A lightning show, distant enough to be admired, dances over the silhouette of Martinique across the channel. The night is clear and the air brisk. The waves of the roiling Atlantic roar in a crashing halt against the base of the cliffs, the feature for which The Cliff restaurant is named.
Before a morsel has been tasted, or menu even perused, the senses are primed. Somehow, The Cliff restaurant has conspired to harness the elements and create a fully sensory dining experience.
Craig Jones, executive chef at The Cliff, is aware of the unique advantage of the restaurant’s locale. He reveals that it doesn’t just make an impact on those who dine there, but also informs the menu and inspires the kitchen
Says Chef Jones, “Every night I come to work, it’s a different sunset. It’s fresh; it’s new. It is all about that energy and it drives the team.” Chef Jones also takes great pride in being able to point out to a first-time diner where the fish or lobster came from: “In the bay, at those reefs. It doesn’t get fresher than that,” he says.
Chef Jones is on a mission to change how we look at Caribbean food. The Welsh-born chef worked his way through the exacting kitchens of French masters throughout Europe before landing at The Cliff at Cap Maison where he has been for eight years.
This background has been the foundation of his French West Indian stylings. He has a true passion for French cuisine, but is interested in how some of those treatments can work with the local produce that he loves, and the strong culinary traditions of the West Indian home or roadside cook.
He says, “It’s amazing what you pick up from a roadside cook. It’s rough but the flavours are there,’’ whether it is the souskai or the pepperpot. “What I love about Caribbean food is the depth of flavour. From there, I [add] my finesse.’’ Some of that finesse includes innovations such as pork belly with squid on curried pumpkin with coconut foam—his twist on surf and turf— and conch ceviche made with souskai.
Chef Jones has got a good thing going on, but he isn’t one to be complacent. His demeanour betrays a sort of agitation that makes sense when he speaks about the food. He is tall and his eyes are drawn up to what can only be called his chef’s tam. And while he is decidedly chill, his gestures betray an energy that swirls underneath. He doesn’t want to get bored. He loves nothing more than taking his guests on a gustatory journey. He likes to surprise.
To that end he has introduced many innovations to the Saint Lucia culinary scene, including the Cap Maison guest chef series, the pop-up restaurant, and a new cellar dining experience which takes guests to the Cap Maison cellars and offers sommelier-designed wine pairings and tasting sessions.
“You’ve come on a good night,’’ my waitress announces, smiling, as she presents the menu. It is Saturday night, a favourite among guests, and an opportunity for the kitchen to showcase whatever innovations they’ve been testing recently. The concept is this: three courses, each with three tasting plates, and for the wine lover, the option of a flute of three wines per course. The result is a festival of the palate.
The first course arrives on a slate board arranged so prettily, one pauses before upsetting the mis en place. There is a goat cheese flummery served in a parmesan basket and topped with pumpkin seeds and dried cherries. The goat cheese is whipped up to a garlicky smooth creaminess and the crisp parmesan basket offers a sharp counterpoint and delicious crunch; the dried fruit creates a sweet balance. Next to that is a maki roll: a smooth velvet sliver of yellow fin tuna against the crunch of fresh cucumber and the papery bite of nori-wrapped rice. The trio is rounded out with a fish chowder, an unassuming contender in the ring that turns out to be the knockout in the this round. The chowder is a rich savoury concoction, deep buttery flavour with chunks of fresh fish. It is rich and the serving size is perfect; it doesn’t cloy and leaves you wanting to come back for more. By the time the next course arrives, Chef Jones has his diners just where he wants them.
It is in this course that Chef Jones revels in teasing out the nuance in traditional local ingredients. He showcases three West Indian staples drawing on his French foundation. The oxtail medallions are delicious, robust and hearty, flavour-filled. Often featured in local kitchens and canteens as the base of a stew or bouillon, it becomes, through Chef Jones, part of the main event. He takes the meat off the bone, presses it and braises it. The result is heavenly, a crisp, almost caramelized on the outside, crust that is flaky inside. The ground provision mash on which it is served soaks up all the lovely juices and provides a soft, velvety counterpoint to the density of the meat. Against this is the humble West Indian pumpkin. Chef Jones takes this comfortingly familiar ingredient and explores its many iterations. One is forced to reconsider the humble staple in his pumpkin textures dish. Pressed terrine of pumpkin, pumpkin fritter, pumpkin puree and pumpkin chips, topped with pumpkin seeds. Chef Jones invites an exploration of all the possibilities of this one ingredient. Each treatment draws out a different aspect of the buttery good squash.
Leaving the bounty of the land for the final feature of this course, Chef Jones looks again to the sea. His mahi mahi, pan fried, is crisp on the outside but moist and meaty on the inside. He serves this over an avocado salsa, the tartness of which is a surprising but complementary counterpoint to the firm-fleshed fish.
To round out the meal, a tray of sweet goodies is presented. There is the combination of creamy and crunchy, cool and warm, sweet and tart. Dessert is a fresh berry ice cream with dehydrated chips of pineapple and pawpaw. The pistachio soufflé is light and airy, and the smear of a pistachio paste across the plate that bridges the two is earthy and nutty. By the end of the meal I feel like I’ve been on a culinary journey. This is what Chef Jones is after.
He is interested, not just in creating good food but also an experience. “I want to bring out the drama in the food,’’ he says. The Cliff at Cap Maison sets up the perfect stage for that drama to play out.