May 10, 2010 -- Saying an island is a contender for the "culinary capital of the Caribbean" is no small feat, yet that's what some in the blogosphere have called the half-French, half-Dutch island of St. Martin/St. Maarten -- and for good reason.
If Paris' bustling open-air markets and patisseries are too far for your schedule, try the French side of St. Martin, where European expats and locals alike prepare dishes rivaling the bistros along Montmartre. The 37-square mile island seamlessly blends Caribbean influenced flavors with haute French cuisine. Offering over 37 gorgeous beaches, each with its own unique flair, doesn't hurt either.
Salt fish and Johnny cakes, conch sausage and cod fritters with a side of sauce chien (a spicy vinaigrette infused with herbs) are part of the island's local cuisine.
Affordably priced food prepared by the hands of locals abound in the affectionately known "lolos," simple roadside barbecue pits that emit fumes of fresh seafood, ribs and chicken. No lolo meal would be complete without a side of rice and beans, macaroni salad and fried plantain, with a Carib beer to wash down the less-than-$10 meal.
Grand Case holds the bulk of the best-known lolos along the water, including Talk of the Town and Sky's the Limit.
Rosie's in the seaside town of Marigot buzzes with reggae music while hungry passers-by gather on the corner to read a simple cardboard sign on a street signal that displays the day's special. Rosie's is the perfect place to pick up a meal before hopping aboard a ferry to neighboring islands St. Barth's and Anguilla.
Dessert lovers will be more than pleased with St. Martin's selection of French boulangeries, particularly in Marigot. Sarafina stood out as a favorite, and once in the open air bakery it doesn't take long to see why. The creative display of macaroons, profiteroles, napoleons and glazed tarts represent virtually every color of the rainbow. Large bites of fresh fruit and cake sit in creamy gelato flavors.
Grab a box full of sugary treats and walk along the marina for a relaxing afternoon. This is la dolce vita, indeed. Other favorites including La Sucriere (which is just steps away from Sarafina) and La Croissenterie (on the marina) are other sure bakery bets. But man cannot live on dessert alone. Or can he? Freshly made bread abounds in these bakeries, as well, from crusty baguettes to moist, chocolate croissants.
Ask anyone who has been to St. Martin of their favorite dining destination, and let the battle of la creme de la creme begin.
Le Cottage, L'Auberge Gourmand and the fairly new Spicy all sit in Grand Case and vie for the title of the best French restaurant on the island, which has more than 300 restaurants on its 21 square miles.
Tropicana is obviously a favorite when one witnesses the number of patrons filling up its seats on the marina among the plethora of other eateries in Marigot.
A simple salad consisting of egg, tomato, olives, onion and zesty vinaigrette gives way to an even fresher mound of greens.
The specialty of the day, a flat noodle pasta swimming in black truffle sauce (straight from France) and parsley encrusted chicken breast was stellar. The buttery undertone of the sauce and the almost impossible tenderness of the chicken created a lick-worthy plate.
Porc mignon (pork filets) covered in a brie croissant was perhaps the most soul-satisfying meal. Freshly made French fries (don't even bother asking for ketchup, you won't get it) were crisp and a perfect side dish. An after-meal dessert liqueur presented in a large vodka bottle settled the stomach and cleansed the palate with hints of butterscotch.
You won't leave Tropicana with looser pants, but you will most certainly leave happier than when you first arrived.
Spiga has the advantage of being one of the only Italian-focused restaurants on the French side. La Gondola competes from afar on the Dutch side, but time and again we were directed to Spiga. The establishment, which has the look and feel of someone's country home from the porch, sits on a quiet road. Service was attentive, and the ambiance was a nice change from many big cities overly loud restaurants.
A mozzarella appetizer looked more like art than food, and the creamy taste of the cheese complemented its three different sauces (pesto, truffle and balsamic vinaigrette) perfectly.
For an entree, the short rib was tender fall-off-the-bone good, but a cut of meat that can be found at many other establishments.
A tiramisu dessert paired with coffee ice cream was refreshing, but not standout-worthy.
A treat for any wine lover would be a trip to Bacchus, a wine distributor and restaurant in Hope Estate. The interior of Bacchus is simple and intimate. Wooden tables adorned with differing vases add a special touch to a modest decor. Patrons can take a tour of the wine cellar, which features 5,000 square feet of vintage wines from Burgundy to Bordeaux.
But where Bacchus really stole the show was with its food. Starters included a brioche toast with caramelized onion and a side of foie gras. The Croz-Hermitage wine from the Rhone Valley of France was a perfect pairing for the main course. A soup consisting of calamari, lobster and fresh herbs struck the perfect balance between creamy and light. Duck confit atop scalloped potatoes mixed with full strips of bacon was by far one of the best things my mouth has ever tasted. I would fly to St. Martin again just for this calorie-laden meal.
By far, the highlight of the trip was Poulet d'Orleans, which towers on a hill in the French Quarter. World-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain once ended his meal at Poulet by saying, "If you don't try this place, you are too dumb to live." Bourdain might be on to something.
Poulet is the home of Chef Tony Romney, who, though locally born, spent some time in Louisiana and once served French President Francois Mitterrand and U.S. President George H.W. Bush. His culinary mastery is apparent in the food, which he prepares while his children host.
The menu offers local dishes such as accras (seafood fritters) and boudin lambi (French Sausage of Conch with Creole sauce). Romney prepared a special appetizer platter for us, which included ribs, fish cakes, boudin sausage and soft shelled crab.
The standout among them all was, hands down, the ribs. Tender, with a sauce that could easily be bottled and sold at grocery stores nationwide, this was toe-rolling good.
For the main course, the house specialty and Bourdain favorite -- the house chicken covered in a tomato-based Creole sauce -- lived up to its reputation and then some. Carrots, sweet potatoes, corn and string beans accompanied the tender meat, which from its taste was undoubtedly locally grown.
A side order of rice and beans validated Romney's Louisiana influence, and I was instantly nostalgic for my family's southern roots. This was comfort food at its finest.
The inside of the restaurant resembled a family museum, but a spot on the outside terrace provided the best seat in the house.
Bottles of wine were reasonably priced and set the mood for a terrific evening of local food, with a remarkably talented host and chef.