Feb. 4, 2005 If cooking done with care is an act of love, as the great New York Times food editor Craig Clairborne once suggested, then Havana Blue, the island's brand new Cuban-fusion restaurant, is a temple of caring.
From the moment you crest the sweeping staircase to find yourself before a wall of shimmering water, to your longing backward glance at the last crumbs of the soothingly decadent Chocolate Fondant at night's end, you are in the masterful hands of people who care not only about cooking, but about every detail that informs your dining experience.
A newcomer to the St. Thomas restaurant scene, Havana Blue is the dream made real of co-owners Zack Zoller, and husband-and-wife team, Eric and Nicole Horstmeyer.
Zoller, a St. Thomas resident since the tender age of two when he first sailed into port with his mother, got a most unusual start in the restaurant business. Kitchen lore abounds with tall tales, but none taller than Zoller's, who said it all began when he and a friend made it onto the V.I. bobsled team. The V.I. bobsled team? Indeed.
"We needed money to pay for training and to get to the events," Zoller said, "and there was no pizza delivery on the East End at that time, so we bought an oven, put it in the middle of our living room, and started making pizzas." In this way, at 17, Zoller launched the well-known Senor Pizza, and careers as both a restaurant owner and a bobsledder.
He went on to compete in the Norway, Japan and Utah winter Olympics, first as part of the V.I. four-man squad, and then as half the two-man team.
Senor Pizza, on the other hand, stayed right here in the V.I. where it moved from the Zoller living room into a Red Hook location. Eventually, Zoller opened a Senior Pizza on St. John which he later sold. And, as if two restaurants and a full sledding schedule weren't enough, Zoller five years ago build the well-loved East End Café, the Red Hook Italian eatery where he is also head chef.
The Horstmeyer's entrée to the St. Thomas restaurant scene is perhaps less dramatic than their partner's, but no less impressive.
Before moving to St. Thomas a few years ago, Nicole conquered the New York marketing world as a principal in product launches and marketing events for a long list of beyond-top-shelf clients like Maserati-Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Chanel and Sony. In the dog-eat-dog advertising trenches where invisible shifts in public perception can mean millions to a company's bottom line Nicole says she learned that details are everything. Not to give away all the trio's secrets, but a tour through Havana Blue with Nicole leaves one with the strong impression that she is the guiding force behind most (and maybe all) of the space's visual elements.
A restaurateur by night, Eric has held on to his day job as an attorney with the V.I. firm Dudley, Topper and Feuerzeig, where he specializes in real estate and corporate contract law. With a J.D. from the University of Louisville, a master's in tax law from New York University, and elbow grease to spare, Eric brings more than his share to the table.
Young, attractive, talented, highly motivated and outrageously hard working (just ask either one of them about their endless stream of 18-hour work days), the three are determined to chart their own course with this new venture. And if the local buzz surrounding Havana Blue is any indication, they're well on their way.
"Havana Blue grew out of our love of fine dining and our feeling that St. Thomas really needed something like this," Nicole said. And when she says, "like this," Nicole means, well, Havana Blue.
The decor is Miami-chic, and the atmosphere is elegant, striking the ideal balance between warmth and exclusivity. The vaulted ceiling of the imposing space soars upward, but with great swaths of rich, white fabric draped ceiling to floor throughout, the overall immediate impression is one of refined intimacy.
Zack, Eric and Nicole saw personally to every detail of the restaurant's construction – and there are many.
Patrons sipping mango mojitos at the great, round bar that sits more or less in the center of the main dining room probably don't know it, but the bar's marble work was stained to a deep shade of blue by hand: Zack's, Eric's and Nicole's hands to be precise.
Cream-colored candles standing almost as tall as a person are clustered here and there across the floor, casting a warm, flickering glow.
Each white-clothed table has its own compliment of candles ensconced in a glass vase filled with dried black beans a nod to the Cuban influence.
And there is even a deliberate and unmistakable homage to that most ubiquitous of human traits vanity which is, let's face it, always a component of dining out well. As you pass toward the bar from the maitre d' stand, there is a wall-sized mirror tipped ever so slightly backward, as if leaning against the wall behind. Not only does the gigantic mirror have a certain Alice-in-Wonderland quality that is pleasantly disorienting, but because of the tilt it makes you look, well, skinny. And if not skinny, then at least thinner than you are, and any way you slice it, that's pretty thoughtful of them.
There are literally dozens of other fine points to the restaurant and a few secret messages hidden in the paintings on the walls that leave one with the sense of being treated generously, but there's no fun in spoiling it all with a story. The three owners many times mentioned the phrase "experiential dining," and that's exactly what's required, the experience of the place.
Of course, it goes without saying that this attention to detail extends to the kitchen. Eric explained that the executive chef, Omar Sanchez, was selected only after an exhaustive process of weeding out the more than 200 chefs who applied for the job from kitchens all over the world.
After scrutinizing resumes they narrowed the field to 10, and then, after an interview process, to three. These three then had to sing for their supper, as it were, and prepare tastings not only for Zoller and the Horstmeyers, but also for the executive management team at the Marriott who had to approve everything along the way, including the Havana Blue team's competitive bid to take over the old Tavern on the Beach space.
Eric said Sanchez turned out to be the youngest of the final three chefs, and in many ways did not have the breadth of experience of those he beat out for the job. But, Eric said with a broad smile, "this guy lives, sleeps and breathes food, and his grasp of the Latin and Asian spices we wanted to use was stand alone better than the rest."
Sanchez is a native of Puerto Rico but says he loves his new home on St. Thomas. "This is the greatest staff I have ever worked with," he said of his kitchen crew. Sanchez was equally complimentary of the clientele, saying Havana Blue's guests seem well traveled and familiar with the kinds of flavors he's built for them.
The restaurant's prime location on Morningstar beach makes it a dazzling place to watch the sunset while settling in for the evening's culinary delights.
The wine list offers a nice variety that tends toward Californian, Spanish and Latin American selections, and there is an inventive array of specialty cocktails with cool names like the Aphrodite made with vanilla vodka, peach and passionfruit.
The partners say they plan to open soon for brunch but, for the time being, Havana Blue is serving dinner seven nights a week from 5 until 10 p.m. Reservations are pretty much a must and can be made by dialing 340-715-BLUE(2583).