St Maarten/St Martin
1 January 2004 Newsletter

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Weather: It is was rainy at the start of Christmas week, but you don't have to shovel it and it's still warm.  The rain also leads to green hills, rainbows, and swarms of butterflies on the coralita growing alongside the roads. One of the worst rainstorms came on 27 Dec. It was cloudy all day and several inches of water came down in a few hours. The wind shifted to westerly, dropping the temperature into the 70's and causing planes to take off to the west (out over the carib). By 30 Dec it was fairly clear, but not hot.
Beach: Cupecoy is still here. The NW end has pools and not much sand, but there is quite a bit heading south toward the monolith. There is even some at the next tiny cove and a bit behind Ocean Club and Sapphire.  Simpson Bay beach is in fine shape. We were at the Horny Toad Guesthouse (www.TheHornyToadGuesthouse.com) for Christmas dinner and checked out the beach. No problems on Simpson Bay and the Toad looks better than ever. Burgeaux Bay on Beacon Hill (south of Caravanserai Resort) is filling in a bit. Orient is slim in the middle, but Pirate (www.SXM-restaurants.com/orient/pirate) has a row of chairs, as does Paradisio. Tropicafe and Continent would have chairs except they burned to the ground. Probably not a weather related phenomenon.
New since last year:  Bombay Brasserie finally seemed to be open in Grand Case. Sitar at Atlantis Casino is closed. Pineapple Pete in Simpson Bay East (in the former Charolais space) is run by Pierre who was a manager at the Greenhouse in Pburg. Flo in Cul de Sac now appears to be Au Sud. Also in Cul de Sac, Cotonier seems to have failed yet again. La Diva has been sold and may be coming back to life, but without the original chef/owner. Indochine in Sandy Ground has been replaced by La Plage, fashion restaurant - your guess is as good as mine. Endoit (The Place, at least in French) has moved from Rue d'Holland to the space formerly occupied by Alibi in the center of town. Peche Mignon, the bakery in Sandy Ground, is now Chefs du France, doing catering and take-out. Splash, Bill and Phil's new restaurant in the former Village Baker across from Atrium is closed for renovations over the holidays. I doubt it.
Most Americans are avoiding the French side for groceries, but we did find whole, frozen French farm-raised chickens at Magasin du Pont for about $5. They are quite large (about 5 pounds) and we had a dinner for four with about half a bird left over. For New Years, we got a cote de veau, essentially prime rib from veal for about $11 per pound - not cheap but very good. The smoked tuna appetizer came from Ram's in Cole Bay at $30 per pound, but a little goes  a long way. Also at the Ram's we found lovely frozen tuna steaks for $4 per pound.
We stopped at Triple D in Simpson Bay to look for our cheap wine. The Bourgogne Pinot Noir from Maison Forgeot NV is still there and now priced at 13.30 NAF or about $7.40. It does not compare with the wines we get from Vinissimo, but is quite drinkable. Next to it was another Bourgogne at the same price, Domaine Champs Perdrix 2002 (Partridge Field). We got one of each, tasted them side by side, and couldn't see much difference, so now we have two cheap burgundies to choose from.
While we are on the subject of cheap, but good, wine, I should mention the 2002 Straccali Chianti available at Rams (in Cole Bay, but probably in Pburg also) for about $8.25. It won Wine Spectator's best buy award last spring and rightly so, says the guy with a glass in his had as he types.
For New Year's, we had a bottle of champagne that we brought from the states, not exactly planned, but leftover from a nine day vacation in Florida. It was great with the smoked tuna ap. The dinner, with garlic mashed potatoes and oyster mushrooms was accompanied by a 1992 Bonnes-Mares from Mommessin supplied by Vinissimo (www.SXM-Shopping.com/vinissimo) for a mere $45. There are a few similar bottles in the shop, but they won't be there after I stop in tomorrow. I'm generally not a great fan of Mommessin as I think that their name may be bigger than their wines, but this eleven year old Burgundy from a poor vintage was smooth as silk and fairly long lasting. There was a bit of champagne left for the traditional midnight fireworks at Maho that we can see from our back balcony. However, the building just south of Sapphire is owned by the owner of Rouge et Noir Casino and he puts on an even bigger show that is significantly closer. All in all, a great meal, fine wines, an excellent fireworks display, and no driving! Happy New Year!
