The winning hand of a restaurant built on an island is the view. The management can design, decorate and fix a theme around something which isn’t theirs to sell. In some instances, the food may even play second-fiddle to a breathtaking seascape, no matter how established the chef or accomplished the plates.
Vaitohi in Tahiti has a terrible view. I thought this was impossible on a paradise island. All you have to do is seat diners out towards the big blue and let the moving wallpaper do the rest. But here the restaurant fits a block space on the side of the Manava Suite Resort. It has a terrace trapped between inside dining and a walkway from the hotel lobby to the rooms. It may suggest al fresco, but what you’re met with is a conveyor belt of irritating tourists and wheelie luggage. Why the restaurant wasn’t positioned facing the South Pacific scenery – with ocean views instead of lobby views – is a mystery.
If I needed a reminder that I was in French Polynesia, then it was presented to me in the form of the baguette. Tahiti may be a paradise island with ruby snapper and yellowfin tuna readily available, but the baguette is paramount in the life of a Tahitian. Locals cling to a dozen doughy spears as if a reminder of French governance were needed. The French can’t stop drumming in their culinary influence wherever they go; and now the baguette has become so intertwined with Tahitian national identity, that they’re stuffing them full of fresh fish or Chinese noodles.
The French can’t stop drumming in their culinary influence wherever they go; and now the baguette has become so intertwined with Tahitian national identity, that they’re stuffing them full of fresh fish or Chinese noodles
Of all the culinary wizardry the French could have gifted, it was the baguette. Those greedy frogs kept the beef bourguignon, coq au vin, éclairs, profiteroles and macarons for themselves. Arriving like bulldozers in the eighteenth century, they brought with them other giveaways like religion and scurvy. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that they repaid native suppression with the offering of foie gras, an ingredient now so ubiquitous, it’s rarely seen off menus – unless you live in California. The rest of us have become Frenchist towards it; so blasé. The thought of banning it sends out the aficionados and moist epicureans to order it. Do you know there are geese right now holidaying in Santa Monica?
Housed inside a hotel, Vaitohi’s kitchen must cater for international appetites and a smorgasbord of foreign demands. Here, at least, the baguette has been banished. From a list of unpronounceable plates that slap you in the face with their Frenchness, I stick to what I know.
A starter of pan-seared foie gras with cream egg and porcini mushrooms arrives in a small red ramekin, like an organ casserole. I lift the lid to reveal fatty cubes of liver in a creamy broth, each one supple and silky; they may look like something you’d visit Harley Street to have removed, but they’re supple and delicious.
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I’m not sure if the geese are pumped-up and slaughtered on the island or if it’s all just imported nostalgia for the chef, but it’s good stuff. What follows is a crab meat ravioli with ginger, followed by beef filet tartare with pesto and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both are well executed; particularly successful is the contrast of the cubed beef against the nuttiness of the green pesto.
I suppose you would call this “French nouvelle” rather than French exchange, with its increased emphasis on presentation and flavour crossover. You’d definitely call it “wallet-rattling”. The foie gras casserole cost £19.50, the crab ravioli £17.50 and the beef tartare £18.50. Other options such as “duck foie gras four ways” is £25.00 and risotto with sea scallops comes in at £26.00, both with an added supplement and exempt from the set dining option. The entire wine list is French. If you want the showstopper, Craquelin de pigeon au foie gras sur lit forestier et sauce aux cèpes (“crunchy-wrapped squab stuffed with foie gras, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms”) then be prepared to fork-out £28.00.
Dessert is a warm apple tatin. The sliced apples are fresh and sour, each positioned like crescent moons and sweetened by the caramelisation. True to Larousse, the pastry is shortcrust, but it will always play bridesmaid to the topping of thinly sliced, crunchy, caramelised apple.
It’s not Tahitians who’ll eat at Vaitohi. They’re at home making poisson cru and eating nuggets from McDonalds. It’s the French nationalists and the homesick who come here; those who miss the puckered-up silkiness of fatted liver. The rest are honeymooners who’ve emptied their life savings for a holiday in Tahiti. Vaitohi exists as a home comfort for the French, with its luscious run-through of foie gras achievements, albeit at a bum-clenching premium. C
The Vaitohi Restaurant, Manava Suite Resort, Punaauia, Tahiti, French Polynesia
+689 50 84 45; spmhotels.com