You eat under an ackee fruit tree as the sun dips down. The night is balmy and Ella Fitzgerald — along with a few hundred crickets — is singing the blues. The historic watermill still turns, giving a soupçon of charm that is far removed from the site’s actual history as part of the 17th-century Rose Hall Sugar Plantation.
Soaring palm trees and the odd hopping frog darting among the leaves, add to the exotic feel. This is The Sugar Mill, Jamaica’s leading restaurant — and the lushest open-air dining room you will probably ever experience.
“The beauty here will delight you but the menu should surprise you,” says head chef Christopher Golding, with a glint in his eye, adding: “It goes way beyond jerk chicken.”
The restaurant, part of the five-star Half Moon resort in Montego Bay, has already won Best Restaurant in Jamaica for the past three years but Golding is on a mission to put Jamaican fine dining firmly on the world’s culinary stage.
“Most people think Jamaican food is simply spicy chicken and rice and peas,” he says. “That’s all here, of course but what diners experience at The Sugar Mill is what I call the ‘reincarnation’ of Jamaican cuisine. I want to expose the soul of our island through the bounty of natural ingredients that we have, but presented in a sophisticated, innovative fashion.
“We have so many fruits and vegetables — so many flavours — yet Caribbean food is not recognised in the same way European or American food is. I want to change that.”
And the menu is inspired. While its roots lie in traditional recipes and techniques, Golding is also inspired by Italian and Asian flavours, with fresh pasta and oriental salads part of the menu. There is also a focus on a farm-to-table experience, with fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen, and herbs picked daily from the kitchen garden.
There’s coconut-dusted grouper fillet with steamed cassava bammy’ (akin to a deep-fried potato-cake yet much lighter) but also a real focus on vegetarian dishes — breadfruit gnocci in a coconut-tomato sauce and jerk tofu and quinoa cake are two stand-out dishes.
“Jamaicans have a rich connection to vegetarian and vegan food,” says Golding. “It’s rooted in the Rastafarian movement but also in the vast array of produce that we can grow here, from yam to cassava, sweet potato to cho cho (a member of the squash family).
“I find cooking with vegetables as interesting as meat and fish. I think in the main, vegetarianism is too often sidelined and not given the respect it deserves.”
Drive around the coastline of Jamaica and you will discover many of the bare-foot beach stalls and huts, have a similar, albeit more basic, approach. A short drive away, for instance, in Long Bay, is the Chill Out Hut, where inspired veggie dishes are given equal pegging to the island’s better-known specialities such as curried goat.
With a menu featuring ackee, curried tofu, bammy and dumplings, you sit in carved-out barrels overlooking the ocean, listening to the rhythms of calypso and reggae.
Explore further inland and the Rastafarian influence is stronger, with many places influenced by the Ital trend. Short for ‘vital’ — vitality for life — Ital involves a plant-based diet, from spiced chickpea burgers to roasted breadfruit.
Stush in the Bush, in the parish of St Ann (around 90 minutes from Montego Bay) is one of the leading exponents of the trend, tagged as “sexy vegetarianism” with exotic vegetables as the focus of its seasonal menus.
Back at Half Moon, the stellar wine list and speciality rum menu, including Jamaica’s own highly-prized 50-year-old Appleton Estate Rum of which only 800 bottles were made, completes the distinctively modern Caribbean experience.
The rest of the resort is just as impressive and continues its nod to Jamaica’s heritage, with plenty of stylish contemporary touches. One of the island’s grand dames, the 63-year-old hotel stands on a 400-acre estate, landscaped with scarlet hibiscus flowers, coconut palms and blue mahoe trees. It boasts an impressive past guest list of royals, presidents and dignitaries, not to mention a glittering cast of modern A-listers, such as Venus Williams and Rihanna, who have all visited.
Even for those not escaping the paparazzi, privacy remains the hotel’s speciality. Accommodation is spread along two miles of crescent-shaped, pristine beaches, reached by zipping around in your own golf cart or by working up a sweat on the baby-blue bicycles. From expansive suites to super-luxe villas (all with their own pools, butlers and chefs) slick service is at the heart of every stay.
At the Fern Tree Spa, you can choose to be pampered in a garden treatment room or one of the two over-water bungalows — the latter open out onto heart-soaring views of the ocean beyond.
Treatments tap into Jamaica’s traditional healing remedies with many products being freshly mixed by an in-house specialist using ingredients grown in the spa’s gardens. Lemongrass oil is used in the golfer’s massage, for instance, and coconut and sugar used in the Jamaica Allspice Sugar Scrub treatment. The Fern Tree Signature Massage features allspice compresses and finishes with a rum body splash.
Soon two more restaurants are opening at the resort too, along with 57 new rooms and two more pools, all due to finish at the end of 2018, part of Half Moon’s continued £55 million renovation.
In the meantime, at the al fresco Seagrape Terrace, red snapper is on the menu, served with cho cho, pak choi and snow peas in a miso broth, along with plenty of vegetarian options such as spiced red quinoa cake, or green asparagus, pistachio and blue cheese with sorrel chutney. At tables next to the ocean, fairy lights twinkle in the palm trees above.
There’s only one way to describe just how good it all is — as the Jamaicans say, it’s truly irie.