The Road Less Travelled – Three Days of Luxury in the Blue Mountains

If you guys are on our Fat Cat’s Cafe Facebook or Instagram page, you would know about our recent trip to Sydney for my brother’s wedding. The end of January saw Sunil and me flying to Sydney for a week, of which four of those days were spent in the gorgeous Blue Mountains. The wedding celebration was a destination wedding with a difference. Instead of flying away to far off places, our small wedding party was whisked away to one of the most beautiful resorts in Sydney’s ‘backyard’ – the Blue Mountains.

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A three hour drive from Sydney (give or take the traffic situation), will see you bang in the Blue Mountains. You are suddenly transported from the bustle of downtown city life with its gleaming malls and hipster crowd to a scenario reminiscent of ye olde England. Rolling green pastures are dotted with quaint country inns and even the odd cow (!). The One and Only Resort is located on Australia’s Great Dividing Range between the Wollemi National Park and the Gardens of Stone National Park, within the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains. As the resort’s website boasts, the actual hotel “occupies just one percent of its own 7,000 acre conservancy.” With a maximum of  only 40 guest rooms, you do the math – the space is staggering.

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As we neared the resort, we had to leave our vehicle in the parking lot and  wait for one of the resort’s fleet of jeeps to come pick us up. Keep in mind that is this natural park land and the roads may not be the smoothest but on the positive side… you may be escorted to your room by one of these 🙂

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Can you spot the joey? ❤

 

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We got to the reception in one of these feeling very rugged and Crocodile Dundee-ish 

 

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That’s our two-bedroom Wollemi Villa.

Since Sunil and I were sharing with my mum, we were put up in a two bedroom villa. The villa had two massive bedrooms each with their own open air rain shower, bathtub, four poster bed and private verandah. And that’s not counting the main hall and living areas fitted with every luxurious bell and whistle you could imagine. There are a total of 36 one-bedroom, 2 two-bedroom, and 1 three-bedroom villas on the property with unfettered views of the sprawling bush from all of them.

 

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That bed! It may have taken a foot stool to get on to but it was worth the climb 🙂 
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*Sigh*
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Our very own heated pool! Pinch me now. 

 

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Just look at that attention to detail – every objet d’art, every cushion or throw, even the books in the in-room library were handpicked with care and consideration.

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Lord of the Manor much? 

But enough about the rooms… let’s get down to the good stuff – the food! One and Only Wolgan is an all-inclusive resort. Meals and certain beverages (alcohol included) are part of your package. There are two dining areas – the more casual Country Kitchen for lunch and the formal Wolgan Dining Room for dinner. You could order room service but that’s charged extra. The menu is limited but delicious. Bursting with fresh and locally sourced produce, we were never lacking in variety. While one lunch could be a simple platter of cold meats and cheeses, your dinner could be an elaborate three-course affair with dishes such as “Textures of Beetroot” and “Kingfish Carpaccio.”

 

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Our charcuterie platter 
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The ubiquitous Aussie favourite – the sausage roll 
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Fish carpaccio 
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Medley of wild mushrooms on toast. This was actually my breakfast one day – what a beauty. 
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This butter!! It was un-be-lievable
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Our last night at Wolgan was a barbeque spread that went on and on. The table was laden with fresh salads and grilled veggies, seafood and meats as far as the eye could see. 
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It’s the little touches that count. 

 

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I couldn’t resist sneaking a peak into the kitchen and watching the chefs in action 

If all that food’s got you full up, feast your eyes on what you can do at Wolgan besides eat and sleep…

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You could venture out on a bush walk or just explore the property if that sounds too daunting. 
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There’s this gorgeous outdoor pool to swim in or laze by
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Or your own private pool to while away an afternoon in

 

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You could walk down to the 1832 Heritage Homestead – owned by William Walker who built the farmhouse still located on the property today.  In 1836, Charles Darwin visited this very same homestead during his trip to Australia.  

 

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or visit the in-house organic garden near the Homestead that supplies the resort with veggies, fruits and herbs 
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You can opt for a guided tour of the Homestead to learn more about the Aboriginal and agricultural history of the Valley as well as a peek into the lives of the early settlers. 

 

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Sunil and I were perfectly content with our short forays into exploring the bush, swimming lazily in our pool, or trying out the mind blowing spa at the resort. But for those of you who are more outdoorsy and sporty, there are a ton of options to fill your days at Wolgan.

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Option 1: Horse riding anyone? 

 

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Option 2: An evening nature trail in search of the elusive Wombat. 

You could also choose a guided nature walk or conservation tour, cycle around the area with the free mountain bikes available at each villa, take an archery lesson, play tennis, plan a campfire with stargazing or plan a hike to any of the nearby nature trails. Some of these activities are included in your room rate while others aren’t so please check ahead.

