Saturday, 14 October 2006
Saturday morning we took advantage of our free run at the hotel's wonderful buffet breakfast. It's actually much easier to exercise restraint in the face of so many delicious choices when you don't feel you have to get your $22's worth. I had (restrained portions of) vegetable frittata; sharp cheddar; house-smoked salmon with cream cheese, onions, and capers; tasso-laced grits; bacon; and the outstanding house-made pecan sticky buns I look forward to every year. The hotel's own Ritz-Carlton–label bottled water was provided courtesy of the housekeeping department, which left each of us a small bottle along with our pillow chocolates the night before. You can buy it in the coffee shop, and the parking people give it away to guests departing by car on hot days. I don't know why the hotel doesn't just have some of it put up in presentable glass bottles to pour during dinner instead of that awful Italian stuff.
We had an early-afternoon tee time at Laurel Island Links, in southern Georgia. We'd never been there before so we left in plenty of time and located it without difficulty. We had some time to kill before our tee time, so we set off, back south a little ways, to see "Historic St. Marys," which we'd seen advertised on our way north. We followed, for quite a distance through subdivision after strip mall, the series of little official state of Georgia signs indicating the direction to Historic St. Marys. Finally, we came to a sign saying "Welcome to Historic St. Marys!" right in front of another strip mall. So we kept on driving (all the while paralleling what the map called "King's Bay Naval Submarine Base" off to our left somewhere), past strip malls so new their parking lots hadn't been landscaped yet, past subdivisions still under construction, for a good 15 more miles, craning our necks for a sight of something vaguely historic—well, yeah, the cinderblock building on that used-car lot looks like it might have been there more than five years, and those railroad tracks we crossed seemed pretty old, and there's an antique shop over there. We were beginning to wonder whether "Historic" was used in the sense of "formerly called . . ." when we suddenly found ourselves face to face with a huge old dark-red brick building, several stories high, with a tall, old-fashioned brick smokestack (apparently idle), completely unlike any structure for miles around. It reminded us of nothing so much as the cavernous disused textile factories of Lowell, Massachusetts. The road took one more bend, and abruptly we were among venerable live oaks and old Victorian clapboard houses.
We were slowed at the edge of town by a flagman in a hard hat and yellow vest holding a "caution" sign, before we noticed that he was, in fact, a scarecrow, as was the similarly clad guy on a ladder, stringing fairy lights in the live oak behind him. We had happened on the first weekend of the (presumably annual) three-weekend St. Marys Scarecrow Extravaganza (leading up to Halloween), and the town was full of 'em, standing in yards, by the roadside, on bus-stop benches, in front of stores. We cruised slowly for about six blocks, admiring the scarecrows and the crowd of kids on the school lawn making more, until we came to the St. Marys River (actually the junction of river's estuary and the the inland waterway between the barrier islands and the mainland). There we turned right and cruised another four blocks, past a lovely river-side park and an assortment of promising-looking restaurants. That seemed to be it—bustling downtown Historic St. Marys. It turned out to be home to, among other things, the headquarters of the Cumberland Island National Seashore, several antique and gift shops, a submarine museum, and a stand renting glorified golf carts, just like on Key West. We chose the Riverside Café for lunch. It turned out to be (judging by the menu and our server's accent) owned and run by Greeks but with at least one Asian working in the kitchen. I had an excellent fried grouper sandwich with coleslaw, tartare sauce, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and fries, and David had stirfried shrimp and vegetables in a tasty ginger-sesame-soy sauce served over pita with a Greek salad on the side. The town clearly merits a day-long visit (if only to find out what that enormous brick building was about; part of the submarine base?), but our tee time was coming up, so we set out to find our way back to the golf course—not obviously easy, since the many signs had led us by a complex and winding route over a number of back roads, all of which seemed to be "rte. 40" whichever way you turned. Fortunately, a sign just at the edge of town pointed the way to the interstate (via rte. 40, of course) and thereby put us back on the route we knew.
Back at Laurel Island Links, the parking lot, which had been full of cars but otherwise deserted, was suddenly teeming with returning golfers, as the tournament that had occupied the course all morning was just ending. We presented ourselves for our 2 p.m. start and pretty much had the place to ourselves. There were a few other people on the course, but well ahead of and behind us. It turned out to be a very pleasant course, well kept and scenic (none of those vast, gravelly bunkers full of bunch grass that I disliked so much at North Hampton last year). We encountered a flock of vultures on the 15th hole, a small raccoon on the 13th (who continued digging for something, worms maybe, and ignored us serenely as we played through), and a middle-aged couple who had arrived on bicycles to fish in the water hazard on the 17th. And it was way cheaper than either the course at Amelia Island or North Hampton. It's most amazing feature, though, was its greens. We thought the greens at Seminole were fast, and they are faster than Amelia Island, North Hampton, or any other course we've played in Tallahassee, but at Laurel Island, it was like putting on a hardwood floor! You'd give your ball a gentle tap, and it would glide on for yards and yards like a dry-ice puck! If your putt was even slightly downslope, you had to hit the hole, because if you didn't, the ball invariably just kept on going until it ran off the far side of the green. It was a dryish day, and they must have rolled those greens just before the tournament and again just after, and I still can't believe healthy, green, living grass could lie that flat!
