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.
On our recent trip to Pho Dang in Winooski, we immediately noticed that not only did North Main Street have a phở joint, it also seemed to have it’s own little Southeast Asian neighbor, with several Asian-related businesses nearby. One of them, Dharshan Namaste Asian Deli, is directly across the street from Pho Dang, and proudly sports “Bánh Mì” sandwiches in their window. I love a good bánh mì, so, a few weeks later when we were back in the Winooski area, we decided that we’d duck in and try Dharshan Namaste and see how they did.
As I mentioned in my review of Montreal’s Fairmount Bagel a few years ago, bagels are generally a fairly regional food item, with various world metropolitan areas all having their own variations on the same theme. One of the more respected ones, the Montreal Bagel, is also one of the most regional: it’s rather difficult to find a proper “Montreal bagel” outside of Quebec (and heck, they get pretty scarce outside of Montreal itself). So it was with a bit of skepticism that upon hearing that a relatively new addition to Burlington’s bagel scene (which, to date, hadn’t really impressed me that much, even with the relatively low standards I’ve had for “New England” bagels). But a trip this summer by Carol up to Burlington to get an issue with her Mini Cooper fixed let her to try out Myer’s Bagels, and she came back excited: “They really are good, Montreal-style bagels”. So the next time we were both up in Burlington, it was time to check out Myer’s.
A recent work trip down to Billerica, MA left me passing through Lowell around breakfast time, and a quick trip through the Lowell area quickly led me to The Owl Diner. I’ll fully admit to having a weakness for classic Worcester Diners, and the relatively busy parking lot showed that the Owl was definitely popular with the locals. So I decided it was indeed time for breakfast, and headed inside.
One of the things I’ve particularly liked about the Burlington, VT metropolitan area is that for for a metro area with only slightly more than 200,000 people (although that is around 1/3 of the state), it has rather a lot of great restaurants, particularly ethnic restaurants. Indeed, Burlington has pretty much the highest concentration of Vietnamese people for quite a distance, and the area’s Vietnamese restaurant population has grown from the modest two places it had back in 2001 (when we moved here) to a robust half-dozen phở shops. One of these that I had been hearing a lot of good buzz about is Phở Dang in Winooski, so when we found ourselves in Winooski for a recent concert, we decided that pho was exactly what we needed to dispel some winter blues.