I’m not usually one for high-rise, self-contained, all-inclusive resorts that are shiny with marble. I rolled out of my extremely comfortable bed, then flashed my plastic bracelet downstairs in the lobby to get a pastry and latte to go in Café Boulangerie, the lobby eatery open 24 hours a day. Then, I found myself all alone on a ridiculously pretty powder soft crescent beach, and I had to admit Moon Palace Resort was working its polished charm on me. I had one of executive chef Dennis McIntosh’s fabulously thought-out meals, and I was sold. Far from the image of cheap drinks and bad food, this chain of hotels, owned by a family in Mexico, has taken their food to a new level. Dennis McIntosh is helping them do that in Ocho Rios.
With a staff of 1200 and soon-to-be 705 rooms in the hotel, making sure the food is good is a challenge. Executive chef McIntosh told us at lunch that he believes “food is a major part of the travel experience.” He believes hotel guests want to “have a taste of the local cuisine” of the country they’re visiting, but they also want what is familiar. He checks the hotel roster each week to see the home countries of the incoming guests and then, in an effort to make them feel at home, prepares special items to be available for them in the buffet dining room. So if Germans have checked in, he’ll have German specialties in the buffet, along with a choice of 30 salads and four stations that prepare your meat as you watch.
It is at the Pier 8 Seafood Restaurant, located right next to the beach, that the he has a chance to let the cuisine of Jamaica shine through. Sitting at the head of the table, his manner was calm and confident. I could imagine him running an army, and in a way, he does. As puffy clouds floated by over the cerulean sea, and crystal clear waves lapped at the powdery soft sand, we started our meal off with Caribbean crab cakes with a curry tartare sauce. He explained that the spices in Jamaica reflect a “very diverse influence” by many cultures (East Indian, African and Chinese, to name a few.) And indeed, the sauce was complex, earthy, and just hot enough.
Chef McIntosh was born in Jamaica but left for England with his family when he was seven. As a young man, his first job experience with food was working for a fishmonger where he learned all about wielding a knife. He went on to study the culinary arts in England. But a turning point came when he returned to Jamaica and took a three-hour bus ride high up in the rural mountains to the place where many of his family still lived. He said he “felt stamped and rooted” by Jamaica when he got off the bus and everyone knew who he was. The tradition of good food runs deep in the country life of Jamaica. “If sweet potato happens to be in abundance, they cook something with sweet potato,” he said. In line with this tradition, chef McIntosh stays connected with local farms, and the Mount Plenty Garden Salad we were served was flavorful and fresh. Since watermelon was in season, thin slices added a nice twist to the greens.
“I believe in keeping food simple," he said. "Particularly fish. If it’s fresh, it doesn’t need to be complicated."
And indeed, the Escoveiche red snapper was simple, light, and just the right tart provided by the rundown vinegary sauce with peppers and onions. Since spiny lobster was also in season, a plate of grilled lobster tails with garlic butter and oven-roasted cumin-spiced local vegetables rounded out the superb meal. Finishing this feast off, the chef offered us a dense and richly tasty sweet potato pudding with nutmeg ice cream for dessert. His face crinkled with pleasure at our happily and replete expressions, and he laughed. “A rising tide lifts everyone!”
Late that night, when I passed the Noir Nightclub, which was throbbing with a sophisticated beat, I thought back to our visits that day to the fabulously luxurious hotel spa, the never-ending wave of the flow rider pool, and the amazing design of the lobby, I realized this resort offered something for everyone. As for me, each day I’d be eating that Escoveitche red snapper looking out over the beach.