PROVIDENCIALES — “I say, if you can’t beat them, let’s eat them.” Chef Wolfgang von Wieser, of Grace Bay Resorts in Turks and Caicos, is talking about the flamboyantly finned lionfish that have invaded Caribbean waters, multiplying at alarming rates and voraciously feeding on native species. “They’re delicious,” he adds, and assures us that only the removed spine of the fish contains venom. Yes, the fish can be poisonous.
He’s prepared coconut-crusted lionfish piccata with a cucumber salsa. We carefully nibble small pieces of the fish. The firm, white meat is mild, slightly buttery, and delicious. Thankfully, there are no immediate side effects, and we finish it all.
Later that evening we dine on locally caught Caribbean reef octopus and a stew filled with spiny lobsters, lionfish, conch, and island-grown vegetables at von Wieser’s chic, open-air Infiniti restaurant. Right on the ocean, with what is said to be the longest infinity bar in the world, it is considered one of the finest restaurants in the islands, known for showcasing local seafood and produce.
It wasn’t that long ago that if you were looking for a good meal in Turks and Caicos, you’d have to get invited into a local home. Today, this beachy island chain, home to the renowned Caribbean Food & Wine Festival, has one of the hottest culinary scenes in the Caribbean. World-class resorts have brought in world-class chefs, and a local culinary mentoring program trains budding cooks and restaurateurs.
“We have a local community that is very passionate about food, with some of the finest offerings in the Caribbean today,” says Nikheel Advani, co-chairman of the festival. “Tell me what you feel like eating and I’ll point you to a great local restaurant that’s doing it right.”
The next day, we head to Da Conch Shack, known for its beautiful, no-frills beach setting and seafood. We watch as a fisherman, only a few yards from us, dives for conch, brings a kayak full of the giant pink snails onto the beach, and cracks them open. The meat will end up steps away in the kitchen of Da Conch Shack. We sit barefoot at a picnic table and eat fresh conch fritters and tasty conch salad. It’s the perfect start before our lunchtime meal at nearby Mr. Grouper’s.
“This is me; the food is me,” Philippe Legagneur, chef-owner of Mr. Grouper’s, tells us. “I love to cook.” Legagneur, who grew up on the island, uses only fish from the waters surrounding Turks and Caicos. We try the pecan-encrusted conch and the signature coconut grouper, simply prepared with a crust of coconut flakes and a hint of Cajun spice. The fish is fresh and delicate.
When we ask locals where to go for a special meal out, they mention the three C’s: Coyaba, Coco Bistro, and Caicos Café Bar & Grill. Each is elegant, set among tropical gardens and swaying palms, with contemporary menus showcasing local ingredients. Think: coconut tempura shrimp, guava glazed ribs, homemade conch ravioli. If it’s Thursday night, islanders and savvy visitors head to the weekly Fish Fry at Bight Children’s Park, a don’t-worry-be-happy party with music and local vendors selling cooked-on-the-spot jerk chicken, BBQ ribs, and fresh-caught seafood. But the Island Street Jerk Festival is happening, featuring local restaurants’ best jerk-style dishes. We try spicy jerk chicken and ribs, local corn, and mashed plantains, followed by a potent rum punch, before nodding off to the sound of surf and the distant beat of a band.
“Drive all the way until you smell fried chicken, then turn right,” our bellhop tells us when we ask for directions to the airport. Fried chicken? “It’s the best you’ll ever have,” he says, popping our suitcases in the trunk. We’ve had plenty of conch, lobster, grouper, and jerk, and a sampling of von Wieser’s venomous lionfish. Fried chicken sounds pretty good, and Sweet T’s, one of the oldest restaurants on the island, serves it hot, crisp, juicy, and cheap. It is a worthy last meal before we depart.