In the restaurant business, January is generally the worst month of the year sales wise, and I often take advantage of the slow down by traveling to reset and think about strategy for the new year. The bitter cold has not helped any, except for prompting me to head south rather than to another cold weather city.
I looked at many an island for deals, until a tip from a friend steered me toward the Dominican Republic. My father hails from La Patria and still resides there, raising roosters for cock fights, the subject better left for a therapist than blog exploration.
I spent many summers, semana santas (holy weeks), carnivals, and Christmas vacations there, but admittedly have fallen out of love with DR since the rapid modernization and North American influences. I prefer the third world pace, the lack of technology, no internet feeds, no fast food franchises, and especially am distressed over the amount of mopeds, traffic, tourists and the resortification of the land’s most pristine beaches.
The last time I stepped into Dominican waters was for the turn of the century, spending part time in a resort area and time at my father’s farm home near Palenque, the beach I spent so much time on as a boy. Our family would sleep on the beach over night for several days, eating locally caught snapper and pressed fried plantains, drinking Presidente beer by day and Ron Brugal rum by night, sleeping under a blanket of stars and moonshine.
Jetblue has direct flights to Samana, in the north, leaving just a taxi ride (albeit expensive) away from some of the island’s best beaches. I was hooked up to a beach house rental at Residencia Portillo in Bahia Portillo, near the French and Italian habitated town of Las Terrenas, just modern enough to get to the outside world, and remote enough to be secluded and relatively untouched from it all.
The beaches are relatively private, untraveled save for the curious beachwalkers from the nearby resort, the only one in Portillo, leaving long tracts of untouched white sand and calm waters patrolled only by the adopted stray dogs who beachcomb and make friends as if out of a Disney film.
On my first day on the lounge chair a black dog came to me and gave me his paw for a shake, while his two furry friends burrowed behind my lounge seat back for the refuge of cool shade.
The house I rented belongs to a sports agent, ranch style comfort with mosquito screens for windows, complete with pool, bbq pit and doorway to a two minute jaunt to the beach, making the decision of pool vs. beach the daily chore. There is a wrap around porch with various sitting and lounging stations, including my favorite the mesadora (rocking chair), and an open kitchen.
What made the trip, as if all of these other factors and the 80 degree weather weren’t enough, is the availability of a Dominican cook and her sidekick who takes care of the house and any needs. Belkis made Dominican dishes for a week straight, and the food was so delicious, it brought me back to all those meals my mother and our live in cook used to prepare for us when I was young. The simplicity of criolla cuisine, the marriage of Spanish and European techniques with the bounty of island ingredients, cooked with love and care, is what no resort can ever produce.
The woman with great touch is named Belkis, a local who has been cooking for people at their homes for years. I studied her techniques, how she should would add a chinola to this recipe, why she would not flour her fish, etc. and learned a great deal.
I went out with Margarito (house caretaker and our guide) on the second day to do all the shopping for the week. We hit the Euro supermarket for butter, olive oil, jamon, queso and water. Also some rose and white wines (not a great selection) and rhums, what DR is known for. Of to the fruit market, and for 20 bucks, I was able to but a lot of fruits and vegetables, pineapples, grapefruits, chinolsa, zapote, lechosa etc. All made breakfast so complete and balanced. Eggs, mangu, and onions, longaniza, coco bread, and pastries from the French Boulangerie rounded out the morning 10 am desayunos.
For lunch we made fruit shakes, from pina coladas (fresh coco and pina) to mamey and papaya shakes, and noshed on cheese and jamon.
Then 7 pm would roll around. and Belkis would arrive in her moped, in order to prepare one of many outstanding home cooked Dominican meals.
Belkis made sancocho, a kitchen sink soup, that lasted for days and seemed like a bottomless pot. One night she cooked fresh caught lobsters, with a garlic, ginger butter sauce. The next night snappers, fried with green plantains and rice. One night pigeon peas, the next red beans, the next black beans. No tiring of beans and rice and plantains. One night Margarito manned the bbq pit with entrecote, and marinated adobo chocken, and longaniza sauasgaes. Shrimp criolla sautéed and stuffed into plantains shaped like baskets, a stew of different parts of pork products mixed with rice. Seven days, 14 oustanding Dominican dishes.
We went out on the Friday night before our flight, and the only thing the restos had over the house was that they were situated on the beach. We visited a wine bar called Cave across from La Bodega(Town Discotech) in la Plaza, and had some good wine listening to French driven tunes the likes you might hear out of the old Pere Pinard on Ludlow St. Some bachata and merengue at Mosquito bar, where watching the locals get picked up by the retired cougars and tigers respectively made for some great entertainment, enough to drum up some appetite for pica pollo and chimchurri, late nite Dominican street vendor fast food to knock the edge of the rum.
There was just enough left over sancocho to get rid of any resaca (hangover), and to fortify us for the breathtaking ride into the airport gazing at mountain and ocean vistas of La Patria, panaromic snapshots that endured the delayed entry into JFK, the snowstorm, and the complete transportation disaster that awaitd us back in chilly, homey, New York City.