Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Hunt for Vegetarian Food in Curacao

All these fresh Venezuelan produce, so much potential...
Last week, Amit and I took a quick 4 day trip to Curacao. We had wanted a little beach time, but we're not really sun-bathers, so we opted for an island with some culture to explore. And of course the other requirement was being able to use air and hotel points. We thought it would be fun to go and take pictures of the pretty architecture, see some blue water, and maybe try some local cuisine.

The colorful Dutch architecture of the Punda
It actually was not the easiest task to track down the local cuisine. It seems apparent that the abundance of tourists require big juicy steaks and grilled seafood, or pizza and pasta if they're going light. The "local" favorite spots were those serving festive cuisine with an Indonesian background - rijsttafel.  It's described as a buffet of satays, sambals, vegetables, meats, egg rolls and other spicy dishes. To me, the relationship between the Dutch and Indonesian rijsttafel seems similar Britain's fondness for Indian curry, adopting it as a type of national cuisine.

I wish I could show you pictures of this so-called feast, but we never got to try it. The one restaurant serving a vegetarian menu, called "Rijsttafel", eluded us the entire weekend. We tried to have a reservation made, but no one picked up the conceirge's calls. A $40 taxi would have been a waste if we got there to find it closed. So we tried again the next day - no answer. We drove there ourselves on Friday night. The street looked dark and residential, no life in sight, after two passes. We later heard that we should have been looking for a sign for "Surinda" and a tiny door in the back side of a lawyer's office on the dark street. Anyhow, we never found it. Other rijsttafel venues were suggested, including Tempo Doeloe, but all were 100% meat, no veg. We were sorely disappointed. Funny enough, apparently we can go to a restaurant right here in Brooklyn and sample a few vegetarian dishes served in the rijstaffel.

The only diners at the Butterfly Garden were goats.
Our other disappointments included driving around to find the Butterfly Garden, an actual butterfly garden and restaurant known for it's excellent vegetarian options. It was closed. Unfortunately, the result of road construction hurting business and the guy defaulting on the business loan. Poor guy. Poor butterflies! Our plan B was to swing by Subway in Otrabunda for some sandwiches - and that was closed too!

Here is what we did find suitable for vegetarians:



Sol Food in Westpunt

This was one of the highlights of our trip. We were out exploring the beaches on the West end of the island and I had researched a couple places for lunch. We didn't have an address for Sol Food, but considering the excellent reviews on Trip Advisor we decided to just drive around Westpunt until we found it. Just across from Jaanchi's on the main road, we took a turn and saw their sign leading us to the green house on the cliff.

We were so happy that we finally found a restaurant on our list and it was open! We were greeted by the owner Sunshine, who was talkative and friendly. We saw her husband in the kitchen, busy grilling. She led us out to the covered patio overlooking the tree-tops and the bay and Playa Grandi.  We found out they are from New Hampshire (and she originally from Massachussetts) and started talking about New England and New York. She explained that they had moved to Curacao after being dive-certified in Bonaire, and finding Curacao real estate more affordable. They are certainly living their dream, just up the steps from the water.  We are jealous!

I would say the menu was American: pizza, burgers, salads, grilled meats and fish. The vegetable pizza would have been a good option, or rice and vegetables. But we were a little sick of pizza already, and tried something new, even though the neighboring table said it was awesome with the homemade crust. My husband opted for Sunshine's side dishes as a main course: Momofuki-inspired vegetable noodles and sweet potato,apple and rice salad. He loved the noodles. I ordered a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp, knowing this was the place to finally order fish, and it was delicious.

We ended with Sunshine's homemade brownie sunday, since we wanted to linger a bit longer. We had struck up conversation with both of the other tables, and it was raining just lightly outside. It was more fun eating, socializing, and watching turtles pop their heads up in the bay, than trying to sunbathe under the clouds. We must have stayed about 3 hours eating and chatting.

It isn't just the food that makes Sol Food a great place to stop. It's the atmosphere that Sunshine and David have created. You feel like a special guest in someone's home, welcome and relaxed.


Nautilus at the Renaissance Hotel in Otrabunda

We stayed at the Renaissance and stuck around the first night to try Nautilus. The online menu looked fabulous, with several classy veg choices like "envelope of eggplant", "vegetable wellington" and "mushroom-spinach ravioli". None of these things existed in real life. The menu they handed us looked more like the kid's specials at Friendly's. Burgers, salads, spaghetti bolognese. Nothing veg but salad! What a bastard of a trick. The menu sucks, so what do you do? You order the $38pp buffet so you can have some rice and beans. Despite the inflated price, the Mexican night buffet was very very good. I had their version of a burrito, made fresh, but honestly I'd rather have $9 Chipotle any day! Even being pregnant, I had a hard time eating our money's worth. And that includes at least 4 chocolate covered beignets. My suggestion: order a salad and indulge in the $10 dessert buffet.


Plasa Bieu (Marsche Bieuw) in Punda

Ok, so upon first glance, no one is serving vegetarian cuisine in the local food market. But with a little negotiating and special requests from the pleasant waitstaff, it can certainly be pieced together. The Asian stall offered some vegetables and rice, but I didn't want Chinese food on vacation. The first stall as you walk in (from the direction of the fruit market) serves several vegetarian items: lentils with rice, pumpkin pancakes, fried plantains and various salads. If you're not too hot to eat, this is a good place to check out. At 2pm the stalls (of which 3 were operating) were closing up, so I'm not sure what else is regularly offered.


