ABOVE: Slow Braised Lamb Shank in an onion gravy from the Aquacasian menu
Give someone a piece of paper and ask them to draw paradise: chances are, they’ll come up with something resembling Mauritius.
The small island in the Indian Ocean has 110 miles of almost unbroken coastline, where crystal clear turquoise waters lap unspoiled beaches and wild birds of exotic colours dart and weave through the shadows of gently rustling palm trees.
No wonder the stable country - independent since 1968 - has been the sun and sand escape of choice for European travellers of means for decades now.
There is an element of luxury travel, however, where island paradises often come up short, even at the best hotels, and that is on the plate. For visitors accustomed to eating in leading cities around the world, the unspoken trade off has traditionally been that you settle, if you're lucky, for serviceable imitations of leading world cuisines in order to enjoy the perfect landscapes and fantasy weather.
But one luxury resort in Mauritius is attempting to buck the trend with the launch of Aquacasia, a new food concept that is aiming to establish Mauritius as the centre of a new movement in global cuisine, which encompasses unheralded traditional dishes from all the islands of the Indian Ocean.
Shanti Maurice is the crown jewel of Mauritus’ unspoiled, sparsely populated South coast, a 5 star complex built around its own beach – every one of its suites and villas are ocean-facing – that boasts winding paths through tropical gardens, a patch of indigenous forest and its own herb, vegetable and fruit gardens.
It is partly the latter resource that inspired head chef Willibald Reinbacher to make Shanti Maurice the launch pad of his new food concept. Originally from Austria, Chef Willi arrived in Mauritius after several years introducing award-winning modern European cuisine to some of the leading hotels in Dubai.
The Fish Shack at Shanti Maurice
Around a year ago, he began researching the traditional dishes of his new home and its surrounding islands. It meant embarking on fact-finding missions to Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Reunion, Indonesia and even Western Australia, speaking with street traders and sniffing out authentic family recipes from nations with little history of bragging about their food.
The result is a new menu of over 50 dishes that has, unsurprisingly, seafood at its core, with tropical fruit and vegetable (grown in the aforementioned garden) and poultry and deer also featuring heavily.
The variety in flavours is huge, yet the menu remains cohesive. Take two highlights from the starter list. The first, a white fish ceviche made with coconut cream and lemon, is almost shockingly fresh-tasting and shot through with the perfect amount of chilli, giving it a wonderful snap. Next is a lamb halim, a rich stew served with a Maldivian-style stuffed flat bread. Very different dishes, but linked by the judicious use of aromatic spices. Or from the mains:, a punchy seafood and black pepper stir fry somehow sits perfectly with a delicate Malagasy chicken thigh stew in coconut and lemon.
White fish ceviche made with coconut cream and lemon, from the Aquacasia menu
There could scarcely be a better setting than the Shanti Maurice to showcase a new fine dining experience. Whether its eaten at their laidback main resturant Stars - where the only thing more delightful than the impeccably helpful staff are the birds popping by to say hello - the Fish Shack, where everything is barbequed right on the beach, or the Rum Shed where 180 variations of the good stuff are on offer, it's impossible not to find yourself falling for these new and exciting dishes.
Could Aquacasia really spread beyond this corner of Mauritius and truly catch on in the rest of the world? Chef Willi believes so, and with a book of recipes in the works, you wouldn't bet against him. The dishes he has devised are carefully crafted but unfussily presented: food for the soul, rather than your Instagram feed, healthy ingredients cooked with imagination and shot through with the joy of island life. Consider it a little upgrade on paradise.