Friday, January 7, 2011

A taste of the Pacific

To me, food in Vanuatu is generally more reasonable than what people often give it credit for. The country’s historical ties with France means that baguettes and pastries are tasty and cheap. Furthermore, the flourishing beef industry makes the Australian equivalent seem (although I hate to admit it) second class. However, for those who desire to eat as they would in their home country, there may be some disappointments. Certain foods must be imported and thus lose their flavours and freshness. In addition, it is not prudent to assume that a small tropical island will keep abreast with the latest food trends. 

One thing I loved about all of our dining experiences in Vanuatu was the portion sizes. Plates would arrive with just the right amount of food. Normal plates. Plates that, in a time gone by, were considered dinner plates. How refreshing not to have piled up food on platters. While these portions pleased me no end, I have to admit that it did take some getting used to and it was initially not unusual for me to have “is that all?” thoughts. “Is that all” turned out to be the perfect amount. No waste and no bloating. I wonder if such servings will ever again be the norm in Australia? 

Sadly, my “eating in Vanuatu” post is going to be somewhat brief, owing to the fact that most of our meals were self-catered. For anyone contemplating traveling to the area, I can assure you that self-catering is affordable and easy. The supermarkets have a good range of delectable, tender beef and fresh produce can be easily sourced from the Port Vila market and often also by the roadside. You may even get lucky, as we did, and be gifted fish caught literally metres from our barbecue - I have never before tasted such sweet, delectable fish!

So, what was the best meal I consumed during my time in Efate? Drum roll please! 

The hands down winner goes to my steak with a generous dollop of herb butter and potato gratin at L’Houstalet – a quaint French establishment. While the place has received mixed reviews, it has long been a favourite of our family. Indeed, my father was once game enough to try bat here. Respect! The chili prawns (stolen from the plate of my mother) were also excellent.  

The south west of the island was next best in show, with the Tara Beach and Benjor Beach Club restaurants each offering tasty dishes. Of particular note was Tara Beach’s fish and chips, accompanied, of course, by an icy cold Tusker (bia blong yumi!). The poulet fillet was crumbed and served with piping hot, salty chunks of potato and salad. Benjor’s “bum burner” beef curry, also rates a mention. At under $20AUD, the combination of curry, rice, papadum, raita and fried onions went down a treat.  

In town we ate at two old favourites - Au Péché Mignon and the restaurant formerly known as El Gecko - The Beef House. The latter was formerly our favourite lunch spot in Port Vila and I'm pleased to report that the change of name/management hasn't totally altered this eatery. Most importantly, the best iced tea (in the world!) can still be procured from the establishment. Refreshing and with just a slight citrus kick - yum! Evidence below:

However, our food was sadly not up to those standards set by El Gecko. Previously, my lunch of choice from the establishment was the tuna salad, with it's fresh chunks of fish (real fish, not tinned fish!), fresh salad and slightly acidic, creamy dressing. With my hopes high following the delivery of my iced tea, I ordered the same dish. Gecko's lofty standards were certainly not retained as far as the tuna salad was concerned. The obvious use of tinned fish rendered the dish inferior to its predecessor, but still reasonable. Here's my side-by-side comparison:

I would still recommend a visit to The Beef House, but perhaps give the salad a miss. I have it on good authority that the steak is delicious (you'd hope so with a name like theirs!) and you really *must* try that sensational iced tea.

With regard to another favourite - Au Péché Mignon - we similarly had mixed feelings. While my pepper burger (pictured) was juicy, succulent and down right delicious, the wilted lettuce and droopy beans in my beloved's Niçoise salad was less than optimal. Naturally, one cannot visit this bakery without sampling a few (six in our case!) of their delicious desserts and pastries. We were not disappointed by these morsels and I can highly endorse the virtues of the banana tart!

Further down my culinary rankings is the Bali Hai Café and Bar at Iririki Resort. While our Melanesian fish curry and vegie pizza were both very tasty, service was atrocious! Drinks ordered prior to our meal sat unattended atop the bar for around 15 minutes, we were asked to settle our bill midway through our meal and staff seemed to be running around frantically with little knowledge of what was going on. My beloved equated their antics to that of "headless chooks". A real let down for the picturesque island resort, which seems to have a lot going for it. 

Finally, I would caution anyone from dining at Beachcomber Lodge on Efate's north east coast. We stopped here for lunch during a round-island drive and felt like we had entered a time warp. Everything was cooked with lashings of cream (and not in a good way!), the seafood in the marinara appeared to originate from the packaged frozen goods department of the supermarket and likewise the fish burger was tasteless, processed and nasty. The lodge itself had been denuded of any flora and, while the ocean views were lovely, the building and it's surrounds were depressingly barren. 

I feel it's not fair to end the post on such a low note, as overall, we were once again very happy with our dining experiences in Vanuatu. For anyone planning on visiting, I highly recommend a mixture of self-catering, eating out and sampling some local delicacies (easily procured at the market). However, most importantly, approach all dining experiences with an open mind and an empty tummy and you'll be delighted!


  1. oh that ice tea is the best...hey you forgot to mention the pineapples! Best I've had so sweet and juicy! Oh and the bananas and passion fruit are great too!

    If you do go, prepare to reduce your tomato and apple intake..these are imported at an expense. Don't worry though, the fresh, local tropical fruit and veg is cheap and very tasty!

  2. Good point, babe! Pineapples were the best I have *ever* eaten also and those bananas topped with passion fruit...mmmm...can we go back?!? ;)