His Caribbean flavors are right at home
ST. GEORGE'S, GRENADA - The deck at B.B.'s Crabback in Grenada hovers 10 feet above the leeward facing harbor along the Carenage in the capital city, St. George's. Located at the far end of Wharf Road, where seafaring businesses and prim European-style government buildings date back to the early 19th century, this spacious, no-frills restaurant has a laid-back island vibe with simple wood tables, a white tile floor, and tan and Caribbean blue walls sporting jaunty hats of woven palm fronds and graffiti testimonials.
Although the atmosphere is relaxed, the same can't be said of B.B.'s authentic and intensely flavorful Caribbean cuisine. As round paper lanterns sway in the salty breeze, it's hard to imagine a better spot to enjoy Grenadian dishes such as callaloo soup (callaloo is like spinach, but heartier), barbecued lambi (conch), or a piquant goat curry with coconut milk.
B.B. is Brian Benjamin, a London-trained chef who as a young boy learned traditional Caribbean cooking in his grandmother's Grenadian home. Benjamin later earned his cooking degree and became sous-chef at the Renaissance London Heathrow Hotel, then called the Heathrow Penta. It was there he met Anna, the human resources manager, whom he eventually married. They now manage B.B.'s Crabback as a team, with Anna in the front of the house and Brian as chef.
This isn't their first joint venture. The original B.B.'s Crabback began in London. "I wanted to do my own thing, which is Caribbean cooking with proper Caribbean food. Everyone told us it would never work," says Brian Benjamin. The couple couldn't get a bank loan but they managed to open anyway. At first, they had to throw food away for lack of customers. They persevered and eventually received good reviews, twice becoming the "Critics Choice" in Time Out London.
After 13 years, they decided it was time for a change. When the 2007 Cricket World Cup was scheduled to be held in his native Grenada, Benjamin - a huge cricket fan - proposed moving their business and their twin daughters back to his island home. "It was like a pipe dream," says Anna Benjamin. "We used to go to Grenada on holidays but now we live here."
Located 100 miles north of Venezuela, just south of the Grenadines, Grenada is often called the Spice Island. In fact, before Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004, Grenada was second only to Indonesia as the largest producer of nutmeg in the world. (The crop takes eight years to return to full productivity.)
According to Brian Benjamin, the secret to cooking in Grenada is using fresh food. "The fresher the better," he says. "You have to get it fresh every day and use it fresh."
He's not kidding. He avoids the local fish market because the morning offerings are caught the previous night. Instead, a fisherman brings his daily catch to the restaurant every afternoon and it's served a few hours later.
At some point every evening Benjamin bounds from the kitchen to meet his customers. Don't be surprised if, in his limitless enthusiasm, he pulls you to a counter near the kitchen that's overflowing with locally grown herbs, fruits, and vegetables. He delights in teaching visitors about the island's abundant offerings: yams, cocoa, plantains, limes, ginger, lemongrass, golden apple (like lychee) coffee, tamarind, chili peppers, green and orange jelly coconuts, manzano (an apple banana), sweet banana, seasoning pepper (looks a bit like a scotch bonnet but not spicy), okra, gospo (an orange and lime hybrid), thyme, nutmeg, coconut, callaloo, and borden leaf, Benjamin's favorite herb, used in stews, curries, rice dishes, and tea.
As for the island's best-known crop, nutmeg, Benjamin uses it sparingly. "It has a strong dominant flavor. I blend it with other spices to make a curry paste."
B.B.'s Crabback's signature dish - fresh crabmeat baked in the back of its shell with wine, herbs, and cheese - is sublime, and so is the callaloo soup, made with okra and the big heart-shape leaves of callaloo. "It's very simple to make. The world has become smaller for ingredients that you need," says the chef.
The result, as proclaimed in big red letters in the restaurant, is "BB-Licious."
B.B.'s Crabback, Progress House, St. George's, Grenada, 473-435-7058, www.bbscrabback.com.