Nouvelle cuisine seems to have found a new home. On the shack-lined beaches of Goa — where prawn curry and spicy vindaloo have reigned supreme — indigenous flavours have suddenly become the underdog. As Goa continues to gain appreciation internationally as a party destination luring droves of tourists to its shores every winter season, it has consequently seen the emergence of a new dining trend — one that entertains a global audience with palates more discerning and wallets more plump. Today, ritzy ‘lounge bars’ with designer interiors and mood-lighting overshadow the endearing handful-of-tables-beneath-an-umbrella shacks; pedigree chefs steal the spotlight from mom-and-pop kitchens; and menus are replacing traditional Goan delicacies with dishes that describe themselves as ‘fusion’ or ‘contemporary European’. But while devotees of the local cuisine might be saddened by this change and argue that what it offers is no different from, say, Delhi’s foodscape, a significant fact remains: the food is actually very good. And comparatively cheap too. We combed the length and breadth of Goa’s most happening spots to bring you a compilation of the hottest tables going for your delectation. (Bear in mind that these restaurants operate only during season, which typically begins early October and extends till end April.)
Chef Soumyen’s Kitchen
If you’re familiar with After 7, you’ll know what to expect at this place. Spurred by his considerable success over multiple seasons at After 7, Chef Soumyen — the talent behind this erstwhile hotspot’s menu — decided to invest his know-how in a kitchen of his own. Inhabiting a modest-sized courtyard, Soumyen hasn’t gone overboard on the décor: neat rows of wooden tables display crisp black and white linen, along with flickering candles that illuminate carefully arranged tabletops, complete with wine glasses. Soumyen focuses on doing what he does best: producing first-rate food. The menu is sensibly short, so no matter what you order it’s bound to be well-executed. There’s a piquant camembert soufflé (Rs 195); liver pâté (Rs 165) served pleasingly on a bed of caramelised onions; grilled fillet of fish in a pool of lemony sauce (Rs 275) and a superb dessert — butterscotch brûlée accompanied with toffee sauce (Rs 160). More impressively, Soumyen emerges regularly from his kitchen to check on his clients, in addition to seeing them off. It’s no wonder that at a time when Goa’s tourist season has taken a beating, CSK is among the few spots to have a queue of people waiting their turn. Opposite Barista, Calangute Border (Ximer); 0832-2276160, 9226481417; open only for dinner.
The Secret Garden
Nestled discreetly behind the popular bookshop, Literati, this quaint little garden is indeed one of the best-kept secrets around. Everything about this place is inviting: from the setting (cheery tangerine and turquoise sofas scattered over a lush green space, shaded by large garden umbrellas and tall palm trees) to the charming couple (Robert and Valerie) who run it, and the menu itself (homey soups and salads, quiches and steaks, all prepared by Valerie herself). It also gains favour for being one of the rare spots that open only for breakfast and lunch. While their lunch menu is highly tempting with a cold spiced carrot and pumpkin soup (Rs 80), a creamy goat’s cheese, basil and tomato tart (Rs 190), crispy fish cakes (Rs 170) and more, it’s their breakfast offerings that have me hooked. Try their vanilla cinnamon French toast stuffed with stewed apples (Rs 90), the crepes (Rs 110) or even a hearty portion of bacon and eggs (Rs 130), all washed down with a glass of freshly squeezed juice (Rs 80). If that’s not reason enough, then come here to soak up the sun with a cup of coffee and a book that you can borrow from next-door Literati. Gaura Vaddo, Calangute, Bardez; 9823697995, 9767942039; open only for breakfast and lunch.
It’s for spots like these that we visit Goa. Set atop a low, remote cliff that overlooks a palm-fringed beach, Thalassa (‘sea’ in Greek) is a befitting name for this place. When I visited, the sun was sinking into the horizon, spreading a subdued orange glow over the endless expanse of water that stretched out below me. Dark, distressed-wood tables set with cream linen and blue mats; rough bamboo poles that support a thatch roof, comfy deckchairs, plants in abundance, a flowing water fountain, soothing candlelight, chill music...the whole effect is spectacular. The mood is further enhanced by the food — classic Greek dishes cooked to perfection by Mariketty Grana, an energetic Greek lady who first made a name for herself at various flea markets by selling her pitta souvlaki lamb/beef wraps (Rs 130). On the menu, you’ll encounter the obvious favourites like moussaka and Greek salad, but if you wish to truly enjoy a meal here, opt for her more traditional fare: dolmadakia (Rs 120), vine leaves stuffed with a sticky, herby rice; sofrito (Rs 180), layers of tender beef cooked in a rich gravy and served with spaghetti; or spana korizo (Rs 150), a pot of rice and spinach topped generously with chunks of feta. Small Vagator Beach; 9850033537; open 4pm onwards.
