Encountering cuisine of character in the Caribbean

St. Martin has been shared by the French and Dutch (and occupied by many others) as far back as the 1600s, but it's the French side that has made this tiny island famous for its cuisine.

I didn't really know much about that when I headed there for vacation. I was looking for relaxation, a tan, a piña colada and some stressless time with my family. I wanted a vacation that was more carefree than cultural, and I figured an island in the Caribbean would provide it.

I got so much more than that, of course. We stayed on the French side of the island, and a little town called Grand Case became our home for the week. Grand Case is very French, and the restaurants — mostly French — reflect a desire for the kind of stylish cuisine that makes tourists feel pampered. It's very expensive, and offers little if nothing in the way of providing a cultural bite of local food and lifestyles. Most produce and foodstuffs are imported, many — like strawberries, cheeses and meats — from France.

On our second night we dined at an Italian restaurant called Spiga, which was recently heralded as one of the best in the Caribbean. But what came to our table was what I could get just about anywhere: insalata caprese, with hothouse tomatoes and a balsamic reduction, a lovely snapper with lemon, butter and capers, and a swanky chocolate lava cake with broiled bananas for dessert.

The food here is perfectly lovely, but there is nothing about it that tells me who cooked it. Or perhaps more to the point, why they cooked it.

Our second night brought character. On our first drive into this former fishing village, we stopped a man in the street to ask for directions.

He was friendly and helpful, and it wasn't until later that I realized he was wearing chefs' pants. Walking back to our resort from our dinner at Spiga, we saw him again, eating a late dinner in his restaurant, Le Ti Coin Creole. His name is Carl Phillips, and he was born and raised on St. Martin.

Phillips' food delighted us: a sweetly spicy shrimp in creole sauce was served with brown rice and lentils, plus fried plantains; pan-seared chicken in a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce that I swear will be in heaven along with Orange Crush soda and Moon Pies. He offered a sweet coconut pie for dessert, encased in a lattice-topped crust.

Along the main strip, Grand Case Boulevard, locals eat at a series of stalls called the "lolos." Huge outdoor grills are fired up early in the morning, and keep cooking barbecued ribs (the local favorite) and local lobster (which is really an overgrown crawfish), as well as sweetly fried johnny cakes (they look like doughnuts but aren't quite as sweet) until late in the evening. At one, called Sky's the Limit, Safari, a gentleman with dreadlocks dressed in linen, will wine and dine you through one of the best meals you'll have on the island.

Huge slabs of tender ribs, lobster in butter, fried plantains and johnny cakes come, and we feast.

I went to St. Martin to escape for a week, but it was impossible to get away from what I love most about this world: its people, and the food they share with me.

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