Lunch? Pondicherry anyone?
Pondicherry is fast becoming a food destination for visitors from Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, who want to eat French, says SHONALI MUTHALALY
Pondy: Gourmets' tour de force
FOR SOME strange reason, everything sounds better in French. Take `Snails served with Frogs Legs,' for instance. Put that on an Indian menu and you'll have teary customers stubbornly huddling under the table, refusing to come out, while their limber dining partners make hasty exits through the restaurant windows. However, call them `Escargots Aux Grenouilles' and you'll probably have snooty foodies in artfully tied silk scarves beating down your doors with their stilettos, in an attempt to get in.
Which could explain why Pondicherry has suddenly become an `Ooh la la' weekend destination for people from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. While `Pondy' has always been a favourite with tourists, usually the thirsty variety, the town is now becoming increasingly popular with other visitors too - right from history junkies, who ramble between the Ashram and Auroville, to eclectic foodies, who come here to sample the food.
College students, families, IT whiz-kids and young professionals drive over for a weekend, a day or even a single meal, just to steep themselves in the Pondi's unique Continental flavour and distinctively French food, before zipping back to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
And who can blame them? After all, buying buttery croissants from the languid Auroville Boulangerie, soaked in the aromas of baking bread and warm chocolate cake, is so much more fun than picking up a loaf of pasty machine-sliced bread from impersonal city grocery stores. Besides, as a special treat, the cheerful guy behind the counter even lets people practise their ghastly French on him.
Balancing warm, unsteady piles of walnut pies and `coconut butter crumble' in the Boulangerie display counter, the bakery assistants say they see a lot of traffic on the weekends usually tourists wandering around Auroville to gape at Matri Mandir, shop at the boutiques and eat authentic cheesecake at the coffee shops. And for visitors hardy enough to handle bicycles on Auroville's bright red dirt roads, there are some very interesting foodie finds to be made.
What really gives the out-of-towners a kick is getting a chance to try out one of Auroville's community kitchens, which serve everything from spaghetti to sambar. `Solar Kitchen,' easier for outsiders to wheedle their way into even if they're not on mmmuah-mmmuah terms with an Aurovillan (and the French always kiss to say hello), is popular for its basic, but wholesome, food. Golden-brown galettes, generously stuffed with bright scrambled eggs and fresh tomatoes, and ravioli, all accompanied by cold limejuice from tall pitchers, served on a sun-baked, breezy terrace.
Roma Hira, who owns the popular Roma's Kitchen, also set in Auroville, says her restaurant is crowded on weekends with people from Chennai, Bangalore and even Hyderabad. "I get phone calls from people asking for directions, on their way to lunch or dinner here from these cities," she says, adding that most of her advertising is by word of mouth. "Sunday lunch is usually a blockbuster." This, in spite of the fact that Roma serves Indian food, contrary to the `Live in Pondy - Serve French' line of thought. "Well, mine is an Indian restaurant, I'm Indian and I'm going to serve Indian," she says firmly, "and we have a damn good reputation for our food."
Satsanga, a laid-back, colourful restaurant that rambles all over a languidly vivid garden is rapidly becoming the place to head to for French food set in a very-relaxed, flower-power-type ambience. Visitors lounge on its striped deckchairs, sip cocktails and put your feet up here, soaking it all in. Popular with both the local French and tourists, ("People come. And then they send their friends," says owner Pierre), Satsanga's high points seem to be luscious steaks and crisp, typically French salads.
For many Chennaites, Rendezvous is the favourite lunch stop. Le Club, which claims to be the first restaurant in Pondy to serve French cuisine, has customers who drive in for dinner. Located under a large and artfully lit pandal in the garden of an old French villa, this restaurant's about quietly elaborate dining, accompanied by fine wine. Although the maitre-de says 75 per cent of their customers "are still foreigners," Le Club is becoming an increasingly popular conversation piece in Chennai's cocktail circuit, since well-heeled Indians head here regularly, to sip long, cold, iced teas spiked with coriander, and eat crumbly lemon tarts all for a pretty steep price.
But for truly fine dining, and an excuse to air your pearls and chiffons, the place to head to nowadays is Le Dupleix, a restored French Colonial Villa originally built for the Mayor of Pondicherry and now turned into a designer hotel. "Today, it's the more refined, educated Indian coming for an experience," says Dilip Kapur, owner of Le Dupleix, explaining why he chose to open the hotel in Pondicherry, traditionally better known for cheap alcohol rather than fine dining. (You still can't throw a peanut without hitting a bartender in Pondicherry. If you drive through the main roads to check them out, you'll be reciting bar names faster than the gangsta rap.)
In keeping with Dilip's theory, Le Dupleix has been getting increasingly popular with Pondicherry's new wave of sophisticated tourists, which include young DINK couples (double income, no kids), big groups of professionals taking a break from the city and older couples on a getaway. The food here, by the way, tends to be more contemporary French than plain `Continental', with subtle flavours, a plethora of textures and a strong emphasis on presentation: whether it's their three lettuce salad, served on a bed of bright lettuce drizzled with cherry tomatoes, or their gorgeous flambéed coffee, strong, dark and set alight at the table.
But the coffee Dilip swears by comes from tiny Café Lune, next door to Le Dupleix. A modest teashop with a fancy name, its moustachioed owner does no acrobatics with his coffee, which by the way is outstanding.
Perhaps that explains the whole Pondy conundrum. Why do people travel hours just to have a single meal here? Because this is the one place flambéed coffee and filter coffee are equals. Because Pondicherry's not about snoot value, it's about unforgettable experiences. Because, sometimes, you need to do nothing but laze about, yawning languidly and revelling in flavours: whether they're in the food or in the air.
* 1) Hire bicycles, explore the French quarter, work off the cheesecake, and get that essential brown-as-a-nut holiday tan.
* 2) Make the most of the easy-going Pondy attitude and indulge your closet hippie here. Bright skirts, psychedelic scarves, pink hair, blue nails... anything goes.
* 3) Buy baguettes. And thick moist slices of banana walnut cake. And creamy éclairs. And crusty apple croissants. Only... Um... don't get carried away.
* 4) Practise your French. They're used to it and won't bat an eyelid... even if you say Bon Jovi instead of Bonjour. (Blush)
* 5) Find a warm, sun-drenched beach. Grab an icy cocktail. Marinate.
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