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The boys went for archery while the girls prettied it up at the spa
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Me – thrilled to bits with all the choices 🙂 

All in all it was an AMAZING WEDDING – an AMAZING RESORT – and you guessed it – AN AMAZING TIME was had by all! There were several instances when Sunil and I looked at each other during this trip and had to pinch ourselves. The service at the resort was impeccable without being obsequious, the luxurious details were everywhere without being over the top and the natural beauty was staggeringly peaceful and calming. Plus at the end of the day, my baby brother got married to the best-est girl! So all in all – a win win win situation 🙂 🙂

 

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Just look at that movie star wedding party!
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One last goodbye kiss from Wolgan Valley. I can’t honestly say we will return but we will definitely remember everything about this wonderful trip xx

 

 

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Birds of a Feather – Flock to This New Eatery Soon

It’s the end of February already. Already! I could ask where the month went but I know the answer to that question. February went by in a daze of travel and my brother’s wedding in Sydney (more on that in a later blog), Valentine’s day mania at the cafe, and planning for and executing our pop up cafes at Dezio in Kalyani Nagar and The Pawsh Salon in Baner. To those not in the know i.e. not from Pune, Kalyani Nagar and Baner are different neighbourhoods in the city where it was a delight to set up shop for an evening and meet our Instagram and Facebook followers and fans from all over Pune.

We even managed to squeeze in a visit to a brand new restaurant that opened up in Baner recently (maybe a month old now) called The Flying Duck. Apart from the fact that the name intrigued us, I had read some glowing reviews from a few friends and acquaintances who’s tastes I share.

20160215_125504The Flying Duck is situated along the Baner-Pashan Link road and it took us a good 30 minutes or so to get there in afternoon traffic but it was worth the effort. For those of you who live closer or around the area, drop what you are doing and get there as soon as you can.

Done up modestly with simple black and white benches and largely outdoor seating, the real appeal of Flying Duck is the unusual menu. Below is a pic of the most interesting page of the menu in my opinion. Keeping in mind the serious dearth of places in Pune offering pork, expectations were already high. The quail and duck though highly recommended were not up our alley that day but we hear good things about them.

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With a little help from the friendly owner, we quickly ordered our soups and mains. While the wait was a bit on the longer side for the soups, we were suitably rewarded for our patience with the complexity of flavours and the hearty warmth of both our choices.

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Duck Soup – No matter what you eat, make sure that this is the soup you choose. Earthy, spicy, and flavourful – each spoonful packs a punch.

 

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The Thai Hot Prawn Soup which looked innocent but was seriously spicy. And this from a person who loves spicy food. If you can’t handle the heat, definitely avoid this soup or give the chef a head’s up in advance. 

For mains, I opted for two starters while Sunil pounced on the smoked pork with bamboo shoots. My grilled Thai chicken arrived in a jiffy but the fish took a long time to make an appearance unfortunately. The smoked pork was unusual – it felt more like smoked ham chunks cooked in sauce. In addition, the pork was slightly too fatty and overcooked – points we bought to the owner’s attention and were promised to be attended to immediately. The pickled bamboo shoots (a nod to the North Eastern heritage of the owners?) was a nice touch but in terms of taste, my grilled chicken starter was the star of the show after the duck soup.

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Thai grilled chicken – melt in the mouth pieces of chicken marinated in a Thai coconut sauce. Really lovely and the peculiarly appealing tofu scramble that came along with it was surprisingly refreshing as well. 
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The smoked pork with pickled bamboo shoots. Maybe it was an off day for this dish – we shall return to give it another try. 

We had also ordered the Ghost Chilly Chicken as a takeaway to try back home. After several warnings about the spiciness of the dish (the chillies in question are rated by the Guinness Book as the world’s spiciest), we proceeded with caution and doused each flaming spoonful with a portion of buttered rice.

Flying Duck has a limited but varied menu with the usual Pan-Asian suspects such as Hakka noodles and Khowsuey. But it also has items like Vietnamese Cold Noodle Soup (can’t wait to try it out especially in this heat!) and Laksa done Assamese style with mackerel. The prices are moderate, the portions are generous and the food is unusual. While the wait time was on the longer side, we hope that this is just early teething troubles and that the team will get their act together in time. With food as fresh and appealing as this, one can afford to be generous with one’s patience.

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Visit Flying Duck at Shop No 6, The Capital, Baner – Pashan Link Rd, Baner, Pune, Maharashtra 411045.

Phone:078755 90666

Timings: 11 AM to 3:30 PM, 7 PM to 11 PM and CLOSED ON TUESDAYS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the World in Ten Plates – Dezio’s and the Best Breakfast in Town

Dezio has been a favourite of ours for a while now. The thin crust pizzas, the lasagna that we loved in Darios now available with meat (!) and the gorgeous roof top bar have lured us all the way to Kalyani Nagar time and time again. So, when we heard that Dezio’s was introducing a new breakfast menu, we rustled together the the kids for some family time double quick.

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The lovely al fresco dining area and yes we were the first ones there (we usually always are). Breakfast is served from 9am onwards every day. 

They now have a separate menu for breakfast and we ordered pretty much everything that caught our fancy. From the robust full English breakfast to the delicate cheese and ham cornetti (which was not photographed before it was devoured greedily), the menu has something for everyone. Healthy treats to indulgent meals – Dezio has covered the gamut and at very reasonable price points too.

