The French Basque country has been on our travel list ever since we tasted our first glass of Irouleguy wine and munched on Louis Ospital’s superior charcuterie at the southwestern restaurant on our street. So on the final long weekend before we leave France, we flew into the Basque country with our parents and godparents for a few days of sun, sea and local specialties, making Biarritz our base. Even though it is the least traditional of the towns, more a chic beach resort with awesome surfing conditions than anything else, Biarritz’s beautiful beach views and ample amenities made up for the lack of authenticity.
In Biarritz, it is de rigueur to dine at least once overlooking the sea. Our hotel recommended Chez Albert, but by the time we walked to port des pecheurs and surveyed the menu, we decided to go to its neighbor, the much more casual Casa Juan Pedro for dinner.
Casa Juan Pedro sports a Spanish name, maybe because the proprietors are Spaniards, or simply because at only 30 minutes from the French-Spanish border, Biarritz’s culinary traditions is often influenced as much by Spanish cooking as it is by bourgeois French cuisine. A no-frills fish shack set on the extreme end of the port, Casa Juan Pedro, or Chez Jean et Pierre in French, serves seafood to clients sitting around foldable plastic tables on stackable plastic chairs. Mum called it a French “dai pai dong” or roadside stall. Indeed, the loud and unpretentious atmosphere and the clientele, fresh off the beach with sand in between their toes, reminded us of our local Singaporean kopitiams.
The menu, focused on fresh, grilled seafood, is cheap for Biarritz’s standards. We sampled our way through the majority of dishes, including a litre of wine, for around 16e per person. And though the speciality here is seafood, there were a few concessions like Bayonne ham and even duck confit made for those who shun eating fish.
We found the simplest dishes, the prawns, squid and sardines seasoned with salt, pepper and a lot of olive oil the tastiest, especially after ditching our cutlery to tear into the sweet flesh with our fingers.
The larger plates were decent with generous steaks of fresh and firm fish. Unfortunately the accompaniments, like the tasteless yellow rice and watery tomato-base basque sauce, were found lacking.
Note that this address is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike looking for a quick and inexpensive bite. By the time we left shortly before 9pm, a considerable line had formed. My advice would be to arrive earlier for an aperitif before digging in!
We took our other meals around Biarritz’s market in the sister establishments of Bar Jean and Cafe Jean.
Bar Jean is best-known in this area for its hopping tapas scene in the evenings, and the evening we walked past, it was indeed packed to the rafters with a young and well-dressed crowd. We instead breakfasted there after a short shopping trip at the market, enjoying a leisurely meal with great coffee and a yummy baguette with extremely chewy crumb.
At Cafe Jean that evening, we were lucky to squeeze into the last large table sans reservation right before a party of at least 40 descended on the restaurant. It’s to the servers’ credit that food and drinks came relatively promptly even with the madness of serving a large group all at once.
If Bar Jean’s selling point is tapas, Cafe Jean’s is pintxo, the Basque take on tapas, though the portions here are larger than what one usually expects for finger food. The servers recommended 2-3 orders (7.50e) each for a full dinner, which came to be around the amount we had ordered along with some large salads.
The pintxos were a few notches more gastronomic than our simple dinner at the fish shack the night before, with each dish well seasoned and garnished. The seafood dishes were great, especially lightly crusted and slightly spicy shrimp tempura, and the not-quite risotto, not-quite paella squid-ink rice topped with local squids.
Of the meat dishes, the most memorable was that of a greek style grilled lamb and 2 big pieces of slow-braised oxtail that melted in the mouth, sitting atop sweet squash puree.
Desserts brought our evening to a sweet ending. Godpa loved his deconstructed black-forest cake (a trifle-like dessert with cherry preserves) though I wasn’t a big fan as cherry jam always reminds me of cough syrup. I appreciated the tarte tartin more, here an entire cored apple poached in not-too-sweet caramel syrup and perched daintily on thin, crispy flakes of pastry.
Tomorrow, we get out of Biarritz to tackle some Basque specialities!
Casa Juan Pedro: Quai Du Petit Port 64600 Biarritz, France
Bar Jean: 5 Rue des Halles 64200 Biarritz, France
Cafe Jean: 13 Rue des Halles 64200 Biarritz, France