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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Most Memorable Meals

November 8, 2010

“What is your most memorable meal?” Whether I am answering email, fielding questions after a speech, or just carrying on a conversation with someone, that is the question I am asked most often.

It’s a hard question to answer, mainly because the reply changes so often. It’s not that I’m wishy-washy when it comes to memories; I think that current situations and surroundings make one reflect differently on past experiences.

When I am in a nostalgic mood, I remember back to my grandmother’s Sunday lunches. She prepared leg of lamb once a month. That was a very exotic flavor profile for a young boy in the South Mississippi of the early 1970s, and was probably my first exposure to a greater cuisine.

When I am asked specifically about the best “restaurant” meal I have ever eaten, the answer is simple. Several years ago, I ate a 32-course, five-hour meal at The French Laundry with Thomas Keller in the kitchen. I don’t have enough adjectives at my disposal to describe how wonderful and humbling that meal was and the impression it made on me, personally and professionally. It was the catalyst that spurred a culinary sea change in my attitude towards the restaurant business.

That one meal made me rethink everything we were doing at The Purple Parrot Café. We set our sights higher and we have surpassed even those dreams, today.

As the weather cools, summer clothes are put away, and fleece jackets are dusted off, my thoughts turn— not to the foods of fall or the upcoming holidays, but— to meals that were enjoyed in warmer climes.

Yesterday, I thought of ceviche in Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres is a small island on the easternmost point of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea. The five-mile-long island is surrounded by clear, turquoise water with 200-foot vertical visibility. It is very laid back. Parts of the island seem Third World, yet tucked away into non-descript nooks are some very unique properties. Casa de los Suenos is about as inconspicuous as they come. It’s part eight-room zen resort, part boutique hotel.

The hotel’s restaurant is a palapa on the water’s edge, with a thatched roof of dried palm fronds and is open on three sides to take full advantage of the salt-air breezes blowing off of the Bay of Mujeres during sunset. The ceviche served there is, to my taste, the best in the world. Period. End of discussion.

Ceviche is a cold, marinated, seafood salad that is cooked using citrus instead of conventional heat. The citric acid in the fruit denatures the proteins in the seafood which cooks— or pickles— the dish. The mixture typically marinates for 30 minutes and is a perfect hot-weather meal, served with some type of chip or bread.

The ceviche at Casa de los Suenos has fresh fish, shrimp, avocado, onion, tomato, cucumber, olive, lemon, lime, a hint of orange, olive oil, salt, and pepper in it. Beautiful.

I have never been able to recreate that ceviche. It was probably among those once-in-a-lifetime meal moments that come and go without realizing how special they were until they have passed.

From my desk on a chilly fall morning in South Mississippi, it’s hard to recreate salt-air breezes at sunset. But in remembering that one experience, I am reminded to take full advantage of future meals shared, to slow down, to soak it in, because sometimes we never know when we might be experiencing one of our most memorable meals.

Robert’s Ceviche

2 lbs Large Shrimp, peeled, deveined
½ lb Red Snapper, fillet’d into 1/2-inch cubes
3 Large Limes, squeezed
1 Small Lemon, squeezed
1/3 cup Freshly squeezed orange juice
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 Red Onion, small dice
1/4 cup Cucumber, diced
1/2 cup Green olives, drained
1/2 Jalepeno pepper, seeded, ribbed, small dice
1/2 Bunch Cilantro, chopped
1 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Avocado for garnish

In a large bowl, carefully toss the shrimp and fish with the citrus. Place in the refrigerator for one hour until the seafood is opaque.

In a separate bowl, mix the tomato, onion, cucumber, green olives jalepeno, and cilantro.

Add the seafood to the vegetable mixture, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately garnished with fresh avocado.

Serve with tortilla chips or crusty bread.

Serves four as an entrée or six as an appetizer

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