We explore the unique mashup of French, Melanesian and Asian cuisines in New Caledonia
To celebrate her 21st birthday, Mr Shawn's mum generously shouts the whole family for a week in New Caledonia, we feel privileged to say the very least.
New Caledonia is a couple of hours by plane from Sydney or Brisbane. It's about level with Townsville so it makes for a pleasant winter break. The weather was like spring in Sydney, warm days in the low 20s, sometimes you need a cardie at night. It's sweatsville in summer though.
Many folks visit New Caledonia to dive, laze on islands or do weird active-person type stuff in national parks. We were happy to hunker down in the capital, Noumea, for a week of eating and gentle exploration.
The population is a mainly a mix of Melanesian Kanak and folks with French origins, plus a smattering of folks from Vietnam, China and everywhere else. This makes for some interesting eating potential.
Noumea really is a little piece of France in the Pacific. The first thing that struck us was the wealth. This is the first world: drinkable tap water, excellent roads, developed infrastructure, a great bus system, law and order. We're told by a tour guide that this is funded by nickel mining, lots of pocket money from mother France, and a hefty sales-tax.
Noumea isn't a budget destination, which may explain why we saw barely any Australians here, except for a few stragglers from the cruise ships, but if the Aussie dollar is good then prices are roughly equivalent to Australia. And the whole French thing makes it quite the foodie destination.
Noumea's city centre has it's attractions but even a pair of down-market urbanites like us would much prefer to stay by the beach. Anse Vata suited us down to the ground. The adjacent Bay de Citron is also popular and has a few newer bars and restaurants.
When we first arrived in Anse Vata we thought it was a tourist ghetto, but quickly realised it's a local hangout too. In fact there's not many tourists around at all, it's wonderful. The word 'underdeveloped' is used a lot in describing tourism here. The foreshore is far from overdeveloped. There's some restaurants, bars and a few hotels, but also vacant lots and public spaces.
Tourist brochures will crap on about Pacific smiles and friendly locals and dangnabbit, it's true. There's five of us on this holiday and we're all flabbergasted by how warm and friendly the locals are. Walk into any shop, even a servo or a busy deli counter at the supermarket, and you will receive a warm and friendly 'bon jour' and a smile, and an 'au revoir' when you leave. Not a single person hassles us for our tourist dollars. Not one.
But we're here to talk food. On the bus from the airport we noticed local food bars called 'snacks' and couldn't wait to get into them. Fortunately there's one just near our hotel in Anse Vata.
Snack Uylsse's grand interior. A big shout-out to the guy who works the counter here, what a lovely bloke.
We apologise for having something so unnewsworthy as hamburgers for our first meal in Noumea, but dangnabbit we were starving hungry and sleep deprived after a 4.30am start.
The main local beer 'Number 1' is excellent, clean and easy to drink. Our other local favourite was Havanna, a darker beer, beware of the 6% alcohol content. Note takeway alcohol sales are not allowed after 12pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We learnt this the hard way.
Burgers here are pretty dang good. The French influence and a local beef industry deters the evils meat of extender and frozen patties. And we dig the mayonnaise here, it's not sickly sweet and eeecchh like the stuff we eat in Australia.
As we eat our burgers we notice the locals are onto something much, much better: long bread rolls devoured with gusto. These gems are simply referred to as 'sandwiches', freshly baked French baguettes with hot fillings. These are unbelievably good and must be close to the national dish (that or steak'n'fries). On our first visit we try a warm omelette, ham, cheese and tomato roll which is far more than the sum of it's ingredients. Later we try 'viande hachée' which we learn is mince meat, or chopped up hamburger patty in this case. 'American' flavour is chopped up hamburger and french fries in a roll. Bloody terrific. The winner is the porc au sucre: warm sweet pork stew in a roll. Oh my god.
Of all the street foods we tried in Noumea the humble sandwich reigns supreme. Super supreme.
Noumea's city centre is a low-rise, low-key, kind of place. The mix of Melanesian, French and Asian influences give it a quirky feel. There's a jumble of architecture from French Colonial to WWII Americana to 1960s Aloha to the odd modern structure. Many building seemed to have built around the 1960s during the nickel mining boom, and have been well preserved. There's a couple of groovy 1960s arcades and retro themed government buildings with a Pacific twist.