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The amazing menu
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Burgers for breakfast? *dances with glee*

 

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Freshly squeezed orange juice and the yummiest macchiato were the ideal start to our breakfast feast. 
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The German – a platter of cheeses, salami, ham (which was added later), pickled onions, and gherkins. Ignore the very generous bread basket that comes along with it and you have the perfect high protein, low carb start to the day. 
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I don’t like traditional breakfast foods such as eggs or cereal so the fact that Dezios also offers a range of sandwiches and burgers for breakfast makes me one happy bunny. This one was the tenderloin sandwich with caramelised onions and rucola. A winner all the way!
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You know how some chocolate croissants never have enough chocolate in them? Not this gorgeous one from Dezio. The buttery pastry barely covered a slab of melted chocolate within. Am still bemoaning the fact that we didn’t order another one of these as a takeaway to enjoy later. 
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The English – the full monty in terms of breakfast goodness. The only thing missing was some toast but that was soon swiped from the bread basket that came along with the German. 
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The American – a stack of fluffy pancakes served with either chocolate sauce or maple syrup. My contrary daughter opted to enjoy them plain but they were yummy nonetheless. 
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Everything swiped clean 

For more information on Dezio – their regular menu, timings, location and contact details – check out their site http://www.dezio.in/

Ps: The coffee and tea is on the house if you order any item from their breakfast menu until the 26th of Jan.

Now hurry on over for breakfast, you can thank us later xx

Mission Goa – Our Quest for the ‘Best’ Goan Restaurant

Everyone has their own version of Goa. To some it’s a place to drink, smoke, and dance till dawn, to others it’s a five-star resort that you don’t budge from until you check out. For me, Goa has always been my go-to place to relax and recharge. Something about the dappled light that falls in between the coconut trees and the somnambulent locals, lowers my blood pressure almost immediately.

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When I dream of Goa, I dream of spending the day on one of these. 

Post the crazy festive season at the cafe that begin with Diwali and ended only after new years (and I have to interject here and apologise for the serious absence of blogging during that time), Sunil and I were in desperate need of some down time. On this trip, we were hitting Goa sans offspring so we decided on a hotel in north Goa for a change. Being season time, we aimed to hit all the amazing restaurants in the north that are usually closed when we visit in May or September.

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Chalston Beach Resort

Our hotel – Chalston Beach Resort – was prettier than we expected. Located right on Calangute beach, you could enjoy your morning cuppa at sand’s edge or sip away on your evening sundowner to the thrum of enthusiastic speed boats all along the seafront. However, word to the wise – avoid Calangute / Baga beach itself. A short stroll on our first night along the beach to the iconic restaurant – Souza-Lobo – turned into a nightmare what with having to dodge vile groups of inebriated men gyrating to Bollywood music to skipping between beer bottles by the dozen being washed in and out by the retreating tide. It was enough to make one cry out in frustration. This was SO not the Goa one loved and wanted to return to time and again.

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The nirvana that I definitely did not experience in Calangute  

Luckily our next two days redeemed themselves. On our first full day in Goa, we decided to drive out to Morjim and Ashwem in the far north. As the roads became more winding and the tourists a whole lot whiter, the restaurants seemed more and more dream like. We skipped out on the legendary La Plage and opted instead for Elevar located on the premises of Leela Cottages. Spread over several levels all of which led down to the pristine Ashwem beach, Elevar comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Comfortable couches, shady corners, weather beaten furniture and a cool blue and white colour scheme does not detract from the real star of the show – the food. Chef Sai Sabnis has a created a menu that delights and surprises and we truly wished we had more time to spend in Goa, we would surely have camped out at Elevar for more than just the few hours we spent there.

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Getting things started with the perfect cocktail – gin, cucumber, mint and lemon. 

 

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I can still remember the crunch of these prawns *lickspage*
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Baked camembert is probably the last thing one expects to see on a menu in Goa. It was worth every calorie. Each creamy bite of cheese was complemented by a drizzle of fragrant honey and the crunch of walnuts. 
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We couldn’t make up our mind between the two desserts on the menu so we opted for the dessert platter which included both – a dreamy chocolate hazelnut truffle and warm moreish carrot cake drizzled with pomegranates and caramel sauce. 

For dinner that night, we returned to Morjim and to Chef Christopher Saleem Aga Bee’s Sublime. Opting for the five-course seafood set menu, we were regaled with dishes such as a fresh seafood salad, lobster soup, crab mousse, steamed fish fillets and fried ice cream.

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The table was set for culinary drama at Sublime that night

 

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Our seafood salad

 

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Fried ice cream with a fruit salad and champagne jelly

One of my all time favourite discoveries on this trip to Goa was this gorgeous place – Cafe Chocolatti. A magical blend of Alice in Wonderland meets Secret Garden, the place reeled me in with its arched doorways, white picket fences and inventive menu. I ended up just sitting in their garden with this goofy “I’ve found my happy place” look even before the food hit our table.

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How can you say ‘no’ to this? 

 

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We truly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day 🙂 
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This reminded us so much of our little Fat Cat back home
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“Come away with me”
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A bit of toffee pie old chap? 
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Cream cheese cranberry brownies to get you through that mid-morning slump

Lunch was at Fat Fish down the road from our hotel. Here, we opted for the fish thali which was as soul satisfying as it looks.

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By now am sure you think that all we did in Goa was eat and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. However, to balance things out we did sleep a lot and shop a bit too. Avoiding the stalls that lined the roads and beaches selling tat and crappy clothes, we found the Broadway Bookstore that sold books for 50 bucks a pop and the Mario Gallery also on the Calangute-Candolim main road that had an excellent selection of Mario prints and knick knacks.

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A break in between eating and sleeping to visit the Mario Gallery for some retail therapy. The t-shirts and posters make perfect gifts for those back home.

We definitely saved the best for last on our search of the best in North Goa. Bhatti Village came highly recommended and thankfully Google Maps managed to locate and give us directions to this home turned restaurant. There is no fixed menu and Patrick the owner just recites whatever has been cooked fresh on the day itself. Do call ahead to make sure they are open though.