To survive more than a couple of seasons in Goa, a beach shack needs more than just a pretty view. It also needs exceptional talent in the kitchen, and it doesn’t hurt if the price tags aren’t too hefty. LP scores on all counts, and, entering, I see why it’s been a favourite among tourists and locals alike for close to six seasons. A cluster of thatch-roofed shacks stands amid tall palm trees, hung with diaphanous yellow and blue curtains. Simple white tables with deck chairs, catchy reggae tunes and a lovely sea breeze add to the atmosphere. But don’t let this laidback setting deceive you: the menu is upscale European, listing luxury ingredients and unexpected combinations. I start with impossibly fresh sardine fillets rolled with slivers of ginger and teamed with wasabi cream (Rs 180) before moving on to another outstanding creation — meltingly tender fillets of rare tuna, encrusted with roasted sesame and drizzled with a sweet soy sauce (Rs 290). Baby calamari stuffed with ratatouille (Rs 290) is another unusual pairing that works. If you make it to dessert, the chocolate fondant with fresh vanilla cream (Rs 160) is a must-try. Aswem Beach, near Papa Jolly Hotel, Morjim; 9822121712; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
How does a Spanish-French couple with no formal culinary training manage to pull off a pan-Oriental restaurant with a focus on Vietnamese and sushi? In their own words, sheer stubbornness. If that surprises you, there’s more. The restaurant offers no menu; instead Maria informs patrons of her ‘daily specials’, which are reliant on the ingredients she has managed to procure at the local market early morning. Set deep in the heart of Aswem, with no real address or signage for direction, locating Ku can be frustrating (just ask along the way, as I did). But if, and when, you get there it’s worth it. Constructed purely out of wood and bamboo — with just plants and a long fish-filled water fountain for decorative touches — the beauty of this rustic split-level space lies in its simplicity. Upstairs you’ll find the main dining area with floor seating and nothing but open green fields to surround diners. The day I visited, Maria was in the mood for soup pho bo (Rs 280), a flavourful broth that relies on oxtail stock and strips of beef for its meaty flavour; kingfish ceviche (Rs 220); minced pork and prawn spring rolls wrapped in salad leaves (Rs 280) and sugarcane prawns (Rs 220), with a sweet, caramelised exterior for a contrast in flavour and texture. Maria’s cooking is inspired and her execution spot on — the next time I’m around I’ll definitely make the long trek back to her place. Gaude Vaddo, Morjim; 9326123570; open only for lunch.
This place came recommended for its Chinese menu, which undeniably is a reason to visit. Especially for the spare ribs in barbeque sauce (Rs 160), which consist of small, sweetly flavoured ribs that achieve the perfect balance of tender meat and thin, crispy fat; the crunchy prawn on toast with hot garlic sauce (Rs 170) and the beef fillet Cantonese (Rs 270), in an appetising ginger-laden sauce. But what it really should have come recommended for is its location — bang on Baga Creek — and more importantly, breakfast on this creek. While the indoor dining area, within the entrance hall of what appears to be a large house, is appealing with a dramatic red, black and white colour scheme, chequered floor and huge bay windows that allow in a cool breeze, it’s the alfresco dining on the front balcony for which I come. It doesn’t matter what you choose from their breakfast menu — French toast (Rs 50), a ham and cheese omelette (Rs 80) or just a pot of tea (Rs 60) — there’s nothing like sitting out here on a clear morning and watching the river flow gently by. Hotel Riverside, near Baga bridge, Baga, Bardez; 0832-2276974; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner .
