Monday, June 27, 2011

What's Food Got To Do With It? Casa Havana Restaurant, Grand Cayman

On what basis do you choose a restaurant? I'd venture to guess for three main reasons: Type of food, atmosphere, and location, location, location. I am feeling like I won't post more long-winded restaurant reviews here. That type of detail belongs on a site like Yelp or TripAdvisor.

I decided this when I looked back on our big family vacation this Spring Break in Grand Cayman, The Carribbean. The location was gorgeous and has any number of beautiful restaurants with delicious food. But really, does that make for a good lunch or dinner out? What if the time you spend there is lousy, or you were having a proverbial "bad day"? Of course I want to know if a restaurant serves exceptional french onion soup, or desserts to die for. That is the rudimentary ingredient of a great time out. But if you ate that key lime pie while you were being fired, or your boyfriend started the "dumping you" conversation in the middle of your calamari appetizer, it would be a bitter experience indeed, no matter how amazingly prepared it was. Not fair to the restaurant, but it's the reality.

And this really could have been the case a few times on our vacation. The vacation itself was bittersweet, like the Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate I used to love getting in my trick-or-treat bags as a child. Sweet because it was the first trip my immediate family (my husband, 2 kids and I) took with my parents and brother in years. Bitter, or at least sad, because my father has moderate stage Alzheimer's and he needed to be watched almost constantly so he wouldn't wander, break something, or worse. So yes, we enjoyed the brilliant colors and sights of the Carribbean Vacation, including a trip to Stingray City. How could a person be luckier than to go on such a trip with her family that she loves? And yet, we also observed my father in the body whose mind is steadily eroding.

One evening my husband and I did steal away for an evening out alone while my parents bonded with their grandkids. We wound up at Casa Havana Restaurant, part of the Westin Casuarina Resort and Hotel on the long stretch of Seven-Mile Beach. Guidebooks say the place looks like a 1950's Havana restaurant. (I'll take their word on this, since I was born in 1970 and have never been to Havana.) We sat at a table on the breezy, arched veranda, the length of which was lined by tiki torches. The modest number of patrons conversed in calm tones that seemed more British than American. About fifty feet away, the waves gently rushed up the beach. Amidst this backdrop the food was truly wonderful, and mostly I enjoyed the details of its preparation. The Caesar salads were prepared tableside by a tall, affable surfer-cum-waiter from the United States. He rubbed the bowls with fresh garlic, and he tossed the salads with a homemade dressing while chatting with us about The Cayman Islands. I ordered an appetizer of piquillo pepper panna cotta, which I found to be an intriguing taste of smooth mild cheese flavor with strands of hot dry chili pepper. Thumbs up for creativity on this one. But what really made this place stand out was what happened next.

While we waited for our main meals-- the pot-roasted chicken and the pork loin, respectively -- my husband and I began discussing what we observed in my dad. We observed when the changes began, how our relationship with him has been changing, and how all of this is affecting us and our relationships with each other. I wondered, if I could go back in time and insert myself into my teenage body via an "Our Town" method, what would I say to that earlier Dad? The intellectual, sardonic and at times vitriolic physician with dark hair and an intense expression? How do I go back, and tell him, "you know, even though you don't always believe it, your daughter loves you very much"? Through tears, I concluded that the important thing is not whether or not I could go back, but that that is what I would say if I could. And once the tears started, they just kept flowing for a while. On we talked, on they flowed. Then after about 10 minutes, I wiped my eyes and laughed at something funny my husband said, then looked up. Just then I saw the waitstaff, waiting discreetly by the door with dishes in hand. They had evidently been there for a few minutes, and only when they saw that I was in a state to receive the food did they make their way to us. Now that's tact, and it is a quality I don't often see, or at least notice in restaurants nowadays. But it was just what the evening called for, and it really pushed the place into the higher stratosphere of evenings to remember. So, touched and spent, I tucked into an incredibly tender dish of roast chicken. And this is a meal I will always, always remember, that stands out among the sea of amazing restaurants in Grand Cayman.