NASSAU, Bahamas—Don’t strike until you’re right between the horns.
Chef Ellison Davis shares that wisdom in a low, soothing voice as he brings a thin hammer down at a precise point on the pale sand-coloured shell of a queen conch.
He makes a few precise, aggressive taps along the crest of the shell and pulls the large, surprisingly colourful mollusc out of the pink front.
I know conch (pronounced “conk”) is delicious and I’m looking forward to eating chunks of the raw meat in a fine conch salad, but the giant sea snail Davis held up looked visceral and nightmarish, with a brown horn at one end the beast uses to move along the ocean floor.
Conch is synonymous with the Bahamas. “You can’t come here without eating a conch salad,” Davis said of the mix of chopped conch and diced vegetables dressed with fresh lime and orange juices, plenty of salt and lick of hot pepper heat.
The same goes for locals.
Davis, who studied at the culinary school at the College of the Bahamas, has been fishing, cleaning and eating conch since he was a kid on the neighbouring island of Abaco. His grandma taught him how to prepare it.
As he worked, he talked about the food culture at home, where kitchen doors are always open and every family makes extra to feed kids who wander in.
“You come in to eat, you’ll get lunch and a plate of food to take home to your family.”
He makes conch salads to order daily at the Conch Shack a few steps from Cable Beach at the Baha Mar Resort. If you’re lucky, your conch may even have a pearl inside.
Davis goes from shell to plate in about 10 minutes, first plucking a live conch from a tank behind the counter.
The conch has to be properly cleaned first. Using a sharp knife, he trims off the horn and “face.” The horn is left on if he’s serving the conch “old-fashioned style,” where the meat is scored, covered in diced raw veggies and lime, then served whole, the horn held like a handle to make eating easier.
Trimmed pieces will be chopped up and boiled for conch fritters.
The secret to tender conch is to slice the palm-sized centre meat down the middle, he said. Cut it crosswise and you get a tough mess. Then dice it. Or pound it with a mallet, bread in an egg wash and flour, and deep fry for a conch burger.
The resort uses about 500 to 600 conchs a day, he said, keeping them in tanks behind the hotel. The kitchens at Grand Hyatt, sister boutique hotel SLS and The Rosewood, which opens in June, all have at least one dish with conch on their menus.
I had Conch-Oyaki at Katsuya by Starck, a playful take on deep-fried conch, served in a coconut shell and topped with not-too-sweet coconut foam. It was good, although eclipsed by other standout items, including addictive fried Brussels sprouts, Caribbean lobster and an eye-popping presentation of tropical fish sashimi.
The arancini at Italian restaurant Fi’lia by Michael Schwartz swapped some of the arborio rice for minced conch. Tasty yes, but for me, the winners on Fi’lia’s menu were the sublimely tender old-school meatballs and tableside-made Caesar salad, a trip back to the golden age of elegant dining.
I was a guest of the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar Resort, which did not review or approve this story.