Le Poisson Rouge
Cross the bridge over the Baga Creek to the other side and you’ll immediately hit upon this charming fusion French restaurant. The menu mixes the familiar (Caesar salad, lasagna, crème brûlée) with some exotic pairings. My meal opened with a mussel veloute (Rs 175), a rich, creamy soup gently flavoured with coriander and coconut milk, followed by a beetroot carpaccio accompanied by a fig chutney, ruccola and strips of parmesan (Rs 170). But it was the roasted black pomfret topped with crisp crumbs of Goan sausage, in a sweet puddle of corn sauce (Rs 350) that took centrestage. LPR’s appeal, however, doesn’t lie only in its food; it extends to the ambience as well. To lend a romantic feel, owner and chef Gregory Bazire chose a leafy courtyard of an old Goan home, and added to it elegant dark-wood furniture along with quiet candlelight. Tall bamboo floor lanterns line the edges, and each tabletop exhibits tasteful white crockery, polished cutlery and gleaming wine glasses. On the whole, LPR is a great place to visit if you intend a relaxed evening out with close friends or a significant other. Baga river, opposite the bridge; 0832-3245800; open only for dinner.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the fact that Japanese cuisine has remained conspicuous on Goa’s culinary map by its absence is questionable. If landlocked Delhi can provide more than a handful of quality Japanese restaurants, what’s stopping cosmopolitan, seaside Goa? Fortunately, Shiro seems determined to bring about a change. Occupying a sprawling 10,000 square feet along the beach — in order to house a bar area as well as a club — this seafood-centric place keeps its décor absolutely minimalist. Simple furniture set out on a long wooden deck on the waterfront serves as the dining area, with both locals and foreigners keeping the tables full. The menu goes beyond sushi to include some Korean and Thai, as well as ‘fusion Japanese’ (maki with cream cheese, anyone?). I keep it light with platters of velvety sashimi (Rs 600) and nigiri (Rs 700), a good decision as it turns out. It’s close to midnight when I finish and with their club only getting started, a long night appears to lie ahead. Dando, Sinquerim Beach, Candolim, Bardez; 0832-6653366; open for lunch and dinner.
If the name had you imagining, as it did me, that I-95 was perhaps a club pulsating with electronic beats, you’ll be wrong, but easily forgiven. It certainly doesn’t evoke images of a high-end modern European restaurant, which focuses on elegant dining, nor of a menu that lays emphasis on sophisticated ingredients and novel presentation. Tucked away on the expansive back lawn of an old-fashioned brick house, the front part of which accommodates an art gallery, I-95 is easy to miss. The décor is pretty generic: coconut trees, cushy cane furniture, soft lighting... But since the formula clearly works, why not? Besides, I’ve come here to eat. And I don’t leave disappointed. Neither will you if you order the beef carpaccio (Rs 250), lean tenderloin served on garlic crostini; the baked goat’s cheese (Rs 400) with roast beetroot and walnut dressing; the grilled shrimps placed atop a fennel and green apple risotto (Rs 310); the beef wellingtons with sherry-flamed mushrooms, all sheathed in a delicate pastry (Rs 450); and if you still have room, the strawberry pavlova (Rs 220). I-95 is a place for any occasion: it’s intimate enough for a quiet dinner, while its chilled vibe makes it an ideal hangout joint for the younger lot. Castello Vermelho, 1/115 A Gaura Vaddo, Calangute; 0832-2275213; open only for dinner.
After two days of candlelit, bamboo-and-thatch shacks, AR was not quite what I expected. Coloured in warm shades of brown, cream and gold, the part-open-air, part-covered restaurant offers a level of grandeur that you typically encounter only in big-city restaurants. Elegant lounge seating and dark, polished tables are arranged on various levels, while cosy gazebos hung with sheer white curtains and shimmering strings of mirrors are complemented by wrought-iron tables and shiny copper chairs. Opulent crystal chandeliers light up the place, and towering dried flower arrangements decorate the area. The menu is global-fusion at its best, with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and, of course, European influences. I loved the green tea smoked tuna served with soba noodles (Rs 395), the pan-roasted salmon on a bed of asparagus and almonds, crowned with a quail egg (Rs 865) and, from the dessert platter (Rs 325), the warm lemon tart with balsamic vinegar to indulge my sweet tooth. Admittedly, AR is expensive, but once in a while it’s nice to ditch your flip-flops, dress up and treat yourself to a fancy night out. Next to Hotel Goan Heritage, Holiday Street, Calangute; 9823174927; open only for dinner