SXM-Info and Rainbow Cafe (www.Rainbow-Cafe.com) are still running a contest for a $100 gift certificate. Just go to their website, find the link to sign up for the SXM-Info newsletter, click it, sign up, and you are entered. Obviously everybody that is getting this email is already signed up for the newsletter. Just tell me you are already on our mailing list, and I'll leave you signed up for the newsletter and add your name to the contest list. You could get $100 off your next meal for two at Rainbow. Even if you don't win, you should check out the great menu and wine list. Add in a great view and good service and you will have one of the best meals you can find on the island. Only one entry per email address, please.
Happy New Year, the Euro hit a new high against the dollar, almost a  30% premium. Last week we reported that California is offering 1 euro for 1 $ on cash, and Rainbow is doing 1 to 1, even on credit cards. Christian at Sol Ú Luna reports that they are offering 1 euro for 1 $ starting at Christmas and running through the high season. We can add that La Marine is offering 1 euro equals 1.1 dollars. Note that some restaurants have repriced their menu downwards, rather than participate in the floating exchange rate shuffle. You can imagine that offering  1 euro for 1 $ is as upsetting to someone from Europe as it is gratifying to those of us who shop (or, more importantly, earn) in dollars.  The important thing is to know the exchange rate that you will get from the restaurant and calculate out the cost of the dinner. Too much calculation is bad for you, especially in the pursuit of gastronomical happiness. But you should find out if the restaurant is offering a good rate for cash, credit cards, or both.
On Monday 22 Dec, we went to La Marine (www.RestaurantLaMarine.com).  It is still one of the prettiest restaurants in Grand Case and it has one of the largest dining rooms running parallel to the water affording waterfront tables for almost all patrons. I've put new photos on the website, including a composite of Grand Case Bay with the two pronged hill rising up from Molly Smith Point on the west. There is also a sunset shot  that is breathtaking. This is not hubris, as I did not take the shot, but I like it so much that a print is taped to my desk here at Sapphire.
We started with a consultation on the wine. Camille said that Francois, the former wine steward at Hibiscus, now manager of wines at Philipsburg Liquor, helped to pick out lesser known (and therefore less expensive) wines from good producers. We went with a 2001 Pommard from Leroyer Girardin for only 38.50 euros. A quick check of two other restaurant wine lists shows Pommards at twice this price. The wine was quite good and had no trouble with our sautÚed shrimp in soy and coriander sauce with Asian risotto and our main courses. this appetizer is typical Gilles, the chef. He frequently blends in Asian influences and in this case, it made a wonderful dish. The shrimp were tasty from the start, sometimes hard to find in this age of farm-raised shrimp, and spiced up just a bit. They circled around a risotto that owed more to Asia (via shiitake mushrooms and spices) than to Italy. Our main courses were shredded quail meat, fresh foie gras, and truffle in puff pastry with four quail legs surrounding the pastry and a tureen of tasty sauce on the side and a duck and potato cake with duck breast slices in cocoa and black pepper sauce. I know the cocoa sounds a bit weird in a main course, but the reason that chocolate is so expensive is that the concentration of cocoa in a cocoa bean is not great and the extraction process is difficult. Gilles adds a few beans to the sauce and there is barely a hint of their flavor. The intrepid may actually eat one of the beans. The taste is quite mild but the texture is not my favorite. Both dishes were very good and benefited from the lovely Burgundy. They were priced at only 21 euros, part of the reason that La Marine is offering 1.1 dollars per euro rather than a more generous 1.0. All the main course prices are 24 euros or less, except for lobster. Camille added a complimentary digestif of Armagnac and we left a mere $108 for a lovely meal on the water.
