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Wine & Dine
April 17, 2013

Life Of Pie!

Text by Devanshi Mody.

Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) has catapulted to celebrity, post Life of Pi. Now the world’s two greatest culinary cultures, Indian and French, convene to confer stardom on its cuisine. At Pondi’s new eateries the pie is not at all humble, discovers Devanshi Mody

I’m curled over could-shame-Vienna ice coffee when Café de Mahe’s serene is shattered by two madams de Delhi who bolt in and bellow, “Why don’t we ever hear of places like this?” In consternation, I, “You’re asking me?” Of course not. They don’t know me, they don’t care about me, people who parade Pradas as wide as the sexiest stretch pool before me generally don’t. Caressing the wrought-iron chairs and marbled tables, mesdames stomp past to approve the swish glass-encased poolside shower cubicle and alcoves gurgling manicured plants into turquoise waters. The café setting looks like it walked out of St Tropez, but for the charming sarong-swishing GM Dinu, summoned to escort mesdames. They pause to regard the ornate mirror sprawled behind the coffee counter bearing the menu in a lipstick scrawl. Their own lipstick absorbs mesdames more than offerings of fresh hibiscus sherberts and slick sandwiches, including terse tofu in home-baked bread.

I plunge back through flustered foam to suave depths of Coorg coffee, sourced from ‘Spanish’ Marc and made in a snazzy Italian machine. The swilling expertise though is desi, 20-something-year-old barista Nageshwar’s. This sensitive boy comprehends coffee. I warn, “Don’t sugar my coffee.” Nag looks appalled, “As if I would! Sugar ruins coffee.” We coffee fiends resume dissecting the aroma that warmly swirls the chic terrace.

But 23-year-old savvy F&B Manager Saravana insists coffee must be South Indian style. Absolument! Especially during breakfasts on balconies overhanging the pool. Ever so niche CGH properties are epicurean destinations and at this latest number, Palais de Mahe, Sarvana has implemented a unique concept: breakfast comprises, besides delightful homemade chikkoo, guava and papaya jams, the staff canteen option! Sarvana smiles and relates that someone swaggered, “My hotel is so good, we serve staff guest food.” Sarvana retorted, “My hotel’s staff food is so good, we serve guests staff food!” Ah, that staff-canteen upma, silken like a cocoon on the palate. Sarvana explains the chef is an untrained local boy. Hence, the authenticity. Dominic Joseph, CGH’s 29-year-old F&B Director, apparently fled in terror having gained three kilos in a week picking from the staff canteen.

Sophistication Keralite Head Chef Vinoo exhibits, bringing the West Coast to the East Coast with creations culled in New York and on cruise-liners or with ‘West-Coast’ Malabar marvels. Ah, elegant elaneer payasam. Here’s the life of pie-asam!

For Tamil thalis I must forsake the prissy purlieus of French ‘White Town’ and venture into ‘Black Town’s’ CGH Maison Perumal. Chef Kathiresan’s sapid arrayal some British tourists obtrude upon, “That looks interesting!” As they investigate my meal I foolishly volunteer that I’m a travel writer. They exclaim they’re at Maison Perumal as three British newspapers recently featured it. A guide to Tamil Nadu is promptly demanded as my smooth and subtle parippu, tingling katarika and brisk beetroot poriyal languish.

‘French Town’ wanted Tamil touch, Puducherry’s Indo-French duality required redefined contemporaneity, identified Parisian- Puducherrian Sylvain Paquiry when he returned to Puducherry seeking personal identity. He created Villa Shanti onto whose terasse très Parisienne vernacular verdure cascades. Candlelight dances on smart white tables in an embrace of comely colonial French columns and manly modern pillars watched by the bar’s kitsch Indian mural in vociferous indigenous hues. One watches on too as aeons elapse before the food arrives. French laisser-aller-seasoned Tamilian lethargy….

