29 June 2006, St. Jean de Luz

Tuesday morning, before checking out of the Mercure Plaza, we had to go shopping. For the second time in our travel career, David's suitcase reached the end of its useful life in mid-trip, in France. We had therefore scouted out a nearby store that carried Delsey (his favorite brand). He selected a somewhat chubbier model than last time, smaller in profile but thicker. We trundled it back to the car along with our actual packed luggage.

Grande Hotel room That done, we set out for St. Jean de Luz, this time with the principal purpose of arriving there, and found Le Grand Hotel on the first try—it's the magnificent pink wedding-cake like building right on the beach. It's decorative theme is steamer trunks. Each room has at least one, the lining of which has been reupholstered in fabric that matches the wallpaper. A large flat-topped one is used as an occasional table in the lobby, the internal shelves and hangers in another display newspapers in the bar, one graces each stair landing, etc. Except for the matching fabric, they're all different.

St. Jean de Luz has a large pedestrian shopping district, if anything even more upscale than Biarritz's. The towns greatest claim to fame is that Louis IV was married there in 1660, to Maria-Theresa, the Infanta of Spain. They apparently got along just fine; when she died, Louis reportedly said, "This is the first grief she's ever given me."

Luz salad Lunch was at bistrot on a pedestrian shopping street called La Ferme de Marie Louise. David had a salad topped with a generous portion of shaved raw Seranno ham, and I tried a "salade des montagnes." It turned out to be a deep conical bowl containing, from the bottom up, a pool of wonderful balsamic vinaigrette, a pile of salad greens and tomatoes, a generous quarter pound of wonderfully creamy-textured peeled whole cooked potatoes (each the size of a pigeon's egg) that had been heated and browned in a skillet, some lardons, and a generous quarter pount of one-inch cubes of "fromage de vache." That's what they called it, just "cow's cheese." It was soft and very buttery, like havarti but more acid, and the bottom-most cubes were beginning to melt over the hot potatoes. It was terrific, but I couldn't eat the whole thing! For dessert, we split a 2-oz. praline-filled chocolate heart from a neighboring shop.

We walked all over the shopping district and down along the beach to the port to see the church where the marriage took place. At the end near the port, the beach is backed by a 10-foot high wall—the town has had, shall we say, a little trouble with storms over the years—so the ground-floor apartments and vacation rentals have no view of the sea. They open onto an alley between the beach-front buildings and the wall. The second-floor places all have little wooden bridges to connect their doors to the walkway along the top of the wall. Our hotel simply built its beautiful stone terrace at wall-top level and uses the space below for a parking garage and the new thalassotherapy complex it's installing ("Please excuse the construction noise underfoot between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.")

All along the beach, in fact all along most French beaches, are rows of surf racks. Only a few were in place when we arrived in Biarritz, but by the time we left St. Jean de Luz, July was approaching, and many more had been set up. Some belong to surf clubs and others to hotels, resorts, or surf schools. They look like long rows of playground swings sets, without the swings. Along the top are hooks from which surf boards can be hung. Between the surf racks, running perpendicular to the shoreline, rows and rows of cabana skeletons were being set up. They are low rows of 7-foot tall wooden T's, strung together with wire along the tops, such that beachgoers can rent them as changing cubicles. When you've rented your square—the space defined by the right (or left) branches of two adjacent T's—the rental people hang canvas from the wires to enclose it. You can rent it by the day, week, or month. The same people will rent you a beach umbrella, beach chair, or surfboard.

Our project for the afternoon, aside from the sightseeing, was to replace my Panama hat, which got too dried out (I neglected to mist it often enough during its long months of dormancy in its air-conditioned Tallahassee closet—apparently they should be stored in the bathroom or other moist place) and therefore split in a couple of places when somebody put a suitcase on top of it in the airline's overhead bins a couple of years ago. The split's been getting worse. Fortunately, St. Jean de Luz has two or three hat shops. At the first, we got lots of advice on how to care for Panamas and on how to repair (or at least stabilize) my existing one, but they had nothing I liked as a replacement. The second did better, though they couldn't come up with one just like the old one either. So now I'm the proud owner of two.

The Grand Hotel's restaurant, the Rosewood, is in fact the reason we chose to hotel—it's a G-M 16 and deservedly so. We were seated in the room with the view of the open kitchen, where two chefs tended, among other gear, a huge gas rotisserie. Not only is the restaurant beautiful, the kitchen handsomely appointed, and the food excellent, but the presentations are gorgeous. For example, David usually orders a glass of champagne as an apperitif, and it always comes it a lovely crystal flute, but at the Rosewood, it came with a single rose petal stuck to the condensation on the glass's foot. Touches like that pervade the place—the rooms, the restaurant, the lounges.

Amuse-bouche (to accompany the champagne—an apperitif is never served alone in France; some sort of munchy always arrives with it, and enough is brought for the whole table, even if only one person orders a drink): Canapés of finely diced artichoke mixed with fresh goat cheese; miniature dried-tomato quiches.

Amuse-bouche: Cold minted cream of green pea soup in a martini glass; miniature "nem" (egg roll) of ham and brebis.

First course, David: Terrine of rabbit, with toasts and a little assortment of house-pickled peppers, dried tomatoes, and onions. The chef makes the terrine himself and cooks it in little individual widemouth jars with classic lever-and-bail rubber-gasketed glass tops. When somebody orders the terrine, he grabs a jar from the cooler, pops the seal, and plops jar and all right on the plate.

Luz gambasFirst course, Anne: Three large gambas (the enormous local shrimp), individually skewered and grilled. The heads were left on, but the tails were peeled and wrapped in thin bacon before grilling. They were served hot, on top of cold cooked asparagus, with a little glass of house-made piment-d'Espelette tartar sauce, a streak of sweet piment d'Espelette purée, and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt, all on a thin slab of slate.

Second course, David: A four-rib chunk of rare roasted rack of baby lamb, with a very intense wine-and-lamb reduction sauce. On the side were two perfectly square crisply fried tiles of creamy white polenta flavored with brebis, each topped with a roasted fresh tomato.

Luz mackerelSecond course, Anne: Two small filets of local mackerel, sautéed crisp on one side, sandwiched with a stewed tomato mixture, and the whole thing balanced on top of a mound of slightly sweet onion and raisin chutney and surrounded by streaks of herb-infused olive oil.

Cheese: None tonight; giving our livers a break.

Dessert, David: A warm individual tart of fresh cherries accompanied by a glass of cinnamon-red-wine granité.

Luz vacherinDessert, Anne: A "vacherin" (filled meringue shell) consisting of a round almond cookie topped with pineapple-banana ice cream, to which four tear-drop-shaped crisp meringues were pasted, pointed ends up. Stiff whipped cream (speckled with vanilla seeds) was piped on to mask the cookie and ice cream and shape a "corral" at the top, which was filled with passionfruit purée, in turn topped with jumbled cubes of cold coconut bavaroise (gelatin-based pudding). It was decorated with a mint leaf, a thin strip of vanilla pod, and an ultrathin slice of fresh pineapple, candied and dried until crisp, and surrounded by pools of additional passionfruit purée. Yum!

As we suspected from the behavior of the waiters (who kept ducking out of the room toward the lobby), as we left the restaurant, the TV in the lounge was tuned to the pivotal France-Spain world cup match, tied at one all. Staff and guests alike were glued to the screen. Nothing like watching that particular match-up in a town about 10 km from the Spanish border! We didn't stay up for the end (it had about 30 min of playing time to go), but the papers revealed the next morning that France won.

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