Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Icoa: A Little Foodie Heaven on Grand Cayman 

We knew for certain that we had hit the jackpot when the beautiful little artisanal bread board arrived and practically begged us in audible human language to be savored immediately. A brief glance in its direction and we knew we would have to oblige it.

It all started back on Little Cayman at the Southern Cross Club. When we realized that we had no way to avoid a long layover on Grand Cayman on the way home, we figured we'd better ask Terry Thomson what to do about it. Terry is SC's masseur who also doubles as the bartender (and in earlier days was apparently also the boat captain and a divemaster). Having spent a little time at the bar with Mr. Thomson it was pretty clear that he's a very well rounded hedonist. So Terry gave us the eye, considered our foodie tendencies and spieled through a few options for lunch on GC. Watching our reactions carefully, he finally pronounced, "Yeah. You know, I think Icoa Cafe is the place for you. It's in the Seven Mile Shops strip mall. Don't be fooled by the appearance of the mall. The food is really good."

Now the strip mall is seriously unpreposessing, so the warning was very much needed. One would never imagine that there was a purveyor of food porn present given the humble setting, but as K. began using a cute little spoon to put some tapenade on the freshly baked bread, we were thinking that this was going to prove to be a serious find.

Because the appetizers looked so fabulous and because we had been eating and drinking a lot more food than we are accustomed to for the past week at Southern Cross Club, we elected to order a whole bunch of appetizers and forego the main dishes.

Dish after dish, we were not disappointed. Two tender scallops were in an unctous mushroom broth (definitely cream in that "broth!) with a few beautifully shaved pieces of parmesan. I honestly was a bit skeptical about the cheese in this context, but I loved it in practice. Or more specifically, in my mouth. And that bread basket required a refill so that we could sop up all that yummy broth!

A cylinder of chicken liver pate arrived with toasted pistachio nuts, fig compote and most interestingly a pot of honey and a honey dripper. Ohhhhhhh.....so unbelievably superb. I would have never thought to combine honey and pate myself, much less fig compote but it turned out to be an inspired combination.

After a sip of crisp Australian Pino Grigio, I would spread a little bit, consider whether or not with this taste I had accomplished everything I needed to in this world and whether or not I could depart with this swallow as my last deed on earth. I have to say that the chicken liver pate was truly unbelievable. I loved the texture and it's robust but not overpowering flavor. Both the honey and fig compote managed to be complementary without repetitive in the ways in which they added sweetness. And the simple, but inventive presentation of the honey in a shot glass with the mini-dripper struck me as delightfully pragmatic and still surprising at the same time.
After raving about the pate, I don't want to give too short shrift to the Blue Crab cakes with lemon verbena, sweet pea & mint "Gazpacho". It too was lovely and flavorful. Yet another win on the menu.
So the moral of the story here is:
a) Listen to your local hedonist when it comes to island food (which in the Caribbean is so often a crashing disappointment in comparison to the beautiful environs)
b) Never mind the strip mall because most of the islands are not generally known for their glorious architecture to begin with, right?
c) You dont need entrees when the appetizers rock the house. You have the advantage of being able to try many more items and see what the chef is all about.
The next time we're passing through Grand Cayman, we might just engineer a little layover at lunch hour on purpose!
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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Missing Robert Graham 

When we moved to NYC in the early 90's, K. discovered Fairway. Soon after, she bought our place on 75th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue to be near it. $185,000 for a 2 bedroom apartment? We were both starving actors at the time and I thought she was freakin' nuts. Could even our combined earnings for our entire lifetimes ever equal $185,000? (Thank god my advice was listened to and then completely ignored.)

Back then, Fairway was about 1/4 of the size it is today, which meant that the cheese counter was proportionally humungous. It took up the whole back corner on the northwest side of the store.

Now cheese is important to us. (So incidentally is pudding. At least pudding is particularly special to me, which prompted K. to have this t-shirt specially designed for me. If pudding is special to you, too you can order one for yourself here.) And as K. is of Dutch descent, she is particularly concerned with how cheese is sliced. (At least she tells me this is a Dutch thing, but maybe it's just one of her RULES.) A wedge of cheese you see must be turned so that the fat part sits on the counter and the thin edge stands in the air. You then take the cheese plane and shave off tiny slivers from the thin edge. To do this correctly, you want a cheese plane with the shallowest angle you can find so that your slides are wafer thin.

Having recently moved around in together and being in the process of stocking up on specialized kitchen utensils, we were in search of a cheese plane with the properly shallow angle on the blade. Given that Fairway had a cheese counter that completely blew our minds, we thought we'd ask for some advice there while we were shopping.

That particular day in 1993, there was an elfin man behind the cheese counter. He was bald, African-American, sparkling eyes and a smile that lit up the store. K. explained her quest and he said, "Wait here!" He bounded into the back for about 3 minutes and then darted out from behind the wheels of parmesan. With a flourish, he handed K. a cheese plane. K. looked at it, agreed it looked like a plausible tool for the purpose and inquired as to it's price. "Take it!" he said. Really? Us starving actors loved a freebie. "Sure! It's from one of my vendors. I hope it works out for you." He laughed with a tenor laugh that was sweet and infectious.

"Who are you?" asked K. of her cheese angel.

"Robert!" he replied and stuck out his hand.

For the next decade, K. always greeted Robert with a hug and a kiss. She loved to surprise him by sneaking up behind him and hugging him when he wasn't looking. Everytime we went shopping (and being NYCers we go the store nearly daily because it's so convenient), part of our consciousness was occupied with keeping an eye out for Robert.

We got to know Robert pretty well in the intervening years. Like all of Robert's customers, we became friends, too. We consoled him after the death of his wife and the mother of his children due to hospital malpractice. (Another customer provided legal counsel.) We left anonymous holiday gifts for the girls in the first year after that sad event. I dropped off research on therapy options for him in the hopes he could find the right support for his youngest. We asked after his social life, his girlfriends, his family every time we saw him.

For the last week or so, my consciousness keeps an eye out for Robert. But I know he's not there. As our neighbor and food critic Ed Levine noted, on his blog last week Robert passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.

It's a senseless tragedy and my world is smaller for his passing. My neighborhood is less for his absence. But my heart is full of gratitude for having known him for 15 years. For having known his smile, his greeting, and his heart. I didn't know it was the last time I would ever see him when I gave him a big hug a couple of weeks ago. But I'm grateful that was our last moment together. That is the way I will remember him.
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