually don't care much for coconut, but when it is toasted and shaved on my salad, it is the perfect touch of sweetness to counteract the ginger in the dressing and tang of the citrus wedges in the salad. The same can go for the sweet corn that came with the chili-glazed shrimp, or the polenta under my snapper (with the most amazing vegetable garnish on the side). It was the first time that I was really aware of the different flavor pairings and profiles and how it all matched together to complement the other elements of the dish: acid, sweetness, texture, heat...all those terms that are bandied about so frequently in "food speak" came through clear as a bell.

I've eaten a lot of great meals and when I cook, I always try and make sure different flavor profiles are represented and what have you, but the chef at Marley's, Mama Lur, and her team, put a tremendous amount of thought into each element of the dish and Vronsky and I were completely blown away. Plus, the relaxed vibe actually lent itself to people actually talking with one another and just "feelin' the vibe." I actually learned a few things about the history of the island and even about Marley's music in the process. I don't know if I will ever be back in Nassau, but if I do, I know where to find an excellent meal and original, exciting, company.

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