St Maarten/St Martin
27 March 2004 Newsletter

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Princess Juliana: That is how most of us know her from having her name on the airport that has the call letters SXM here on the island. In truth, she became Queen Juliana shortly after WW2 and abdicated in favor of her daughter Beatrix in 1980. She ceased all public appearances about two years ago and died this week in Holland. She was a beloved monarch who showed little interest in pomp and circumstance and watched over her country and realm through the turbulent sixties as colonies struck out on their own. One of those colonies was this one, which has lowered its flags to half-staff, and never really has left the realm entirely. To this day, the most vocal opponents of the status quo merely seek a status apart from the rest of the Netherlands Antilles, but not the Netherlands. 
Weather and Beaches: Saturday stayed a bit hazy but was a was warm and sunny. Sunday morning had a few waves of showers, but was mostly sunny and warm. Monday was pretty nice, but we had a few photos to shoot in Philipsburg that used up most of our morning, a lunch at Old Captain, and some hot walking up and down Front Street to Fifth Avenue and The Place. If you need designer sunglasses, they have great selections and Martha found some lovely earrings at The Place that are hinged and reversible (white and yellow gold) with no posts to poke you. It was all worthwhile, but as we drove to Chez Pat on Galion Bay, it started to rain - considerably. By the time we got there, the tradewinds had blown the cloudburst over to Cupecoy and I got a nice beach shot and some others (details below) and a nice afternoon on the beach with some great snorkeling. Tuesday arrived with gray skies all day, but no rain, and so clear on the horizon that we could see the houses on Saba in the morning!  Wednesday was even better: a deep blue cloudless sky, little wind, calm seas, and a bit of beach from the parking lot at Ocean Club all the way to the NW end of Cupecoy. Thursday was also brilliant but a couple cloudbursts marred Friday. Today has lots of clouds out toward Saba, but none here.
Construction: The paper just reported that the Orient Express Company will put a $120 million dollar project into the corner of the lagoon in Cupecoy. This would not be the first announcement of a project in this area. This one may actually amount to something as OE owns La Samanna among others, and they own the land next to this on the French side of the border. There was no map or plan and no size was given, so it is unclear how much of Cupecoy's open space will be taken up by this project. On the other side of the road, Rainbow Beach, across from The Inn at Cupecoy, is in very slow construction. It's being put up by the Erato family who developed Pointe Pirouette. Tendal Real Estate has put a sign on the property to the east advertising The Cliffs. This fills in all available waterfront land between the golf course and Ocean Club.
Gasoline: We've been seeing photos in the paper showing gasoline prices approaching $3 per gallon in LA. I've seen some major stupidity on bulletin boards regarding gasoline pricing here. I really don't think you need to be a rocket scientist, but being an MIT-trained chemical engineer may be helpful, so here's the scoop: The Dutch side price is set in the capital of the Netherlands Antilles (Curacao), supposedly based on the price of oil plus various profits for refiners and distribution companies plus tax. That may work fine on an island-nation with a refinery (Curacao), but up here we have two nations and no refinery. Maybe they listen when St Maarten complains, maybe not. In any event, the current price is 1.17 Naf per liter. What's that? There are about 3.9 liters per gallon, and at the Shell stations, you get 1.75 Naf per US$, making this about $2.58 per gallon. Texaco gives 1.8 Naf per US$, so they are selling at about $2.51 per gallon. Not much difference and not much different from a lot of the US! French prices are pretty much based on an open market and competition between stations (about as much as in the US, which ain't very impressive) plus the French tax. Again, it's set by people far away with refineries. I've seen it going for 0.65 to 0.70 euro cents per liter. What's that? The euro has been bouncing around, but lately has gone from about 1.2 to 1.3 US$ per euro, making these prices $3 to 3.50 per gallon. It's surprising to see gasoline prices vary so much on such as small island, but the prices are really variations between Curacao and Paris, so it is worth knowing what the prices on both sides are. Previously I bought gas on the French side, but today I buy my gas at Texaco stations. The one in Cole Bay even has an air pump that works. 
Restaurant news: Mambo in Grand Case is having Créole Buffet on Saturday 3 April for 30€. If you haven't tasted chef Eric's cuisine, this would be the perfect opportunity. It appears that the Cappuccino Diner, previously the Boulevard Diner, is undergoing another facelift, probably associated with yet another ownership change. Speaking of which, Montmartre Restaurant has just been repainted on the outside. Not sure why, because I thought it looked wonderful. Now it looks wonderful in a lighter color. Karen tells me that they are about to change the menu a bit also. Stay tuned. La Diva on the back side of Marigot is now L'Esplette serving Basque and Créole dishes.  