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Bhatti Village was a colourful mix of kitsch and quaint. Imagine eating at your favourite aunt’s house and you have the place sussed. 

Dinner began with a platter of freshly fried white bait and moved on to a delicious melt in the mouth Pork with kokum curry and traditional prawn curry rice and beef croquets. The portions were ideal for two and the price (Rs. 800 including alcohol!) was unbeatable.

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The glorious rawa fried white bait fish was the starter to beat all starters. The addictive sweet and salty taste left us wanting more. 

When a simple question about where to eat in Goa results in an inundation of recommendations, Google map links, and heartfelt pleas not to miss a particular restaurant or a favourite dish, we knew we had a long way to go before we could reach any conclusion on the ‘best’ of Goa. A big thanks to all of you for your lists and mails and messages. Goa is and always will be a foodie paradise. And even if you choose to ignore the mushrooming ‘pure veg’ restaurants and Dilli chaat houses popping up everywhere, you will still be lost for choice in terms of the sheer range of cuisines available. We can happily say that our mission to find the best is still a work in progress!

 

 

Eat Portugal – A Food Tour with a Difference

By now, you know our drill. Check into a new place and book a food tour as soon as possible. Our trip to Lisbon was no different. However, when it came to choosing which tour to book, a small problem did crop up. Ninety percent of food tours in Lisbon are centred around wine. Regional vineyards abound with amazing local wines of all hues (think red, white, rose AND green!) and the iconic port wine comes from Porto in Portugal itself. So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to opt for a wine tasting / food tour as your best introduction to the culinary joys of Lisbon. But what does one do when your partner is a confirmed teetotaller? The idea of him following a progressively merrier me around the hilly streets of Lisbon didn’t seem like a fair plan 🙂

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We finally found just the tour we were looking for with Eat Portugal. Celia Pedroso, the owner and author of the Eat Portugal – the book (now in its third edition), the blog and the food tours swiftly answered all my questions by email. “Yes, there would be non-alcoholic beverage options if required,” “yes, it would be a walking tour of approximately four hours,” “yes, there would be several stops along the way to taste and eat and buy.” It all sounded perfect and I confirmed the tour immediately.

On the appointed day, all we had to do was turn up at the main entrance of the Mercado da Ribiera at 1215 and hand over the rest of the afternoon to our expert food guide Celia. There was supposed to be another couple on the tour with us but they cancelled last minute. This did not deter Celia from continuing our tour as promised nor did it make any difference to the amount of food we tasted. As we found out at the end of the tour, we ended up eating for four!

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Mercado da Ribiera or the Ribeira market is a very special place. On one side of the huge covered hall is the actual fresh food market. This is a very popular place for locals to shop during the early hours of the day or on the weekends. Rows and rows of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers lined the central aisles while the side alleys housed the fresh fish and meat markets. Clean, tidy and bursting with goodness of all kinds, this was the kind of market that I loved to shop in and I was itching to pick up some produce to experiment with.

The fresh food market is open every day from 6AM to 2PM.

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We then crossed over to the Food Hall. Taken over by the magazine Time Out in 2014, it was redesigned as a food court with a difference. Time Out approached the very same restaurants recommended by them in the magazine and offered the chefs a space of their own with one goal in mind – to promote Portugese food and products. Some of the best chefs in Portugal such as Alexandre Silva, Miguel Castro e Silva, and Henrique Sá Pessoa share space with newer entrants into the culinary scene and offer designer dishes at unbelievably low-cost prices. 

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We had actually visited the Mercado on our very first night in Lisbon and ended up being dazzled (and more than a bit confused) with the staggering amount of good food on offer. Another downside to coming here alone is that a lot of the menus are in Portugese and you are left clueless about what to order. This is where booking a tour with Celia is the best idea. She quickly seated us at one of the high bar tables and bustled off to order a number of Portugese tapas of petiscos for us to taste. Here are some of the highlights…

A pretty platter of presunto (ham), quiejo (sheep milk cheese), and quince jelly was served up with earthy slabs of assorted breads.

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An amazingly light green bean tempura served with a garlic aioli. Did you know that tempura was introduced to the Japanese by the Portugese?

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Garlic oil-soaked olives were the perfect accompaniment to a glass of crisp vinho verde or green wine. Don’t worry, Sunil enjoyed his fresh mango and passionfruit juice as well 🙂20151023_171020

 A sublime fusion of grilled sardines and sushi followed. Even though they looked a bit intimidating, one bite in and we polished off the plate in no time. The char grill of the sardine and the sticky sushi rice made a perfect pairing.

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Chorizo stuffed bread smeared with garlic oil is another local delicacy. The bread was baked with sweet potato to make it softer than usual.20151023_174508

We then moved out of the main market into the once seedy by lanes of Cais do Sodre. The area around the market and the Cais do Sodre railway station and ferry wharf were considered the red-light area of Lisbon until not so long ago. It’s now slowly being gentrified into a hipster hangout filled with cafes, Fado bars and discos. A quick stop at a cafe that served ONLY tinned sardines left us gobsmacked. All you have to do is choose from the rows and rows of tins lined up along the walls and they will serve the same tin to your table with a basket of bread and a pitcher of beer. Such a genius idea and obviously a popular place from what we saw.

