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Wine & Dine
May 14, 2013

Gourmet In Goa

Text by Nasrin Modak. Photographs by Munir Kabani.

Speciality restaurants are giving a tantalising twist to the Goan culinary landscape. Sheela Jaywant follows the food trail and indulges her gastronomic instincts at the freshly-minted eateries that offer authentic global treats

Sometimes I wonder whether one gets better English, Mediterranean and Italian food in Goa than in their home countries. It’s like hearing ‘the best no-onion-garlic thali I ate was in Dubai and the world’s only pau-bhaji pizza in Las Vegas’. No one believes it even when it’s true.

Speciality restaurant owners are flying chefs and ingredients to make their food ‘authentic’. The newest nightspots in Goa can make faraway Gurgaon and almost-next-door Bengaluru salivate. The Man and I test some.

National Highway 17, speeding northwards. On the reclusive Ashwem beach is Bardo, Goa’s latest and most modern luxury hotel, owned and managed by RainMakerIndia (think Sanchos, Khar, Mumbai). Facing the azure Arabian Sea on a windy evening, we take up Bardo’s offering of a Thursday Sundowner. Cloudless sky, stars and a European menu. The grey and muted colours of the tiles contrast with the vivid green freshly-planted foliage. The large portions of food, the choice of wine and beer, well-selected music, a mix of young and old, Asian and Caucasian people and the frothy waves. We enjoy their lapping.

I can’t eat beyond the Chimichurri chicken tenders and the beef carpaccio with green papaya. The chef brings in a ‘just invented’ pizza, with mashed red beans, bacon, and plenty of magical herbs; my stomach expands for two big slices. Then I choose rigatoni with smoked salmon, prawns, and vodka dill cream. I have to crawl to the spa to indulge in a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi nui massage. (World, do I want to return to you? This feels like Noor Jehan Circa 2013. In Facebook vocabulary, nyc. V nyc.) It’s nearing 11 p.m. The energetic lot dance near the 100-ft swimming pool. We watch decadently.

Bardo, is Tibetan for an ‘intermediate-state’ ‘a suspended state between one’s death and the next birth, personified into a space of peace, happiness and beauty.’

From Ashwem to Mapuca. Just a 10-minute drive from Anjuna-Vagator, is Assagaon, a charming village, now home to many ‘outsiders’. Assagaon has become a happening place for lovers of art, culture and the classy things in life. Graceful old Portuguese houses have been converted into art galleries. This is peaceful Goa, away from the high-decibel, car-infested, beach belt. The latest restaurant here on Goa’s foodie list is Gunpowder. The big numerical house number ‘6’ on the sign outside announces it, right on the road. You can’t miss the trendy lamps hanging in its garden. Gunpowder is related to its namesake in Hauz Khas, Delhi, and the peninsular menu charted out by ex-journo Satish Warrier, is as good; think Kerala, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu food like avial, crisp fried beef chunks and flaky Malabari parathas. I wash down my order with lightly spiced buttermilk. Giant trees stand sentinel above the cheerfully designed umbrellas that sort out falling leaves. Music? The choir of insects entertained us till way past our dinnertime. Inside the house is People Tree, a boutique that deals in ‘organic’ clothes and knick-knacks: natural fibres and dyes. One can walk around admiring the modern Indian innovations of ancient crafts and skills. If you feel like a friendly chat and a cheerful evening, this is the place to come to. You don’t know who you might bump into. Gunpowder is a misnomer for such a gentle and laidback place.

Next, we explore the happening Calangute-Candolim stretch, starting with SinQ. It is the shortened form of the village Sinquerim, where the Taj Aguada is located. It’s diagonally opposite the Taj Village (now Vivanta) gate. White and blue signs lead us to it quite easily. Parking is a bit of a problem. On entry, I think, this is not Goa. This is luxury from the Arabian Nights or Bali. White cabanas (10000-buck orders expected from a group of max six persons if you want to book one) sit regally at the edge of a shimmering, long pool. The sheer fabric fluttering in the gentle sea breeze and the fragrance of the white frangipani is inviting. On the other side of the pool are the sofa-sets you can sink into, with the sky above. The lighting is barely noticeable and perhaps redundant on full-moon nights. The open bar package includes premium drinks. In a small building on the side are the nightclub and the tavern, both wheel-chair friendly. The Sexy Saturdays and other events have DJs Donabelle, Rinton or Mr E. Like the outside, the nightclub has VIP seats for those who’d like to sit around with friends nursing drinks over gupshup. The floor is bordered by changing-colour lights which gives the impression that the ground is moving. The tavern upstairs is retro: posters, furniture and curios from the ’50s and ’60s make the oldies want to hang around.

