HELPING FAMILY FARMS FLOURISH. HELPING FEED THE HUNGRY.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The St. Barth Diaries 2013 Edition: 11 Great Ideas about what to eat and where and what not to.


The Entrance to our Villa 

Vive La France!
         We just got back from our 20th visit to St. Barth, FWI, so you know we like it there.  You might say almost obsessively so.  But you can’t really improve very much on perfection.  Especially when you’ve found it.  Of course St. Barth has changed mightily since I first came here in 1981 when the island wasn’t yet on the radar.  Those days are gone and the island should be avoided completely over the Christmas holidays.  That’s when the newly rich and revolting descend in force, driving even the most loyal St. Barth enthusiasts to leave the island altogether or go into hiding.  Fortunately, they all check out the day after New Year’s and St. Barth goes back to its somnolent self, the one the rest of us know and love. 
           To us, it will always be the perfect spot in the Caribbean. Since we’ve been to well over 20 Caribbean islands over the years, I think we can speak with some authenticity.   What separates St. Barth from every other island?  For one thing cruise ships or the lack of them.  It’s never allowed monster-sized ships into its harbor and the ones it does allow are all small, premium ships with small, premium passenger lists.  It has no golf, no gambling, and virtually no crime of any kind. It has jaw-dropping views everywhere you drive. The roads keep getting better and better.  And the Mini Coopers keep multiplying by the year. No one ever seems to drive them over 30 kilometers an hour.  
Kismet? Our Mini has our NYC
House number on its license plate 
         St. Barth has white sand beaches that are crowd-free even when the whole island has the day off on Sundays.  Some have surf, some are perfect for children, all are drop dead gorgeous.   It is a premium shopping paradise with luxury retailers from Louis Vuitton to Hermes to Cartier. Four of Conde Nast's Gold List Hotels for 2013 are all on St. Barth -- Hotel Le Toiny at 93.9 points, Hotel Sand-Barth Ile de France at 92.9 points, Hotel Christopher at 91.8 points and Eden Rock at 91.5 points -- an amazing number on island of 8 square miles!  The entire island of Puerto Rico has but three. No hotel is permitted by law to be over two stories in height. So they're as low-key as can be.  However, our preference has always been one of 1500 villas that are for rent on the island. 
         Imagine having a drop-dead luxury hotel suite with daily maid service but with absolutely no one disturbing your privacy and no one nickel and diming you for every Diet Coke, and you’ve summed up what’s so wildly appealing about renting a villa. We’ve taken villas from one end of the island to the other.  Now we’ve landed in one that is our all-time favorite. 
The perfect ‘couple’ house, it’s now so familiar to us that is like going out to Bridgehampton for the weekend. It’s modern, clean-lined yet stays faithful to the old Architectural style of the island: Separate pavilions house a living room and kitchen, another our bedroom and bathroom and outdoor shower and a third a second half bathroom and the laundry facilities.  It looks out over the sea within earshot of the sound of the waves on Baie St. Jean.  It’s completely contemporary in its décor and has a nice long 15 meter swimming pool that stretches across the length of the living room.   It’s hard to pull ourselves away. We spend at least a couple of days never leaving the house except for a bakery/grocery run in the morning and dinner out at night.
         Ah dinner!  No other Caribbean island comes close to the sheer number of places to eat, their overall quality and service and ambience. One word of warning: sticker shock is the most common reaction to St. Barth’s menus.  Dining out here is not for the faint of heart.  Fine Diners may not be dismayed by the prices but everyone else most likely will be.  Nonetheless, it’s one of the main reasons to love St. Barth.   And since this is a food blog, off we go on our most recent eating adventures. St. Barth. 
Nighttime at our house
         I am not going to rank our restaurant visits.  Instead, I’ll just go chronologically.   The reason for this is that we went only once to each of these destinations.  To judge an entire restaurant based on a one-time visit strikes me as too cavalier. The chef may have had the day off leaving his sous-chef in command. Or the chef may have had an off day or a missing sous-chef.  A couple of last year’s favorites were off. Some way off.  Some just off by a dish or two.   A couple of new places took the place of old favorites.  Plus ca change….
         Right off the plane is the most important food destination for all villa dwellers: Marche U, the supermarket directly across from the airport. (Tel: (59) 05 90 27 68 16) Hours: Monday through Thursday 8 am to 1 pm, 3 pm to 8 pm.
Friday and Saturday 8 am to 8 pm Nonstop.