Christmas eve dinner was at Bistrot Cara´bes (www.bistrotcaraibes.com), always one of our favorites. Amaury and Thibault are still there at the corner or restaurant row and the entrance to the center of town. There is parking on the right and the lot is offering 1 euro = 1 dollar. Several restaurants will deduct your parking cost from their bill. It doesn't hurt to ask. We went with our neighbors in unit 255, which is usually available for rent at www.SXM-Hotels.com/sbc255. Their ap was the goat cheese in puff pastry and ours was the house-smoked salmon. We added a bottle of Drouhin's Rully, a crisp white wine and sampled all around. I still say this is the best smoked salmon I have ever had. For main courses, we had two fisherman's platters in a lobster sauce, bouillabaisse style, lamb chops on a bed of creamy garlic mashed potatoes with tomatoes, asparagus, and butter beans in a reduction sauce, and the fresh French sea bass on a bed of carrots and asparagus with a light creamy sauce and a tomato caper sauce. The fishermen's platter is on the menu, the lamb chops are a slight variation of those on the menu, and the sea bass is a special that is almost always available. A bottle of Crozes-Hermitage from Chapoutier helped everything along. It was a very busy night, but Amaury took the time to explain that they were changing the wine list and the Crozes-Hermitage from Jaboulet on the list had been replaced by the Chapoutier. All the meals were very good and made better by extras like the strings of saffron in the fisherman's platter, the peeled tomato flesh in the lamb dish, and the extra tangy tomato caper sauce for the seabass. After dinner drinks were offered and the bill came to $108 per couple using the approximately correct 1.2 $ to the euro exchange rate. Bistrot Cara´bes has lowered prices and we found that this meal cost about the same as it would have last season. Visiting Europeans must be loving the new exchange rate.  Some restaurateurs have lowered their prices, some are giving good exchange rates, and some are making extra profit per dish, but probably lower gross. Your bottom line should be how many dollars come out of your pocket for what kind of quality, not how the number of dollars are determined. Bistrot Cara´bes still seems to be one of the best values on the island.  
Friday night dinner was at Sol Ú Luna (www.SoleLunaRestaurant.com) in Cul de Sac. It regularly gets voted most romantic restaurant in the Daily Herald's reader's poll. The setting, on a rise overlooking a pond with Orient and hills in the background, is lovely and has been considerably enhanced by plantings that Christian and Brigitte put in when they started the restaurant several years ago. The interior decoration is also wonderful, although most people dine on the wraparound porch among the plantings. The menu was always good, but has been tweaked by Christian over the years and the wine list has improved dramatically. There are still wines in the 20 euro range (currently $20 for those who pay cash) especially from Christian's native Provenše. The basic list of about 30 wines includes five champagnes, as many celebrations occur here, six whites, several rosÚs, nine Bordeauxs, and a half dozen Burgundies. The Prestige list contains seven older and more expensive wines (90 to 450 euros). We had arrived at 5PM to take some photos for the website before the sun set. Brigitte has tweaked the interior a bit with more opulent curtains and some very impressive table settings, napkins, chairs, etc. There are new photos on the site. After a tough half hour of shooting, we repaired to the sitting area in the back and downloaded the photos to the computer and went to work. Christian was sure we needed some of his freshly made patÚ de foie gras and a couple glasses of wine. I'm not sure the foie gras was an absolute necessity, but most of my websites have benefited from a glass or two of wine. The holidays in France are the time when the most decadent foods appear and fantastic (and expensive) menus herald in Christmas and the New Year. Oysters and foie gras are everywhere. This particular patÚ de foie gras was heavenly, richly flavored yet light, spreading as if it were butter on the toasted baguette slices. By 7 PM we had worked through the photos and moved to a table on the porch. While the sun had set an hour and a half earlier, it is still pleasant to sit in the night air, seemingly in the garden, as the lush plantings come up over the porch railings.  As mentioned, a patÚ de foie gras was available as a special and as foie gras was thick on the ground over the holidays, a fresh piece could be sautÚed and served warm. We choose one more appetizer from the list of nine, the goat cheese terrine with red bell peppers, eggplant, onion confit, and pesto (11 euros). It was a wonderful blend of rich flavors and textures aided by a bottle of Bouchard's 97 Volnay premier cru Taillepieds (65 euros). At that price, they bring out the Riedel crystal. Our dinners, chosen from the ten on the menu were a sushi-grade yellow fin tuna, cooked very rare, on a bed of spinach, wakame seaweed,  and braised endives in a soy-based sauce and sweetbread and oxtail chunks supporting a slice of pan seared foie gras in a merlot sauce. The tuna was exquisite, as always, and the sweetbread and foie gras dish was a wonderful addition to the menu this season. We added in some coffee and they added in some rather tasty rum (mine with a coffee been was quite nice). With a 1 to 1 exchange rate, the meal would have been $141, or considerably less than $100 for the wonderful meal and still reasonable if we had been a bit more conservative on the wine.
