Food for the gods, eaten by mortals

Superlative hotel cooking is hard to find, even in the most expensive resorts. But, says Sybil Kapoor, two restaurants in Mauritius are bucking the trend
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Have you noticed that James Bond rarely eats in any of his films? He jets into one glitzy tropical island after another, toys with the odd dry martini, lingers in a casino and, if he is lucky, orders room service in some gorgeous hotel. Now, you might think this is due to his busy 007 lifestyle, but as any well-travelled foodie will tell you, superlative hotel cooking is hard to find in even the most expensive tropical island resorts. So, Mr Bond might be interested to note that he can now eat exceptional food in Mauritius at either Alain Ducasse's Spoon des Iles restaurant in One&Only Le Saint Géran hotel or at Vineet Bhatia's Safran in One&Only Le Touessrok hotel. If Michelin guide inspectors travelled outside Europe, these two restaurants would have stars.

Naturally, Bond would not arrive by jumbo jet, but for ordinary mortals it is surprising how quickly the 11-hour night flight wears off as you speed towards Le Touessrok on the east coast of the island, past rolling fields of sugar cane and gurgling brooks. There is a cinematic aspect to the mountains, too, with the island's distinctive jagged ranges being reminiscent of such films as Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The villages, with their Indian architecture, barking dogs and lines of washing strung between palm trees, could be straight out of V S Naipaul's novel A House for Mr Biswas. But normal life vanishes as soon as the car enters the manicured driveway of Le Touessrok. This is the world of holiday escapism. Perfectly clipped tropical plants, vistas of azure pools and smiling staff ready to tend your every need.

I have to admit that such neatness always makes me feel a little uneasy. But such emotions quickly fade with the proffering of fragrant cold towels to cool one's brow, followed by soft chairs, a delicate scoop of mango sorbet and a greeting from the general manager Heinrich Morio. After a few minutes one is ushered to an ocean suite with its mandatory egg-shaped bath, a vast plasma screen with CD and DVD players, wireless keyboards for the internet and PlayStation 2 games consoles. To my relief, there is also a balcony overlooking rustling palm trees and an azure sea. Finding the loo and shower proved more challenging as they were hidden behind what I took to be ornamental glass. Not a problem for 007 - but then he would probably ring for the butler anyway, who is there 24 hours a day to serve your every whim. Blinis and caviar - no problem. Petals scattered over your bed and in your bath - at once.

Breakfast is served in Three Nine Eight, the large, tiered main restaurant. This is not an intimate experience. You wander from station to station to select your bacon and eggs, fresh fruit, bakery and such like. Staff carry your chosen goodies back to your table. The same stations are transformed for dinner to serve food from around the world. You can start with Lebanese mezze, Chinese dim sum or both, followed by Italian gnocchi or Mauritian curry. Everything here is made in the hotel's main kitchen and is included in the holiday price. The staff exude good-natured charm without a hint of cringe-making servility. As to the food, it is acceptable rather than exceptional. Gourmets, however, will quickly snuffle out the hotel's other two restaurants: Safran and Barlen's.

Barlen's is the sort of palm-thatched restaurant that 007 might sit in to keep the beach under surveillance. Being a man of impeccable taste, he would probably toy with a crisp, fresh, palm heart salad dressed in lime and olive oil and served with slices of smoked marlin. The menu is a classic example of chic international beach food: salads, sushi and Mauritian specialities such as chicken and prawn curry.

According to Bhoopala Nalam Nastili, executive chef at Le Touessrok, Mauritian chefs are encouraging more local farmers to grow the foods needed by hotels, such as rosemary, lemon-grass, tarragon, ginger and asparagus. The island already produces many of the basic tropical fruit, vegetables and spices, but, oddly, does not seem to have fresh coconuts. Visit the bustling daily market in the capital Port Louis if you want to see a typical selection of the island's multicultural produce. Those with sensitive noses or a squeamish disposition should avoid the covered fish and meat market as it is decidedly odorous and has plenty of fur-covered Java deer limbs and still-flapping bright orange berri rouge - a type of farmed freshwater carp.