Sunday 9 am to 1 pm, 4 pm to 7 pm. 

The growth of the produce department is nothing less than staggering.  Most of this is hardly local: the haricots verts were from Kenya, the Oranges from Valencia.  But even if a head of Bibb Lettuce cost 4.8 Euro or $6.25, you can now find these things on a daily basis.   Gone are the days when if you saw Orange Juice, but didn’t buy it, you never saw it again.
         
Marche U is our first stop for wine, milk, cheese, pate, and saucissons.  We love to try condiments that are not what we find in the States: Amora Dijon Mustard, sharper than any stateside brand, and Benedicta Mayonnaise golden from its shot of Dijon to name two. What we don’t buy from Marche U are breads and pastries and ready-made salads,  all of which they have but trips to the patisseries—one in L’Orient, one in Colombier—a part of the rhythm of life here.  And “Traiteurs” like La Rotisserie in St. Jean are far more inventive with their salads of Thai flavors and Remoulades. 
Guadaloupe Tomatoes at Ti Marche
         Next stop is Ti Marche, a tiny ramshackle place just beyond the elementary school in L’Orient.  The store only opens  ‘non-stop’ on Friday.  Closed Sunday, it’s open mornings and from three to five weekdays. Saturday its open til 8 pm.  The produce here is all from Guadaloupe and well worth planning your lunches around.  The tomatoes are perfectly ripe and the best we Easterners have had since last summer.  The Avocados are enormous and perfect for use that very day.  And it’s a true island experience as you stand in line with local housewives loading up on veggies and blood sausages for the week. 
Stick to the beer and avoid the food at Le Select
         The first night we arrive, we’re always dog-tired from our pre-dawn departure from New York.  Even so, we head down to the main town, Gustavia, to see what’s new and to grab a bite to eat.  This year, for the first time ever, we went to Le Select, the closest thing Gustavia has to a dive bar (Tel. 0590 27 86 87 Open for lunch and dinner nonstop. Closed Sundays.) There, under the trees, everyone under the sun seems to come for a beer at the end of the day.  The place is home to Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”.  All I can say is the island may be Paradise but Le Select's Cheeseburger is not.  And if you need proof that the Belgians invented the French fry, you’ll find it here.  Theirs would not pass muster at McDonald’s.  On an island with so much good food, there's no excuse for eating at Le Select. But the atmosphere is pure old St. Barth and for the price of a beer, you can sink right into it.
         Our next dining adventure was at “La Tables de Jules”. (Near the Centre Commercial Oasis. L'Orient. Tel 05 90 29 76 78. Dinner 6:30 to 11:00 pm. Closed Wednesdays.)  This is the old K’fe Massai resurrected without the African masks and jungle theme.  The new owner has completely re-done the place in a very contemporary style.  It sparkles in a way K’fe Massai never did. The ‘formule’ however has been retained”.  This consists of two menus: a 29 Euro 3 course dinner or a 42 Euro option with an 8 Euro surcharge if you order Foie Gras. I did.  Those prices reflect a great value on this island, where the food, good or bad or indifferent is markedly more expensive than almost anywhere else on earth.  
Here, my choice of Saint Jacques (Scallops in Anglais) was flawless. Andrew’s fish was not: overcooked but still edible none-the-less. What was high on our list here were our desserts: true examples of the art of the French Patisserie.  We forgave them the overcooked fish.
         Next night it was on to Cote Port. (Rue Jeanne D'Arc, Gustavia, Tel 0590 87 79 54  Lunch 12:00 to 2:30pm, Dinner 7 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday) We went to this lovely spot on the harbor with our dear friends and New York/St Barth commuters Nancy and Michel.  The boats bobbed outside while our corner table had views of the action on all sides.  I pride myself on my French, and both Nancy and Michel, who is a French chef of some renown, leapt at the night’s special. I understood the “Cochon” –which means pig--but not the preparation.  The pork came to the table in a grey slab. Even the dim light of the restaurant couldn’t conceal the array of piggy parts in the sizeable pieces of warm pate put in front of me.  My bad.  And lord knows, I love pork.  The outstanding characteristic of Cote Port is the positively gargantuan portions—they seem to have been Americanized.  Andrew and I shared a Tuna Tartar the size of a cereal bowl.  And it was very good. Andrew’s swordfish was slab-sized, perfectly cooked and sat atop a puree of sweet potato that covered the entire plate.  Not badly priced at all, dinner for two came in at 123 Euros. 
