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Wine & Dine
June 07, 2016

6 Innovative Global Restaurants To Try In Goa

Text by Simone Louis

From tataki to tzatziki, these restaurants have turned Goa into a global gastronomy utopia

Sitting pretty on the coast of the Arabian Sea, Goa emanates a charm so strong that it is not only the holiday go-to for most Indians, but has also become one of the most popular destinations for international wanderers. The beachy getaway has been my own personal haven, welcoming my family at least twice every year, ever since I was old enough to say ‘foodie’. It used to be safe to say that if Goa had something new to offer, I already knew about it. In recent years, though, I found myself disconnected from the paradise I once called home. I decided this year to appease mind, body and soul and that yearning for the sea, solitude and oh-so-glorious food. But, as I planned my itinerary, a host of new gastronomical offerings stood out; each one unique and distinctly different from the familiar curries, vindaloos, cafreals and xacutis.

Today, food in Goa is more than just the sum of its local shacks — which will always remain institutions — offering visitors variety to their hearts’ content. This is because a large number of international chefs, foodies and restaurateurs have fallen in love with the personality of the place, settled down there and set up shop. Having been left drooling by my pre-trip research, it was easy enough to decide that, this time, I would lay off the regular fish-curry-rice and instead taste my way around the globe on an international food adventure. It was probably the best decision I could have made because from Mediterranean experts to inspirational duos, I was lucky enough to meet some of the most zealous connoisseurs from all over the world and experience the cultures and cuisines that have now become a respected part of the Goa food legacy.

1. Matsya Freestyle Kitchen

Who: Gome Galily
What: Mediterranean and Asian flavours
Travel about four kilometres inland from Arambol and you will find expanses of paddy fields and palm trees, in the middle of which is the serene Samata Holistic Retreat Center, which is made up of 200-year-old Indonesian wooden houses. Besides the beauty and calmness of the place, worthy of mention is the inspiring restaurant, Matsya Freestyle Kitchen, run by a young Israeli chef. Gome Galily has worked at one of the world’s best restaurants, Noma, and trained under David Thompson at Bangkok’s famous Nahm. The approach he takes is exactly what’s in the name of the restaurant — freestyle. There is no menu, and prior booking is mandatory. There are two fixed prices; you call in, make a reservation and share with the effervescent chef your preferences, allergies and expectations. After that, you place your meal in his skilled hands and watch the mastermind at work in the restaurant’s open kitchen.

Since there’s no menu, one can’t really recommend a specific dish, but I can say that I was actually excited by vegetarian food for the first time in a very long while. Everything is fresh from the organic garden at the centre and the home-made herb bread is truly wonderful, served in a welcome platter with a spicy cashew and smoked eggplant dip. Also, one can never go wrong with fresh seafood here. The tuna tataki and red snapper ceviche with yuzu are absolute winners.

“My inspiration for this restaurant was based on a desire to integrate all my travel experiences, from the spicy, sexy street food of South East Asia to the precise clean and modern fine dining in Europe,” Galily says, explaining to me that he wants his guests to have experiences that will stay with them; those that they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. He may be very well-travelled and accomplished, but one can tell that he is a Goa lad at heart. He personally brings out every course to the table, and smiles as he professes, “I came here as a tourist but, to put it simply, I fell in love. I believe now that the Indian stamp in your passport is an invitation to stay and become all you’ve ever dreamed of becoming.”

2. Le Poisson Rouge

Who: Gregory Bazire
What: Indo-French fine dining
The fusion fare at Le Poisson Rouge employs an authentic French culinary approach while incorporating subtle influences of Goan flavours. Inspired by locally available seafood, the list of offerings changes regularly based on seasonal catch and yield. “We do change our menu thrice in a season; although this year we will also have a set menu which will compile all our best dishes from over the years,” says Gregory Bazire, whose experience includes working in Michelin-starred restaurants across the USA and Europe for half a decade. Born in Versailles and having relocated to Normandy at the age of two, he grew up helping his parents in their busy brasserie, Les Vapeurs, in Trouville, France, before quickly realising his passion for food and dexterity in the kitchen. After travelling the world and making a name for himself, he and his wife were on the lookout for a place to settle down in and raise a family. “We were looking for an exotic lifestyle in a fast-growing country and felt that Goa, despite the seasonality, was a good place to settle and raise our kids in. The state was already on the path to organic farming and had an impressive enough array of seafood to excite and inspire me!”

‘Fresh local produce cooked with passion’ is his mantra, one that the trees and fairy lights of the restaurant’s alluringly intimate al-fresco environment reverberate with. Some of my favourites here are beetroot and lemon chutney carpaccio with a rucola salad and parmesan shaving, river crab and fresh turmeric tortellini with a curry leaf emulsion and the divine moelleux aux chocolat.

LPR, as it is fondly called, is a classy joint; one that calls for a relaxed evening. “I want guests to take their time here,” Bazire adds. “Gaze at the stars with a mojito or a nice glass of wine and just feel well.”

3. Thalassa

Who: Mariketty Grana
What: Greek goodness
Like most people, I had heard the name ‘Thalassa’ before, probably as part of every guide to Goa written in recent years — and with good reason. Mariketty Grana, who hails from Corfu, has transformed this open-air eatery into a dreamy piece of Greece. Perched on a dramatic little cliff, the taverna has the most awe-inspiring view of the Little Vagator beach and horizon, making it one of the most popular sunset-meal spots in the state. The tables towards the edge are booked way in advance but I was lucky enough to score one and, let me just say, it is worth reserving one for an anniversary dinner.

