BARBADOS is an island about the same size as the
Isle of Wight, but much more sophisticated. Not only does it at present have the strongest economy in the West Indies, and thus the best roads, but it is also the most 'British' in atmosphere, the keen- est on cricket, it also offers the widest choice of luxury hotels and top-class restau- rants. All this comes at a price: restaurant meals in any but the simplest places cost as much as in central London, but at least their standards are comparable. I was recently in Barbados to attend the BWIA/Holders Season, a charmingly unpretentious music festival held in the beautiful gardens of Johnnie and Wendy Kidd's 'plantation', Holders House. Luciano Pavarotti sang there for 25 min- utes last year; this season our own operatic chanteuse, Lesley Garrett, was the star attraction and gave a longer and altogether more entertaining programme. Next year the baritone Thomas Allen has agreed to do the honours. I also had the luck to watch every ball of two of the most exciting one- day cricket matches ever between England and the West Indies at the splendid Kens- ington Oval, as well as eat at a wide selec- tion of Bajan restaurants.
Undoubtedly the smartest name in accommodation and restauration in Barba- dos is Sandy Lane, owned by two very rich Irish financiers, Dermot Desmond and J.P. McManus. The Bajan-born Richard Williams has now directed the hotel for some years. In a fortnight's time Sandy Lane will close for a £50 million redevelop- ment which will take 18 months, so that it will remain closed until late September 1999, and claims already to have a waiting list for its millennium celebrations. Mean- while the German-Swiss Hans Schweitzer, also co-owner of Midsummer House restaurant in Cambridge, is executive chef, and presides over both the formal Sandy Bay restaurant at reception level and the more relaxed beach-side Seashell below, where the Italian chef Max Scuito makes wonderful pasta. I dined at Sandy Lane once and lunched twice, the second time with a 'regular' staying there — Anita Longcroft, a glamorous London lawyer and on that occasion Hans Schweitzer reproduced for us the lunch menu he had prepared for the Duke of Edinburgh the previous week, as an act of expiation for not having been on duty when I had dined upstairs the previous Sunday. It was cer- tainly a distinguished act.
We started with a gorgeous soup of white truffles, the small bowl surmounted by a dome of puff pastry, the flavour magnifi- cently intense. Next came a stilton 'biscuit' containing asparagus, aubergine, courgette, crispy bacon and herbs — exquisite; this was followed by baked mahi-mahi in a deli- cious saffron-flavoured broth containing West Indian vegetables, and the meal was completed by a tropical fruit salad with home-made sorbets. A light but totally sat- isfying lunch, eaten looking out onto the blue Caribbean.
In truth the previous Sunday dinner, taken with the ex-MP for Arundel and cricket buff, Sir Michael Marshall, and not cooked by Schweitzer, though decent luxu- ry hotel fare, had not been in this league, though I enjoyed my terrine of grilled flying fish, topped with flying fish caviar vinai- grette, and sliced baby lobster with organic vegetables, pea sprouts and a chablis broth. Desserts were less convincing, with my tropical fruits in pink champagne jelly too recently removed from the freezer, and Michael's crêpes Suzette, horror of horrors, arriving in a stodgy mass on the plate, instead of being prepared and flamed at the table as they should be. My third Sandy Lane meal, buffet lunch in the Seashell — `Lot 26, part of the iceberg... ' well prepared and a wide variety — gave me the chance to try Max's pasta, in this ease some exemplary penile all'arrabbiata. Taken all round, Sandy Lane certainly delivers the goods and will be much missed over the next 18 months.
Its nearest hotel rival is the long-estab- lished Cobblers Cove, a member of Relais et Châteaux, much smaller, with just 40 suites, and enthusiastically directed for its private owner by Hamish Watson. I dined there as his guest and much enjoyed chilled soup of christophene and mint (christophene is a small and hairy local veg- etable with a taste between marrow and cucumber), fresh pasta with mahogany- smoked chicken, and grenadine langouste served with ravioli containing lobster mous- seline, eaten on an airy terrace overlooking the sea.
Also good was the cooking at the Orchid Room of the rather larger Colony Club where I stayed. Here the chef, David Bowen, provided the Financial Times's Anthony Thorncroft with 'excellent' spicy stir-fried squid with chilli tomatoes, and me with fine scallops marinated in spiced citrus pulp, plus a delicious baby seafood terrine made of shrimps, scallops, and lobster in a white wine jelly with sauce gribiche. Our lobster in a saffron sauce and roast rack of lamb with ratatouille were equally com- mendable.
Another memorable fish was the roast barracuda which I ate at Sir Michael Mar- shall's intimate and characterful hotel, the Coral Reef Club, for lunch after a splendid buffet hors-d'ceuvre. There is no question that the leading Barbados hotels maintain remarkably high gastronomic standards, with wine choice to match. Supposedly one of the finest restaurants on the island is Cliff, also on the fashionable west coast, with its series of terraces descending to a patio by the sea. Here the Liverpudlian chef Paul Owens is apparently much influ- enced by Thai cookery, but when I dined there with Dr Louise Berry I found the cooking faintly pretentious and rather over- priced (more than £87 for two with just one glass of wine), though the tarte tatin with vanilla and pecan ice cream was exemplary.
Much better value, and tastier dishes, were to be had in the little Kitchen Korner in Hole Town, where I ate a most enjoyable lunch with the West Indies Cricket Board of Control president Stephen Camacho, his wife Alison (a true foodie), and two South Australian surgeons, Garth Fraser and Sue McCoy. We enjoyed such West Indian delights as chicken curry on dhal roti, and ended with an unforgettably wicked bread and butter pudding with brandy and butter- scotch sauce. Finally, returning to where I came in, 1 dined admirably after a Holders concert at Wendy Kidd's son Nick Whit- ing's stunningly designed Baku Club, where the food is again Thai-influenced but much cheaper than Cliffs, and where, with apolo- gies to Sue, the crab cakes were the real McCoy.