Our second day of exploring the Western Coast of Réunion had us staying in the resort town of Hermitage-Les-Bains. It’s definitely a resort town, dominated by several large resorts, and the local dining scene caters to it, with a rather large assortment of restaurants offering up large buffets and extensive cocktail bars. While a few of these places (La Marmite and Coco Beach in particular looked like they had a rather nice assortment of Carris and seafood), we opted to check out one of the quieter places a bit off the beaten path. Our first attempt was the diminutive and subtle L’Arc en Ciel, which looked phenomenal, but were unable to fit us in. But around the corner we found Le Manta, a pleasant restaurant built around two very large and lush outdoor dining gardens (one smoking, “le section fumeur” is still alive and flourishing in France) and a rather extensive menu built around Réunionnaise Creole cuisine.
Our next goal before leaving Saint-Denis was to make sure we tried one of the restaurants known for local Créole cuisine, and in the case of Saint-Denis, there’s one place that has a particularly good reputation for catering to Créole tastes over those of visiting tourists, and that’s Le Reflet des Îles. Located about half a kilometer down Rue Pasteur (where about half of downtown Saint-Denis’s bars and restaurants are located) from the previously reviewed Zanzibar Café, just walking in you can see that it’s a popular place with both the tourists and the locals, with quite a few mainland French and Reunionnaise families all gathered around tables enjoying their rhum cocktails, la Dodo, and serving up large plates of food from various marmites (little cast metal pots traditionally used to cook the local carris, civets, and rougails) located all around the table.
Our second full day on Réunion had us setting out to check out on of the cooler geographic features of the island: the Cirques. Réunion was essentially formed by two volcanoes: the now-extinct Piton des Neiges, and the still active Piton de la Fournaise. For the former, the old volcanic caldera has collapsed and eroded over the last 100,000 years to form three sub-formations: the Cirque, each a very steep mountain valley. All of them are inhabiting, but only two of them, the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos, are road-accessible (the Cirque de Mafate is accessible only on foot or by air). So we decided to check out the Cirque de Salazie, since it’s a pretty short drive from Saint-Denis. The town of Hell-Bourg is located in the middle of the Cirque de Salazie, and the very rugged terrain makes this a splendidly beautiful French/Creole village located in the mountains. It’s a fairly quiet town, mostly with older Creole architecture, and primarily serves as a stepping-off point for the many hikers visiting the region (indeed, we basically returned to Hell-Bourg twice during our trip, once as hikers, and once driving through to see the forests of Belouve). But after checking out the area, we started to become hungry for lunch, and we immediately found the cute little Crêperie Le Gall.
Well, after a half-day of wandering around exploring the fairly unique town of Saint-Denis (I’m still trying to figure out why Réunion has such an unusually large number of insurance brokers and eyeglass shops… are there some weird niches in French insurance law and health care at play here?), it was time for dinner. One place we passed by that looked quite delicious was Zanzibar Café, located on Rue Pasteur a few blocks from our hotel. While the mainstay of Réunion cuisine is the island-specific carri served most anywhere, there’s also a lot of direct French influence in the food as well; you’ll also find patisseries, cafés, brasseries, charcuteries, and other mainstays of French culinary tradition all over the island (indeed, we stopped at many a fine patisserie located up in the hills kilometers from the cities). Zanzibar is a pretty good example of this: the menu at Zanzibar is basically your standard French cafe menu (steak frites, French chicken dishes, French-style sausages), alongside a rather nice assortment of Malagasy and African dishes.
Before I get into the actual restaurant reviews, one more post is in order to give some background on Réunion’s culinary traditions. First, the food. Reunion is really a culinary delight. The mix of cultural influences from France, Madagascar, India, China, Portugal, Indonesia, and other locals makes for a particularly vibrant mix of ethnicities, often all blended together in the same meal. Add in the fact that the island has a shockingly wide range of agricultural products of their own (guava, papaya, banana, sugar cane, pineapple, chayottes, and mangos in particularly all grow like, and sometime as, weeds, and there’s a strong spice industry as well) makes for some particularly great, and sometime unique, ingredients to work with. There’s also enough French influence (the island is actually part of France, not a colony) that if you are on an actual road, you are also guaranteed to be never more than a 20 minute drive from a decent boulangerie or patisserie, even when in the middle of the island in the mountains.