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A mini cone of gelato acted as a palate cleanser before our next tasting session. I chose a ricotta and pear combo which was delicious. Neither Sunil nor I was adventurous enough to try out the parmesan or salmon gelatos!

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Thankfully, a longer walk ensued giving us a much needed breather with time to digest our food and shop for some local ingredients.

We popped into a grocery store that sold pulses, the ubiquitous sardine tins, piri piri chillies and salted cod. Salted cod is to the Portugese what the Durian fruit is to the Singaporeans. The flavour and texture of this dried fish is definitely not for the faint hearted but loyalists swear by the taste and all the top chefs in Portugal seem to experiment with novel ways of serving this humble ingredient.

As we traced our steps back to the Arc de Rua Augusta and the Praca do Commercio, a quick pit stop was made for a shot of Ginjinha. Ginjjinha is a cherry liqueur best had in a chocolate glass or cup. Once you have finished the drink you simply eat the cup and your tummy is all the merrier for it.

By now we were dangerously full but it seemed that the tour was no where near finishing! Around the corner from the Arc de Rua Augusta, we stopped at a small cafe that is famous for its suckling pig sandwiches served with gravy and the most fiery of piri piri sauces.

What really caught my fancy at this food stop were the exquisite prawn rissoles. The speed with which these heavenly morsels were consumed probably didn’t do justice to the lengthy procedure involved in making them but who cared. We polished off two and proceeded to try them out at various other cafes during the rest of our trip as well.

As we walked on, we took in the wonderful architecture and design. Lisbon with its beautiful tiled facades, cobbled streets and old fashioned store fronts were charming enough to make us forget the fact that we were huffing and puffing as we climbed its hilly streets.

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The tram we DIDN’T take to climb those hilly streets *sigh*
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Lisbon can take your breath away! In more ways than one 🙂

Our second last stop on the tour was a port wine tasting where I tasted three types of Port – tawny, ruby and white. My favourite was the ruby hands down. We also stocked up on some mini port wine sets to take back home as the perfect mementos and gifts.

Our last stop was at Chiado. The Pasteis de nata is a divine baked custard tart in a puff pastry shell. At Manteigaria, we watched the chefs expertly press in the dough into multiple little cases and whisk the custard from scratch. They ring a bell outside the shop front door every time a fresh batch is out of the oven and people flock to the tiny cafe to devour the tarts. We soon discovered that there is nothing quite as blissful as biting into a warm custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon with your cup of coffee. 

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Our time with Eat Portugal and Celia taught us a whole lot about Lisbon and Portugese cuisine. We learnt that the Portugese may not have been very adventurous with their food but all that’s changing now with the new wave of chefs in Lisbon.  We discovered that food in Lisbon is so reasonably priced in terms of food and drink that you end up eating a lot more than you set out to. But most of all, we began to appreciate the Portugese way of life – it’s simple, laid back and oh so generous. 

Celia was the perfect host on this culinary journey and if we had had the time, we would have signed up for another one (or two) of her other tours. In addition to the wonderful day spent with her, she wrote down a list of must visit restaurants. We ended up following that list diligently and enjoyed each and every one of her suggestions. Celia – if by some chance you read this – Jesus de Goes was magnificent! And I haven’t forgotten my promise to send you some Goan recipes either. Will mail you soon. Thanks once again xx

For more information on Eat Portugal do check out the site:

http://www.eatportugal.net/blog/eat-portugal-food-tours/

Living La Vida Portuguesa – Our Seven Days in the City of Seven Hills

This was my third trip to Lisbon. When I left this genteel and surprisingly romantic city two and a half years ago, I never thought I would return and that too so soon. But circumstances had conspired to get Sunil and me back here and you weren’t going to hear any complaints from either of us.

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The Lisbon skyline takes your breath away with its red roofs, pastel coloured buildings and the Castelo St George looking down on the city

Lisbon captured our imaginations from the get go. It’s faded past is evident in the gorgeous blue-tiled buildings that line the sweeping cobblestoned avenues. Its muted history echoes within its many crumbling churches and the imposing Castle St. George. Its locals are a wonderful blend of cultures who manage to convey their joie de vivre in spite of not speaking a word of English. And to top it all – the food and wine in Lisbon is amazingly cheap and tasty. These were all reasons enough for us to fall in love again and again with this often bypassed European gem.

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The Rua Augusta Arch overlooks the Praca de Commercio on one side and marks the entry into the old city on the other.
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Beautifully tiled streets now boast rows and rows of cafes and souvenir shops

Our first day in Lisbon felt strangely like coming back home. The cheap thrill of spending just 8 euros to get a cab from the airport to our airbnb apartment set the tone for the day ahead (take that Paris and your 70 euro cab rides!). The apartment was a joy to behold and convinced us that airbnb was the way to go. Seriously guys, why pay an exorbitant amount for a restrictive hotel room when for much less you can get a fully-equipped apartment in the neighbourhood of your choice?

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San Sebastiao da Pedreira – our lovely neighbourhood for the next seven days.

The last time around, we stayed in a bed and breakfast in the heart of the old town – Bairro Alto. This time though we wanted a taste of living like a local. We chose a great one bedroom apartment in the neighbourhood of Largo de San Sebastio. Lisbon is a compact little city and most of it can be traversed on foot. So, while San Sebastio is as different architecturally from the old centre of town, it’s barely a few metro stops and at the most an hour’s walk away. However, with the uneven cobble stoned streets you may want to rethink walking all the way through!

