Holiday, round the year5 min read . Updated: 22 Nov 2014, 12:14 AM IST
A new wave of chef-entrepreneurs throws off the seasonal shackles of dining in Goa
Far away from Goa’s tourist-magnet belt of Calangute-Baga-Anjuna, Ruta’s World Café could be pitied for its location in “undiscovered" Margao. One might think this quaint little café, with an all-day dining menu and great coffee, has missed the money bus. All it takes to dispel that judgement is one chat with owner Ruta Kahate.
“It was a bit of arrogance, I have to admit, that made me want to do this away from the mainline," says Kahate, chef and cookbook author-turned-entrepreneur, who set up shop in 2013. Dig into her cold noodle salad, replete with the bold Asian flavours of ginger, hot chillies, sesame, peanuts, and red amaranth leaves that unexpectedly belong there, and one is basically chewing on the gastronomic equivalent of her words. This is an eatery—one of the several that have cropped up in Goa in recent months—that doesn’t believe in compromises.
Not only does the new wave of chef-entrepreneurs have the confidence of being able to draw in diners round the year (instead of the usual only-tourist-season operations that were the norm till not very long ago), the menus speak of myriad experiences, independent visions and an appreciation of local flavours that goes beyond kingfish rava-fry.
Ruta’s, for instance, serves everything from Bangkok Street Style Stir-Fried Chicken to Shepherd’s Pie, and from Hyderabadi Slow-Roasted Beef to Vegetable Thai Curry—a distillation of her culinary and life experiences from around the world, including San Francisco, the food hub of the US. “When I came to Goa two years ago, I noticed the lack of eateries offering simple but well-made, fresh, healthy meals," says Kahate. “The fact that people may not get my food never bothered me. The menu had to be presented well, so people could taste and decide for themselves," she adds, when asked if she was ever worried about placing “the world on a plate", as she puts it.
“We wanted to provide a fine-dining experience offering signature pre-plated meals at an accessible price point," say the owners, Prahlad Sukhtankar and his wife Sabreen Shariff. So, instead of going the tried-and-tested way of imported black cod and smoked salmon, BSB uses locally available produce, driving down price points and creating a demand for local species of fish, vegetables and spices. One of the hits on the BSB menu has a fish called Diana (or Dayana) encrusted with peanuts and served with an orange butter sauce. Even staples like fish cakes use flaky fresh kingfish as opposed to the usual tinned fish.
“We aren’t too fond of authentic and prefer not to follow any rules," says Sukhtankar of the ethos at BSB, so called because they prefer to do things differently. “We are inspired by things around the world and present it with unusual twists that work for the Indian palate."
Also a certified sommelier, Sukhtankar ensures the BSB offers a collection of good Indian wines, as opposed to imported labels. It has inspired the birth of Soma, Goa’s first interactive wine club that offers wine-tasting experiences with the intention of dispelling the snobbery usually attached to the process. Membership to the club gives patrons a chance to experience wine tastings, and gain a deeper understanding of the subtle nuances of wine and food pairings in a friendly, casual environment, along with other like-minded people. A typical Soma Meet would involve a selection of Indian and international labels, a three-course meal, a workshop in understanding that selection, and an understanding of why it has been paired with the food served.
The change in culture has already been noticed by the cognoscenti. “It’s awesome to have restaurants open 365 days a year—and to have a good meal without having to drive across the state," says Vandana Naique, a pastry chef and restaurateur who frequents BSB. “Panjim has choices now and it’s fabulous that they are ‘chef-oriented’ restaurants. I enjoy the thought process that goes into the menu."
So far, the best dining options—Thalassa, Sublime, Bomras, i95, to name just a few—were largely limited to north Goa, a good 40-minute drive from Panjim, and that too only in the tourist season, from November-May. Most of them shut shop when the monsoon hits the state.
With outlets like BSB packed even on weeknights, Naique, who runs a café within the premises of a local arts centre, believes Panjim can absorb a couple of more places at different price points. “This city has a well-travelled and diverse clientele that will sustain the restaurant business," she adds.
That is precisely the plank O Fogo, the newest kid on the block, is seeking to ride. Located in the touristy Fontainhas quarter of Panjim, O Fogo “is undoubtedly the best new restaurant this season", says Goa-based fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. “Chef Chris Saleem does a pan-Mediterranean/French menu with delightful local touches. The best dish I’ve had there recently is the Nipple Squid with Goan chorizo. Served with hot Goan poee bread, it sent me into food nirvana."
Rodricks isn’t the only fan. “O Fogo and BSB are welcome developments for the metropolis," says Vivek Menezes, a Goa-based writer and photographer. “Panjim deserves, and will benefit from, this higher standard of food. Both these places offer an uncompromisingly fine dining experience. I especially appreciate the fact that my three sons—aged 6-14—can experience this standard of global dining and taste delicacies like a slow-cooked lamb osso buco, using the best-quality local produce, so close to home."
Making fine-dining accessible to the Goan—and not just the visiting tourist—could very well be the new formula for restaurants like these. Yet Goa also has the space for a maverick like Kahate, who has never advertised or marketed her cafés. With a second café closer to the tourist trail in Mapusa, and two more in the pipeline (a museum café and a beach-front express café, also in south Goa), she seems to have tapped into a deep-felt need. Either way, they indicate dining in Goa has just freed itself from the shackles of seasons and can sustain itself all year through.