However, the real jewel in the culinary crown of Le Touessrok is Safran. As Heinrich Morio explains: "When we revamped the hotel last year, we wanted to replace our old Indian restaurant with something that would really appeal to our [European] clientele." They were looking for a high-profile chef, following the success their sister hotel enjoyed after persuading Alain Ducasse to open his first restaurant abroad at Le Saint Géran with Spoon des Iles. According to Gérard Sintes, general manager at Le Saint Géran, Ducasse was approached in an attempt to tackle the slow decline in their French market. It worked. He was already grabbing headlines with his two three-star Michelin restaurants and the French, who rank eating well as an essential part of a holiday, quickly noted his new venture. Apparently, we British are more interested in exploration and exercise, such as hiking in the wild Black River Gorges National Park or snorkelling over the coral reefs, than munching exquisite delicacies.

Le Touessrok invited Vineet Bhatia, the Michelin-starred chef at Zaika in London, to open its new small restaurant. "I decided to create a menu very similar to Zaika, but using local ingredients where possible," he says. Juicy Mauritian pineapple, for example, is delicately spiced and poached in coconut; palm hearts are turned into light koftas and fresh prawns and dorado fillet are pan-roasted and served with a crab-meat risotto, spring onion and green herb sauce. The kitchen is open-plan, curving around the edge of an open-sided palm-thatched dining room. At night, the restaurant becomes a magical place, softly lit and filled with the scent of spice.

After indulging in such a divine spice-fest, the thought of spending a quiet, dreamy day under the casuarinas trees on the hotel's tiny private island, Ilot Mangenie, is irresistible. A mere 10-minute free boat ride away, it has long, white, shell-strewn, sandy beaches, black volcanic rocks and fluffy white towels, as well as grilled food and a little beach bar where you can sip Mauritian rum-flavoured with coconut, pineapple or vanilla. If you feel the need for a little rejuvenation, you can always visit the Givenchy Spa, where they will happily pummel your jet-lagged muscles. Alternatively, there is the Canyon Love Stone Therapy or the four-handed Ylang Ylang Body Massage. The truly virtuous can precede such treatments with a personal training session in the gym.

Of course, the really difficult decision lies in whether to stay at Le Touessrok or Le Saint Géran. The latter has a slightly more comfortable, old-worldly European feel. It sits on a beautiful palm-lined beach of the Belle Mare peninsula on the north-east coast of Mauritius and offers all the same facilities as Le Touessrok. However, instead of Safran, there is the ultra sophisticated Spoon des Iles with its slinky burgundy walls, slick white leather Philippe Starck chairs, exquisite open-plan kitchen and scrumptious food.

Massimo Luvara, Ducasse's chef de cuisine here, is the most relaxed French chef I have ever met. His kitchen is a gleaming jewel of black granite, stainless steel and glass. In this air-conditioned haven he produces such delicacies as a creamy guacamole lime soup, seared tuna with a piquant lemon and tamarind relish and vegetable soya sautéd noodles, and the creamiest cheesecake ice-cream sundae topped with fresh raspberries. Mauritian ingredients are included in the menu, but always with a French twist. Thus, tiny sugared limes, preserved in rum, are served straight from a Kilner jar as part of the petits fours.

Lazing on the beach at Le Saint Géran, trying not to feel too watched by the ever-eager beach attendants, I cannot help feeling that Odd Job would love the place. So, I suspect, would Bond. And when work called, he could drive 20 minutes to Le Touessrok and dine at Safran with a Bond girl who had chosen to stay there instead. The best of both worlds.

The Facts

Getting there

British Airways Holidays (0870-443 4439; www.baholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights at One&Only Le Touessrok from £2,579 per person, based on two sharing, between 1 November and 11 December, including flights, transfers and half-board (deluxe room). Seven nights at One&Only Le Saint Géran costs from £3,269 per person, based on two sharing, from 1 November to 11 December, including flights, transfers and half-board (junior suite) with personal butler. From 1 January 2004, BA Holidays is offering the chance to stay at both properties (five nights at one, two nights at the other). Call 0870-243 3406 or visit www.ba.com/beaches.

Comments