Dal Toro, Water Fort Boogjes in Punda


This Italian restaurant in the water fort was recommended by someone at the hotel. We were a little nervous walking there late at night, over the bridge from Otrabunda. The walk behind the Plaza Hotel was a little desolate. But once we entered the arches into the water fort, we realized it was a water-side oasis of dimly lit restaurants, menus along the walkway, as you'd find in almost any waterfront tourist destination in the world.

Dal Toro is one of many restaurants situated along the walkway, with a restaurant inside, a tiki-bar showing the Knicks game on the flatscreen (complete with NY fans on the stools) and seating on the deck above the crashing waves. Once again, the menu was quite different from the one they showed us at the hotel. It was a typical, but seafood-heavy, Italian menu. We started with bruschetta, that was actually more of a tapenade with tomatoes and olives, which was ok. My husband had spaghetti and I had penne with tomatoes and mozzarella. Both were decent, a little over-oiled, but good. The wine was not so good - either long-since opened or poor quality.


Sopranos Piano Bar in the Rif Fort, Otrabunda

I felt a little hokey walking into a hit HBO show themed bar. But with few lunch options we settled on pizza - which is all they had on the menu here. It's more of a party spot, with happy hour, cigars, televisions and loud music. But the margherita pizza we ordered was just fine. Definitely nothing close to a Brooklyn slice worthy of the Sopranos, but decent none-the-less. It looked like a fun place to go and have a few beers with friends, get drunk, and soak it all up with some pizza. It may have been the only time in my life I've understood the concept of non-alcoholic beer (which they don't serve, and I don't blame them one bit), because once you're sitting in this type of bar on a hot day, you really really want that refreshing cold one!


Indi's Spice Bar in the Rif Fort, Otrabunda

Sick of pasta and pizza we gave in and went for Indian, knowing there are many vegetarian choices. It was not authentic, nor impressive, but the ambience is nice. See my Trip Advisor review here.










Medi at the Hyatt in Newport

We resigned to making real use of the car and driving out to the Hyatt just for dinner. On our last night in Curacao we were desperately seeking interesting vegetarian options and the eclectic menu at Medi looked so enticing. The Hyatt was SO much further than we realized. After 30 minutes, it felt like we were driving into a dark abyss wondering where we were going to end up, worrying we'd hit a pothole and breakdown miles from civilization, and hoping the distant lightning bolts would not turn into rain. Coming from rural New England, I saw nothing wrong with the situation, but my husband was not thrilled.

We finally found our way through the checkpoint into the Santa Barbara plantation and continued to drive the dark and twisty roads that were like a maze. When we finally made it to the Hyatt, I felt a little jealous that we were not staying in this paradise oasis. Happy people were going about their vacations, tanned, and looking content. The restaurant was as well designed as the lobby, with a clean contemporary, almost Asian, feel. There was an open kitchen and brick oven, and the staff were very professional.

Finally, here the menu was exactly as promised online. Finally, a venue that keeps it's website up-to-date. We had come with a Mediterranean mezze dinner in mind: hummus, fatoush, bruschetta, fig salad, cheese and vegetables. But by this time, after the unexpected drive, we were tired, hungry, and not in the mood for small plates. We did end up ordering the hummus - which after a little extra salt was great - and too filling to finish without spoiling our appetites.

I know we're talking vegetarian here, so please excuse my fish-related compliments for a moment. It's worth mentioning that my salmon was cooked absolutely perfect. Maybe the best I've had, not fishy, very thick and moist. I never eat the skin, but this was crispy like bacon, and delicious. It was served over delicious stewed eggplant and buttery mashed potatoes.

My husband had the mushroom gnocchi. The flavors were good with full leaves of sage and browned butter. But, the gnocchi dumplings were too soft. Maybe overcooked, maybe just too much potato, they were mushy. Having made them from scratch myself with success, I can see these chefs are all about the grill, and lack a flare for proper Italian. But they get points for flavor.


2 comments:

Richard said...

The Adventist hospital serves vegetarian and sometimes vegan food for lunch (Dutch cheese is non vegetarian though so beware if the meals contain cheese, this also applies to most pizza places as they like to use Dutch cheese which contains rennet).

There are a few Chinese restaurants that serve vegetarian meals as well (loved the tofu in black bean sauce near Marie-Pompoen, not sure if it still exists).

Denny’s serves boca burgers but the oil used for the french fries is also used for frying buffalo wings....

I used to love the veggie fajitas at Larry´s (this was at least 8 years ago, not sure if they even exist anymore).

Surinamese restaurants often offer ¨vegetarian roti¨ (one of my favorite veg. dishes! warning: can be a bit too spicy for tourists!)

Shoarma al basha (mot sure if it still exists) used to have wonderful falafels (not sure if they fry them in clean oil though)

Fusions restaurant near the McDonald’s in salina also has vegetarian meals on their menu.

Most locals are poorly informed about vegetarianism. Waiters will often offer chicken or fish when asked for veg. options...., Just ask (specifying exactly what it is that you do not eat / want to come into contact with your food) to be sure when ordering. How I know? I lived there for 21 years.

Deena Mehta said...

Thanks Richard, that's great information!

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