Because we played as a twosome and weren't held up by any parties in front of us, we finished our round in well under four hours, so we had plenty of time to get back to Amelia Island to the hotel and to clean up and change for our second dinner at Salt.
We were greeted with effusion by the maître d'hotel, Julie Bundy (who, both this year and last, could not look less like the classic tuxedoed maître d'—picture Kathy Bates in a flowered dress and sensible shoes—but who is the kindest of ladies and runs a great dining room). Once again, I felt awfully finicky, commenting that the table was so dark that we wouldn't be able to photograph the food or the menu, but we were instantly moved to a brighter table, and the waitress brought out the special non-oily-tasting water. Everyone was so very solicitous that I worry sometimes that we're dining under false pretenses—because we take notes and pictures and discuss each course, maybe they think we're actual food writers or restaurant critics!
As we left the restaurant on Friday night, Ms. Bundy had assured us that, if we wanted to order the tasting menu again on Saturday, the chef could do a whole new combination of dishes. We don't ordinarily do that. We order the sampler on the first night, then the second night, we either pick out the winners to order full portions of or use the second meal to try the couple of interesting items on the menu that didn't show up the night before. This time, though, all the courses had been so good, and we were intrigued to see whether he had even more winners to trot out, so we said what the heck: we told the waitress that we'd like to repeat the bean soup, and that David would like to repeat the crab, which I couldn't eat because of the avocado in it, but otherwise, surprise us! So could he do it again? You betcha!
Amuse-bouche: a small glass of warm chanterelle mushroom soup across which was balanced a tiny bamboo skewer bearing a warm cube of meltingly tender tea-smoked salmon garnished with a basil sprout. Aha! This chef has clearly been to Eugénie les Bains, where we went last summer, and ate at Michel Guerard's top restaurant, which is world famous and has three Michelin stars. The dish was a clear homage to the amuse-bouche we had there: a tiny teacup of warm mushroom soup bearing an identical little bamboo skewer (cleverly knotted to resemble a miniature sword). Of couse, in Eugénie, the skewer held morsels of grilled sweetbread, liver, and kidney, which chef Vallès was probably wise not to try on American diners. Sorry, but I'm afraid I ate the salmon before we took the photo.
First course: The peekytoe crab again. This time, they prepared a special little timbale for me, without the avocado layer, and I agree, it was much better than the already delicious peekytoe starter from last year.
Second course: The bean soup again, topped with carrot froth and still a wow! Ms. Bundy spotted the repetition and was ready to go reprimand the chef on our behalf until we assured her that we had requested it.
Third course: Roasted scallops and monkfish "suquet": A large scallop, seared to caramelization on the outside but barely cooked on the inside, a medallion of monkfish, a fat languostine tail, some little mollusc pieces that seemed to be diagonal cross-sections from a squid or octopus tentacle, and a solid cylindrical plug of potato, all set in a creamy seafood broth. The potato was topped with a creamy chive-flecked sauce, and when we cut into it, we found that the top had been hollowed out with a tiny melon-ball cutter so as to hold more sauce. Yum.
Fourth course: Four slices of rare roasted duck breast fanned over a silken "mousseline" of potato, a piped stripe of coarse pistachio purée, and poached slices of peach garnished with yet more sprouts. Sprouts are a major theme of the restaurant. The kitchen must employ a full-time sprout wrangler just to keep them all straight. In two meals, we had things garnished with sprouts of basil, arugula, chervil, celery, beet (or maybe chard), chive, spearmint, and peppermint that I recognized and a few more that I didn't—tarragon?, marjoram? The potatoes were outstanding and the duck delicious, but it would have been slightly more tender if cooked just a tad longer.
Fifth course: Another sheep's-milk cheese, this one Spanish—no match for that amazing Berkswell, but excellent nonetheless. The waiter said it was "issybaw," but I haven't been able yet to track down the real spelling of that name. It was sided with more of that delicious quince paste, a surprisingly spicy green tapenade, and more of the red-wine reduction, which I really, really like—an excellent foil for cheese.
Sixth course: Fig-crusted hazelnut cheesecake with butterscotch ice cream and a spiral patterned fig cookie, all laid over another of those bold black brush-strokes (this one chocolate) and garnished with peppermint sprouts, part of a vanilla bean, and a pansy blossom.
David's comment, partway through the meal, was "If I were scouting chefs, I'd have this guy on a plane to New York tomorrow morning." Alas, I had to agree with him. We spent a good deal of the time between courses comparing Vallès's dishes with others we've eaten, mainly in highly rated restaurants in France, and weighing the results. The waits between courses could be long, but were no worse than we've encountered in comparable places elsewhere (and in establishments that have had a lot longer than three weeks to work out the rhythm). We concluded that, in France, Michelin would probably give him two stars—the only time that's ever happened in a the U.S. or in any restaurant to which Michelin hadn't already given two stars. (Nobody in Tallahassee would rate even one.)