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Dining destination

Goa: Sea change

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FOOD FOR THE SOUL: Whether its French cuisine or Greek food, Goa has it all

Goa is not about shacks anymore. From French cafes to ebeer hangouts and from crepes to steaks, it's one of the most cosmopolitan dining destinations in India today.

If you are lucky to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. "

It's just a coincidence that I am reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's compelling account of his early life as a very young, very poor writer struggling to form that one perfect sentence in those heady days of the twenties in Paris. Yet, as I contemplate the fury of the monsoon, lazily slumped in a deck chair on this unexpectedly empty - and clean - stretch of Calangute, it is not hard to draw some parallels. If Tatie had his Paris then, we have our Goa now. And it is just as full of feasts, for the soul and stomach

It's surprising how little we think of Goa when we count out the restaurant cities in India on our fingertips. But over the last five years or so, India's most loved beach destination has acquired a sophistication that goes far beyond those beach shacks. Of course, there's still Britto's on the shabby, seedy, and, during peak season, terribly crowded, stretch of Baga. Its charm, and vindaloo not having quite faded. Along with the other big and small places dishing out Goan seafood, it's still a mandatory visit. But there are other, more cosmopolitan flavours too swamping the playground.

Love is the latest restaurant to have joined the league. The all-day diner at The Park on the Beach, pretty, boutiquey, newly opened on Calangute, offers contemporarised Goan fare: smartly put together platters of grilled, fresh calamari and shrimps, marinated in cafreal or xacuti masalas or what you will. Or, Med and Italian flavours. On a day like this, idyllic tables are those right by the sea, where you can rest your elbows, tuck into a pretty morsel, and soak in the salty air.

In the evenings, Love's sister Peace, a bar, on an open deck once again facing the sea, becomes the trendy place to sample a bit of mixology or take a bartending class. I tried the latter and learnt to make a perfect Cosmopolitan amongst other things, Manhattan style, and landed up sipping cocktail "smoke" through a straw! Beginning this month, the bar will serve up molecular cocktails, something that you thought existed only in a handful of bars in Delhi and Mumbai.

But Goa is fast emerging as a trendsetter. At Cafê Mojo in Panjim, quite a favourite with locals and travelers-in-theknow even during the monsoon, ebeer, an unheard of concept in Indian dining capitals, is a hit. Each table has its own tap. When you enter the restaurant, you are given a card that you can top up and then place on a reader that activates the tap, enabling you to draw whichever beer and in whatever quantity you fancy. There's a screen that tells you how much (of what) you've consumed. It's a unique way of helping yourself without bothering to wait for your order to show up. Nachos, fish fingers and golden fried prawns keep you company all the while.

La Plage on the relatively secluded Ashwem beach is, however, one of the most celebrated food places around - with a reputation for serving up "the best chocolate crepes outside of France". With its three merry expat owners and beauteous surroundings (tall palms, thatched roof, tables right on the beach), the good food is a bonus-described by die-hard fans as a sort of French fusion. The menu though short, changes frequently and you may have the likes of tuna filet with a dash of soy sauce, or calamari stuffed ratatouille. The restaurant is closed for summer and rains but opens during the winter.

The Greek Thalassa (at Vagator) is another of those quaint, laidback places that you can spend an entire afternoon at. From souvlaki to moussaka, the food is authentic and the charm unquestionable. Like La Plage, there is an option of stay as well. For steaks and BBQs, on the other hand, there's nowhere like Ernesto's in old Panjim with its 400-year-old heritage homes. Located inside one such house, and run by a trained hotel managementgraduate chef, Ernesto's is a fine-dine place, if there could ever be such a thing amidst Goa's casual and carefree ways. The filet mignon, pork ribs and caramalised banana with pannacotta are all celebrated and sophisticated.

Paris, not Hemingway, with its cafes, cafê crême, goujon and tournedos, affairs and art, good wine and good bread is the main character in the book I am reading. So it is with Goa - whatever be the reason that you are here for: the sea, to escape, discover, transact or create... And there's no better way to take it all in than at a cafê.

It can be tiny like Cafê Chocolatti at Candolim, with its scones, cakes and English high tea, or well known like Sur La Mer at Morjam with its chocolate fondant and escargots served in an Italian-style villa. Or it could be the genuine Frenchstyle Baba au Rhum, in a quiet lane between Baga and Anjuna that you will not find unless you know about it.

With its European pastry chef dishing out French bread (the bakery supplies to many hotels), quiches êclairs and other goodies, and a genuine wood-fired pizza oven, the cafê has acquired quite a reputation for itself. In fact, this year, for the first time, it remained open for much of summer /monsoon as well till July (most restaurants in Goa are still seasonal) and will reopen in October. Dayini, one of the Indiaborn French partners, says "In the last two years, we've been seeing a lot of upper-class Indian travelers and people from Mumbai and Delhi, some of whom have settled in Goa too, come in. Earlier, it was just the foreign tourists. Now, it's half and half. "

Wherever you choose to make a meal, it will be a moveable feast in Goa.

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