On Sunday 28 Dec, we drove through the first road out of Pburg past the American School and the now closed house of ill-repute to Dawn Beach. Don't do it. The far end of this road is in terrible shape. Take the next turnoff and come back to Dawn Beach to visit Scavenger's (www.SXM-restaurants.com/orinet/scavengers on the site of the old Dawn Beach Hotel. Marla is still the Grill Goddess and Mike was actually working the bar. We had a few drinks and talked to a couple who had stayed at the hotel in the early 80's. They allowed as to how it had changed a bit in 20 years. The truth is that it changed completely on 5 Sep 95 when Luis hovered over the island with winds reaching 200 mph for 36 hours. We made an appointment to come back in a couple weeks to look at an apartment that Mike wants to offer for rent on the www.SXM-Hotels.com website. It's a lovely location, and barring force 5 hurricanes, one of the best snorkeling spots on the island.
We headed north to Orient, entering at the northern end at Bikini and turned south to Kakao but it was almost impossible to get a parking spot and impossible to get a table on a Sunday afternoon. Good for them. We continued south to Pirate (www.SXM-restaurants.com/orient/pirate). It was a bit hard to spot as the pirate on the water tank was missing. It turns out that the fire that destroyed the neighboring beach bars did considerable damage to Glen's kitchen. It's back together and Sylvie, the kitchen wizard, is back at work. She turned out some nice grilled swordfish for us ($10) with salad and fries or rice and peas. They do have a few chairs and a coupon on their site so you can get them, an umbrella, and a couple drinks for only $10 with a couple lunches. 
We went to Domaine de l'Amandier  (www.GrandCase.com/amandier) for dinner with our neighbors on Monday. The restaurant received a nice write-up in the December Bon Apetit from Jinx and Jefferson Morgan. Amandier is an amazing collection of buildings: a tapas, bar, a martini bar, a boutique, a spa, a sundeck with a pool, three dining rooms, a large lobster tank, and some place for the chef. Jinx liked the food while Jefferson seemed to like the ambiance around the pool and small beach area. I'm not fluent in French, but in this case, I think ambiance translates as topless.
We had talked with Cedric, the manager, when we made reservations and he told us about the Bon Apetit write-up and he also mentioned that the chef had changed. However, he liked his new chef better, saying he had been waiting five years for a chef this good.  The menu is a bit longer, possibly a bit fancier, and even cheaper than last years model. Even though they had revised prices downward, they were still offering 1.15 as the exchange rate. That is still 10 to 15% better than one would get on a credit card. The bottom line is indeed the bottom line, and ours read $117 for a complimentary lobster bisque amuse-bouche, a sashimi-grade ahi tuna tartare with soy sauce and a hint of vanilla (excellent tuna and interesting flavors),  osso bucco with morels and garlic mashed potatoes, and duck breast with mago and island mashed potatoes (sweet and white potato). We split a bottle of Chablis and a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage and had coffees all around. That seemed like a pretty fair price to pay for such a good meal. Our neighbors had the duck and the snapper with no complaints.