Driving from SinQ southwards past the Taj Village, we take a left at the ‘T’. The Wok & Roll sign guides us to Goa’s newest SE Asian cuisine restaurant. It’s 500 metres away from the crowds of the beach-stretch, in a forested and quiet locale. It sits alongside a creek; no traffic, no flashy lights in front, and a protective hillside at the back. Owners Alwyn, Asheen and Joseph who also own L’orange, say, “We opened last July, when ‘the season’ was still months away. The tourists have given us good business; our fame has spread. But, we want more residents to come, so we don’t call this ‘fine-dining’ in case they feel intimidated. We’re giving the best food the industry has to offer here, but we’ve kept our prices competitive.”

Wok & Roll changes its menu every three months. Every Wednesday is sushi night. The menu has some rare dishes like the soft-shell crab. Whilst waiting for the order, we were given a DIY paan plate with several katoris bordering it. We sprinkled on the green leaves (what were they?) roasted peanuts; sliced raw and deep-fried onions; bird’s eye chillies; tamarind chutney; grated coconut flesh and lemon-juice. We rolled the paan salads individually and took delicate bites. The simple decor complements the authentic Japanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisines; the service is quick and caring and the owners are already, confidently working on expansions!

We couldn’t miss Kudos, driving through Porvorim, on the Chogm Road. The only view from its first-floor high glass walls is of the traffic on the road. But the ambience is likely to set a trend: the funky brown and black with the spotted, glowing gourd-shaped chandelier makes cars slow down to take a look. The activity within is visible, the stone and wood interior attractive. Those who stop to see, stay on to dine. The food is excellent. Owner Shawn D’Souza (whose brother Savio is his partner) is a well-known bar-consultant. He says, “We took a lot of time over the menu; Kudos is meant to have something no other restaurant has.” They didn’t want the regular ‘bar in the corner’. They wanted the menu ‘to be so different that people would return over and over again for the experience’. The wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas have ‘home-made’ pesto and toppings you find nowhere else (prawn balchao). Our pork stew sizzler was barely drizzled with oil, the meat was soft, the vegetables cooked to crunchy perfection. Even the potato chips weren’t the frozen insta-fry kinds. There’s lamb, chicken, beef or pork…and unusually for a place like this, many dishes for vegetarians too. Our salad was crisp and delicately dressed. I found one interesting item on the drinks menu: ‘Can’t decide? Let the Bartender surprise you.’ Next time I’ll order that.

At the other end of Goa is Radisson Blu, about an hour’s drive southwards from the airport. It’s in good company, with the Leela and the Haathi Mahal in the neighbourhood. In October ’12, it opened India’s best-equipped nightclub, Tito’s on Cavelossim beach. The name comes from the famous ‘parent’ at Baga, but that’s where the similarity ends. This Club Tito’s 5000 square feet have accommodated 500 people on a ‘good’ night. We go on a less crowded day. The DJs Ummar Khalifa and Aggie kee p the 10000-watt beats booming to suit its 18 to 60-year-old clientele from roc ‘n’ roll to groovetronics. The Beauty and the Beatz show and the Ladies’ Night, the Zombi-Weekend heroes, the Super Jam on Saturdays, the Republic Grind (which won’t be repeated until next year) and other events have made the wheels turn southwards from Goa’s more famous northern beach stretches. In its imported strobe lights, I can make out just barely, some famous faces from the local Page 3, others from the Mumbai circuit, and a few from the screen world. There were 200-plus people throbbing on that floor. Of the two bars, one is for in-house guests, the other ‘a-la carte’. Somnath, one of the young bar fellows, did a dramatic and hypnotic display of bottle-juggling skills. A good place to keep the adrenalin flowing. Whoever says this is India’s best nightclub, I believe you.

Since Radisson Blu is near Cavelossim beach, I walked across to it through Dona Sylvia over a ribbon of white sand. Both places are owned by the builder Victor Albuquerque. If you’re driving in from anywhere else in Goa, turn westwards at Madgaon and follow the signboards; the road takes you through several kilometres of fields and villages. It’s about 20 kilometres from the highway, but you won’t get lost.

Radisson’s five-month-old Shandong restaurant is also a good place for a post-walk dinner. The hotel grounds are abundant with local flora. That freshness is brought to Shandong, which focuses on in-season ingredients. Shandong serves Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese food. The hospitality and service deserve five stars. Chef Gurung himself sits with us because I want to ask questions. He tells me which ingredients were imported, and which locally sourced. He doesn’t use substitutes. The khimchi is good, Peking Duck served with Chinese pancakes, sushi and fried ice-cream perfectly made. Many of the in-house guests skip the buffet that’s included in their package to visit Shandong. The music is discreet and oriental. The name Shandong, I am told, comes from a province in China. An aside: I’m also told Radisson’s lobby is the most impressive in Goa. Probably.

Can’t spend time examining and comparing that, so many nightspots yet to be checked out…Cavatina, Soul Souffle, Firefly, New Banjara, Fishka. Burrp! Excuse me.

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