Eating In Aruba

As promised, here's the scoop on dining in Aruba. As it turns out, Aruba is not much of a foodie destination.

I had heard that this or that restaurant was good when I mentioned to people I was going to Aruba, but what I found was not up to my standards.

I researched a ton of restaurants ahead of time, memorized the ones I wanted to go to, made reservations at a couple, and just hoped I'd happen upon some other good ones while there -- maybe diamonds in the rough, which, by the way, Aruba seems to have plenty of diamonds, but not many "food gems."

All in all, we (my boyfriend and I) decided the food experience was very lacking and very overpriced. It's good to have his opinion as well, to balance mine, because I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to restaurant food, but we were in agreement on every bite.

The first place we tried was L.G. Smith's Steak & Chop House.

It was close to our hotel, which made it a perfect choice for our first night on the island. We left unimpressed. This may have been our own faults. Wanting to be like Julia Child, I ordered the sole meuniere. Julia and I did not have similar experiences. My boyfriend got the night's special: mahi mahi. Maybe we should have ordered steaks or chops. The fish was just okay -- I actually enoyed the mixed vegetables that came with my sole much better than the main element of the dish, perhaps because they were well salted.

The worst part of the meal was dessert. We ordered chocolate cake, which can only be described as a Sara Lee chocolate layer cake, removed from its box and set on a countertop a week before serving. It was so dry.

The best place I ate at all week was El Gaucho, also near our hotel in Oranjestad. A friend from college recommended I check it out if I liked steak, and all it took was the word steak to prompt me to make a reservation. And I'm so glad I did.

We couldn't get the best picture because of the dim lighting in the restaurant, but each El Gaucho steak (16 oz!) came with three sides. We got broccoli with garlic and olive oil, smashed red potatoes, and fried plaintains. (My boyfriend actually ordered corn on the cob, but they messed up and gave him plaintains too. His went uneaten.)

And dessert was just as good as the meal! My boyfriend had the Dutch apple pie.

And I ordered fried cheesecake. What better way to top off the 13 ounces of steak I polished off (had to leave a little to gnaw on the next day). The outside was warm and crunchy, and the inside was a fairly light cheesecake. It wasn't soaked in oil or overly heavy like you'd expect something "fried" to be.

We had to have dinner at La Trattoria - el Faro Blanco at the California Lighthouse.

We had heard that the food wasn't so great but the atmosphere was worth experiencing. And it was a very pretty restaurant with a beautiful view.

We could have (and should have) just gone for drinks and watched the sunset, but we decided to give the food a shot. Bad decision. We shared an appetizer of beef carpaccio, which should have been called deli-sliced roast beef salad. I couldn't believe the meat when I saw it.

And the experience grew worse with dinner and dessert. I tried to order something simple, something difficult to screw up, and went with pasta with prosciutto, onions, and tomato sauce. Unimpressive. My boyfriend ordered veal parmesan, which was ok, but not too flavorful. I could have made those dishes much better in my own kitchen.

I started thinking that I could be a restaurant consultant. This place obviously draws a crowd, as it's pretty much the best spot to see the sunset, so it's not lacking money. Why not cut down the menu, focus on making a few really great dishes, and put a little more money into the ingredients? "Why not?" my boyfriend said, "Because they don't have to." In my opinion, that's a crappy attitude. But I am an overacheiver, and I do like to be the best at everything. It's sad that such a beautiful restaurant wouldn't feel the same way. Is it really just about the profit? Shouldn't it be about leaving people stunned and happily satisfied with their meals?

On our last night, we had a reservation at Madame Janette's. We drove around for an hour and a half trying to find the restaurant, asked a handful of people for help finding it (no one knew where it was), and tried calling for directions (no one picked up the phone). Sadly, we missed our reservation. I had it in my head that Madame Janette's would be our best meal, which is why I wanted to dine there on our last night.

That didn't work out so we ended up at Papiamento instead. We were tired, I was frustrated, and we were hungry, so when the host said he could seat us right away if we didn't mind sitting inside, we accepted. (Apparently, inside is NOT the place to be, as some spoiled teenager threw a fit to her father about NEEDING to wait to sit outside because inside was too hot while we were placing our order. Inside temperature was perfect, and we could see everything happening outside from our table.)

We had a gorgeous table. The inside atmosphere had kind of an old world feel. Everything was lacy and antique-looking.

We shared French onion soup topped with Gouda to start. The broth was well-seasoned and heartier than any other onion soups I've had, and the Gouda gave it the Dutch touch you'd expect in Aruba.

For dinner, my boyfriend ordered the T-bone with grilled peppers. It came served on a hot stone. It's a very nice idea, but as the steak sits on the hot stone, it keeps cooking. A rare-steak lover, I would have had to gobble it down quickly.

I ordered chicken in garlic cream sauce. I'm still not sure why I ordered chicken; I'm usually more adventurous. I thought the dish was just okay, until I grabbed the bunch of basil garnishing the dish (maybe I should have used that rosemary too), ripped it up, and tossed it on the chicken. Then I cut a piece of chicken and scooped up some rice and sauce with it and had a delicious mouthful. I proceeded to eat the whole dish like this, stopping to taste the melon served with capers and the unidentifiable (but very good) mashed vegetable on the side.

And since we don't give up easily, we once again ordered chocolate cake for dessert (a little of this has to do with our difficulty in agreeing on desserts). This time we were happy. The cake was moist and fudgy, as a good chocolate cake should be.

We mostly went to Aquarius (the restaurant in the adjacent hotel) for breakfast because you can't really go wrong with a buffet and made-to-order omelettes and waffles. But every so often we would venture to another place, like on our last morning. We decided to try out the nearby Dutch Pancake House.

The service was lousy, but the food, when we finally got it, wasn't too bad.

My boyfriend ordered a crepe with bacon, eggs, and cheese. I was expecting a crepe filled with bacon, eggs, and cheese. But they actually incorporated the filling into the crepe. It was very interesting, a little salty (the bacon was more like ham), but tasty overall.

I ordered the strawberry fields -- a crepe with fresh strawberries and ice cream. I kept my fingers crossed that the strawberries really were fresh (we didn't have much luck with fruit platters on this trip), and they were!

And we split a plate of adorable profiterjes. They were like little pancakes coated in cinnamon and topped with some butter and powdered sugar.

And a note on the coffee...

One of the worst things was the coffee. There are no little coffee shops, and the only chain is Dunkin' Donuts. I don't do Dunkin'; I'm a Starbucks girl. But I was so desperate for my coffee fix (it really is more about the coffee than the caffeine) that I gave it one last try. And I've once again decided I just don't like the taste of burnt coffee, and I can't stomach it. (And besides that, have you ever given some thought to what "America Runs On Dunkin'" really means? I'm glad Starbucks doesn't have a slogan about bathroom habits. Although I must say, I love my Quaker, and Quaker has now come out with "Go humans go." Unintentional? I think not. We all know what oats are good for.)

The coffee served at the restaurants was decent, but several restaurants served a yellowish liquid, which when we asked, they said was cream. Not buying it.

I miss the sunshine, but I'm so happy to be back home with my Breville and my Starbucks... and all the Boston-area restaurants and my own kitchen!