In Paradise, and in Dining Trouble


Photo by Mike Nizza

It was our first beach vacation, and I had a promise to keep to myself. Julie delivered us to paradise and made sure we had a hotel room. I'd bring good spirits and an Olympian determination to find the best meals possible. Only problem: we were in Aruba.

It's impossible to have a bad time on the beach, of course: white sands, hypnotically calm tides, and eternal winds that force the most obsessive preeners to abandon all hope that their hair will stay in place.

When hunger calls, though, things get complicated. Somewhere between the beach and the main drag, serenity turns to insanity. Restaurants stacked atop one another--a Benihana here, a Mexican place there--packed more culinary clichés per inch than Busch Gardens. It was enough for a gastronomic Network moment.

Not that I was taking myself (or my hair) too seriously after she gently reminded me to get off my high horse to embrace the fact that Aruba, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela, is a full-fledged member of the Caribbean time-share circuit.

Our lodestar appeared out of the blackness. With white lights too bright to be residential and too dim to be heavenly, Julie and I squinted to see what it was.

The island's ties to the Netherlands go back to the 1600s when Peter Stuyvesant paused before taking over Manhattan. Gouda cheese, for instance, is a favorite of local chefs, and supermarkets sell huge wheels of the stuff, among dozens of other Dutch products. The average temperature, by the way, is a cheese-melting 82 degrees.

On our first night, we shared a perfectly forgettable supper of swordfish and shrimp--we couldn't really taste the promised Aruban flavors--but the beachfront welcomed us and put two city refugees at ease.

Afterwards, we took a spin in the rental car, eager to leave behind the strip of high-rise hotels and find something intriguing yet completely unconnected to the Natalee Holloway affair, a tabloid craze in 2005. What we quickly found, though, was a road that ran through a villa ghost town and toward nowhere nice.

Just before I was going to urge a k-turn, our lodestar appeared out of the blackness. With white lights too bright to be residential and too dim to be heavenly, Julie and I squinted to see what it was. A hidden town on a hill? An alien spacecraft on shore leave (a Gouda/weather explanation, perhaps)?

After a few twists and turns up a hill, we arrived at the source of the intrigue, which ended up being the least alien place of all for a native New Yorker whose ancestors left Europe's boot around 1900: an Italian restaurant. We parked and went looking for a menu.


Photo by Mike Nizza

Behind us, the California Lighthouse, a charming white tower and now a leading tourist attraction (the prior king, the "Natural Bridge," collapsed in 2005). In front of us was its former keeper's house, now called La Trattoria el Faro Blanco Restaurant.

The cluttered parking lot, dented dumpsters, and an utterly empty dining room obscured something extraordinary not just in Aruba but anywhere: a back terrace that spilled to the edge of a cliff overlooking the entire coast and the rest of the island.

By getting lost, I had discovered the perfect place for one of my major goals--booking The Dinner That Would Give Her a Reason to Wear That New Dress. Even better, the lazy tourists ambling around Aruba's many all-inclusive resorts were nowhere to be seen. A place that could be ours alone.

Ready to place my first romantic bet of the week, I looked the maître d' right in the eyes and staked a claim to a table at 6 p.m. the following night, just before sunset. My mission was all but accomplished.


Photo by Mike Nizza

A full day at the beach later, I returned in island formalwear with my dolled-up date. Seated for mere seconds, it was clear that the sweeping view was actually far too windswept. Aruba's trademark winds were devilishly intense, prompting a string of unfortunate events. Diners lurched for departing napkins and wrestled with floppy leather-bound menus. Across the terrace, waiters strained to announce specials and rushed to secure table cloths with knots favored by sailors and boy scouts.

Neither of us was surprised when our bread basket took flight, though not before the rolls revealed themselves as freshly baked, if from frozen dough. What we didn't expect was the speed and agility of the waiter, who bravely responded to the Bread Basket Down before sending in reinforcements. He'd obviously endured dinner service in these harsh conditions many times before, though his color commentary could use some work. "So windy!" he mouthed before a shrug and a grin.

Still, there was no reason to retreat, even if as the sun disappeared and the sky turned wondrous shades of pink and purple I was briefly distracted by the iconic image of the helicopter hovering over the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. But she was having a good time as far as I could tell, rolling merrily with the punches as usual. Maybe it was her natural comfort in such conditions, having grown up on the cliffs of Palos Verdes, California. Maybe it was the very fact that things were not going as planned. Maybe, just maybe, it was the wine.


Photo by Mike Nizza

Not among the possible explanations was the food. Having neglected to actually read the menu before making the reservation, we were surprised that the pickings were slim.

I picked the highly recommended appetizer: a crepe stuffed with creamy shrimp and crusted with Parmesan (Bearnaise sauce has no place this far south, I thought as I scarfed it down. At least it was heavy enough to stay on the table). She ordered the Caesar salad, and gladly reduced it to a scattering of croutons. Very stale ones.

The closest we got to local cuisine were two pasta entrees: linguine with clams--rubbery buttons with a few shards of upsetting shell--and superjumbo shrimp in a tomato cream sauce. Once it was clear that we had found a candidate for Kitchen Nightmare with Gordon Ramsay, we should've called for the check. Instead, we saw potential redemption in dessert. We were wrong. At least I could safely order a cigar, thanks to a selection of Cubans on the menu. Attempting to light it, as you may have already guessed, was the last of the evening's bad ideas.


Photo by Mike Nizza

A few nights later, we left the beach for Oranjestad, the capital rich in Amsterdam references, to eat at Cuba's Cookin', a throwback to that country's glory days. The proud owner, who welcomes readers of his Web site with "warm Cuban regards," has a flair for fun, and not in an Applebee's sort of way.

Between bright yellow walls crowded with striking paintings of Latin faces, a jolly young man played the guitar and sang. At one seemingly random point, a few waitresses took up instruments as well. The menu offered things like "confusion de empanadas" and, more importantly, not a whiff of Gouda or Escoffier.

A dish described as the "national anthem of traditional Cuban cooking"--roast pork--was an easy choice, the "ceviche croquettes" a total gamble. How could they deliver on the promise of lime-soaked raw fish surrounded by a deep fried shell? Over the empty plate, I wondered whether we had finally found the perfect little bite after so many average ones on this island. She nodded, and the list of things I shall make for Julie grew by one.