Many businesses have metal grills on the windows left over from some darker times in history which can give the place a downbeat, edgy appearance in some spots. But it's safe as houses. Mr Shawn's folks are in their 70s and felt perfectly comfortable walking around town in the day. It's probably a bit unnerving at night, though after speaking to locals it sounds fine.
We make several visits to town to check out the snacks. Some look wonderfully dodgy from the outside, but inside they're clean and tidy and folks are super welcoming. We can't speak French and only a little English is spoken in some places. Smiling, 'bounjour' and pointing got us by no worries.
The 'nem' is a popular local street food. Basically a spring roll. We try a beef one which is pretty dang tasty, dripping with magical hangover-curing oil. We hear there are crab nems around but we couldn't find any, dammit.
For our first snack adventure in town we try Snack Elinor. The window promises noodle soup, perfect for our finely crafted hangovers.
Snack Elinor's glorious interior. Wonderfully low rent, clean and cheerful.
An older fellow sat down next to us and had a glass of red wine with his steak frites. So French, so Pacific.
Snack Elinor menu. We discovered too late that 'crevettes' means prawns. Something Mr Shawn should have known given his family nickname is 'Shawn the Prawn', or in this part of the world, 'monsieur le crevette'. Sadly we never got back to try that prawn noodle soup, bet it was dang fine...
Snack Elinor is Vietnamese run. We get a good beef pho and a bbq pork soup with pho stock. The soup is served with fresh baguettes. Thumbs up. We watch the old bloke at the next table drown his steak'n'fries with soy sauce.
This nearby bakery is very popular. It sells mostly cheap, greasy stuff but there's one thing we have to try...
Banana tarte. Oh my god. A creamy banana filling with a banana flavoured gelatinous top, flaky pastry. This slice cost us around $3 and was big enough to share between three of us.
Miss Chicken's snack buddy.
We love Noumea's mishmash of building styles. We like 1960s stuff in particular, it has been so well preserved. Due to a reduction in money from France there's been a halt on much restoration work on the older colonial buildings, a shame considering they are unique and beautiful.
The name 'Snack Nancy' tickled our fancy.
Noumea has some great street art, dig the Pacific themes. Sadly the joint is rife with taggers, it's everywhere. Wherever they are in the world, taggers are arseholes. Except in the USA, where they're assholes.
For another snack adventure we try Snack Tete a Tete.
Snack Tete a Tete is a little more upmarket. It's like an Aussie country cafe with a Chinese twist. The day before we noticed 'reserved' signs on the tables here, it must be good. The joint fills up with folks from all walks of life, it's a multicultural lunch party in here.
Snack Tete a Tete menu.
Snack Tete a Tete menu.
Miss Chicken feels the need for vegetables and gets a Salad Bernard. Dig that artful 1970's presentation, it's so Bernard King that they named it after him. A plate of salad with a bit of protein is widely available.
Mr Shawn orders a 'croque monsieur' thinking it sounds kinda fancy pants, but learns croque monsieur is a ham and cheese toasty. It becomes a theme of the trip: anything sounds fancy in French.
We throw in a picture of a regular cafe, just to show you it's not all down-market, we just like the dodgey stuff.
Around lunchtime all these folks will have a baguette in their hand. Some folks like a fancy filled one, or for a super cheap 80 cent lunch you can munch on a plain baguette.
Our lunch at snack Tete a Tete was nice but not dodgy enough for our strict requirements so we go for a second lunch at Snack Good Morning. Most snacks have a front takeaway-counter on the street as well as a dining area, that's good thinking.
Snack good morning menu.
Snack Good Morning menu.
Snack Good Morning interior, beautiful retro Asia-Pacific-o-rama.
Miss Chicken orders a Vietnamese omelette which is no longer available. Ordering under pressure she goes for the club sandwich, which is cling-wrapped, past it's prime and pretty much the worst club sandwich we've ever had. And having travelled most of Asia, we've had some pretty shabby club sandwiches.
To rub it in, the lovely waitress walks past us with a beautiful, beautiful looking fresh salad of glass noodles topped with prawns. She sees us gawking at it and she stops to show us. "Thai salad" she says proudly, then plonks it on the next table. Bummer.