M Paquiry just initiated Puducherry’s first food festival where French guest chefs interact with Tamil chefs. His Tamil chef Saravanan, locally trained though, negotiates flamboyant Indian flair and also plays with the continental (salads like spinach, ginger-honeyed roasted apple). Flavours Sarvanan has vastly mastered. The French visitors will doubtless impart finesse. His masala chai needs no titivation though. And the streamlined Indian chenna vada, graceful patties pondering a moss-green spinach pond and sumptuous cream-free makhani and palak he unleashes following my strictures about a facility with cream/oil suggest admirable technique. Saravanan should perhaps instruct the Frenchmen!

With Pi we forget Prince Puducherry who commands Willie Wonka make him a chocolate palace. Today Züka’s France-trained chocolatier-pâtissier Srinath Balachandran could make Willie Wonka a chocolate factory. He has made himself one in a 118-year-old building. Whilst I swig Züka’s chill-thrill iced chocolate from a chocolate cup and saucer, Srinath mentions he auditioned for AR Rahman who asked if he enjoyed the audition. Srinath replied he’d rather make chocolate. Rahman, amongst Srinath’s biggest fans, didn’t complain. Nor did Dhoni when presented a chocolate bat.

Srinath’s creativity, like his hand-crafted chocolate locomotive, never runs out of steam or cream. Station yourself before the expansive chocolate creations whilst he takes Züka to Bengaluru, Chennai and perhaps Paris’s Salon du Chocolat. His all-chocolate confection plethora includes quirky Just Hatched, a flimsy eggless mousse, ironically in a chocolate egg. But velvet vanilla pepper takes the cake.

Variety prepossesses Srinath. Beside 300 chocolates and chocolate pastries, Züka’s just-launched Zandwichery unveils 108 sandwiches, oops Zandwiches. Think Swiss Chocolate sandwich buttered in praline sauce with chocolate, brownie gravel and splatters of caramalised almonds, hazelnuts and chocolate sauce. More normal is Spaghetti Zandwich: pasta coils between herb-spice-black-olive bread…. Ask not what’s Zapple sauce!

Baker St’s manageress Edgie Muddie flurries about seducing thronging French locals in French. She’s Tamil, white-saried, her hair jasmine-streamed, but went Parisian awhile. She emphatically establishes the Frenchness of her famous breads. Less famous, no less amazing are chocolate ganaches: such flawless fluidity between couverture and infusions only French-fabrication attain. Only their affordability persuade they’re Pondicherian.

Pondicherry legend Vincent Mathias’s amiable daughter Vanessa has revamped Rendezvous. Her husband who claims to have cooked for Liz Hurley and Mick Jagger can innovate on request: mushroom and bread sawdust accompanies caprese, luring the Dalai Lama’s sister.

PINK IN PONDI
La-vie-en-rose fantasy Maison Rose’s French manager Benjamin avows, “Puducherry était culinairement pauvre,” but is enjoying a revolution. The eclectic pink Tropezienne space some Indians penetrate enquiringly, “Is this restaurant exclusively for French people or can locals come too?” Benjamin turns pink. Why must this happen around journalists? As the French plan turning Pondicherry into the ‘French Riviera of the East’, not all is rosy. And firangs can’t even afford wine through rosé-tinted glasses avers the happening new eatery LB2’s Upendra, a self-proclaimed ‘character’, revealing that a Swiss couple haggled over wine, eliciting his, “The Kashmiri handicraft shop is next door.”

GLAMOROUSLY GREEN
At unpretentious Café des Arts, Mademoiselle Eva’s nimble ratatouille and sauces exude the Provençal. Unless 29-year-old Naveen Kumar, who has been cooking since he was 14, is reviving tribal dinners during fortnightly art weeks. Five-course suppers explore tribal trails from North-East to South India as rice prawn-perched cooks in tender coconut or bakes in bamboo on frisky fires. Wilder still, forest feasts!

Karthika who ITC’s chefs consult on Creole cuisine launched Artica presenting ateliers and pavilions where artists perform whilst he gets arty with smoothies: 10 verdant variants (spinach, lettuce, rucola…) get our green light.

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