It wasn't just the sugary beaches and warm turquoise waters that winked at me. It was the self-proclaimed appellation as the "Cuisine Capital of the Caribbean" that drew me to the tropical island of St. Martin. Half Dutch, half French, what more idyllic a spot to experience the foods of both mother countries than this place?
Savoring visions of 16th-century Dutch masters' paintings of carpet-draped tables groaning under the weight of wild game, oysters, ham, and lobsters, I spent my first day combing the streets of Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch side. The closest thing I could find to authentic Dutch cuisine was a shop that sold Gouda. I checked my guidebook for restaurants: Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, American, French, German – even Moroccan. But nothing Dutch.
It was the irresistible aroma of garlic and plaintive strains of Edith Piaf that stopped my wandering. I eagerly climbed the steps to L'Escargot, a French restaurant housed in a colorful cottage on Front Street.
The luncheon selection was easy: snails. Plump and tender, some snug in their shells and dripping with garlic butter, others stuffed in cherry tomatoes topped with Roquefort, still more tucked in profiteroles and mushroom caps. Best I'd had since dining at L'Escargot Montorgueil in Paris.
Sampling today's dessert with the owner, Joel Moran, I turn the conversation to food, of course, especially French cuisine.
"But what about Dutch?" I asked. "Where are the Dutch restaurants?"
"None," said Monsieur Moran.
"But the island is half Dutch, and there are hundreds of restaurants here," I pressed.
"No, nothing," Moran responded.
Forget Dutch food, I was told. Everyone, even my cabdriver, said Grand Case, on the French side, was the place to go. I rented a car and went. Voilà! There, stretched along the Boulevard de Grand Case, in what was once a fishing village, was a gourmand's Valhalla. Here were dozens of unpretentious-looking restaurants housed in small, colorful wooden cottages.
Unpretentious, but gourmet. At Il Nettuno, a bouillabaisse-style fish soup was offered; at L'Auberge Gourmande, "supreme" chicken breast stuffed with Emmental cheese and served with morel sauce, gratin dauphines, and spring vegetables.
And so it went, for block after block. I returned, day after day.
It was only after my pants grew tight and my wallet lightened that I discovered "lobos," small open-air establishments run by locals. Cooked over barrel-shaped charcoal grills, some of the best, simplest, least expensive foods Grand Case offers come from these places. For less than $8, you can fill up on Creole shrimp, johnnycakes, coleslaw, crab back, ribs, and chicken. For a few more dollars, succulent lobster brushed with garlicky butter.
West Indian Lime Chicken
Simple to prepare, this dish combines the refreshing tastes of the Caribbean. Turn up the heat by adding additional pepper or red pepper flakes if you like. Try serving this with a green salad, French bread, and a tall glass of lemonade or iced tea, and the only thing missing is the sand between your toes.
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
15-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lime zest
3 tablespoons peeled, fresh ginger, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or red pepper flakes
1/2 cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves
1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds (optional)
Preheat grill or broiler.
Place chicken in a large bowl with 1/4 cup lime juice and oil. Toss to coat; cover and let marinate about 30 minutes.
In a small saucepan, whisk together remaining lime juice, coconut milk, cream, lime zest, ginger, salt, and either pepper. Heat, stirring, until mixture comes almost to a boil; remove from heat.
Grill or broil chicken breasts until cooked – 6 to 8 minutes – turning once.
Reheat sauce, being careful not to let it boil.
Transfer chicken to a large, warm, serving platter or individual dinner plates. Spoon sauce over chicken and top with cilantro, and optional almonds.