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Our one bedroom apartment came with a fully equipped kitchen. It had everything you could have wanted and a whole lot more – stove, oven, microwave, washing machine, dishwasher, Nespresso machine etc etc

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The plan for this blog was to keep a daily diary of what we saw and did and ate during our week in Lisbon. However, like all best laid plans, it fell by the wayside very soon. The next seven days seemed to pass by in a blur of walking, coffee stops, more walking, food stops, and more walking with some shopping and sightseeing thrown in for good measure. The best way to keep track of the days was through our photos. What follows is a photo blog of Lisbon and its charms that will keep us coming back.

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Lisbon is an extremely user-friendly city. The metro lines are colour coded and simple to decipher. The trams and buses are cheap and efficient. There are now tuk-tuks to take you around the old city. Ferry tickets costing less than 3 euro get you to and from the other side of the river. And when left with no other option – do as the locals do – and walk, walk, walk.
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Expo is the newer neighbourhood in Lisbon. Rebuilt from scratch for the World Expo in 1998, this area boasts a cable car ride above the river, a wonderful promenade lined with cafes and restaurants and the Vasco da Gama shopping mall along with multiple stadiums where exhibitions and concerts are now held.

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With all the ups and downs and cobblestoned streets in Lisbon, the tram cars and elevators are worth their weight in gold.
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Pretty tiled buildings with wrought iron balconies are dotted all over the city

And let’s not forget the food! Food in Lisbon is a marvellous blend of local delicacies and international favourites. There is a pastelaria or cafe on every sidewalk serving the best bread and pastries you could imagine. Some pastelarias date back to the early 1900s and have retained much of their old world charm (and some of their staff too :)). The desserts are a delight with most recipes being egg or custard based but I have to add that I had possibly the best chocolate cake in the world from Landeau – a cafe that serves only this cake and coffees and teas. There’s confidence in your product!

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Casa Brasilera just off Rossio Square is famous for its choriz pao and cheese tarts
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The local chocolate cake. Soft chocolate sponge slathered with butter cream and doused with sprinkles. Just like eating something you mom made.
A Padraria Portguesa - a modern take on the ancient  pastelerias all over the city. We used to pop in to one every morning for freshly baked bread and a cup of coffee.
A Padraria Portguesa – a modern take on the ancient pastelerias all over the city. We used to pop in to one every morning for freshly baked bread and a cup of coffee.
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The. Best. Chocolate. Cake. In. The. World. courtesy Landeau Cafe
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Puddings and desserts in Lisbon tend to be custard or egg based. This one was a vanilla custard served with crushed Marie biscuits (yes Marie) and topped with a swirl of sweetened whipped cream.

Coffee or tea is available for less than a euro in most places and wine for a euro and a half. Special kiosks in public squares serve you options that range from port wine to iced tea if you so desire.

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The kiosk at Praca do Camoes – our favourite little square in the whole city. Every evening saw us sitting here enjoying a coffee and a glass of wine.

Portugese cooking is surprisingly bland. One would think that spices would feature strongly in their local dishes but it isn’t so. Rice with beans and a grilled meat (either pork or beef) with fries is found across the board in cafes and restaurants to suit any budget. While we found the meats a bit meh, one can always ask for piri piri chilli oil or sauce that is stocked everywhere. It adds that much needed punch to any dish.

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The prego is a popular steak sandwich in Lisbon. Thick slices of bread with a rub of garlic and oil sandwich grilled beef steak with a smear of piri piri sauce.

Food courts in shopping malls and smaller chains of restaurants serve up other favourites like pizzas, pastas, soups, salads, and stuffed baguettes. Japanese food is also huge in Lisbon and there is always a sushi place close to you. Another must do when in Lisbon is to enjoy the seafood. The prawns, lobsters, crabs, and clams are pure heaven and not too heavy on the pocket either. If you are more adventurous you can try snails, eels, monk fish, or razor clams. We weren’t.

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A very interesting Pizza Carbonara. Bacon + egg + white cheese sauce on a thin wood-fired crust.
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Even the food courts threw up gems such as this tuna and prawn baguette and deep fried Camembert. You haven’t lived till you’ve tried deep fried cheese.

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That’s me at Farol ready to dig in to the best seafood we had on this trip.
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The seafood platter for two that we ordered came with lobster, boiled prawns, crab pate, crab claws, clams in lemon sauce, and prawns cooked in garlic oil. All to be mopped up with crusty buttery bread. Sigh.

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Lemon butter clams with bread.
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Fresh prawns sauteed with olive oil and garlic. That’s it. Nothing else needed but a squeeze of lemon and crusty bread to lick the plate clean with.

We ate at some amazing restaurants (thanks to the food tour we did – more on that in the next blog). A few that stood out were Jesus e Goes run by a true blue Goan serving a short but delicious menu of Goan dishes such as prawns reichade, pork vindaloo and fish curry rice. O Fondue just down the road from our apartment deserved two trips to enjoy their eclectic offerings of grilled meats (horse or wild boar anyone?) and their awesome tapas. And one has to make the ferry crossing over to Cacilhas on the other side of the river Tagus to feast on the freshest and best seafood ever at Farol.

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Prawns reichade at Jesus e Goes. A taste of Goa in Lisbon seemed just right.
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The funky decor at Jesus e Goes.
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The awesome tapas platter at O Fondue. You were charged for only what you ate. That salmon pate with bread and the shrimp salad was to die for.