But the nos sandwich au poulet, fancy talk for a hot chicken roll, makes up for it all. Dangnabbit it's good. It's arrives clingwrapped but it's a fresh baguette hot and full of hot chook, far beyond anything dreamed possible at Red Rooster. Bloody yum. Dang good coffee too.
We stumble upon this wonderful old amusement arcade. Those machines look like they came from Japan in the early 1980's, awesome.
We were looking forwar to exploring Noumea's Chinatown, but it's little more than a building with 'Chinatown' written on it, and a couple of streets that had more Asian-run shops than others. There are lots of folks with Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, most folks seemed to have been here for generations and are very New Caledonian, there's not a lot of new immigrants to give Chinatown a buzz.
The most Chinese of Chinese looking restaurants in we could find in downtown Noumea is Snack Fin Valab.
Snack Fin Valab's interior: bright, cheery and squeaky clean. On our visit it was very popular with Melanesian folks, it filled up not long after this photo.
We were very curious to see what would be on the menu at a French Pacific Chinese menu, here it is.
But wait, there's more...
Interesting side snackages, stuffed eggs, fish salads and pie slices.
Miss Chicken opts for three selections from the bainmarie of delights: sweet'n'sour pork, green beans and chicken. It reminded us very much of Australian country Chinese food.
Mr Shawn goes a-la-carte with porc au caramel - about $13. Porc au caramel seems to be a French-Chinese classic, it was everywhere, we even saw packaged microwave versions of it in supermarkets, so it was a must try for us. It was simply stir fried pork with onions in a sweet dark sauce, we think it would be called 'brown sauce' downunder.
Walking home after our Chinese feed we saw the uber happening Au Petit Cafe on the outskirts of the city, packed with bright young things. After paying $13 for an average Chinese feed we realised for $10 more would could have some seriously, seriously good French fusion food.
At the very end of our trip we had a small window to try just one more joint: Snack New Caledonia. We had to squeeze it in as a second lunch, we simply can't leave New Caledonia with trying steak frites. The things we do in the name of research, eh?
Snack New Caledonia is perfect. Run by a tops old Vietnamese New Caledonian bloke and his family.
Snack New Caledonia is so old school, it looks like it has barely changed in decades.
Snack New Caledonia menu.
Steak Frites (around $12), or steak and fries in English, is pretty much on every menu and seems to be a quasi national dish. It's a minute steak, super thin and cooked medium. We're surprised to find that it's pretty darn tasty, minute steak is an underrated beast. There was a cheaper $8 steak frites two doors down but for some reason Snack New Caledonia seemed to be the right place.
Another local classic we had to try one more time: porc au caramel, this time with prawns. Around $15.
As we walk home through New Caledonia's lovely, retro, laidback suburbs we stumble upon a food van getting set. Folks were cooking up a storm in the house. We'd read there were food trucks around but you gotta know where to find them.
We're accustomed to travelling Asia where the best food is usually at the street level. It was a hoot sussing out New Caledonia's street food scene, but Noumea is one place where it's worth paying a few bucks more and getting some seriously good French food. This feed at Marmite et Tire Bouchon was mind blowing and an amazing deal at around $35 for two courses, or $43 for three courses. We'd expect to pay at least double for an equivalent feed in Sydney.
Another feed we had on a day tour opened our eyes to more dining possibilities in New Caledonia. This is rustic, country style cooking: French with a Pacific touch. Green papaya salad, a rough'n'ready venison pate (like a gamey meatloaf), roast venison, braised chokos and a fancy pants desert of mandarin pudding topped with a little coconut cake. Served by a Melanesian transvestite too.
A week of eating in Noumea was barely an entree. We're sure there's some more gems to be found in the snacks. And we didn't get around to trying the pub food. And there's a bunch of mid-falutin' French restaurants to try. Most restaurant mains seem to be priced around the 2500 franc mark (around $25 at the time), a good deal for good French food compared to back in Sydney. Not all restaurants are great though, so do your homework.
There's some great dining but the ultimate foodie joy in New Caledonia is self-catering. Think supermarkets, butchers and delis filled with imported French food. French everything. There's some great local produce too, and killer seafood. We'll get around to all that in the next post.
We love New Caledonia.