A Sunshine State of Mind
“You must be from Mumbai, that is why you are going on like this,” said Alree, our server at Thalassa. “This is Goa. Take off your watch, throw it away.” To our fault, we had asked too many questions about how long we may linger at the table assigned to us, and nobody had a clear answer. It was 5pm, we wanted to stay past dinner. That would be close to impossible in Mumbai.
We left Thalassa at 9pm. I was back in Goa after three years. I’d been itching to return all of last year. Not quite for lolling on a beach, but to finish some of that Goa dining list that I’d been building since my last visit. Then suddenly, in the second weekend of January, I found myself deadline-free and able to skip off. But just for three days. The long list had to become a shortlist.
After the tirade at Thalassa, I realised that indeed, it was time to throw the wrist watch away, and see where the next couple of days would take me. It wasn’t bad at all. Not counting shack siestas, I managed to go to six places and have a very different meal at each. It was 72 hours spent in rest, relaxation and the pursuit of deliciousness.
Thalassa, a Greek “taverna” or small restaurant, is named after a primordial Greek sea goddess, and is fittingly situated on a cliff overlooking the stretch of Little Vagator beach. Until the dinner crowds pack in, it takes little imagination to feel like you are indeed on an island in the Aegean Sea. From its long and varied menu, our first pick was the saganaki, which is a batter-fried block of feta served with a wedge of lime. It’s a Greek snack that, thanks to its fatty, crunchy, creamy tang, is perfectly suited for an afternoon of quaffing beer in Goa. For dinner, there was horiatiki, or what we call “Greek salad”, spetsofai (country sausages in spicy salsa), meltizanosalata (cold eggplant dip with warm, fluffy pita), and of course, moussaka. Let’s just say that the feta overload eliminated our appetite for baklava.
It was the second go-for-broke meal of the first 24 hours. The previous night, in Saligaon, after sipping on the mouth-puckering lychee and lemongrass martinis at Sublime, we tried chef Christopher Saleem’s dishes which used Asian flavours, French techniques and homestyle heartiness. One dish on the restaurant’s menu is appropriately called Ma’s Dirty Old Pork Chops. The two hunks of meat on the bone, unstripped of fat, come coated in a sauce that makes you want to put on a bib and dirty your face. Saleem said the glaze is his mom’s recipe for barbeque sauce and contains among other things, HP Sauce, vinegar, honey, soy, brown sugar and ketchup. Sublime’s pepper-crusted tuna main is a sparer dish, but still comforting, with a side of spinach in an anchovy-egg sauce.
Servings were more manageable at Bomra’s, where a little went a very long way. Chef Bawmra Jap, who splits his time between Goa and London (where his wife and kids stay), runs the restaurant off noisy Candolim Road. The zen-inducing food however is worth the bustle outside. While every dish is not 100 per cent traditional, most of them are inspired by the flavours of his birth country, Burma. Bomra’s lah pet toke, or pickled green tea leaf salad, is a texture and flavour bomb, with acidity, crunch, silkiness, umami and a touch of tannin, in every bite. It is the sort of dish you start craving regularly after you’ve tasted it. Batons of shan tofu (made with gramflour instead of soy) and batter-fried sardines, both served with a tamarind soy dipping sauce, are the perfect chakna for Bomra’s feni daiquiris and tamarind margaritas.
For simpler feni preparations—for example, on the rocks or with cola—and Goan food, there is Hospedaria Venite (hospedaria means inn or guesthouse). The building is said to be about 200 years old, and it looks it, but not in the falling-apart way, but in a way that it transports you to another time through a narrow winding staircase that leads to rooms that look like those of a Portuguese bar from the early nineteenth century. There are sleeper wood floors, and the charming balconies are barely big enough for two thin people to stand in, but have been converted into tiny booths with tables for two. These balconies, with their intricate grills and views down 31st January, the colourful Fontainhas lane below, are the only places to sit in Venite. Wash down a snack of beef sausage fry, balchao or fried fish with their potent feni-based drinks while you people watch.
A short car drive away, and still in Panjim, is Mum’s Kitchen. Done up in bright colours and laminated surfaces, it’s the sort of place that might have looked fashionable 12 years ago. Ignore the tacky decor, it’s still one of the best places to eat homestyle Goan food in Goa. Come here with a large group of friends, so that you can try almost everything on their vast and value-for-money menu, where a dish of red snapper costs just Rs375. Before you visit, read up on both Hindu and Catholic Goan preparations; this way you won’t have to rely on the wait staff to tell you the difference between ambotik and vindaloo (“Spicy and very spicy” was the response we got when we asked).
A good place to start or end a Goa trip is at La Plage, though there are visitors who eat there five times in a seven-day trip. It’s technically a shack, albeit a fine-dining one. Loyalists and people in the know reserve tables here by the numbers the management uses. The closer the seats are to the water, the more desirable they are. We closed our vacation at this Ashwem landmark. As with Thalassa, it’s best to go early to La Plage, and watch the sunset. Or better still, go on a full moon night and splash about in the water before your dinner arrives. We tried and recommend the gratinated mussels with garlic, parsley and butter; their excellent hamburger; and their chocolate thali. It has eight kinds of mini chocolate-based desserts from a shot of chilled, thick chocolate milkshake to a brick of dense chocolate with a creamy, nutty praline.
There are many places that are still unchecked on my list—Lila’s Cafe, Lloyd’s, Ernesto’s, A Reverie, Zooris—but they will have to wait until the next time. If 72 hours is all I could give Goa, it left me with no complaints.