Perhaps the finest cuisine in the Caribbean is found at the historic waterfront eatery, Norma’s at the Wharfhouse, where a shimmering view of Montego Bay and an inventive array of fresh ingredients — including the Caribbean’s best Jamaican rum cake — awaits hungry visitors. Built in 1780, the restaurant is set in a charming coral stone sugar warehouse whose walls are bound together with molasses and lime.
Restored by Millicent Rogers, heiress of the Standard Oil fortune, the restaurant is operated by chef Norma Shirley, who has been described by Vogue magazine as “the Julia Child of the Caribbean.” Together, with executive chef Pauline Powell, Shirley puts out a nouvelle Jamaican menu that attracts many of the country’s visiting celebrities.
“The menu changes daily depending on fresh ingredients, so we keep it on a chalkboard,” says Shirley, who serves guests either at a table on the pier over the coral reef or in the elegant 19th century dining room.
The pier is definitely the restaurant’s biggest draw, where guests can sip on a Norma’s Special (a tropical blend of fruit juices and rum) while enjoying a glittering view of Montego Bay.
There, the scent of Jasmine flowers mixed with sea foam fills the air. Along the dock, candles flicker in fabric sacks. And Billy Holliday softly croons on the stereo as waves lap against the shore.
If that weren’t inviting enough, the food speaks for itself. Shirley’s popularity stems from her ability to take traditional Jamaican dishes and local ingredients and give them 5-star quality and presentation. The dishes also reflect her world travels.
On a recent Friday night, the menu consisted of such specialties as Grilled Deviled Crab Back and Salad, Smoked Marlin with papaya salsa and capers, Tomato Salad with White Stilton Cheese, Jerked Pork Tenderloin Kebabs and a Signature Pork Loin Chop. A special treat was the Filet of Snapper grilled in a three-citrus sauce and topped with chayote (affectionately called cho-cho on the islands) on a bed of callaloo (a green similar to spinach).
Just a few of the desserts that await visitors include a passion fruit gateau, tamarind cheesecake, bananas flambe, warm bread pudding and an old-fashioned Jamaican rum cake with brandied sour cream. Here’s Norma Shirley’s recipe for Jamaican Rum Cake!
This article originally appeared on May 26, 1999. Norma Shirley passed away on November 1, 2010.