Thursday, July 12, 2007

Who knew that you could do all that to a lobster?

The food that really stands out from our recent visit to Saint Martin was the very high end and the very low end (like visiting the open-air market). Both types were memorable and made our mouths water!

Apparently many young chefs just out of French cooking school head to the Antilles to work in the gourmet restaurants that populate the French -speaking islands, then with that experience under their toques, return to France to open up their own restaurants. (In fact, on the plane to St. Martin, I was reading the charming From Here, You Can't See Paris, about American author Michael Sanders who moves to a tiny French village anchored by a tiny museum and a renowned (but not Michelin-starred) restaurant; turns out the chef extraordinaire trained right there on St. Martin!)

As a result, you can eat very well on the French side of the island (probably on the Dutch side, too, but we never made it over there, though the entire island is just 37 square miles). We happened to be staying a five-minute walk from Restaurant Row in Grand Case (a village about 15 minutes from the capital of Marigot). Imagine walking in sweltering heat up and down a long street of hundred-year-old Creole-style houses that have all been turned into airy restaurants, each with a bilingual menu posted by the steps, offering gourmet dishes with local seafood and other ingredients flown in from France or the US. We were there in June, the off-season, which meant that while a handful of the restaurants were closed, the others were uncrowded. We could leisurely check out the menus and then choose a place to eat and walk right in, usually getting seated on the porch or on the balcony above the water! (In the high season, you need reservations just to get a table.)

Unfortunately, I didn't carry a camera around much of the time--sandy beaches and fancy restaurants not being conducive to them--so I don't have many pictures to share. But to give you an idea, above is a painter's rendition of Restaurant Row. Below is Il Nettuno, an Italian restaurant facing the Caribbean (photo from their website--and if you think it looks inviting now, try it after sunset!).

We had lobster ravioli and red snapper here, followed by gelato and complimentary glasses of grappa with coffee beans floating in them, all very good. Here's the fish:

Another rich and seafoody meal along Restaurant Row--with yet another order of lobster ravioli, these even more luscious than those at Il Nettuno--came from L'Escapade, where we feasted on sea bass with mushroom and asparagus ravioli (Mr. Tart) and a Thai-influenced soup of sorts with huge shrimp, huge scallops, and lobster tail in a lemongrass-coconut milk base (me). I wanted to lick the bowl! And then dessert: chocolate mousse, dense and puddingy, for him and a combination of two of my favorite French desserts for me: chocolate profiterole crepes. The crepes became the wrappers for the cream puffs (profiteroles), with ice cream inside and several sauces (one fruity, one chocolate) drenching the ginormous puffs. (This is the one dish we tasted in St. Martin that I think I could attempt at home without a recipe!)

(This photo, courtesy L'Escapade's website, doesn't do justice to those decadent puffs. But it still makes me want to lick the plate.)

Mr. Tart's favorite restaurant on St. Martin, though, was Le Cottage. He still raves about the food, the atmosphere, the sommelier, and wishes that we had had time to go back before we left the island! But who wouldn't, after experiencing their Five Course Lobster Tasting Menu?! Picture this:

Lobster bisque...

Lobster and pineapple carpaccio (the lobster not raw, but sliced mandolinely thinly along with the pineapple) in a passionfruit and lime marinade, accompanied by arugula salad in a savory tuile and--get this--a foamy shot of the Caribbean classic Ti-Punch, a coconut planter's punch with spiced rum...

Lobster ravioli in coconut milk (can you tell we like this sort of dish?) flavored with galangal and tiny minced vegetables, served with a Granny Smith apple and coconut salad...

Roasted lobster meat in homemade squid ink fettucine, served with the carapace of the lobster standing up proudly like a Caribbean erection...

And then dessert, which thankfully didn't imply an Iron Chef-esque attempt to turn the theme ingredient into a strange sweet or ice cream: four small scoops of delicate sorbets (peach, strawberry, lemon verbena, and rose) whose bottom halves were dipped in a chocolate sauce that solidified and cupped them so that they could be placed on a long rectangular platter painted with more chocolate sauce in the shape of musical staff, forming the base of chocolate muscial notes, with a tuile cookie guitar and a puff pastry treble clef thrown in for good measure (pun intended). Wow.


Again, the website photo looks flat (okay, that pun also intended) compared to the real thing!

Oh, and the house cocktail is Champagne with lychee liqueur and red fruit liqueur. Very sprightly! I nibbled on my generous hubby's lobster dishes when not eating my appetizer (marinated escargots alongside a baby zucchini whose flower, still attached, boasted a mushroom mixture) and main course (a vegetarian concoction of caramelized onions and spinach and tomato concasse, stacked layer upon layer, each section separated with a parmesan crisp).

What struck us most about the gourmet restaurants in Grand Case was that they were entirely non-stuffy, non-pretentious, non-intimidating. As it was the off-season, the proprietors stood on the steps and called out to the tourists as we walked past, offering free cocktails, inviting us in, or simply greeting us. No one dressed up--not the patrons, not the servers, not the sommeliers. (We even showed up at the Sunset Cafe restaurant for lunch in bathing suits and then ate 20-euro mussels!) True, the bottled waters were served in a white wine ice bucket--but that reflects the weather rather than the snootiness of the establishment. And while the meals were pricey, at least the portion sizes were American rather than French.

Stay tuned for my final St. Martin post about the opposite end of the food spectrum: passionfruit daiquiris on the beach, stewed goat, grilled lobster at a shack, and lentils in the treetops....

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3 Comments:

Blogger lis said...

can't wait for the next installment. sounds like a great trip.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Mr. Tart said...

Sarah underplays how good it was. Mmmmm. Very good food, concentrated in a single location, with no reservations required. Mmmmm.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

And only one dish (a dessert, fortunately) served with raspberry coulis!

8:38 AM  

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