Dining in French Polynesia, Where the 'Wow' Factor Is in Full Effect


French Polynesia offers fascinating dining. The mash-up of Polynesian, French and Asian cooking yields a rich cuisine based on pristine seafood and tropical fruits, as well as imported luxuries. Wine lists harbor rare gems, and gorgeous settings make for romantic, relaxed meals. Service is easygoing and gracious. One tip: The best cooking is at off-resort places. Trust us, it’s worth the taxi fare to get to them.

Le Coco's 

Paru on pesto risotto from <em>Le Coco's</em> in Tahiti
Paru on pesto risotto from Le Coco's in Tahiti - Betsy Andrews

Local-born chef Heiarii Hoiore cooks the islands’ most accomplished fare in a location that gives others a run for their money. Every table in the indoor-outdoor colonial-style setting has a view: humpback whales breaching at lunchtime in season; sunsets toward evening.

Once the food comes, though, you’ll want to concentrate on what’s in front of you. Ribbons of duck pastrami, smoked magret, grassy prosciutto and a crazy-quilt terrine of lentils, carrot and duck foie gras comprise the superb housemade charcuterie.

Shrimp and molten foie gras-filled delicate ravioli for one day’s special appetizer. A foie gras sauce amped up its umami flavor. The hint of butteriness in a Jean Loron Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay 2013 matched the dish, but the wine had the snap, too, to cleanse the palate.

There are bottles here not even available in the States. Gustave Lorentz “Evidence” 2013, an organic Alsatian Pinot Noir, is one. With a scent as herbaceous as Jägermeister but a flavor resembling nearly ripe raspberries, it handles the decadent seaweed-crusted paru (angelfish) on pesto risotto in butter sauce splendidly.

Don’t neglect sweets. Springy baba au rhum wears a peach-colored square of white chocolate dolloped with lime cream, mint syrup and baby herbs — the prettiest, most ethereal rummy dessert ever.

Reservations recommended; closed Sunday and Monday. US$200

Le Coco’s
PK 13,200 Sea Side Punaauia, Tahiti. 582-108

Snack Mahana

Various dishes from <em>Snack Mahana</em> in Moorea
Various dishes from Snack Mahana in Moorea - Betsy Andrews

Wear shorts and a T-shirt to dine on Moorea’s best seafood at this outdoor, waterside spot shaded by an enormous tree. Polynesian versions of pop hits play, and the servers ask if you’d like the heads kept on your shrimp.

Say yes. Moorean shrimp come from a pristine, little farm nearby; they are large, sweet and local as can be. Order them in curry. You can suck the creamy, yellow sauce out from their heads like any wise gourmand would.

With their mix of shrimp, chicken, Chinese sausage and greens, the Chinese noodles are as junky and delicious as you’d want them to be. A thick breaded mahi filet swims delectably in a garlicky, winey coconut sauce. Like everything here, the portion is enormous.

Polynesia’s version of poke, poisson cru, features raw tuna, cucumber and tomato marinated in coconut, ginger and lime. It is trounced here by the tuna tartare. With its mustardy dressing shot through with scallion, shallots and gherkins, it’s a gorgeous stand-in for a classic steak tartare.

After all this, it’s difficult to think about dessert. Still, a scoop of coconut ice cream or grapefruit sorbet can do no wrong.

Reservations recommended; cash only; lunch only; closed Monday; US$30

Snack Mahana
PK23,200, Moorea. 564-170

Villa Mahana

Tuna from <em>Villa Mahana</em> in Bora Bora
Tuna from Villa Mahana in Bora Bora - Betsy Andrews

Vaihere and Damian Rinaldi-Dovio’s restaurant feels as French countryside as it does Bora Bora. The Corsican-born chef and his Polynesian wife bought a villa from expat artist Garrick Yrondi, whose colorful art fills the six-table dining room. Two private tables are tucked away on a balcony and in the darkly lit upstairs.

You can watch the chef through kitchen windows use techniques he acquired from mentor Paul Bocuse. A thrilling wine list matches his fare. Château Haut-Brion 1961? Dominus 1995? They are in the cellar.

The house starts you off, though, with a yeasty Deutz Brut. Bread arrives. The boule is crusty outside, fluffy within, though the dense, sweet coconut bread brings more bliss. You can order à la carte, but the two prix fixes are organized like the breads. The “Epicurien” is Continental, offering caviar-topped seafood, foie gras, lobster risotto.

The “Exotique” lavishes attention on Tahitian ingredients. Sea salt and vanilla oil grace barely touched tuna. Mahi-mahi in curry and mango sauce is topped by caramelized banana, which looks and nearly tastes like foie gras. A blossomy 2015 Michel Redde Sauvignon Blanc goes along smashingly.

On both menus, red wine-vanilla sauce drapes a filet of rare beef. It is too large to finish, though you’ll try. A glass of Haut-Beausejour 2012 adds smoky cassis notes to the course.

They don’t flambé the bananas at your table, but the presentation is still spectacular, with a chocolate medallion inscribed with the restaurant’s name and dots of raspberry and mango coulis arranged just so. A Château Grillon Sauternes 2013 brings more tropical charisma.

Finally, aged Armagnac beckons. Why not? You’re on vacation.

