March 12, 2006- Craig and Sally's restaurant is a small and seemingly casual retreat snuggled in the heart of Frenchtown. Casual, that is, until you take one glance at the sophisticated and eclectic menu. A sign on the wall outside proclaims, "Passionate Cuisine."
The restaurant, where a line of taxis is always seen dropping off fares in the evening, has been written up endlessly and received various awards for culinary and wine excellence. In fact, on Google there are thousands of entries for Craig and Sally's.
What is it that these two do to make it so special?
Craig Darash has no problem with the question. "It's Sally," he says. "Her food, her love of food."
The couple met in Connecticut in the '70s when both were tending bar. "A friend decided we had to meet," Craig Darash says.
Definitely a fortuitous event for St. Thomians and others who like to eat.
After a few false starts, the two finally settled on St. Thomas. "Somehow we ended up in St. Thomas in 1979," Craig Darash says. "We stayed for a while, then came back in 1981 to get married, and in 1989 we moved back."
They went to work at Ferrari's Restaurant on the North Side, where Sally waited tables and Craig tended bar. They eventually bought the restaurant and moved the enterprise to Frenchtown in 1993.
"The building was vacant at the time," Craig says. "We had looked all over the island before finding it."
The location, rumored to have been standing since the early part of the last century, has gone through many incarnations. Located across the back street from the late Bar Normandie, the building has been a grocery store at least two times and twice a restaurant — most recently the Bon Marche food store and the short-lived Johnny Cakes restaurant.
The building had a bland and barren interior, Darash says, lacking any perceivable charm. The two consulted professionals, deciding to divide the dining room up in quarters, lending it the intimate atmosphere it needed.
The four dining areas have separate entrances with partitions made of planters or graceful draperies. Murals of the hills over Charlotte Amalie harbor and harbor boating scenes grace the walls, with a wooden latticework ceiling.
A horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar is manned in the evening by Steve Potter, whom Darash calls "the best bartender on St. Thomas top-notch."
He would have to be for the type of clientele the restaurant draws: local movers and shakers, professional people, and lots of what Darash calls "island visitors," adding, "I hate the term, 'tourist.'"
He says the restaurant gets a "good mix of locals and visitors. We do a little advertising, but it's mostly word of mouth."
A fanciful mocko jumbie chef, a gift from attorney Derek Hodge, graces one wall. "Let's get it in our picture," Sally says, "I love it."
Walls in front of the restaurant are created by mountains of fully stocked wine racks. Frommer's Virgin Islands 2005 edition lists the restaurant's wine collection as "the most extensive and sophisticated on St. Thomas." The collection has won 12 Wine Spectator awards, Darash says. He says he started learning about wines "for more years than I care to admit." He says, "It doesn't matter if the wine costs $10 or $10,000. It's who you're are with, what you are eating."
As for the food, Frommer's says, "Its eclectic cuisine is, according to the owner, 'not for the faint of heart, but for the adventurous soul.'"
Sally Darash is busily working in the kitchen, where a sign on the back door states: "Sally's World." She laughs, saying, "That was a present from one of our chefs who was leaving."
And what a world it is. Every square inch of the modest-sized kitchen is utilized.
Sally is busily prepping for this evening's guest chef – Kai Rasinen of the mega-yacht Lady Allison. She is clearly happy with the project. "We have had guest chefs now and then, but this is the first time for one of the mega-yacht chefs." Rasinen, a young, blond Finnish fellow, says he is happy for his gig.
He presents his menu, which features "herb-roasted baby veal rack lollipops with buttery root vegetables on a bed of arugula, garnished with fried leeks and sage" as an appetizer. Sally looks approvingly at his choices.
Each meal she offers is culinarily boggling: an array of tapas, appetizers and entrees that would be hard to nail down, categorically. Sally says, "I look at food, and I do things with it."
So, where did this renowned chef get her formal training? "I'm asked that all the time," she says. "I didn't."
Watching her slice prosciuto paper thin – "My slicer broke this morning," she says – it's obvious she's a pro: no wasted movement, utter concentration, and she carries on a conversation en route.
"I like to cook," she says. "I did some cooking at parties in Connecticut, and I helped with some catering. When I worked at Ferrari's, I learned from the girls in the kitchen."
She has to get back to preparation for the evening. Coming down from his little upstairs office loft, Craig reflects on the earlier question. "What makes them so special?"
"It's my wife. Our success is all because of Sally. If I were the most charming fellow in the world, which I'm not, it would still be because of her. And it's the service and the location – Frenchtown is great."
Then, he adds perhaps the most important ingredient: "We enjoy what we do. It's not a job; it's our passion, our love."
The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart, Darash agrees. "It's a love/hate relationship," he says. "If you don't love the business, you can't work — whether you're the owner or the dishwasher."
Reflecting on the past 13 years, Darash says, "What a strange trip it's been." Two years into the new location, Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995. "That was the most mentally challenging part of my life," he says. "We ran the restaurant for two weeks without power," he says. "We wanted to give people a place to sit for a bit and figure out what to do next, to get some comfort."
Darash says he would get up very early to get soft drinks and water. "Then, I'd fill the trunk of my car and take the load to Quality Foods, where they would let me keep it in the freezer until we opened. I would get ice from the floor chips, and bag it and put it in our cooler."
People huddled in the darkened restaurant, Darash says, happy to be together and share experiences. "You know what the most requested meal was? Scrambled eggs, comfort food," he says. "We had a gas stove, so that was no problem."
"Each day we'd take the leftover food to the shelters," he says. And they shared with their Frenchtown neighbors. "After the two weeks," Darash says, "we got a gas generator for about three more weeks before the power came back on."
Describing the daily menus is a challenge. Sally prides herself on never presenting the same menu two days running. One great local favorite that appears every day, though, is the eggplant cheesecake. Here's a description: "Roasted eggplant cheesecake baked in a garlic pinenut breadcrumb crust, drizzled with a roasted garlic cream."
Now, for an entree, how about this: "Tenderloin of tuna, grilled rare and served with a wakame noodle salad, ginger-sautéed shitake mushrooms and hoisin-spiked shredded cucumbers." You get the idea. It's wonderful — indescribably so.
Lunch is served Wednesday through Friday,11:30 a.m. to3 p.m. Dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Monday and Tuesday are reserved for
the Darashes to lavish on each other what they offer their public the other five days: comfort and relaxation, a meal well served with love and care.
Call 340-777-9949 for reservations.
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