So we decided to have dinner with Fred. Not that we know Fred, or Tom for that matter, but hell, let’s have dinner in their kitchen with 12 other random strangers. Sounds like a perfectly peculiar evening, no? Picking up on the dripping sarcasm, it’s safe to asssume there’s more to Fred, and there is. So.much.more.
Fred is widely believed to be the best restaurant in Aruba. The experience (and it is an experience) seats no more than 14 people, takes place Monday through Friday, one seating at 7pm sharp. No kids, set menu, five course meal, with wine if you’d like. Culinary heaven if you live for dining experiences. Now being the dimwit that I am, I checked their website a few weeks before our trip to make a reservation. Scanning open dates, I could begin booking a space in March 2018… Nice planning dummy. So as the website suggested, I sent an email hoping to be put on the waiting list for any night while we were in Aruba. Expectations were quite low on getting in. Tom was nice enough to let me know that I was on the list and I’d hear if we got in. Nothing. We got on the plane, still nothing. Landed, nothing. Got to the hotel, nothing. Unpacked in our room, took a glance at my email, SOMETHING! Two seats on our last night on the island. Yes, Tom, yes, we’re in, book it, do whatever you need to, but lock us in!
Now, one does not want to be accused of rushing their honeymoon. Unfortunately, I talked about going to Fred so much that week, I was accused of just that. Gotta work on that, but after we go to Fred (see, did it again).
We arrived early and parked it at the bar at Que Pasa, the Mexican restaurant downstairs from Fred. In the vestibule their was a rope across a stairway upstairs with a sign advising Fred guests to grab a drink at the bar until they came downstairs to greet their guests at 7pm sharp. Also present was the night’s guest list, with last name and number in the party. We were listed, so all was good. Into Que Pasa for a cocktail. Once parked at the 12 seat bar, our host got my bride a Titos and club, then fetched a colleague to make me a Makers old fashioned, as “he makes them better than I do.” Love the honesty and it was a lovely cocktail. He handed us a book on Fred, probably because we were the most overdressed people at the bar, but he was right about our motives and the book was great. I visual introduction to the restaurant, from concept to construction and the experience. Photos of the upstairs space needing a total remodel, and Fred laboring to build the kitchen to best capture his vision. I’ve never met the man, but already my respect for his passion was growing. Two cocktails a piece (and yes, my second was made by the designated Old Fashioned maker again) and we noticed the vestibule was full and down the stairs came two men. One in jeans and a black shirt, the other in chef whites. These had to be Fred and Tom. We joined the other guests (after slugging back the rest of my drink) and made introductions all around. Tom greeted us first, and congratulated us on our recent wedding. Once we shook hands with the two men, it was upstairs with the other guests. We sat at the open patio with the others as Tom passed out prosecco with pieces of mango in the glass. The very proud Patriots fan in the crowned began the introductions. Boston, North Carolina, New Jersey and San Antonio were represented in the crowd, truly an American affair. We continued to chat about sports, food, Aruba, and relationships (there was another newlywed couple with us as well) until Tom returned to usher us into the kitchen. The entrance was stunning. Through small double doors we entered the space, a U-shaped high dining area with the kitchen at the opposite end. Within the U was a service area where Tom had wine glasses and the night’s wine selections at the ready, in the kitchen Fred was assembling the first course. Once seated (name tags with our last names spanned our seats, the pair pulled out a board with the night’s menu. This was going to be special. Fred described everything, Tom pointed out the wine options, and we were off. As it turned out we were seated next to the other newlyweds, so great conversation accompanied the evening.
First up was the salad. Some leaves of chicory a few slices of perfectly smoked duck breast, tender, juicy, flavorful. Thinly sliced watermelon, pine nuts, and a balsamic reduction. Each bite brought a special taste. Refreshing watermelon, deep, flavorful balsamic, each bite accented by the crunch of purple cabbage and sliced radishes. Our neighbor was tireless in his pursuit of the perfect bite, but capturing every element on one fork was challenging, but no less satisfying. Paired with this course was a choice of La Crema Pinot Noir or Twin Island Sauvignon Blanc. We opted for the Sauvignon Blanc and were rewarded for the choice. It was crisp, with notes of grapefruit, a perfect compliment to the smoked duck in the salad. While we all enjoyed our first course, Fred was at the kitchen, organizing 14 shallow bowls. This must be the famous white asparagus soup..
Having read about the soup in countless reviews, I was already tasting it in my mind. Mellow, smooth, flavorful. My mouth is watering now as it was then. However as vivid as my imagination is, it was not able to fully capture the reality of this dish. First Tom placed the bowls in front of us. An array of diced prociutto and scallions awaited their liquid companions. They weren’t lonely for too long. Fred arrived with a pitcher of soup, and gently poured it into the bowl, consuming the procuitto and scallions as he poured. The visual is beautiful, and you can guess where we may have posted it. We both took a moment to comprehend our dish. The smell was heavenly, and the taste, sublime. It was mellow and creamy, with just the right amount of saltiness from the prociutto and crunch from the scallions. The room fell quiet as we all dove into our bowls, somewhat literally. I think everyone would have put their bowls to their mouths. This dish was a true pleasure. With The Rolling Stones playing in the background, we completed the dish and were ushered back onto the patio for the first break of the evening. As I relayed to Tom, we don’t have to leave, but we can’t stay here.
