I have been away from home ever since I left for Bombay in 2010, and that's the last time I brought in the new year with my family. My folks were quite resolute on not letting that trend continue into 2016, and so I was joined by my parents and younger brother in Chennai.
I found myself at an Army New Years party after nearly a decade (I am not much of a NYE party person), I was unsurprised to note that the mess food tastes exactly the same, as it did all those years ago. In fact, the menu items hadn't changed a bit either! No matter which part of the country you're in, the Officers Mess shall always have Dal Makhni, Kashmiri Pulao, Raita, Chicken Curry and Ice cream on the menu!
En route to Pondicherry, we stopped by for a tour of Mahabalipuram’s Shore temples and headed over to Santana for lunch. I foolishly parked my car right under the restaurant in the narrow lane, by the beach. After a while, many cars piled up behind mine, and by the time we came out, I couldn't reverse without at least 3 other cars being shifted. The whole ordeal sapped away our energy and about an hours time.
Tip: If you are dining at Santana/Moonrakers/Buddha Cafe or any of the other resto-shacks on the beach road, it might be a better idea to park your car by sidewalk, closer to the Main road junction or any other paid parking you can find.
The food at Santana was quite good, the seafood is fresh and curries are homely. You get a great view of the whole Bay and the temples from your table. They serve beer too, albeit only British Empire.
|The Bay from Santana|
We landed in Pondicherry around 7 PM and checked into the Park Guest House. Run by the Aurobindo Ashram, the guest house offers very modestly equipped rooms and an unbeatable view from the balcony. The fag end of the promenade and the shaded garden in between provide some cover of privacy as you enjoy the sight and sound show of the Bay of Bengal.
Soon, I dragged my brother to Zuku Choco-la which seemed to enjoy many recommendations online. It's a small chocolate/pastry shop, opposite Pasta Bar Veneto, and it was jam packed. A life-sized statue of the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, made entirely of chocolate was the centre of all attention. I tried out a cup of hot chocolate, served with a cute little chocolate spoon and a Chocolate ganache based pastry. They were indulgent, but not particularly impressive to my taste buds which have been spoilt by the likes of La Folie in Bombay.
Desserts done, we scouted for dinner places. My previous experiences dining out in Pondicherry had been rather underwhelming - I have dined at the beautifully housed Le Club, Villa Shanti and Palais de Mahe - hoping to score a true french meal, an absolute rarity in Chennai. I had been disappointed to find a mish-mash of continental staples and coastal curries on the menu.
I walked into Dis Dis & Co after surfing through Zomato menus and spotting Coq au vin and Ratatouille. The legendary french chicken stew was not on the menu that evening and the Ratatouille was only so-so.
Beware dear reader, if you walk into a colonial french bungalow welcoming you with a name that frenchifies your tongue. That's the only bit of France you'll get, most of these fancy-french-name restaurants are a bit of a sham, they serve perfectly good food - but don't expect to see any Duck confit or Cheese souffle on the menu.
We went for post-dinner stroll on the promenade, which thankfully remains automobile-free from Dusk till dawn. I spotted a Gelateria right in front of the little park near our guest house. They had some interesting flavours on offer, like Chilli Chocolate and seemed quite legit. I got a split cup of Guava and Strawberry, which were bursting with fruit pulp. Quite cheap too for the quality - about 50 bucks per cup.
I rose early next morning to catch the sun rising out of the bay and discover the real find of this trip - Bakerstreet. Now, Bakerstreet had already won a lot of recommendations from friends who'd eaten here. I had often driven past it, unexcited by it's regular Indian Bakery looks.
|Dawn from my room|
That is the real charm of Bakerstreet, apart from it's incredibly good breads of course. For by choosing to set up as a regular bakery on M.G. Road/Bussy Street, across the canal that separates the grand colonial buildings of White Town from the rest of Pondicherry, Bakerstreet drops all facades of pretence that countless cafes and restaurants put on to lure in customers with affectations of French heritage. Bakersstreet let's the oven do the talking.
I walked in at 7 am, just as they were piling warms Baguettes on the counter, baked in the oven backstage. The olfactory and visual extravagance made me quiver at the knees, I stared at them like a hungry dog. I had to wait, as dutiful patrons had beat me to the counter and were patiently awaiting their morning nirvana. I overheard most of the francophones order their Pain Au Chocolat and Croissant, so I followed suit.
By the time I sat down, the Bakery was buzzing. Most of the clientele seemed to be packing away their Baguettes by the dozen - locals and expats alike. I also spotted a throng of bellboys from the upmarket hotels in town in a rush to grab all assortment of breads from the counter, presumably fortheir breakfast spread. Quite clearly, these guys were the best in town. The Tamil lady at the counter, fluently switching between Tamil, English and French, amicably gratified all.
I dug into the Croissant along with a cup of Americano. The flaky, buttery beauty was still warm at the centre. This is was really good stuff. The Pain Au Chocolat makes my heart skip a beat as I write about it. Biting through crisp pastry layers to find a warm centre of good quality molten chocolate should be right next to sex in terms of carnal fantasies.
I went back to the counter and ended up ordering everything I could stuff my belly with - Almond Croissant (not so great, the Marzipan was too heavy for my liking), Chicken Quiche (perfectly creamy), Passionfruit Macaron (after being spoilt by Le 15, it only seemed run-of-the-mill) and something called a Twister - a twisted flaky flat pastry studded with chocolate chips (quite indulgent). The staff seemed rather bemused by morning gluttony.
They also have a selection of fine cheese, cold cuts and pates in the fridge, at the end of the restaurant. I spotted more varieties of Brie and Camembert than I had ever before, at any of the fancy supermarkets in the city. I was genuinely tempted to pick up the tin of Foie Gras pate, and only kept it back after considering the long journey back. Perhaps next time, with some of Bakerstreet's fresh Baguettes.
I chatted with the lady at the counter about origins of the bakery. She told me it's run by a French gentleman who also runs a bakery by the same name in France. The French baker travels to Pondicherry twice a year to train apprentices locally. That explains those incredible flaky pastry shells. The Patisserie and Chocolaterie is still work in progress, from what I could see. The confectionaries lacked the finesse you would expect after those incredible oven-borns. Indeed, the only ones ordering Mille-Feuille or Operas were clueless tourists who stumbled in, the regulars stuck to the bakes.
I also packed up a Spinach and Ham Quiche, Tuna Subs (admirably made with fresh NOT canned Tuna) and Sausage stuffed Croissants for my folks.
Just as I was leaving, I spotted this beautiful golden cake. It seemed entirely made of layer upon layer of flaky pastry sheets. I was told that it was a Galette des Rois. Now, we were visiting the family of an old coursemate of Dad's, now a General commanding the Southern region's deployment, I thought this would make an apt gift and asked a large one to be packed up. I also picked up a small one to take back home.
|Galette des Rois|
After carefully placing the Galette into a cake box, the lady curiously put a paper crown on top of it. She told me that it is the remnant of the French settlers of Pondicherry, who make it after the new year and eat it on the day of Epiphany. The Galette des Rois or King Cake must be cut into 4 or 8 slices (it's usually made in these two sizes) and each slice must be served to one person only. In one of these slices, there shall be a little figurine of the king. Whoever finds the King, shall be blessed for the year and prosper. The tradition originated in France and stems from the Biblical tale of the Three Kings who visit Baby Jesus bearing gifts.
Our hosts that afternoon, laid out the cake after a sumptuous lunch, the Galette was a layer of fruity frangipane housed between sheets of flaky pastry sheets. Everyone at the table loved it.