Le Manta (Hermitage-Les-Bains, Réunion, France)

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.

OF course, like almost every meal we had on Réunion, we started with some rum, this time in the form of two difference house punches, each rich with local coconut and pineapple.

This is probably also a good place to mention the local fruit of Réunion, since one of the delightful things about the island is that that the bananas and the pineapple are very different cultivars than their American counterparts. The pineapple is a “Victoria” pineapple, smaller, more yellow, and with serrated leaves, I found them to be sweeter, softer (even the core is quite easy to eat and flavorful), and richer in flavor than your typical Hawaiian pineapple (even pineapples I got in Hawaii). These pineapples are easily one of the distinctive things I already miss about Réunion (you could buy these pineapples in Paris…. for about 12 euros each!). Similarly, the banana are also a distinctly different cultivar of banana than the standard US “Cavendish” banana: smaller, sweeter, darker interior, and completely self-ripening.

After the cocktails, our starter was a plate of carpaccio, and we were quite pleased: the meat was nicely marbled and tender, served up with some good cheese and fresh lemon. I’m not sure whether this beef was native to the island (as we learned later, Les Plaines des Cafres has quite the farming industry going, including many small ranches of beef and dairy cattle).

I had mentioned in my overview of Réunion cuisine that one of their most classic dishes combines the local smoked sausage with a rich tomato-and-onion carri sauce to make Rougail Saucisses, and Le Manta is where I finally got to try that dish. I was particularly pleased with this rendition: the sausage was very flavorful and moist, but cooked up with a nice crisp, sitting in a very rich and flavorful sauce of tomatoes and onion with a bit of thyme and tumeric, this was a nice stew-like dish. Add in a bit of either of the rougail sauces served on the side (one ginger-based, and the other a pepper and onion mix that had the fires of a dozen suns…) and it was quite an experience, and one of the more delicious dishes I had on the trip. And again, we were served up a nice marmite of beans on the side, a rich stew of soft white beans and lentils (I’ll have to figure out the trick the Réunion folks use to make these beans so soft without them breaking down, since several times I had some absolutely wonderful bean dishes on the side).

Carol opted for a trio of fish (swordfish, breem, and mahi mahi), all grilled up very nicely with a crisp exterior and nicely cooked interior, served up with a savory vanilla cream sauce. I haven’t really seen vanilla used in a lot of savory dishes, but after hearing the recommendations from one of our vanilla plantation tours, we were pleasantly surprised how well the combination of fish and vanilla works. We’ll definitely be experimenting with this in our own kitchen with the vanilla beans we brought home with us.

Finally, for dessert, we shared some ice cream. Two of the more memorable tours we had visiting Réunion (which I will probably be writing up later) were tours of vanilla and coffee growing operations, so when the menu offered up house-made ice cream made with local Bourbon vanilla (sweeter and a bit more, umm, plum-like in flavor than the similar Madagascar vanilla) and local Bourbon Pointu coffee (currently one of the most highly-regarded, and expensive, coffees in the world), we had to take them up on it. And it was some very pleasant ice cream: nice and creamy, with rich and smooth vanilla and coffee flavors. Both did a good job respecting their main flavoring ingredient without burying it in sugar and cream.

So, while Le Manta was actually our fallback choice for the night, we were definitely quite pleased, and if I find myself again visiting the resorts of Hermitage-Les-Bains, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back. The food was excellent, the environment pleasant, and the staff particularly friendly.

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