In order to prolong the joy of our trip to Lisbon, we shopped for a whole lot of foodie goodies. Iberico ham and chorizo, goat cheese and Camembert, tinned sardines and venison pate, vinho verde and port wine, chocolate truffles and almond nougat – nothing escaped our greedy paws. Now all that’s left is to recreate those wonderful meals and re-live our perfect Lisbon escapade.

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La Villa – The Perfect Three Days in Pondicherry

Everyday I count my blessings. The blessing of having a job that I love and that gets me up in the morning with a big smile on my face. The blessing of having a work partner who is also a life partner. And the blessing of having family and friends who surround me with love and support. This blog post is dedicated to the last group – the friends who I can call family. Amongst these are four very special ladies. Women I have known since we were girls (and one since I was a toddler!) and who I treasure on a daily basis.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants :) :)
The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 🙂 🙂

Every year, the five of us plan three days away from our usual busy routines. This was our third year running and even though we were one woman down (you know who you are!), we seem to have finally cracked the code of a successful girlie trip. A) Fix a destination that is easy for everyone to get to. Believe me when you are juggling four different cities of residence, this knocks off a whole chunk from our burgeoning bucket lists. B) Choose a hotel that is clean, comfortable, and dare I say it – indulgent. These three days are not for unnecessary skimping. And C) Make sure there is plenty of good food and drinks around. With Goa and Bangalore already checked off, this year saw us a little more adventurous. This year it was to be Pondicherry.

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A typical street in the French Quarter or “White Town” as it is often known as

Situated near Chennai (3 hours away by road), Pondicherry or Puducherry as it is now referred to, is a Union Territory town and a once thriving French colony. Now the only legacy of the French remains visible around the elegant but extremely abridged French Quarter. Chic pastel coloured bungalows vie with street signs that could have been transplanted directly from Paris. Over here you have a Rue Surcouf, over there a Rue Saint Martin. It’s all deliciously exotic.

We could have been in France (if we squinted enough)
We could have been in France (if we squinted enough)

To get to Pondicherry, we hired a taxi from the airport. A shout out here to all those thinking of doing the same thing – don’t. Firstly, and we only found this out later, regular taxis are not allowed to ply to and fro city limits. Thus at every toll, there were frantic mutterings and pleading from our driver with the powers that be. Luckily they allowed him through but it was simply an unnecessary waste of time. We should have just let our hotel send us a car. For a thousand rupees less, the taxi was just not worth the extra hassle. Plus the driver took us by a particularly boring highway route when the real fun way to get to Pondicherry is via the gorgeous East Coast Road that offers scenic views of the Bay of Bengal throughout the journey. This we discovered only on our way back to Chennai. Hmph.

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How can one NOT fall in love with this?

We were booked to stay at La Villa. Located in the heart of the French Quarter or “White Town” as it is colloquially referred to, La Villa can be found bang opposite the Lycée Francais – a bright mustard coloured building on the Rue Surcouf. As we spilled out of our taxi, tired from the long journey, the grey gates of La Villa held a promise of shade and peace. And boy did it deliver on that promise! From the time you enter its leafy courtyard, this 100-year old bungalow welcomes you with open arms. Its cool white walls, authentic Athangadi tiles, wicker furniture and luxurious fittings create an ambience that is reminiscent of period novels and olde world charm.

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Our first sight of La Villa
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Peace and calm awaited us
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The quirky entrance way to the rooms
The Lycee Francais or the French School that was opposite La Villa
The Lycee Francais or the French School that was opposite La Villa

Containing only six suites, La Villa, unlike its older more peppier family member – Villa Shanti, is best suited for a romantic escapade or for small groups looking for a quiet interlude. The fact that no children below 16 years are allowed is another deciding factor for those looking for the perfect abode to rest, recuperate and renew the romance. The four of us lucked out and got two of the three suites on the first floor. A hop skip and (literal) jump into the compact little pool that stretched past our front door, the rooms were surrounded by verdant foliage and comfy lounge furniture. Perfect for those evening cocktail hours we were planning to take.

The first floor at La Villa. Our room doors to the left and behind the spiral stairway
The first floor at La Villa. Our room doors to the left and behind the spiral stairway
The Timeless Suite
The Timeless Suite
Room no. 2 while smaller was equally lavish and thoughtfully done up
Room no. 2 while smaller was equally lavish and thoughtfully done up
The sit out terrace in Room no. 2
The sit out terrace in Room no. 2
That pool!
That pool!
Our verandah and the swing no one wanted to leave
Our verandah and the swing no one wanted to leave

The designers of La Villa have cleverly used the large and spacious rooms to echo a sense of indulgence. Local artefacts and handicrafts blend effortlessly with modern amenities such as plug points built into the platform beds, lamps that double up as art installations and walk in rain showers. My suite was called Timeless and it was huge. A super large bed resplendent with fluffy mattress and blindingly white bed linen shared space with a wonderful wooden armoire, a kitschy wooden ‘tree’, and a traditional charpoy painted a decidedly untraditional silver. Wooden French doors led us on to an exceptionally large verandah where sheer white curtains fluttered around white marble pillars and a day bed fought for attention with an orb-like rattan swing. Complete bliss! The other suite lacked nothing in terms of comfort either. While slightly smaller and with a more compact terrace, the bathroom was larger and it had a welcoming lounge / work area with writing desk and coffee table that inspired one to write or create or something!

