23 June 2006, Biarritz Part Deux

So we set out to explore the place, beginning our usual collection of little folders and fliers advertising tourist attractions (reptilarium, museum of the sea, scuba diving excursions, casino, etc.—alas, David says not a chance I could talk him into the reptilarium), visiting the tourist-information office for a city map, shopping for postcards (the going price around here seems to be 0.35 euros, a little high, though the beautiful water-color ones at the tourist office go for three times that), aquiring "first necessities" (beginning with the new GaultMillau restaurant guide), and scouting for a dinner venue—the reservations at serious restaurants begin the second night.

At the little bookstore where we bought the restaurant guide, David picked up a card for the restaurant across the street, La Maison Blanche, whose monumenal street sculpture I was already admiring. It sounded good, so we crossed to have a look; I read the posted menu while David looked it up in the GaultMillau: 13/20, a good first-night choice, so we made a reservation on the spot (David asked to make sure that jacket and tie weren't required, since we had only the clothes we wore for the flight).

Plaza Hotel We then strolled down to the sea and along the Grande Plage (Grand Beach), Biarritz's tourist nexus (catching this nice view, from the beach, of our hotel and, to its left, the new town hall, built on the site of the old one, now demolished, where my mother's parents were married in 1918). Surfers were riding waves at least as large as the ones in San Diego, and all the little stands selling French beach food (Belgian waffles, ice cream, crêpes, hot dogs—called "hot dogs" even in French) were up and running, but the place wasn't overrun with tourists yet, because French vacation season doesn't start until 1 July. In fact, the tourist office told us that the city walking tours, now discontinued for lack of participation, only operated in July and August even when they were popular.

When we reached the casino, we discovered a large banner explaining why our flight was and our hotel is full of Americans wearing pocket protectors. This week, Biarritz is hosting the International Meeting on Lithium Batteries. Chemical engineers of all ages roam the streets in packs.

Our choice of restaurant turned out to be a good one, if rather expensive for its G-M ranking. It wasn't busy (though several parties of lithium battery people showed up), because the World Cup is in progress. Restaurants suffer from the competition—no French person, and no tourist except Americans, will go out to dinner during the cup unless he can be assured of watching the evening's match. So even this white-tablecloth-and-heavy-silver establishment had mounted a big-screen TV in one corner and was offering a special cut-rate "World Cup menu" in an attempt to lure customers. On our after-dinner stroll, we passed bar after bar full of cheering patrons wearing funny hats (matching their teams' colors) and watching TV screens of sometimes ridiculous size.

Gambas David ordered the World-cup menu, and I ordered à la carte. After an "amuse bouche" of tender rings of squid in a sherry sauce, he started with "crisp prawns and ham," which turned out to be two packets, each consisting of two very large shrimp wrapped together in thin slices of Spanish-style ham and fried crisp on both sides, accompanied by a little mesclun salad and "melon gaspacho" (a slender 4"-tall bottle of cold juice of orange Charantais melon with herb shreds in it, to be drunk through a straw). He thought the ham overpowered the shrimp (and gave me the melon juice, which he detests). I started with thick slices of foie gras (fattened duck liver) sautéed very briefly and served with small Belgian endives, grilled and braised, in a buttery, slightly sweet wine sauce. Perfect.

David's main course was medium-rare grilled boneless duck breast with an arugula salad, summer squash sautéed with dried "piments d'Espelette" (sweetish pointed red peppers that are a local speciality), and three or four absolutely ethereal little fried gnocchi, so tender, creamy, insubstantial, and full of different flavors that they melted instantly on the tongue and left you wondering, "Wow! What was that?!" I had veal sweetbreads braised with crayfish tails in a marsala sauce, accompanied by a little casserole of rigatoni baked in a morel cream sauce. The sweetbreads were excellent, but the crayfish tails were completely overwhelmed. The pasta was outstanding, but the whole thing needed a counterpoint—a little green salad or something less rich for contrast.

StrawberriesFor dessert, David had "declension of peaches"—a small glass of very sweet peach juice, a ball of peach sorbet, a moist miniature peach spongecake, and a garnish of peach dice. I had the strawberry dessert—a thin, fragile vanilla short-bread cookie spread with vanilla custard and shingled with slices of ripe strawberry, accompanied by strawberry-and-vinegar chutney (wow, a revelation) and a ball of goat's milk ice cream laced with basil shreds. All excellent.

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