When is a meal more than a meal? When it is a communal gathering of family and friends.
You can sit at a lovely table, with a gorgeous view, and have the best meal in the world but if there is no one around to share it with, no one to talk with as you eat, then, what’s the point?
Good food is nourishment for the body. Good companionship while eating it is nourishment for the soul.
Oh, lord, I could go on and on. These are some of the thoughts that crossed my mind while sharing a remarkable lunch with a great group of folks at the new Pier 366 Seafood House at Banyan Bay Resort on the south side of San Pedro Town, here in Belize.
Pier 366 is the new bistro on the dock, site of the former Rico’s about which I can only tell you that it was in a very dark red building and many people said they served good ceviche. Rico’s never blipped on my radar, being mostly a north-of-the-bridge kind of guy. But the name always made me think of a hangout for cigar-chewing dislocated Jersey mobsters who might have fled here after the fall of Havana.
The only trace of Rico’s, if I got the story right, is the ceviche, which has been improved considerably by Chef Garfield Victor through the infusion of pure coconut milk, Barbados-style, to round off the spiky edges.
Chef Garfield presented a tasting lunch for a small group of us yesterday. He was the maestro for our meal and Banyan Bay managing partner Andrew Ashcroft was master of ceremonies. The arena was the new communal table on Pier 366’s deck, a gorgeous single slab of mahogany around which 10 diners can gather.
Before we get to the meal, if you haven’t been by Pier 366, you owe it to yourself to stop by, just to admire the changes. First off, the exteriors are now whitewash, with casual furniture artfully imagined from salvaged pier remains savaged by Hurricane Earl. It is weathered, light looking and heavy as can be. There is a rough timber gazebo that is filled with swinging seats and tables, the perfect setting as you await the call for dinner. On the beach is a new bar which can serve the same purpose.
All of it is comfortable and beckoning. Which is the whole point of the makeover. Pier 366 aims to be one of the great places on Ambergris Caye to hang out with family and friends, sip a drink, dine, converse and just devour the glorious Caribbean lightness of it all.
The focal point of Pier 366 is the communal table. Some nights during the week, it will be used as the Chef’s Tasting Table, to which the personable and pleasantly efficacious Garfield Victor will bring his insider’s take on the fare being served. It is a fun experience. Every time Chef Garfield came out trailed by staff bearing deliciousness I kept thinking, “Man, Forest Whitaker should play him in the ‘Pier 366’ movie. They share that gentle bear demeanor and instant likability.
Andrew Ashcroft expressed hope that the Chef’s Table would be a feature no less than four nights a week, perhaps more during High Season.
At other times, the grand table makes a great communal setting for any large group where meals can be served family style.
As you can perhaps see already, Pier 366 Seafood House aims to be a dining event, a touch of pageantry, that elevates the experience.
It starts at the entrance, where the ever-changing catch-of-the-day board lists the evening’s fare and prices. In Belize dollars. You can pick off the board or from the iced-down display inside the restaurant. Your host will suggest a number of ways to prepare your fish — blackened, grilled, Jamaican jerked, Asian-styled “En Papillotte,” fried and Creole — whew! And after your selection you can retire to the gazebo lounge swings with a drink or head for your table.
Side dishes are extra and ample and served family-style.
There is a regular menu that offers plenty of a la carte options if you are not planning on choosing seafood — including salads, Angus patty burgers, pasta and baby-back ribs, steaks and more.
Our meal began with roasted shrimp served in a small shaved-wood boat, accompanied by a citrus dressing and avocado and cucumber garnish. I’m going to use the word delicious here and then try to refrain from repeating myself. This meal in general was delicious. Each course was a blend of flavors that are inspired in part by local fare and by Chef Garfield’s 15-year culinary journey that began in his native Barbados, followed by tutelage under Chef Marco Pierre White at the Michelin-starred Mirabelle Restaurant in London, and continuing in fine restaurants in St. Lucia, Jamaica, British Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos before being recruited by Andrew to open Pier 366.
What started as a short consulting stint has become a full-time almost monastic avocation for Chef Garfield. According to Andrew, the chef arrives at 6 a.m. and rarely leaves before the last guest is served in the evening. His meticulous attention to culinary detail is well demonstrated in the dishes served yesterday. Even as they were being laid out on the table, Chef Garfield was making last second adjustments to presentation.
Some dishes were artfully traditional, like the escargot plate, each morsel afloat in its own pool of creamy butter and garlic sauce. That was followed by the Caribbean-lilt ceviche, individual servings also in shaved-wood boats.
This was followed by platters of coconut fried shrimp and crab cakes, accompanied by dipping saucers of pina colada sauce and mango chipotle sauce. Chef insists on fresh-shaved coconut flakes on his dishes.
The main course was a triumvirate of deliciousness — platters of lobster tail, jerk chicken and fish fillets, each in a distinctive sauce that enhanced the natural flavors and challenged preconceived notions of these traditional dishes. These were accompanied by family-style servings of plantain, asparagus and beets and, oh heck, I’ve got to say it — the sides were delicious, mouth watering richness to the beets and asparagus especially.
The finale was a lightly rummed-up banana cake, topped with caramelized bits of banana for taste, and with a side-car of homemade vanilla ice cream. A great finish on a panoply of Caribbean flavors.
“Desert, for me is the climax of the rest of the show,” said Chef Garfield. “It need not be complex but should compliment what you have just had for dinner.”
Amen to that.
Pier 366 will be hosting its first New Year’s Eve dinner, a six-course tasting menu. Here’s what is on tap: