The Best Restaurant in the World is in Aruba

The last time I traveled with someone else’s family it was to South Padre Island in Texas some time in the nineties. Her dad and mom sat up front in his teal pick up truck. The truck had pink pin striping and we drove along blasting top 40’s from the country charts. We ate bologna and Miracle Whip sandwiches at rest areas on the way. I will never be able to un-see his white-man’s Jerry curled mullet. It goes without saying that from then on I preferred travel with my own family or better yet, by myself. 

Zeerover's Dining Room

 

Twenty years later and it’s February as fuck in New York and my seasonal depression is full blown. I’m invited to go to Aruba with a friend who’s been going every year with her family for as long as she can remember. I don’t hesitate. I don’t think about bologna sandwiches. I think about frozen cocktails with too much sugar but just enough parasols in them. It isn’t until I’m in a cab from the airport in Oranjestad to the hotel and I’m passing by TWO monstrous cruise-liners docked and presumably spilling retirement aged, orange skinned tourists looking to purchase gold by the pound all over the place that my anxiety specific to this kind of scenario creeps back. I’ve flown here on a whim and haven’t had a moment to put together my usual well researched Google map of landmarks and culinary gems to hit up. We pass a Pizza Hut. Fuck. Where am I even? This is not the off the beaten path Instagrammer’s paradise I romanticized on my flight down. It’s possible my friend has a spidey-sense about these things because she greets me with cocktail when I arrive. At least there’s rum. And sun. And wifi. Right. I shake it off. 

 

Piñas

The next morning, I wake up with a renewed resolve to keep an open mind. Adventure at all costs. I’ve gotten over my misgivings about traveling with other families. The evening before was spent somewhat ridiculously cooking a birthday meal of shrimp scampi for a friend of the family. It’s tradition I’m told. Blunt knives and limited kitchen utensils be damned. I’m the new kid so I’m at the stove wearing a beach towel as an apron and drinking most of the cooking wine. I like this family. Theres no Miracle Whip in sight and no one has a mullet.

 

We decide to rent a car and get on the road. I’ve learned about a natural pool deep within Aruba’s Arikok National Park just set back from the ocean. What’s it called when it’s off the un-beaten path? This is exactly what I need. The further we drive from the Starbucks flanked by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada the more I feel like this is my kind of island. Plus: cactuses. Big ones. And everywhere. It turns out that Aruba is a desert island and the landscape as a result is quite dramatic. My Southwestern roots are happy here. Arikok Park however is a bit of a challenge to find. Aruba’s roads are inconsistently labeled so we make do with a map from rental car place which is really more interested in guiding us to pirate themed booze cruises than remote natural wonders. We finally arrive at the entrance of the park after more than a few wrong turns. It should be said that there are plenty of tours offered to this (and many other areas) of Aruba but I harbor a particular fondness for getting lost among palms and ferns and cacti. 

Eagle Beach

 

We realize we’ve made one critical error: the pool can only be accessed by 4X4 or via a somewhat treacherous 4 mile hike. I look mournfully back at the compact Toyota sedan we’ve been bouncing around in. Not gonna cut it. I’m wearing sandals. We have no water and my breakfast of half a dragon and passion fruit while fresh and delicious, isn’t exactly hiking food. And now I’m hungry. Actually hangry. Disappointed and in need of sustenance or at least, an ice cold beer. 

 

Roadside Coco

Friend tells me she knows about a waterside place that serves fried fish and beer. We just have to find it. It’s called Zeerover she tells me. Weird name. Not exactly confidence inspiring but my hanger is calling the shots so we get back on the road. It’s not Pizza Hut. So I’m skeptical, but game.  It takes an hour and a few stops to ask locals if they’ve heard of this place and where is it? Responses are a mixed bag. The place we’re looking for I’ve decided after the third inquisition, is actually frying unicorns and not fish and no one wants to talk about it. There are roadside coconuts to sip on, then scoop out in the mean time but I’m starting to get seriously freaked out that my meals on this island will be as disappointing as my non-trip to the natural pool when, after driving down what appears to be the same road for the fifth time, theres a barely visible sign, more of a weather-worn banner: Zeerover. 

 

Zeerover

I park the car like I’m mad at it (I am due to Arikok debacle) and pop over to a line that’s a bit longer than I anticipated. Confidence renewed. There’s a menu of about 5 items: catch(es) of the day, pickled onion, fried plantains, cornbread, fries. It’s…perfect. You order your fish by the piece or by weight. Wahoo, Snapper, Barracuda, Kingfish, plump, succulent shrimp as big as your thumb all caught that morning. You can tell because the small fishing boats line the docks which make up Zeerover’s al fresco dining room in back. A quick trip around the corner to grab a bucket of local beers (Balashi over Amstel Bright if you’re doing it right) and we scoop up a table by the water. When I say “by the water” I don’t mean that there is a body of water within my sight. I mean that I’m dangling my feet over the dock, dipping them into the crystal clear Caribbean drinking a beer while I wait for our fish to get fried up. Seagulls squawk and bicker over leftover fish bones. Palm fronds sway in the breeze. The ocean slaps against the bows of fishing boats. The soundtrack too is perfect. Our food arrives, heaping in a plastic bowl the color of the ocean. Simply fried (read: un-breaded and un-greasy) and perfectly seasoned. A few lime wedges on the side and the islands local papaya based hot sauce are really the only things you need in addition. Forks if you’re fancy. Fingers if you’re me. 