Photo feature: There are some photos of the week's activities at a secret location not posted here. Subscribe to the newsletter to get the location. There are some sea grapes from a tree near Chez Pat and a milkweed near Scavenger's.
Wines:  The Thursday wine tasting at Vinissimo started with an 8€ NV bottle of Ch Calissane from Aix-en-Provence, a light summer wine. This was followed by a 2000 Alsatian Weinbach Muscat, slightly sweet, but quite drinkable on a warm afternoon. A 1998 Marques de Caceres white Rioja made from the viura grape reminded me of why I don't drink white riojas very often. Sylvain found a bottle of 2001 Meursault that was heavenly with a nose hinting of fresh grass and a long, lingering, lovely taste (29€). The red version of the Marques de Caceres, 92, reminded me why I do drink a lot of red Riojas (24€). We also tried Randall Graham's 1999 Domaine de Blagueurs, made with a syrah grape from southern France. It came with a Pays d'Oc appelation controlée but included Randall's usual puns. It was big and bold, but mostly young and sassy. At 13€ it also seemed a bit overpriced unless you really like syrah. For dessert we had Vendemarie October slightly sweet wine. This series goes to November and December, getting sweeter and more expensive. They're all good. This week's cheese surprise was a Selles-sur-Cher. It is a goat cheese from the Loire valley with an ashed rind. The same brilliant marketing mind that decided to call some of the finest goat cheeses crottin (literally, horse or mule dung) must be responsible for Selles-sur-Cher (Selle is usually translated as stool, and we're not talking about the milking stool). Steve Jenkins in his Cheese Primer points out the first translation, but left the second up to me.
On Friday François, previously the sommelier at Hibiscus Restaurant and now wine salesman at Philipsburg Liquor, invited us to a wine tasting at the Epicerie de Marie across from the stadium on the Grand Case side of Marigot. He was serving about a half dozen whites to go with the oysters that had just arrived from France. We started with a Vin de Pays made with the melon de Bourgogne grape and the chardonnay grape, an interesting combination of fruit and finesse. We also tasted a 2002 Chablis from Jean Marie Brocard that had the good crisp, flinty character that a Chablis should have. We also liked a 2002 Sancerre and a 2001 Macon-Village from Chameroy, but the real treat was a 1997 Muscadet. Muscadet has long been recommended as the perfect foil for seafood, with a crisp acidity that can cut through the oiliest fish to cleanse the palate. Most Muscadet is drunk very young, but good vineyards can age their wines considerably longer. The almost clear Muscadet takes on a yellowish hue and starts to develop a similarity to Chardonnay. Lest anyone think I was being unfaithful to Vinissimo, I point out that after Sylvain closed his store, he came here and sat next to Martha as we enjoyed the Epicerie's food and François's wine. It's a small island.

Unity Car Rental is sponsoring the current contest, which will run until 15 April. Just go to their website, find the link to sign up for the SXM-Info newsletter, click it, sign up, and you are entered. If I get there before you, you'll find a link to Unity car rental for the next contest. Obviously everybody that is getting this email is already signed up for the newsletter, but you are not automatically signed up for the contest. You do have to go to their website and click the email link to show you visited their site. Just tell me you are already on our mailing list, and I'll leave you signed up for the newsletter and just add your name to the contest list. You could win a $100 toward a week's rental from Unity. 
The Thai Garden gift certificate was won by crescdfd@some_email_address who has yet to respond. Please hold your bingo cards until this is validated.
Here is the list of future sponsors. We urge you all to sign up ONCE for each contest. Our clients want you to see what they have to offer. Go to their websites at the appropriate time, click the link, and you could be a winner. Look for future gift certificates from:
Temptation Restaurant - 16 April to 16 May - $100 off a meal for two
Vacation Suites - 17 May to 30 June - prize: 1 free week over the summer!