The topic of conversation among our dining bretheren was the delightful start to the meal we had experienced, and continued banter about football loyalties and marriage. The cool wine cut the humidity in the air, and a gentle Aruban breeze eased us through the brief break.
Tom returned to user usher us back into the kitchen, this time accompanied by the savory smell of something (was it meat or fish?) cooking in a pan inside, clearly sizzling in some appropriate fat (god I hope it’s butter!) under the watchful eye of Fred. Upon return, our place settings had been replaced with fresh cutlery and napkins, as well as new wine glasses ready to receive the nectar of Tom’s choice. For this course, there were two white options, a 2016 Yalumba Viognier and Houis Ha Tour Chablis. We opted for the Viognier, and its honeysuckle aroma and stone fruit flavor was a crisp and lovely choice to pair with the next dish. With anticipation, we watched as Fred assembled the next dish. The presentation was a sight to behold. A wide dish with a depression in the middle was delicately adorned with our feast. Two shrimp on the wide edge, touched by the bernaise. In the middle, a delicate filet of Dover sole, browned and crisp on one side, gently curled over revealing it’s flakey bottom. Add in the fennel and broccoli sitting atop a small pool of lobster sauce, and the dish was complete. You could not have in imperfect bite of this dish! The bernaise with the shrimp was divine, and the lobster sauce perfectly highlighted the perfection of the sole. Crisp and flakey, moist and perfectly seasoned. It’s key to note that there was no salt and pepper on the table, and with good reason. Fred is a pro, there was nothing about the flavors that required adjustment. Had you asked, I would have kindly slapped the crap out of you and sent you off to McDonalds where you belong. There were 14 clean plates where this dish once resided. It was glorious. It wasn’t, however, the end.
As this point my bride and I parted ways, at least as it relates to the wine selection. She opted for the Caterna Malbec (she’s a sucker for a Malbec, but I do love her so). I went with the Villa Antinori. Neither was a bad choice for what came next. But not before another break. Back to the patio we went, to trade stories of the delights we just experienced and a further discussion of food. Where we had eaten on the island, similar experiences we’ve had stateside, it was a wonderful addition to a culinary evening. Before long Tom was back, ushering us to our communal table.
Fred saved he best work for last. Angus Tenderloin, wrapped in bacon, topped with a fois gras ravioli and truffle sauce. Had I died after this meal, I would have died happy, albeit far too soon. This was the one dish where Fred had asked if anyone wanted the beef cooked to a particular temperature other than the advised medium rare. One of our friends did request it medium, and only a mild ribbing ensued. A sip of wine and our dishes were presented. A tower of magical scents and sights awaited us, surrounded by a small sentinels of button mushrooms, green beans, and zucchini, with a cascade of decadent truffle sauce pooling around the vegetables. The first cut is always an experience, and this was no different. The meat was cooked perfectly (even for a man who orders he steak blue). The bacon surrounding it added so much flavor, but I mean, it’s bacon! This bite married so well with the truffle sauce, with it’s velvety texture and bits of tender black truffles. Then there was the ravioli. Oh the ravioli! Pasta pillows stuffed with creamy, smokey fois gras. Decadent doesn’t begin to describe it. The richness of the dish cut by the wine, all filling our mouths and bellies with delight. Wine glasses clinked, forks tapped plates, and we all smiled.
Stopping just short of licking our plates (just short), we agreed this dish was complete and we poured the praise onto Fred as Tom poured more wine. While we were eating Fred was preparing the finale for the evening; a plate of four treats. Passionfruit mousse, coconut macaroon, chocolate cake and mousse, and rum raisin ice cream. Just a taste, not too much, but wonderful flavors all around. The passionfruit mousse was fluffy and light, but topped with a tart gel of passionfruit, perfectly accenting the dish. The cake was dense, balanced by the mousse. The macaroons were crisp outside, soft inside. The rum raisin, as expected, and matched the array of desserts well. With our wine topped off, we headed back out to the patio, this time with Fred and Tom. We all pulled up seats, and a lively conversation began. Obvious questions about the dishes and the methods that Fred used throughout the evening, as well as his other culinary adventures. We discussed travel and life on the island, any number of topics for who knows how long. As the evening drew later, we each settled our bills and Tom called cabs for us all. We departed feeling more like friends than patrons at a restaurant. This was a unique culinary experience, superior to many we’ve had in the states. Upon our return, the trip will be planned around our next visit to Fred.