Fish @ Zeerover

I think about the Michelin guide. How does it work again? One star for “a very good restaurant in its category”, two for “excellent food, worth a detour” and three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. Given this criteria, Zeerover is ostensibly a three star Michelin restaurant. I went back in the time I was there. I had to. And I’ve vowed to return to Aruba for a “special journey”, dragging friends with me, ripping past the tourist mecca of Orajenstad, in a 4X4 this time (lessons learned), to Zeerover, chasing the perfection of this place, this island and this restaurant. How often do we truly happen upon experiences that put us in touch with our humanity so accutely? It doesn’t happen at Prada I don’t think. But it does at Zeerover.

This essay appears in the latest issue of  Counter Service  as one of it's  Cabin Service  features.  " Cabin Service is our new feature where we’ll tell our stories about the dining, drinking and antics we get up to when we travel: dancing and singing shamelessly to Despacito on the way to late-night Posole in CDMX, that thing of when a guy shoves a live crawfish in your mouth in a Korean fish market so you bite into it because it’s a him-or-you kinda moment, or knowing that sometimes the best Poutine in Montreal is the one closest to you, even if that means it’s from McDonald’s." To read and subscribe to Counter Service, head to  www.counterservice.us

This essay appears in the latest issue of Counter Service as one of it's Cabin Service features. "Cabin Service is our new feature where we’ll tell our stories about the dining, drinking and antics we get up to when we travel: dancing and singing shamelessly to Despacito on the way to late-night Posole in CDMX, that thing of when a guy shoves a live crawfish in your mouth in a Korean fish market so you bite into it because it’s a him-or-you kinda moment, or knowing that sometimes the best Poutine in Montreal is the one closest to you, even if that means it’s from McDonald’s." To read and subscribe to Counter Service, head to www.counterservice.us

Montauk: Winter Landscapes + Lunches

In keeping with my incredible timing, I’m writing this post about photographing beaches in Montauk in the winter on the first day of spring.  As I’m sure is at least a little obvious from my previous post, I am definitely not cool enough to make weekly pilgrimages to the Hamptons in the summer. This is mostly because I don’t super love rosé and my legs are too gangly and long to gracefully get in or out of those super cute inflatable swans without totally capsizing. Also- my barely repressed agoraphobia. All my personal flaws aside, I have been a handful of times and despite my cynicism, really enjoyed it. Here is why: 1. Lobsters 2. Sunset motorcycle rides along the beach 3. Roadside farmer’s markets 4. That impossible coupling of a yearning nostalgia for a certain Americana with the raw freshness and vigor of the potential energy of summer which only manifests itself in the most special of places.

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The authenticity that this place manages to exude despite literal trains of generic party-hungry weekenders unloading weekly onto its otherwise peaceful beaches is a testament to its integrity to its own particular identity. But integrity isn’t a seasonal affliction so when asked to photograph the winter scenery in Montauk for an upcoming Manhattan restaurant taking inspirational cues from experiences had “out east” I hit the road with a super heavy old Mamiya, a shit load of film and fifty percent less clothing than I should have worn.

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There are a couple of things I didn’t anticipate. To start, tripods in sand dunes are real tricky. I wanted to feel like Ansel Adams (don’t we all). Instead I felt like I was doing a dysfunctional tango with a three legged man. A monopod would have been a way less idiotic choice. Next time. Then, getting bamboozled by a frigid wave. The pristine stillness of the landscape there in the winter is deceptive. The ocean won (it always does). My Chuck Taylor’s lost. Also, traffic - both pedestrian and vehicular. Granted this was the week before Christmas but it was town after (festively decorated) town showing serious signs of life. It was nice to see that the appeal of this place reached passed fair-weather tourism. Also I felt instantly more confident about my lunch options!

Finally, lunch! While it’s usually against my better judgement to order food from a bar (especially one named Shagwongs) that isn’t fried, how could I justify being all the way out in Montauk, at the End of the World, and not ordering the local oysters? Begin tangent: historically oysters are the Northern seaboard’s quintessential bar food and I feel strongly that we’re really fucking up the whole experience by gentrifying it with our precious forks and our lemongrass infused mignonette. For more on this, please refer to Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster. Thank me later. End tangent. So, the oysters, Montauk Pearls, are the real reason I fell in love with Montauk in the winter. Bright. Crisp, Just briney enough, just sweet enough. Perfect. So perfect that I was doing that shocked, wide-eyed breathy chuckle thing people do when they’re completely thrown and bewildered by the simple perfection of a bite of food. Having spent the day among the dunes wrestling with the austerity of the weather and the winter landscape, it amazed me how acutely all of that had been distilled into these small bites. Behind me, the bartender pointed out the oyster farmer drinking a beer and himself having a dozen; a tall man, skin lightly windburned wearing a Carhart, worn but still hanging on, as they do. It would have been a perfect portrait but he, like I had been, seemed too ensconced in the transcendence of the oysters in front of him that I couldn’t justify interrupting. Some things are sacred. I feel very much that Montauk in the winter is one of them.