L'Auberge Gourmande - 1 July to 15 August - $100 off a meal for two
Sunset Café - 16 August to 30 September - $100 off a meal for two
Montmartre Restaurant - 1 October to 15 November - $100 off a meal for two
Sealine Charters - 16 November to 15 December
Chez Pat/Tropical Wave - 16 December to 6 January - $100 off a day at the beach: food, drinks, chairs, windsurf lessons, etc
Marci's Mega Gym - 7 January to 27 January 2005 - a week of gym usage for two
California Restaurant - 28 January to 17 February 2005
Escargot Restaurant - 18 February to 4 March 2005
Hot Tomatoes - 5 March to 26 March 2005
The Horny Toad Guesthouse - 27 March to 24 April 2005 - seven low season days for the price of five
Another contest: Hot Tomatoes has a contest on their website to kick off their combination lagoon cruise/dinner package. You can now take sunset lagoon cruise on White Octopus  and follow it up with a dinner at Hot Tomatoes. They are giving away pizza dinner with a bottle of red, but you have to go to the website and send in some comments. Somebody's going to get a pizza dinner with a bottle of red just for saying something that tickles our fancy. I talked to Brad last night and were looking for 25 entries. As soon as we get 25, we'll post them, and pick a winner. While you are there, look over Brad's site, check out the coupon, and take a look at the White Octopus.
On 20 Mar the euro was at 1.228 and today it's at 1.217. Big whoop, not much change here. French side restaurants with many costs in dollars and many American (or Canadian) clients have been offering more favorable exchange rates. Some restaurants offer a 1 to 1 exchange. This list includes California, Escapade, Balaou, Santal, Enoch's Place, Au Beaujolais, Rainbow, Oizeau Rare, and Pirate, Restaurant du Soliel, Pedro's (priced in dollars - no conversion ever), and Paradise View. Newcomers are Saint Germain and Petite Auberge des Iles on the Marigot Marina. Many restaurants will offer you a better rate than you can get on your credit card, so you can allow them to convert and charge in dollars. Note that California only offers 1 to 1 on cash purchases. As always, know what the euro is worth, what the restaurateur is offering for an exchange, and what the costs are on the menu. Finally, you are here to have fun and fine food, not complex financial calculations, so don't worry about it too much. 
On Saturday we headed to Belle Epoque to watch England beat Wales in Rugby and enjoy some moules frites. The moules frites and Stella Artois on draft were much better than the rugby match, if you were rooting for Wales. The moules were steamed in white wine, parsley, onion, celery, and beaucoup pepper. They were plump and very tasty and the remaining liquid was alternately sopped up with crusty French bread or just spooned up like soup.
On Saturday evening we went to a dinner sponsored by the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs local chapter at Claude MiniClub on the waterfront in Marigot. About 50 members and guests dined on the outside porch under clear skies. Our table had the Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch side and his wife, Norman and Susan Wathey of Kangaroo Court and Taloula Mango's, Spartaco Sargentoni from Spartaco, Fleur from Rainbow, Christine from Sebastiano, and other guests. Our dinner was the usual Saturday night buffet at the MiniClub, much as it has been for about thirty years, still the same, still good. The buffet line starts with three soups, French onion, fish soup, and conch soup. Next comes an explosion of salads and vegetables. Then the real fun starts: lobsters, grouper, duck, chicken, roast beef, leg of lamb, and pork. Given the euro rate at the moment, the cost is about $50, but it includes white and red wine. Most of the conversation at our table will not be repeated, but we did talk about how much the shoreline in Marigot has changed over the years. Most people remembered how the water was under the deck on which we were dining. Obviously, that was before the shore was filled in and a road and a parking lot were created. The movie Speed 2 created more changes on the shoreline and set the stage for the wonderful market area that now separates what used to be waterfront restaurants from the water.
Monday lunch in Philipsburg was at Old Captain, which regularly wins the best Chinese restaurant poll in The Daily Herald. We had the ten piece sushi platter and a Kung Pao chicken dish as we gazed over the palms to Great Bay. Molly stopped in as she is now running Indiana on Kim Sha Beach and Mario is out at Oyster Pond. The food is still fine as most of the staff has been there for years. With a couple beers, the bill was $40 with a bit extra added to the 15% tip that is already added to the bill.
Monday night we visited Ricky at Sitar. This dinner was even better than the previous one. The crispy garlic nan (flatbread) was full of flavor. Chana masala (chick peas and red sauce) and Tava mushroom were also a blend of interesting flavors and textures. I'm not sure about the chicken saag (tender chicken with spinach and lots of spices including a hint of mint?). Martha loves it and I ended up using the nan to sop up the sauce, but it is different. With rice and a couple beers our dinner was only $48 and more than enough. Remember, you can sit at the front windows and watch the show at Cheri's. That's as close as I'll ever get.
