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Aqua West Team Working on Christiansted Boardwalk Restaurant

April 28, 2007 — Chef Brian Mika and investor Chris Stone have begun renovations at a restaurant on the Christiansted boardwalk known until recently as The Mix.
The currently empty restaurant is part of the consistently busy Best Western Holger Danske Hotel. Mika and Stone plan in coming months to fill the space with a restaurant serving three meals a day, seven days a week.
"St. Croix has been wonderful to us," Stone said. "And there is just so much potential on the island and in that spot in particular. The restaurant is in a key location on the boardwalk in a venerable and successful hotel. It’s a bit daunting, the work we have in front of us, and no one knows what the future holds. But I’m really excited about the prospects for a good, solid restaurant here that will be in keeping with the feel of the town and the setting on the waterfront."
They already co-own Aqua West, the informal fine-dining spot Mika opened above Turtle’s Deli on Frederiksted’s Strand Street. After a successful year and a half at that location, developing a loyal following among their local, seasonal and tourist clientele, the two are now looking east to Christiansted as they embark on another venture together. They plan to keep on with Aqua West, too.
Chef Mika is beginning to formulate the menu and overall theme of the place while Stone tackles renovations and the business details. Meanwhile, they still have a restaurant to run out west.
"I want to serve good food in a place people like to be," Mika said. "In that spot, with families and with night life, I think a good, pleasant place to come, not too formal but with good fresh seafood and good grilled items should do great. I know I would go there."
Mika believes the key to good food is good ingredients, and the best quality is usually found closest to home.
"I like to use fresh local produce whenever possible," Mika said. "Several places here are growing very nice stuff that will enhance anyone’s menu. I need sources that are very, very reliable, though, and that can be an obstacle to overcome sometimes. Hopefully more farmers will follow the lead of Southgate Farms and Creque Farm with very high-quality, fresh local produce."
Among their challenges before opening will be to find good staffing for the full schedule at the new place.
"We hope to hire more kids from the (St. Croix Educational) Complex’s culinary program," Stone said. "We’ve had three already and they are a godsend. The kids are quick and motivated and professional. As St. Croix takes off, it is already hard to find good people with a solid background in food and service, and the need is going to keep growing."
Mika agreed.
"Sheldon (Sweeney) came to us from the culinary program and now he’s in culinary school in Florida," Mika said. "We’re hoping he comes back so we can hire him as a chef. And now we have Charnelle (Vanterpool) and Reanell (James), who are great and who want to become pastry chefs. From our perspective, the program is fantastic. The more we can get, the better."
Natives of Williamsburg, Va., Stone and Mika have known each other since high school and worked in the restaurant business together going back to their teenage years in the 1980s. Although often living thousands of miles apart, they kept in touch over the intervening years. Brian pursued a culinary career and until recently Stone worked in finance.
Mika came to the Virgin Islands first, arriving on St. Croix a little more than four years ago. Williamsburg is a place fueled by historical tourism in which restaurants and hotels are the obvious place for a young man to look to make a living. But in '91, seeking direction and purpose in his life, Mika decided to pursue culinary arts seriously as a vocation. So, with a little saved up waiting tables and a lot of student loans, he moved to Hyde Park, N.Y., to attend the Culinary Institute of America, the premier U.S. school for chefs. Since graduating in 1993, Mika has worked in some of the best kitchens in the country, including the five-star and five-diamond Inn at Little Washington under celebrity chef Patrick O’Connell.
"O’Connell was inspirational to me" Mika said. "He started on a shoestring way out in the Virginia countryside, and on the basis of good-tasting, creative food and a strong focus on the guest’s happiness, he drew people out of the city to him. It’s a great example of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’"
After his stint at the Inn at Little Washington, Mika worked as executing or sous-chef at fine-dining establishments in New Orleans, West Palm Beach, New York and on cruise ships in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
He has opened restaurants for others more than once, including the Mahogany Room at Carambola here on the island. The successful Aqua West was Mika’s debut as both chef and owner. Mika’s style in that restaurant is eclectic, pulling in influences from French, traditional American, Thai and Mediterranean food. The menu for the new restaurant is in the planning stages, but Mika said it will likely be fresh, simple and comfortable.
Mika called Stone in late 2005 and asked him to consider coming to St. Croix and partner in the restaurant. Looking for a change at the time, Stone came for a visit so he could look around. Liking what he found here, he left his career in finance, packed up and moved to the island in April 2006.
"It’s a cliche, I know, but despite some of the problems we face it really is paradise here," Stone said.
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