The characteristic matriarch, Grana, started out selling kebabs and such at night markets before the demand for her food grew and Thalassa was born. The food here is without a doubt some of the lightest, most flavoursome I have tasted and the feta cheese is something I would pay repeat visits for. It’s not surprising, since the jovial owner makes it herself and imports every single ingredient on the menu from Greece. Must-haves here are the tzatziki, gyros wraps, mussel saganaki and basically anything with feta.

Another cool thing about this place is that they welcome pets, so don’t be discouraged if you have a furry friend you need to bring along. And it gets better — after a spectacular sunset, you could be treated to acrobatic performances, Greek fire dances and other incredible entertainment.

4. The River Restaurant

Who: Cyrus Todiwala
What: Goan with a modern, international flair
He is the only Indian-born chef on this list, and The River Restaurant serves as a homecoming for Cyrus Todiwala, about 25 years after he left to become a global bigwig. Goa seemed to be a fitting place for the London-based Parsi to set up shop in India, since its flavours quite perceptibly inspire both his restaurant in Waterloo called Assado and his television show, The Spice Men. The BBC Food Personality of the Year explains, “I spent the best part of my grooming years here and developed a deep bond with the people and the state. Also, being Goa’s first ever honorary wildlife and game warden means that the attachment is far more than just superficial.”

True to its name, the restaurant sits inside the luxurious Acron Waterfront Resort and is situated at the confluence of the Baga River and the Arabian Sea, which offers guests remarkable views. Over and above the easy atmosphere and warm service, the menu is very accommodating of the preferences and wishes of diners. If you sit outside in the al-fresco section, you will find fishing rods perched at intervals along the wall that overlooks the river. If you’re not satisfied by observing local fisherfolk work their magic, you can catch your own fish, have it cooked according to your liking and then savour it!

I didn’t really work too hard for my lunch, though, as I tucked into a succulent kingfish niçoise, prawn balchao and home-made potato gnocchi, before being completely blown away by what is now one of my favourite dishes in Goa — the dukkah-dusted prawns with melon. Truly indescribable in its flavour and texture, the plate features locally sourced lagoon tiger prawns seasoned with an Egyptian spice blend and served with a watermelon, fresh mint, red onion and feta salad. If you only order one thing at this restaurant, it should be this…even though that may prove to be utterly impossible to do.

5. Ciao Bella

Who: Simona and Mario Rossi
What: Italian soul food
Scoot down to this charming homelike eatery for some genuine Italian grub at any time of the year. The menu is small, but only because they stick by their rule of quality over quantity. There are so many restaurants that offer mediocre Italian fare to cater to every palate, but it really takes one visit to Ciao Bella for anybody to appreciate the complexity and multiplicity of Italian cuisine.

Chatting with Simona Rossi, I discover that she came here on vacation in 2001 and “fell in love”, something that I’ve heard from a great number of expats. She began visiting twice a year and, on one of those visits, met Mario. The couple soon decided to move in together and settle down in Goa. “Living in Assagao, we often passed this derelict building and I always thought it would be a nice place in which to open a restaurant. We spoke to the owner in January of 2011 and five months later, our adventure began,” she beams. The interiors have been put together by the couple, which explains why it is as warm, unobtrusive and inviting as they are towards every person that walks through the door. “Be comfortable, you are a guest in my house; enjoy like you are in Italia!” There couldn’t be a better way to be welcomed.

Most elements of the meals are imported from Italy and you get a shot of their home-made chocolate liquor (on the house) to go with your crème brûlée or panna cotta at the end of a satisfying meal. And a satisfying meal you’re sure to have, especially if you order the squid ink spaghetti with smoked salmon, the onion soup or the sage and butter ravioli. Still, the signature Ciao Bella dish in my opinion is one that will entice you from the moment you read the name: chocolate ravioli stuffed with gorgonzola cheese in vanilla butter sauce. Like Simona professes, it is “just like India — rich in flavour and it will make you fall in love.”

6. Go With The Flow

Who: Guto Souza
What: Brazilian delicacies; special sushi menu
In one of the quietest areas in Baga, an illuminated pathway leads to a Portuguese manor surrounded by a garden dotted with white cane furniture. Here, the taste of Brazil meets an undying passion for great flavour.

Guto Souza and his wife Neel settled in Goa because it reminded them of Brazil, after the esteemed chef decided to come to India because he “would not be a complete cook without knowing Indian food”. He now heads the kitchen at Go With The Flow with his son Gabriel, rumoured to be Brazil’s best sushi chef — something that I find plausible, having sampled the separate menu. Senior Souza’s talent, however, is best witnessed through the meat dishes. “Steak has always been my passion,” he admits. “It is one of the strongest dishes on the menu.”

The highlight here is the elevated dining area — a contemporary version of a gazebo, accessed by a winding metal staircase. Here, I dig into a basket of pão de queijo, also known as Brazilian cheese bread, basically round, gluten-free, fluffy bits of heaven. Chef Souza is right, the steak is the star of the night, but with tough competition from the roasted pork belly (from Belgium).

My favourite thing about the place is that all profits go to the Samarpan Foundation. The fact that everyone working at the restaurant loves what they do is evident in both the service and the food…which is probably why anyone who dines here never fails to return.

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