30 June 2006, Anglet

After the lovely breakfast at the Rosewood in the Grand Hotel at St. Jean de Luz, we walked to the other end of the beach from the port to admire the view from the point and to follow part of the "coastal botanical walk," where the posted labels cleared up many nomenclatural mysteries for me. After that, we drove north up the coast to do a scenic driving circuit out of Capbreton.

Capbreton vealBefore setting out on the circuit we explored Capbreton's one pedestrian shopping street and had lunch at the Café de la Port. I had my usual salad with gizzards, lardons, and foie gras, but this one was even larger than the usual gigantic lunch salad and, in addition, was smothered under a huge heap of crisply fried disks of potato! Delicious but way too much. David, on the other hand, was tempted away from the salad routine by the plat du jour, which was roast veal with "flageolets"—small, cylindrical beans that are greenish even when dried. It, and its flageolets, were superb (he let me have some). He had eaten at least half of it before we remembered to take the picture, but you get the idea.

Capbreton cafeThe driving circuit took us past several scenic inland ponds (one as large as Lake Jackson), then back to the coast and south to Capbreton. From there we set out for our hotel for the night, the Château de Brindos, in Anglet, a suburb of both Biarritz and Bayonne. It promised to be an adventure, since I had only the address of the hotel and the information that it was near the airport—no map or directions. So we did what you do in such circumstances in France, followed the signs toward "centre ville" and watched for signs directing us to the hotel. Fortunately, it worked; we found signs directing us to it and to any number of other establishments; some of the intersections were quite crowded with columns of little hotel signs.

The "château" is actually more of a large, moorish-influenced house, though the oldest parts have apparently been there since the 14th century. It's in an upscale gated community called the Clos de Brindos, and is itself walled and gate, so security is excellent. It is the latest aquisition by Serge Blanco, a big beefy John-Ringling-lookalike who used to be a professional rugby player. He's now a ready-to-wear (and other stuff) tycoon, on the International Rugby Board, and on the selection committee for the French rugby team called The Barbarians (I don't know whether that's the French national team or just a club of some sort). Anyway, that explains why the breakfast room is called the "Salon des Barbariens"—it has no obvious barbarian ties aside from two dreadful, amateurish paintings of assorted spears, shields, and bearskins that flank the door.

Brindos suite 1Brindos suite 2Our suite was truly impressive: The entry hall had doors leading to a half bath, the living room, and an antechamber to the bedroom. The antechambere opened onto, besides the bedroom, a huge marble-lined bathroom with a big bathtub (with telephone-receiver-type handsprayer) at one end, a separate enclosed marble shower stall at the other, and two sinks in between. The living room had seating for six or eight and a separate, curtained office alcove. It opened onto a large private terrace, again with seating for six or eight if you counted the chaises longues, shaded by a large canvas awning. The bedroom opened onto a separate private terrace, with a table and four chairs, from which you could look down through a skylight into the restaurant below. The whole thing faced onto a private lake—(ducks, coots, egrets, cormorants, wagtails, rougequeues, swallows (the kind with white breasts and white rumps; I forget which species that is); lots of water lilies. Flat-screen TVs in both the bedroom and the living room. WiFi throughout (but not free).

