Kicking Up Your Heels in Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz, France — If I had to choose one region in France to explore in the greatest depth, it would be the Pays Basque, a colorful stretch of France that hugs the Spanish border. Is it the pristine white houses sporting blazing red shutters and strings of welcoming Basque peppers? Is it the rolling, expansive hills that make you feel as though you and the world could go on forever? Or simply the appealing cuisine, one of the freshest Atlantic fish and shellfish, haunting and mildly spicy Basque peppers, the soothing and rich sheep’s milk cheese, and unpretentious, quaffable wines?

Saint Jean de Luz is my favorite city in the region, a manageable walking town with vast, memorable beaches and just enough to keep one busy but not frazzled for several pleasurable days. Begin the day with a bracing coffee at one of the cafes that surround the village market – on Boulevard Victor Hugo in the center of town – then wend your way through the stalls. Saint Jean de Luz is a major fishing port, so here you’ll see a variety and quality unsurpassed elsewhere in France. Come late August you’ll begin to see the famous strings of red piment d’Espelette, but can solace yourself with the dried version all year long, for seasoning sauces, sprinkling of cheese or wedges of fresh polenta.

I’d hoped to return to an old-time favorite fish restaurant, Arrantzaleak in the village of Ciboure just across the estuary from Saint Jean de Luz, but it was closed. I’d have to wait for another visit to sample the impeccable white albacore tuna grilled over a wood fire. As it turned out, I am glad they were closed, for I might never have discovered chef Georges Piron’s remarkable talent. As I sat down on the sun-filled terrace of Chez Dominique, overlooking the harbor, I had no idea what was in store. Piron, a native of Brittany, knows his fish better than most, and his cuisine has the personality and verve of someone in love with their work. As his tartare of dorade was placed before me, I couldn’t decide whether to dig in or race home to try to recreate it. The dish was a symphony of colors and flavors, with chunky, well-seasoned cubes of fresh dorade (porgy) dotted with miniscule bits of lemon confit and an avalanche of minced chives, then wrapped daintily with filets of freshly cured sardines. A crunchy chickpea galette and a welcoming confit of eggplant and cumin were not simple embellishments, but considered accompaniments.

Just as successful was the filet of Saint Pierre, or John Dory, roasted and served with cubed potatoes showered with a warm saffron vinaigrette, a touch of garlic as well as spicy chorizo. It would be hard to beat his delicate filets of rougets sprinkled with an emulsion of fresh basil and olive oil, served appropriately with a creamy mound of polenta laced with aged Parmesan.

Service here is impeccable and friendly, and it would be hard to find a better wine to pair with Piron’s food than Domaine Brana’s white Irouléguy, an obscure white from the region that wine writer Jancis Robinson calls “the essence of spring in a bottle.” I’ll second that, for this citrusy, finely acidic wine – vinified from Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng variety of grapes – seems to be in love with fish and shellfish.

Come dinner time, after a long walk on the beach and a stroll through the fine walking streets of the city, reserve a table on the sidewalk at Le Kaïku, a colorful spot on the pedestrian rue de la République right down from the beach. Here, in a 16th century house, one of the oldest in town, owner Serge Latchère runs a neat, tight ship. The place sizzles with energy, and the helpful staff helps make dining at Le Kaiku a memorable experience. We began our sunset hour dinner with plump and briny oysters from d’Oléron up the Atlantic coast, along with a perfect tartine of finely cured fresh anchovies. But it was the tuna tartare that made me want to don my new pair of black espadrilles stamped with the red piment d’Espelette and kick up my heels. A perfect fish tartare is a sheer culinary feat and one that is rarely perfection. The fish of course must be ultra-fresh, that goes without saying. But go overboard on the seasoning and you’ve completely lost it. Go timid with seasoning you have nothing but a bland mess. Le Kaiku’s version was sheer perfection, tiny cubes of tuna studded with chives and the gentle crunch of finely minced shallots. The fish was clearly not ‘cooked” by the seasoning, but left one with a fine hint of acidity. Your palate retains the clear, vibrant flavors of the sea with just a tiny boost of texture and punch. As may plate was being cleared, I looked up at the waitress and asked, hopefully, “Of course you sometimes give this recipe away to grateful diners, don’t you?” She replied as though she’d had to do so many times, and just laughed, “Even I don’t know the secret.” At home later, I think I came pretty close, showering the mixture at the last moment with a touch of sherry wine vinegar and of course a touch of the famed piment d’Espelette.

Perfect slices of local farm sheep’s milk cheese made a fine ending, along with sips of the local acidic and light Jurancon sec from Domaine Bru Baché, made from those obscure grapes such as Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Corbu. Light and straw-colored, the wine is full of exotic citrus flavors, with gentle notes of honey.

Chez Dominique
15 quai Maurice Ravel
64500 Ciboure
Telephone: 05 59 47 29 16.

Closed Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday. About 45 euros per person, including service but not wine.

Le Kaiku
17 rue de la République
64500 Saint Jean de Luz
Telephone : 05 59 26 13 20.

Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. About 40 euros per person, including service but not wine.