Reservations required; closed Sunday; US$235

Villa Mahana
Povai Bay, Bora Bora. 689-67-50-63

K Restaurant

A dining table at <em>K Restaurant</em> in Moorea
A dining table at K Restaurant in Moorea - K Restaurant

Stick your toes in the sand while dining on the Sofitel beach on Moorea. Scallop and frog mousseline with lemongrass, a tower of yellowfin tuna and foie gras—chef Guillaume Burlion’s cooking is as glamorous as the atmosphere beneath a glowing, Kahaia-wood pergola.

For a really good time, come on the third Friday of the month, when cabaret performers light up the tent. A roving magician does card tricks. A sax accompanies an aerialist twirling from the rafters. Polynesian dancers sway.

And the sommelier pours extraordinary wines. Bouchard Père & Fils Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Lavières 2013, a premier cru Pinot Noir, delivers plenty of cherry fruit but with a potting-shed muskiness that makes it truly delicious. On one night, it went with a beggar’s purse filled with goat cheese and roasted beets, a classic combination. Glasses were chilled for the Fumé Blanc, a Michel Redde Marjorum 2012. It smelled of cellar and citron zest, and its flavor grew more pineappley when paired with the seafood. The tropics’ spiny lobster lacks butteriness, so it can disappoint diners used to Maine. The brandied lobster emulsion, however, was scrumptious.

A cheese course is almost de rigueur in a meal like this. A funky, milky Laguiole was one highlight; the wine was the other. Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Reserve de la Comtesse 2011 has Cabernet’s peppers-meets-blackberries panache layered with a bone-broth savoriness. A baby pineapple stuffed with chantilly cream brought the meal back to the sweet side. The saxophone serenaded our departure.

Reservations recommended; closed Sunday; dinner only; cabaret third Friday of the month. US$165.

K Restaurant
Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort, BP 28 Teavaro, Moorea. 551-212

Lagoon by Jean-Georges

The exterior of <em>Lagoon by Jean-Georges</em> in Tahiti
The exterior of Lagoon by Jean-Georges in Tahiti - Lagoon by Jean-Georges

Star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten oversees this restaurant at the St. Regis. Many dishes show his light, clean signature. Doting yet formal service carries his imprimatur, too. The sleek, dark interior could be anywhere, but the well-lit lagoon beyond the glass wall and flooring is pure Bora Bora. Sharks glide into view. “There’s meat on the menu,” they seem to say. “But why bother? Eat what we’re eating.”

Whet your appetite with an island twist on the Old-Fashioned. Local dark rum paired with spicy house bitters and Tahitian vanilla syrup, it’s intense yet balanced. The wine list offers greatest hits in recent vintages.

The best dishes here have an Asian bent. Silky scallop sashimi sits in gingery, sesame-oil dressing dotted with avocado cream, shiitake and radish. A tarragon leaf adds a pop of licorice. Rare ahi tuna crusted in popped rice with a chile-citrus mayo is a crowd-pleaser.

Local octopus gets the Continental treatment over Tuscan white bean purée and a mesclun salad. Fish of the day, in a lemony gastrique with fennel and green olives, is pulled from the lagoon. If you don’t love smaller varieties like parrotfish, go for meaty mahi-mahi instead in a fragrant lavender, sesame and mustard sauce.

For dessert, kulfi — India’s wonderfully dense answer to ice cream— gets an American treatment flavored with Ovaltine and topped with caramel popcorn, but the star of the plate is island banana, caramelized and melt-in-your-mouth. There is no taste simpler or sweeter here than that.

Reservations recommended; closed Wednesday; dinner only. US$260.

Lagoon by Jean-Georges
The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, Motu Ome'e BP 506, Bora Bora. 607-888

Le Lotus

The “fisherman's pot” from <em>Le Lotus</em> in Tahiti
The “fisherman's pot” from Le Lotus in Tahiti - Betsy Andrews

This thatch-roof pavilion is built over an illuminated lagoon at Intercontinental, a romantic setting for an old-school meal. The kitchen proffers freebies. Tuna mousse with tomato salsa, and green lentil mousse with bacon espuma amuse-bouches herald more mousses and foams to come.

A smoked swordfish and tuna sashimi “terrine” has a 1980s feel, the fish shaped into delectable nuggets and topped with wasabi cream and coconut-rice espuma. An accompanying salad of seaweed and escarole presents a winning combination. The Bordeaux Blanc, a Château Ferran 2014, exhibits the coconut overtones to match the island flavors.

“Fisherman’s pot” is more sophisticated than it sounds, with a Southeast Asia-meets-France medley of shrimp, prawn and moist opah in a coconutty tomato-orange broth with dollops of fromage blanc and makrut lime foam. It’s a handsome, unexpected dish. Another surprise comes as an intermezzo: Calvados sorbet strewn with mint. It may be the meal’s best moment.

Topped with green curry and coconut foam, the catch of the day shares a plate with papaya-octopus eggrolls and a pumpkin-purée quenelle. It’s a heavy dish, so leave room for dessert. Who knew passion fruit went so well with chocolate and peanuts?

Mignardises follow: chocolate-coconut cake, lime macarons and more. The servers that bring them are sweet, too, but they may be slow. Relax: There is no better place to wait than the oceanfront on a warm Polynesian evening.

Reservations recommended. US$155

Le Lotus
InterContinental Resort Tahiti, Faa'a, Tahiti. 865-110

By Betsy Andrews Guest Contributor Betsy Andrews writes for The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine and many other publications. Her award-winning books of poetry are “New Jersey” and “The Bottom.”