Tuesday night was at Montmartre Restaurant in front of the Atlantis Casino. There was a special of sausage in a brioche with a bit of foie gras plus oyster mushrooms and a bit of salad. The brioche had the sausage baked into it and more sausage with a slightly spicy red sauce drizzled atop. The oyster mushrooms were sautéed, probably with some veal stock. The foie gras was melt in your mouth delicious and even the salad was made of good lettuce and a few cherry tomatoes with a nice light vinaigrette. Sausage is essentially the bottom of the food chain and foie gras is about as elevated as one can get, so this was a strange, but very tasty combination. There is a photo on the website. This combination of powerful flavors required a powerful wine so we chose the 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Mont Redon. They are a large, reliable maker of good Rhone wines and this is one of their better efforts. It certainly didn't overpower my ribeye with a tart Béarnaise sauce and roasted garlic with a myriad of vegetables or even Martha's fisherman's pot, a mixture of several fish (shrimp, scallops, salmon, and more) in a saffron lobster bisque with a pastry top. Karen says she will be getting some plants in pots to screen off the outside tables from the road, now that the outside paint job is finished. When that happens, the courtyard will be a lovely spot.
On Wednesday evening we had a wonderful dinner at Spiga at the far end of Grand Case. There are a few tables on a small porch and several more in a beautifully restored Créole cottage. A few newsletters back, I was musing about what made restaurants good and thought that having owners in the front and back of the house was helpful, mentioning Mario's Bistro, Antoine's, Temptation (Dino in the kitchen and mom in the dining room), California, and on the smallest scale: Mambo and Maëva. Spiga certainly fits that profile. Ciro does a great job in the kitchen and Lara, his wife, runs the front. It helps that Lara is the daughter of Livio who started Da Livio in Philipsburg and that Lara and Ciro met while training in some of the finest places in Europe, but the training is over. This is their restaurant and they intend to make it one of the best on the island. They are making a name for themselves with fine Italian wines at good prices, aided by a 1.1 to 1 exchange rate. We started with a 98 Montepulciano from Carpineto (39€) and a warm scallop and shrimp ravioli in a orange sauce (12€). Normally, I wouldn't think of an orange sauce on seafood, but Ciro put a light touch on it and added a bit of dill for a dish so tasty I used the crusty bread to sop up every last bit of sauce. The sauce also added enough flavor to a seafood dish to make it stand up to a rather full bodied, but smooth, wine. Martha had a tuna special (22€) and I had the Pappardelle off the menu. The tuna was a prime specimen, prepared just above raw with a pepper sauce and a tasty zucchini and shrimp risotto. The al dente, home-made pappardelle came with braised beef, red and green sweet peppers (the colors on the Italian flag), and leeks. It was a very interesting dish with many textures and tastes, a genuine bargain at (17€). We finished with a couple coffees and only had a bill of 100€ or $110. Fine food and great service in a lovely place at a great price.
For lunch on Friday we stopped at Oizeau Rare again. Same bottle of Cotes du Rhone (23€) and the same tuna tartare with home made pomme frites for Martha, but I branched out to a tasty lasagna with shredded beef and a green salad. Same total bill of 55€ which was $55 by virtue of the 1 to 1 exchange rate. I took some interesting photos in of the garden surrounding the waterfalls that grace two sides of the dining room. They'll show up in a photo feature soon.
We were going to go to dinner at Hot Tomatoes, partially because of the guitar player, but the wine tasting at the Epicerie de Marie led to a few plates of oysters to go with the crisp white wines on display. We tried Marennes, Bretons, and Normandies that had just arrived. A slightly spicy mignonette and a squeeze of lemon were all that was needed (plus several glasses of wine) for a great start on dinner. For what it is worth, we liked the Normandies the best, but taste them yourself. Good crusty bread was supplied with a bowl of pork rilettes for our main course. Dessert was a cheese tray with three of my favorite cheeses: Saint Nectaire, Reblochon, and Tome de Savoie (and I didn't even ask for them) plus a chevre and a handful of walnuts. François obligingly brought over a 2001 St Joseph from Domaine Gonan (a chewy red Rhone) for the cheese course. More than enough to eat and drink and we only paid $75.
A word about epiceries and this one in particular. First, epice is spice and epicerie is generally translated as grocery with epicerie fine being a delicatessen. Delicatessen comes from Delicate and Essen (to eat in German), thus delicate or fine eating. This is definitely an epicerie fine as the contents of this establishment are limited but great. We have it listed under groceries on the website, but after this escapade, we will add an entry under restaurants. Basically it is a large room with various coolers on the sides holding lots of wonderful comestibles plus a quite a bit of wine. In the center of the room are two large picnic tables and a round table built around an upright wine cask. Total seating is about 20 and you find a place, sharing space with whoever is there. They are open for lunch, serving a plat du jour, and early dinner, usually closing at about 8 PM. It is family-owned and run with three generations working on this particular evening.