PONDICHERRY PART ONE – GOURMETS ‘EN GUARDE’

It makes no difference whether I ponder Puducherry or puzzle over Pondicherry; the outcome is the same – the French have well, and truly ‘left the building.’ Not much remains of the buildings they left either. It is also a very expensive place to visit by Indian standards. The food is ordinary too.

A friend told Kuldip, and I that Pondicherry was the best place to go for seafood on India’s southeast coast. In retrospect, I should have asked where he had eaten it because if it’s still there, we couldn’t find it. Believe me, we tried. We searched for five days, and four nights starting at Villa Shanti. Although beautifully cooked, the fish and prawns were tasteless. While I can’t recommend the seafood, Villa Shanti’s Ginger Martini is the only cocktail I had in Pondicherry worth mentioning. Although Villa Shanti wasn’t the place to go for seafood when we were there, it was for curries and desserts. The Orange and Almond Cake with Chocolate Mousse was particularly good.

The following evening, we went to the Promenade Hotel on the beachfront. Here, they served us a magnificent seafood platter that didn’t taste as good as it looked. Undeterred, the next night we ventured out to the Maison Perumal. The less said about that seafood meal, the better.

They say fortune favours the brave, so on our last night we searched for what we now called “the infernal fish” at another top restaurant in the French Quarter. The seafood platter at Palais de Mahé was similar to the one we had at the Promenade Hotel two nights earlier. It also cost the earth, which is where the food probably came from since it didn’t taste like it had come from open waters! The calamari, however, was excellent.

Pondicherry, undoubtedly, has chefs who know how to cook seafood. We came across some of them. I believe, therefore that the raw ingredients are more likely to blame for our mediocre meals. It’s difficult to tell, sometimes, if the fish you get came out of the freezer. Since I was always satisfied with the texture, I don’t think any of ours did. I’m pretty sure the prawns didn’t either because the consistency was always as it should be.

My belief is, that much of what comes on a seafood platter in Pondicherry is most likely cultivated. The prawns, for example, probably come from one of the many prawn hatcheries in the area. I will not be surprised if the origin of the fish is a bit fishy too. Lots of seafood comes from farms these days. As in all areas of agriculture, some farmers are better than others. However, I’ve never heard of squid being home grown. I reckon that’s why the calamari we had in Pondicherry didn’t disappoint.

Our search for some flavoursome fruits of the sea in Pondicherry was, in a word, fruitless. Undoubtedly, there’s sensational seafood to be had along this section of India’s coastline but in my experience, it’s not in Pondicherry. Whether the friend who told us about the excellent seafood there had spun us a line or not, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I‘d rather put it down to the fickle hospitality industry in which food can be perfect one day, average the next. Le Café on the beach in Pondicherry, which I reviewed on TripAdvisor, is a perfect example.

Most of the French-style breads, cakes and pastries we came across were also second-rate and not worth writing home about. What is, though, is a dessert I had at Palais de Mahé, which is a Tamil take on the classic French dessert, Crème Caramel. Vattilappam is delicious, and it was the only credible fusion of French and Tamil cuisines I found.

While the French Quarter is the best area in which to stay in Pondicherry, it’s nothing more, in my opinion, than one petite slice of a thriving city that is largely Indian. The French fable is fading, and fast. If it weren’t for some of the colonial street names that remain, you would never believe that Pondicherry was part of France, once-upon-a time.

Et j’en passé. Part two coming soon. Watch this space …

The Promenade Hotel's platter.

The Promenade Hotel’s platter.

The seafood platter at Palais de Mahe.

The seafood platter at Palais de Mahe.

The Vatalappam at Palais de Mahe.

The Vatalappam at Palais de Mahe.

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