         Saturday night in St. Barth the locals eat out just like anywhere else.  The number of them at Santa Fe convinced me that we were in for a treat. (Santa Fe, Tel 0590 27 61 04. Lunch 12:00pm to 3 pm, Dinner 6:30 to 10 pm. Closed Wednesdays.) I had gone to this restaurant in Lurin last year and was thrilled with its offerings.  As I said earlier in this piece, chefs have bad nights and this, sadly, was one.  Andrew’s Foie Gras was pronounced excellent.  But in all honesty, it’s hard to screw up Foie Gras.  I chose Escargots.  I think everyone knows that these come out a can in most island kitchens.  Nonetheless, they were notable for their rubbery texture and lack of garlic-y butter.  But we soldiered on. 
I ordered the most expensive dish on the menu: a straightforward Sole Meuniere, surely one of any classically trained French chef’s earliest lessons.  At 42 Euro, what I got was a Sole Meuniere completely lacking in Meuniere.  No Beurre Noisette (brown butter) had touched this fish.  Instead it swam in regular butter.  It wasn’t helped by the waitress’ clumsy attempt at de-boning the fish leaving it looking like a pile of white meat on the plate. I refuse to show you how bad they looked.
Andrew’s scallops, which he insisted tasted just fine, were oddly presented under a kind of crepe topping.  Finally came dessert, almost a relief at this point in the evening.  We opted for Profiteroles.  Is it possible that Hershey’s syrup was used on this version?  Truly awful.  We hurriedly got the check and the tiny amuse-bouche, two rum soaked mini cakes were consumed on our way out the door. 
         Sunday used to be a day when it was hard to find anything but a hotel restaurants open. This is no longer the case.  Nevertheless, we went low key.   Andy’s Hideaway is distinguished by the following motto on its menu: “Corked Wine. Warm Beer. Lousy Food. View of the Carpark.”  Its British owner, Andy, has been a fixture here for years and attracts such a following that Lorne Michaels, though famous for creating Saturday Night Live, failed to make a reservation and was promptly seated in the parking lot.  It’s packed night after night by every kind of person on the island.  Our friends Nancy and Michel were there as was their house painter who swept Nancy into his arms for a Lindy Hop. The crowd all joins in rousing choruses of Andy’s favorite songs, most memorably “Sweet Caroline”.  This year, he’s updated his playlist to include “Gangnam Style” which he performs in Gangnam’s trade mark sunglasses.  The Hideaway's brick oven pizza is  outstanding.  With an unending choice of toppings and a thin crust, it’s as good as any on this island or any other.   The simple but lush green salad was so welcome in this land of saucisson.  Dinner ran us 75 Euros. That may seem like a lot for pizza and a salad.  And face it, it is.
         PaCri is Italian and moved from one hotel to the Blake’s Hotel Group’s island offering the Hotel Taiwana last year.  You really can’t beat the setting right at the end of Flamand’s Beach.  I have an almost hard and fast rule about Italian restaurant food when we’re at home in New York: we don’t eat it.  Perhaps the simplest cuisine in the world to cook, why should we?  At PacCri, we make an exception.   The Italian inflected menu makes the most of what’s on offer on the island.  So the dish isn’t at all what you’d find in Manhattan.  My pasta with local lobster, ‘langoustine’, was nothing short of spectacular.  
Andrew’s tuna tartare was pronounced ‘flawless’ and his saffron inflected gnocchi beautiful to look at. We went with our friends Jeff and Mark, people we’ve seen here year after year and become friends with. They too loved their dishes.  And we shared yet another funny moment with them: A singer of ‘soft rock’ accompanied by a man on a synthesizer, very kindly approached our table and asked if we wanted her to turn down the amplifier.  It had been not unbearably loud but could have been a little lower.  We thanked her profusely and said we wouldn’t mind if she would turn the sound down a little.  She agreed and returned to her microphone. She did not, however, ever turn the microphone down.  We had a good a laugh about it.  And what did the best meal on the island set us back: Over 200 Euros a couple.  But that was with much to drink.

         Every Tuesday night, Le Gaiac in the Hotel Toiny has a Fish Market menu with a prix fixe of 48 Euros.  Given that the Toiny is consistently rated as one of the best small hotels in the world and its dining room famous for its view, its service and its décor, this is a huge bargain.  The meal consists of 3 courses.  Andrew started with a Crudo of Daurade.  I had crab magnificently plated with cucumber and a chile sauce.  We moved on to Vivaneau (Red Snapper) and Yellow fin Tuna served with a choice of three sauces.  Beautifully cooked and presented, the service accompanying it was as good as it gets. 