Okay, here’s a bit of an unusual review for me. The first real step in exploring Île de la Réunion was actually found in getting there. We ended up taking the mostly-unknown-outside-the-Indian-Ocean Air Austral between Paris and Saint-Denis, in a really long 11 hour direct flight. They were price competitive (the route is heavily competed directly with Air France, and indirectly with Air Mauritius offering service to Port Louis with connecting flights back over to Réunion). One of the interesting things about Air Austral is one of the ways they’ve tried stay competitive with Air France with the food (Air France isn’t exactly known for their food). On the way there, we had the option of getting to pick a meal from their upgraded meal list (which turned out to cost $11 after conversion). The two most attractive options were the “Menu Marine” (Fish) and the “Menu Creole” (Réunionnaise Creole). We ended up choosing the latter, since while I can usually shrug off my mild seafood allergies, deliberately scoffing at them usually gets me in trouble. But shortly after our flight had established itself at cruising altitude, the flight attendants quickly showed up with our in-flight upgraded meals…
Normally, even when I go to fairly obscure places (like, say, Iceland), it’s still pretty obvious, between my reviews and the geocoding, where I went. But this year’s vacation took us to yet another island destination, this one not even a blip on even most adventuresome Americans’ radar. Indeed, when telling people where this year’s vacation destination was, aside from one French coworker, everyone’s immediate response was “Where?”. This “mystery destination” was the Île de la Réunion, a small (smaller than Rhode Island, although much more rugged), volcanic island, located 550 miles due East of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It’s actually an “overseas Department” of France, which gives it a status similar to Hawaii, in that it’s actually considered part of France and not a territory or colony (but, a bit oddly, not part of the Schengen Treaty Area, so a flight from Paris to Réunion was actually “international” with duty-free shopping). If I had to come up with a short and reasonably accurate description, it’s basically the French version of the big island of Hawaii: beaches, volcanoes, great scenery, coffee (and vanilla, and banana…) plantations. And, for a number of reasons, tourism there, until very recently, was almost exclusively consisting of people from mainland France.
Many cities and cultures have developed there own, specific style of restaurant: the American-style diner. The British pub. The Japanese ramen bar. And, of particular interest here, the French Bistro. That little restaurant with tiny tables, tall chairs, cozy environs, with a bunch of diners packed in enjoying their wine, baguettes, steak frites, cassoulets, and other simple French fare in close company with soft music playing in the background. It’s a cliché of sorts, but not without a solid foundation of truth: Paris, in particular, is replete with most of the arrondissements sporting a rather impressive assortment of bistros and brasseries, ranging from the simple and traditional, up to the more modern “gastro bistro”, the bistro equivalent of the “gastro pub” offering modernized versions of classic bistro cuisine. But I’ll have to admit, I’ve got strong fondness for basic French cooking like beef bourguignon and steak frites, so when we had a free night in Paris, I set off in search of a good, simple bistro in the 6e arrondissement, and ended up picking Le Bistrot d’Henri for our dinner.
I just recently returned from a trip to the most wonderful Isle of Réunion, a French Island in the Indian Ocean. We’ll get back to that in a bit, but one of the neater things about our decision to travel to Réunion is that it involved stopovers in Paris on both the outgoing and return trips. So a few weeks ago, we found ourselves in Paris, walking along the Seine, having just dropped off our bags, and decided that the perfect afternoon activity would be to wander by the Louvre, through Les Tuileries, and go give the chocolate shop of Jean-Paul Hévin a visit.
Each Spring and Summer, there are a lot of area events that I’m interested in going to, like restaurant weeks (as I write this, Vermont Restaurant Week is in full swing, and unfortunately I had to miss it due to travel). But one of the ones that’s been on my radar for the last few years is the Manchester NH “Hippo De Mayo Taco Challenge”. This year, it’s coming up quick: May 7th, from 4 to 9 pm. Basically, Hippo De Mayo is a Cinco De Mayo celebration held around the Manchester, NH area, where several area restaurants all come up with a unique taco, and sell them to the public, usually for $2 each, and often have other interesting side dishes and cocktails along the same theme. The great part is, these aren’t just Mexican restaurants getting involved… pretty much every major restaurant in the Manchester area (and virtually every restaurant that Offbeat Eats has reviewed in Manchester) gets involved, putting there own spin on it. So you’ll see everything from the classics, to dessert tacos, to Italian sausage tacos, to, well, I’m certain something will surprise me this year as well. Not 100% sure I’m making it down there this year, but for my readers in the VT/NH/MA area, you may want to give it a try. You can read more about it here: http://www.allenmellododgenashua.com/blog/2015/April/10/hippo-de-mayo-taco-challenge-manchester-nh.htm, or get a list of participating vendors from their own web site here.