The funky decor of the rooms at La Villa
The funky decor of the rooms at La Villa
Need one of these genius plus points at home
Need one of these genius plug points at home
Eating mango and chicken salad under the trees
Eating mango and chicken salad under the trees
It rained!
It rained!

Days at La Villa pass by in a serendipitous haze. Breakfasts (included in the tarriff) can be taken downstairs in the courtyard restaurant or served in your room. We opted to have it in our verandah and every morning woke up to the brilliant sight of our coffee table laden with freshly baked croissants and baguettes, fruit bowls served with yoghurt and honey, platters of locally produced artisanal cheeses, eggs made to order and fresh juices, filter coffee or masala chai to sip on. It wasn’t any wonder then that our breakfasts lasted through the hour and ended in a stupor that only another nap could remedy. We tried the highly touted restaurant offerings from the hotel as well and enjoyed a mango and chicken salad that was refreshing and an adequate club sandwich by the pool one afternoon. There is a mini-bar in each room that is replenished daily. Yes, you read that right! Stocked with miniatures of all your favourite spirits, cans of beer, coffee and tea sachets, biscuits, wafers and nuts, you can splurge to your heart’s content without breaking the bank. This generosity seems to be largely due to the fact that the hotel is still waiting on its alcohol licence. But till that happens, there will definitely be no complaints from our side!

The amazing breakfast spread
The amazing breakfast spread
Fresh breads for breakfast
Fresh breads for breakfast
Local artisanal cheeses for breakfast
Local artisanal cheeses for breakfast

Lest you think that all we did in Pondicherry was eat, sleep and drink, let me assure you that we did manage to actually leave the hotel. Once in a while. Walking around the French-named streets, admiring the brightly coloured villas and restored houses was lovely no doubt but the sapping heat and humidity took its toll. We often cut short our walks to run back to La Villa or pop into one of the many other boutique hotels that stood cheek by jowl in the French Quarter. We dined at Palais de Mahe one night and enjoyed traditional dishes such as fish moilee and prawn pepper fry with appams. Definitely a must do but skip the desserts. The panna cotta tasted like guava custard.

Do visit Palais de Mahe for dinner
Do visit Palais de Mahe for dinner
The pool at Palais de Mahe
The pool at Palais de Mahe

One evening was spent on the terrace of Hotel Le Pondy. Strangely this roof top bar came highly recommended on Trip Advisor but in our books it was too much like a kebab joint that served beer. Strange. One exemplary dinner was had at Buddha by the Bay – the Asian-inspired rooftop restaurant at Le Promenade. Overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the hotel prides itself on its enviable position on Goubert Avenue or the Promenade. Home to morning walkers, evening time-passers and tourists out looking for the ‘real’ Pondicherry, the Promenade is wide, exceptionally clean and a perfect way to spend an evening. If only it hadn’t been so damn hot! But back to dinner.

The promenade. So clean and well lit albeit a bit crowded in the evenings
The promenade. So clean and well lit albeit a bit crowded in the evenings

Go to Bay of Buddha for its experimental cocktails, and its better than average sushi and dim sum. Avoid the nasi goreng (more like a fried rice) and the basil cheesecake (more like baked custard) and enjoy the cool sea breeze and party vibe. Another lunch worthy of a mention was at Le Club. Around the corner from La Villa (pretty much everything is around the corner here) is this cafe that looks like a beach hut complete with thatched roof and cane furniture. While the alcohol prices seem on the higher side, the menu filled with continental staples such as steak and fries, prawns in white sauce and chicken a la kiev are perfect for a lazy brunch.

French cafes selling baguettes and pastries were every where
French cafes selling baguettes and pastries were every where
A typical chocolatier / patisserie in Pondicherry. However, the less said about the quality of cakes the better
A typical chocolatier / patisserie in Pondicherry. However, the less said about the quality of cakes the better
We were urged to treat La Villa as our home. So we did what we always do at home - we ordered in pizza. From the looks of it we may have ordered a bit too much!
We were urged to treat La Villa as our home. So we did what we always do at home – we ordered in pizza. From the looks of it we may have ordered a bit too much!
Excellent (and gigantic) seafood pizza from
Excellent (and gigantic) seafood pizza from Cafe Xstasi
Auroville - on our way to Matri Mandir
Auroville – on our way to Matri Mandir
Opium incense anyone?
Opium incense anyone?

Ps: We did go to Auroville one morning. Hired a car for a half a day and trekked over town the see the iconic Golden Globe or Matrimandir. However, at the risk of irking a few people, I have to say that we left unimpressed. While the principles on which Auroville was built remain inspirational and the township is startlingly clean and green, besides the visitor’s center and a few shops selling hand made soaps and incense, it was really not worth the effort. But then again maybe that’s just us.

That said, there were a ton of things we didn’t get around to doing in Pondicherry. We merely glossed over the Aurobindo Ashram and library in town, we really didn’t venture too far into the Tamil Quarter where I am told one can find delightful antiques as well as traditional food, and we skipped on the beaches that bring with them their own set of charms. All this could wait for another trip. What matters is that we succeeded in accomplishing the original purpose of this trip which was to celebrate three unadulterated days of friendship, fun and food…and plan next year’s trip!

To know more about La Villa, do check out their site – http://www.lavillapondicherry.com/