Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Réunionnais, S'il Vous Plaît

Shark Curry at Le Piton de la Fournaise

Creole cuisines are delightful meetings of culinary influences from diverse parts of the world, often the result of not-so-delightful conquest and colonization, slavery and indentured servitude, as well as the strategic locations of certain places on major trade routes. The Creole cuisine we're most familiar with in the U.S. is New Orleans-style, mixing French and African methods and flavors with local ingredients. An intriguing Creole cuisine you won't find in the U.S., as far as I know, is that of the Indian Ocean islands Réunion and Mauritius. You'll find them in France, yes. You may not find them easily in Canada, but you'll find them. I've had Mauritian food in both Toronto and Montreal. I wasn't thrilled with Toronto's Mauritian restaurant, Blue Bay Café. Montreal's La Ravane was quite good, but unfortunately it closed within the last two years. There is, I've learned, another Mauritian restaurant in the Verdun section of Montreal, but I haven't tried it. I did, however, try the more centrally located Le Piton de la Fournaise, a Réunionnais restaurant named for a volcano on the island. Le Piton is on Duluth Street (835 Rue Duluth E.), northeast of downtown, along a stretch of generally undistinguished B.Y.O.B. restaurants. The owner is a Montreal native who I suppose either lived or has spent quality time on Réunion.

Réunion and Mauritius are very close to each other, and I suspect the differences in the cuisines are minor, as the islands have a similar history and ethnic mix. Réunion is an overseas département of France, and its people are French citizens. It's a popular destination for French tourists. Mauritius is an independent nation which had been ceded by the French to the British in 1810, but which retained the French language and legal system. While English is now the official language of Mauritius, most people there speak a French Creole. The predominant culinary elements of Indian Ocean cuisine are French and Indian, along with African and Chinese influences. The islands were uninhabited when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. Africans were brought as slaves and Indians came in droves as indentured servants after slavery was abolished. The Chinese came as workers and merchants.

Among the dishes of both cuisines are rougailles (dishes with a tomato-based sauce), curries and civets (French stews). Meals are served with a number of condiments. At Le Piton they included a lemon pickle that was less "pickley" than Indian ones, an eggplant sauce that tasted like a spiced-up babaghanoush, a spicy fresh tomato relish that the owner referred to as rougaille, and a green chile sauce.

My friend and I each ordered the menu dégustation. It's not a tasting menu in the sense of a chef's daily choice of many courses, but rather a four-course dinner where you choose the courses. The two starter courses had two choices each, so we got one of each. For the first course we had a watercress soup that reminded me of a Portuguese green soup, and a chayote salad that was nothing special (chayote is a kind of squash). The next course consisted of avocado crab, basically an avocado shell stuffed with an avocado, crab and mayo mix, also nothing special, and the much more interesting petite assiette Creole, which included a fish samosa and what could be best described as an Indian-spiced falafel.

Then came our two main courses. I was interested in the civet zouritte (octopus stew, zouritte, I believe, being a term specific to the islands), but it wasn't available. So we ended up with a shark curry and a duck civet with a red wine sauce. Both were served with vegetables, rice and legumes. The duck included large white fava or lima beans similar to Greek gigantes, and the shark plate had black beans. The lemon pickle went especially well with the shark. The yellow curry was only mildly spicy, so I also used some of the pepper sauce. The rougaille, on the other hand, seemed to marry very nicely with the duck civet. For dessert the rich, creamy coconut flan was much better than the kiwi-raspberry frozen pie. Le Piton de la Fournaise is well worth a visit for a pretty good rendition of a particularly exotic cuisine.

I say "a pretty good rendition" because I've also eaten at a Réunionnais restaurant in Strasbourg that was so good I went twice (on two separate visits to that beautiful city). The restaurant is called La Case de L'Ile Bourbon (Ile Bourbon, Island of the Bourbons, was a former name of Réunion). The flavors were so vibrant, and much of the food reminded me of Keralan cuisine, which makes sense since that part of India is closest to the Indian Ocean islands. I fondly remember a masale zouritte (octopus masala). The second time I went I heard the owner complaining to another customer that business wasn't too good. "All the tourists want is choucroute," she lamented.

The owner of Le Piton de la Fournaise was a very nice guy and I wish him luck. I hope the day doesn't come when he complains, "All the tourists want is poutine."

Restaurant Le Piton de la Fournaise on Urbanspoon


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