Alas, despite the magnificent surroundings, many little things weren't quite right, and the service could use some thought. The afternoon of our arrival, while David took a nap (one of his favorite vacation activities is sleeping), I went out to the terrace to work on the computer. The woven water-resistant covers on the chair cushions were completely dry, but the moment I sat down I got soaked—a small leak in the canvas awning had let dripping water completely saturate the thick cushion inside its cover. The other chairs were fine; I had just picked the wrong one. At dinner, I ordered a liter of Evian but I got Vittel (not my favorite, as it often has a fishy taste in summer); okay, many kitchens don't stock both, so I assumed they had only Vittel, but on the breatfast buffet the next morning was a liter of Evian! Throughout dinner, a nattily dressed young man, preternaturally cheerful to the point of creepiness—I called him "the well-wisher"—wished us "bon apetit!," inquired whether we liked our room, hoped we had had a pleasant journey, etc. He circulated through the dining room, doing the same for all the other tables, and sometimes took a turn through the lobby, welcoming arrivals and wishing them well. The rest of the waitstaff, the sommelier, and the maitre d' were scrambling, because the restaurant was completely full (we were only a short distance from Biarritz, and a large party from the Transversal Medicine meeting were there), but we never saw him carry a dish, take an order, or so much as refill a wine glass. The next morning, he was there at breakfast, wondering whether I had slept well, espressing great joy that I had, and wishing me a good day. He must have been either (a) Serge Blanco's nephew or (b) somebody mainstreamed from the local loony-bin who needed a job. Right from the start, we had requested a room with two beds, in case my snoring kept David awake. A quick check on arrival revealed that two beds did in fact lurk beneath the full-width bedspread; unfortunately, at bedtime, we found that the two were made up as one, with full-width sheets as well. Rather than call (and wait for) the maid service at 11 p.m., we disassembled and remade the whole thing ourselves. Then I discovered that, in moving my open suitcase from the bed so as to turn it down and leave our pillow chocolates, the maid had closed my suitcase without attaching the net that divides the two halves, leaving me no way to reopen it without dumping the contents of one half or the other, so I had to repack my suitcase. The sinks were so far from the edge of the counters that we had to bend forward uncomfortably to brush our teeth; I had to turn the cold-water handle on mine almost a full turn before any water came out; the drains were extremely slow because the stoppers just barely opened; the shower stall had nowhere you could rest a foot to wash it (but at least there was room to bend double). The breakfast buffet was a sad sight. Clearly this chef flunked "garnishing." For one euro less than the Rosewood, we got a flat, sparse, ungarnished assortment. The hot drinks were do-it-yourself, from urns. The hot-milk thermos was nearly empty and never refilled. A glass platter a foot and a half across held 1 thin slice of salami, 4 or 5 inch-wide slices of chorizo, and two small slices of smoked salmon, still on their separating papers. I ate the salmon and salami; they took the platter away and never brought it back. Next to it was a huge covered steam-table chafing dish in which I found (and left) four slices of limp bacon. One kind of bread (rubbery baguettes). The pastries were rather soggy, not as good as those at the Rosewood. There was a hot water bath for do-it-yourself boiled eggs, but no eggs to order. One kind of dry cereal sat out in the humidity in an open bowl. The house-made jams (both dull red and unlabeled, but recognizable to the taste as strawberry and raspberry) were served in large bowls, but no containers were supplied in which to carry a serving to my table (I took an egg cup from next to the water bath). The fruit salad was cut into 1/8-inch dice and was floating in a bowl of what looked like sangria. Definitely a breakfast buffet for barbarians. Hampton Inns do it better and include it in the price of the room! Finally, at checkout time, I went to brush my teeth and to fill the water bottle we carry in the car. The bottle was too tall for the sink, so I turned to the bathtub. Unfortunately, somebody (not us, since we never used the tub) had left the lever in the "shower" position, so when I turned on the tap, the ornate metal hand sprayer, which must have weighed half a pound, launched itself toward the ceiling like a rocket, flailing in all directions, bouncing off the large mirror beside the tub and off the back of the door, twirling in circles, and spraying a truly impressive quantity of cold water all the while! I couldn't catch it, but I managed to bat it away from my face a couple of times until I could dodge in through the spray and push the lever to the other side. Yeesh! At this point, the walls, mirrors, ceiling, my wash kit, and I were drenched and dripping. The floor was awash, and a few drops had even found their way around the door and into the wooden-floored hallway. (As I mopped those up, I noticed older water marks on the wood showing that the same thing had happened before). Clearly, the maids need to remember that step 1 in cleaning that bathroom is to push the lever to the "spout" position, in case the previous occupant turned off the hand sprayer at the taps rather than the lever. I was all packed, and putting wet clothes in the suitcase would only have invited mildew; it was a warm day, so I just wore the wet things, and they dried by lunchtime.

Aside from all these little glitches, we had quite a nice dinner in the hotel's restaurant (the reason we had chosen the place to begin with), marred only by the repeated visits of the well-wisher.

Amuse-bouche: A bouillon of lobster with tiny diced vegetables and a few fresh peas.

Brindos shrimpFirst course, David: A citrus-flavored tabouleh with roasted shrimp, in a creamy shellfish sauce, garnished with melon balls of four kinds, each the size of a pea.

First course, Anne: Slice of cold foie gras on a bed of chopped lemon aspic, accompanied by coarse sea salt, crushed dried piments d'Espelette, mango-melon salsa, and toast.

Second course, David: Crisply sautéed rouget on a bed of spring vegetables.

Brindos codSecond course, Anne: Thick filet of barely poached fresh cod on a bed of risotto of baby broad beans, surrounded by a lemon-butter foam and topped with a small piece of tempura of something (I didn't know the word and forgot to ask; a vegetable, I think).

Third course, David: Rare roasted breast of pigeon topped with foie gras and surrounded by a carrot emulsion.

Brindos sweetbreadsThird course, Anne: Lamb sweetbreads fried in an almond crust, each piece resting on a delicious slice of grilled eggplant, accompanied by a sort of canneloni of minced roasted lamb and three quenelles of ratatouille. That's not a jalapeno on top; it's a "piquillo," mild and sweet.

Brindos gaufreDessert, David: Sweet waffles sandwiched with strawberries and raspberries, topped with a puff of lemon-verbena whipped cream and a dense tangle of crispy spun sugar, in turn sprinkled with minced mint leaves. On the side, a cylinder of lemon verbena crème brulée.

Brindos crepesDessert, Anne: Classic, orange-flavored crêpes suzettes, flamed at table-side, accompanied by a sort of Irish-coffee glass filled with, from the top down, passionfruit mousse, whipped cream, and Grand Marnier ice cream! Wow!

After dinner, we went for a stroll around the grounds, and in passing along a little lighted woodland path and over a stone footbridge, we disturbed an enormous and rather indignant yellowish toad, on station where one of the ankle-level lights was attracting insects. He was too big and fat to hop, but he walked out of our way with deliberation and great dignity.

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