Dessert was a Frozen Coconut Panna Cotta with Chocolate Sorbet for me and Fresh Berries and a Berry Panna Cotta with Basil Sorbet for Andrew.  The Basil Sorbet was a stand-out.  And all this for less than we spent almost anywhere else. 
         Lunch is an island tradition here and many of our friends stay home and cook nights, going all over the island for the midday meal. We usually lunch only once a visit, when it’s rainy or when we’ve had too much sun.  This year was no exception.  Nancy and Michel asked us to join them with their houseguest, Geoffrey, at La Gloriette, a reliable old Creole Restaurant right on the beach at Grand Cul de Sac.
          Unfortunately, the place was jammed with a long wait for a table. Instead, we headed next door to Le Sereno. Although now unrecognizable, it was the first place I’d stayed on the island in 1981. Completely done over by Christian Liagre in 2007, it’s physically gorgeous, almost as attractive as the buff and beautiful waitstaff, one server more handsome than the next.   
         The grilled calamari was beautiful if not very inspired.  The Caesar Salad that Geoffrey ordered was one of those dishes where you had to ask why it was deconstructed?  Its romaine lettuce was stacked up like wood at one end of the plate, the paillard of chicken at the other, the Caesar dressing to the side.  Fortunately Andrew’s Club Sandwich hewed to the tried and true way of making one so, unlike Geoff, he wasn’t forced to assemble his own. But the restaurant item that sank this particular ship was my Hamburger.  I’ll give the superb ‘frites’ full marks. But why anyone would make a hamburger with a pre-made patty and then have the nerve to charge 25 Euros for it is beyond my comprehension. (I suppose, I should add, why would anyone in his right mind would order a 25 Euro hamburger…but I did.)  Not too far from the back of my mind was the European horsemeat scandal that’s been continually in the news.  In all likelihood, this pre-made patty came out of Miami and not out of a horse barn at Longchamps.  But what self-respecting chef serves pre-made patties? An overcooked one at that!  For shame! And for 25 Euros! 
         If into every diner’s diary some rain must fall, dinner our last night on the island more than made up for my miserable burger.  Bonito was our favorite restaurant last year and, despite my vow not to ‘rank’ this year’s choices, hands down the best meal we ate.  The setting and ambience are part of its charm.  Overlooking the harbor, all blue and white and filled with pretty people, it’s a treat just to be there.  Then out comes the food.  The Peruvian teraditos which I featured in last year’s post http://www.chewingthefat.us.com/2012/03/15-things-you-must-eat-in-st-barth-fwi.html were well worth waiting an entire year to have again.  And this year there was a menu item that was a ‘degustation’ of four ceviches and teraditos.  Particularly high on our list was the terradito of scallops.  
Andrew’s main course of perfectly seared scallops with a caper sauce that will be attempted at home.  My seared duck breast with a light as air sweet potato puree was superb.  
And for dessert, a kind of private joke between Andrew and I: It seems that every time a competitor on “Chopped” is confronted with having to make dessert in a matter of minutes, “Pain Perdu” (French Toast) is his or her only offering.  Well, if you find yourself in this position, the version at Bonito should be your model.  The Pain is Brioche but there’s no egg involved, just a berry compote and a quenelle of pistachio ice cream. So very good, simple and I’m sure you can pull it together under the “Chopped” time limit.
         If the gods continue to shine down on us, next year we’ll head to St. Barth again for our 8 days of sheer sunny bliss.  A lot of our food experiences will be breakfasts after a run to the Patisserie. We’ll get in the Mini and take off for the beach where we’ll eat Valencia Oranges. Then home to lunches we make ourselves augmented with store-bought Tartines Speciales and Croque Monsieurs.  I’ll drink Petale de Rose (Thanks Joanna!) and Andrew will enjoy Champagne Americaine, which is what I call his Diet Coke down there.   We’ll still have to run our respective businesses and still have to crank up the WiFi a couple of times a day but we’ll be doing it in 82 degree weather poolside on a terrace overlooking the sea.  Late in the day, we’ll dress up a little, and take off for dinner somewhere old or somewhere new—somewhere where the food is good and the company even better.  Adieu St. Barth. Same time next year?