The rattle of ice in cocktail shakers and sizzling of fresh ingredients in saucepans sent out the message loud and clear: October was a stellar month for Cayman’s culinary scene.

Cayman Cocktail Week saw the island’s top mixologists take us on a quaffable odyssey from Mexico to Italy via Hollywood.

Il Mercatino

Anchor & Den’s Il Mercatino event presented four courses of cocktail and food pairings, each dedicated to a different region of Italy. Bartender Luca Minasola was the exuberant host – one of several Italians in the Anchor & Den team.

“Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines … our secret to what makes it one of the best is the simplicity,” he explains. “Our idea was to convey that in any Italian mercatino [market] with little money you can find the best cheese, guanciale, eggplant, orange, ragout, and with a little imagination you can create the dishes you love.

“We all came up with the idea of embarking on this trip to the heart of Italy.”

From Rome, there was homemade linguine cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and a Bellini made with fresh peach purée – a classic combination immortalized in the 1960 movie “La Dolce Vita,” when director Federico Fellini is pictured dining in front of the Trevi Fountain. Reportedly, Fellini later declared: “The real dolce vita is cacio e pepe with Bellini in Rome.”

Then it was onto Milan for polenta and beef ragout with a Campari-based cocktail – its vibrant red shade nodding to the iconic Italian Ferrari – followed by Luca’s home city of Palermo for the Sicilian specialty arancina (risotto croquette) and a cocktail representing the region’s abundant citrus groves, blending fresh orange and limoncello with Tanqueray gin.

Finally, diners had a taste of Naples with an eggplant parmigiana and glass of Terredora Greco di Tufo, a fresh white wine offering notes of apple, honey and peach. Even the menus for Il Mercatino resembled vintage postcards of Italian landmarks.

Luca – who is called “Mr. Negroni” by his fellow bartenders, after the popular Italian cocktail – says the format may evolve into a regular event, given the positive feedback.

Out of the Kitchen

Lip-smacking events also took place at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on Oct. 26. Out of the Kitchen, presented by the Cayman Culinary Society and Slow Food South Sound, brought together restaurants such as The Wharf, the Cracked Conch and Blue Cilantro to raise funds for the Cayman Islands Red Cross and Marriott Disaster Relief Fund – specifically, their hurricane relief efforts in the Eastern Caribbean. The team estimates that US$75,000 was raised from the evening.

Each restaurant hosted a table and prepared three-course menus tableside in The Ritz-Carlton’s Ballroom. There was one prerequisite: local callaloo had to feature somewhere on their menu.

Andiamo, The Ritz-Carlton’s Italian restaurant, chose to make a garlic sautéed callaloo with skirt steak, preceded by a watermelon gazpacho, and lobster tail with creamy fettucine pasta.

In a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ films, this delicate beverage was dubbed the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Punch.

“It’s always exciting to cook live in front of people,” says Chef Crystal Marshall, who was part of the Seven team. “We had a very talented team with us, who I am happy to say volunteered all of their time. You never know what will or could happen. But you make it work. It’s part of the fun of being a chef.”

Her colleague, Chef Reynaldo Santosa, adds: “A pop-up restaurant is not easy, because of the different set up, and limited access to equipment.”

Taking farm-to-table to the nth degree, Cayman Cabana offered a “locavore” menu of coconut ceviche, followed by plantain-wrapped callaloo with tomato coulis and scotch bonnet vinaigrette, and a main course of red snapper market catch with toasted callaloo quinoa and escovitch mango. The vegetables were sourced from farmer Clarence McLaughlin and the fish from the George Town fish market. There was even a “Conscious Cocktail” – a local watermelon and mint mojito.

“Our menu was designed to shine a spotlight on beautiful, fresh and locally sourced ingredients, offering a carnival of flavors and positive energy and vibes for our special guests,” explains Cabana’s owner, Luigi Moxam. “There’s something truly special about food and fellowship, and this event was truly that: amazing and giving people, coming together from all walks of life, to support an amazing cause in support of our sister Caribbean islands.”

Following a week of behind-the-scenes competitions, a bevy of Cayman Culinary Society awards were announced at Out of the Kitchen. Nicolas Sanchez of Seven Restaurant scooped the accolade of Chef of the Year, while Cory Scruggs of Sunshine Grill was named Bartender of the Year. The Philip Pratt Memorial Trophy for all-round skills went to Yara’s Dimuth Munasingha, Best of Show to Prabhakaran Mathiyalagan from The Westin, and an emerging talent was recognized in Best Student Dalesha Hurlston, who attends UCCI. Lenny Hew was lauded with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

After a live auction that saw chefs and diners in a bidding frenzy for culinary experiences, the evening drew to a sweet close with a buffet of delicate desserts prepared by The Ritz-Carlton’s Melissa Logan (Taste of the Caribbean’s Pastry Chef of the Year, 2017).

Agave to Glass

Upstairs in The Ritz-Carlton Culinary Studio, Cayman Cocktail Week held its sell-out Agave to Glass workshop. Led by Don Julio master distiller Enrique De Colsa, guests were treated to four different tequila expressions along with Mexican food pairings.

Agua and Tarantino

Agua Restaurant’s food-and-cocktail pairing dinner has become something of a Cocktail Week mainstay. This year, the team looked to cinema for inspiration, paying homage to the films of Quentin Tarantino.

At color-coded tables named after characters from “Reservoir Dogs,” five courses of witty movie-themed delicacies included chocolate bullets and “Inglourious Basterds” apple strudel. Taking cues from “Pulp Fiction,” there were Bulleit Bourbon-laced shakes, Big Kahuna burgers (a fictional fast-food joint in the movie) and syringes of alcohol. “Kill Bill” Tempura shrimp was paired with a Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Punch. Belying its gruesome name, this was a tasty blend of Tanqueray gin, lemon juice, tarragon, thyme mint and Champagne.

Restaurant Month

Adding an extra helping to this period of feasting was Cayman Restaurant Month, which saw dozens of restaurants offering special menu deals through October. It’s safe to say that many of us have now had to loosen our belts a notch or two.

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