ST. MARTIN: If you go: St. Martin
ST. MARTIN -- The French half of this island shared by the Netherlands and France is a gastronomic heaven -- and, as might be expected, a place nearly divine doesn't come cheap.
It's easy for a couple to spend $150 for a dinner prepared by a Paris-trained chef and served with a nice bottle of wine, though the island does have its fast-food joints. (One radio commercial implored men to ''bring her a bouquet of fried chicken tonight!")
It is a challenge to find a great sit-down dinner for less than $18.50, but it can be done, and five pounds gained after two weeks on the island proved it.
Our search for moderately priced dinner restaurants took us to hideaways on pretty alleys, little gems tucked into shopping centers, and street corners where enterprising cooks had set up barbecue grills under the stars.
At the wonderful Le Fish Bar on the village square in Orient Village, a dog ambled in both nights we were there and no one batted an eye. This kind of ambience is part of the local charm and is free. Money will buy you a terrific terrine of foie gras, but it won't buy the delight of hearing a dove coo in a nearby tree while you sip wine in an outdoor cafe.
Le Fish Bar, one of two on the island, is casual, inexpensive, and draws local families, always a good sign. The menu, written on a big chalkboard hung among fishing nets draped under the ceiling, focuses on fresh fish. The waitstaff welcomed us with a cheerful ''bon jour."
All the fish we tried was excellent. Le Fish Bar's grouper filet with passion fruit sauce was about $10.50. A swordfish kabob with six big chunks of fresh, firm fish was about $7. (All the dinners came with saffron rice, french fries, or salad.) Other diners ordered mahi mahi tartar, with the only ''cooking" of the fish being the marinating process.
''I have some who come here twice, three times a week for it," said Melanie Floch, the French owner and manager who emigrated from Brittany five years ago. Some of the fish is smoked or marinated at a fumerie, or small factory, then brought to the restaurant for finishing.
Several locals recommended Poulet d'Orleans (Orleans Chicken). In a charming 100-year-old house painted in Caribbean colors and crowned by a rooster, Poulet d'Orleans is owned by the jovial Tony Romney.
The restaurant, perched on a rise at a bend in the road in the French Quarter, is a happy sight. Festive colored lights are strung across the front. Nighttime reveals a blanket of twinkling lights from the houses and businesses below.
''I got my basic home cooking from my mom," said Romney, a St. Martin native. The food is hearty and fresh. We had a Creole boudin sausage as an appetizer and the house special, Ribs Galore, which included pork ribs and chunks of beef and lamb in a homemade barbecue sauce, served with rice or potatoes and fresh vegetables, for $15.95. A grilled mahi mahi plate was $12.95.
Like many St. Martin restaurateurs eager to attract American tourists, Romney offered a straight one-to-one conversion of euros to American dollars on his menu, which saved diners upward of 20 percent on their tabs. Also like many small restaurants, Romney doesn't take credit cards.
The best part is Romney himself, an unpretentious man who started his restaurant on a home stove hooked up to a small gas tank. We ate on the porch and chatted with another couple, though no one should miss the restaurant's interior. The walls are filled with family photographs and mementos, as well as a citation for a dinner Romney helped cook for the late French President Francois Mitterrand and President Bush the elder at the island's Le Meridien resort. The restaurant's ''Lovers Room," an intimate, dimly lighted room furnished in antiques, is also not to be missed.
Le Bistro Nu (The Naked Bistro), down an alley off Main Street in Marigot, is a lovely place, with Creole and French cooking, brimming with flowers on the outside. Inside walls were hung with brightly colored abstract paintings. Three locals sat at the tiny bar at one end of the room. At the other end were 10 tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths. Ceiling fans kept the air cool and fresh. We had a lunch of steak and fries for about $9.50. Several people recommended dinner. The dinner menu this day included kangaroo steak for $21 and duck breast with mushrooms for $20. The restaurant offered a bottle of water for about $4.50, reasonable by the standards of this island. A more common price in St. Martin is closer to $9.
At the next table was a family from Dallas. Paul Pepe, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said he had been sent by a restaurant owner in Ogunquit, Maine. He and his family raved about their meals.
For a downright cheap but delicious dinner, nothing can beat St. Martin's famous lolos. ''Lolo" is local parlance for an outdoor barbecue business, where the cooking is done before your eyes and seating is at picnic tables. Grand Case, St. Martin's restaurant capital, features several lolos clustered on the water side of the main street, where owners compete passionately for customers.
The lolos we tried offered fantastic bargains. Chez Lolette et Jojo, a few yards from the water's edge, had grilled coffer fish for about $9 and planter's punch for about $5.
The most formal lolo is Talk of the Town, with its enclosed kitchen. Calvin Josiah, working the bar, served us a dish of heavenly homemade coconut ice cream for $2. His most popular drink, he said, is his version of a pia colada, a blend of rum, cointreau, pineapple, cherries, and coconut cream.
Talk of the Town also offered a wonderful grilled swordfish with Creole sauce (curry, onion, peppers, garlic, and hot sauce) for $6. It was available with three side dishes (choose from among cole slaw, fried plantain, curry rice, beans, corn on the cob, fries, and more) for $10. Sometimes a fisherman will show up with whole red snapper or yellowtail, a local fish, and voila, a special appears on the chalkboard menu.
Mary Grauerholz is a freelance writer who lives in East Falmouth.