Food and Frolic– A gateway to Pondy

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Photo of Food and Frolic– A gateway to Pondy 17/17 by Ameya Joshi

Many years ago, I went to Pondicherry and the only memory I have is asking the driver to take us to an authentic French restaurant only to land up at a place which had not so authentic North Indian food as the only option. It was late and we were tired so we gulped it down before heading back to Chennai.

Back to 2015, when my better half and I decided to look for a new destination to visit for 3 days. Monsoons have their own charm and magic, and every year we try and look for a gateway. More often than not it is Goa, but when our bucket list of destinations to visit extends from Tahiti to Trivendrum, selecting a place is difficult.

Pune has limited connectivity and of all the possible options the cheapest option was Chennai – so the destination was Pondy! If you are a regular contributor on Trip Advisor, the website gives you some #JustForYou specials, hotels & activities which are based on your past reviews and selections.

After some research – we settled for Palais de Mahe, which I had first seen in Outlook Traveler. It’s a CGH Earth hotels’ property, heritage – boutique, nestled amidst the French quarters and has a swimming pool, a combination which was very difficult to find.

The stay options in Pondicherry are available in all ranges and sizes – from the grand resorts on the outer ends of the City (Dune / Le Pondy) to home stays and BnBs.

While Pondicherry has a functional airport, the best connections are available from Chennai, which is roughly 150 kms away and takes around 3 hours. One can take a cab from the airport, or make your way to Koyembedu Bus stand in Chennai which has connectivity to Pondy or call for a cab from the Hotel in Pondy like we did. This is a cost effective and comfortable option.

Upon arrival in Chennai at 0730 hours, first thing we noticed was people were already on their way to work; men and women both; women with quintessential Gajraa in place, ready to take on the world. That’s way too early for us westerners!! On way to Pondy, the first stop was to have breakfast of piping hot sambar, two chutneys and some real thin and crispy Dosa. And thus began another food trail.

Pondy is over rated said few who have been here. We know, was our reply. Holidays are meant to do nothing but we end up doing a lot each time! The idea was to explore a new place and we did it on a rented two wheeler and on foot, which involved eating at some great places and visiting the tourist places like the Auroville. Plus Priyanka was drawn to the place for its French Connection, she being in love with the language and culture since 2003.

Pondicherry with its French connection is a small town on the Coromandel Coast. The French quarters have bright plastered houses.

A research list included places to visit and restaurants to visit and we made the most of our time by trying out different food choices and places.

The food journey in Pondy started with Shanti Villa, a quaint 19th century house located in the old French town, which has an open patio and the vertical garden. We reached there a little late and had to hurry with the order. Luckily, the chefs did not show the same rush which the waiters did and cooked some amazing Pesto Pasta, named Mr. & Mrs. Smith in their menu card. The other dish was Tiger Prawns in continental preparation with steamed greens & lemon rice. The quantity was not as large as the name but sufficient for one. The lemon rice was perfectly cooked rice with a tinge of lemon and tiger prawns stood out for its size. The interesting part of the dish was the way the lemon was placed – in a fresh Malmal cloth, great idea to squeeze the juice out, without seeds I would say. On the house bread platter had an assortment of breads with butter and pumpkin mayonnaise – the latter being simply delicious!

The main course followed by locally sourced Lemon Sorbet – tangy to perfection and Carrot & Orange cake with chocolate mousse. The Carrot cake was fluffy, spongy with Orange Zest in right quantity and while the chocolate mousse could have looked much better, they better not play around with the taste and consistency. It was perfect, to say the least.

For the food, service, décor and ambiance – Shanti Villa does stand out in Pondy.

The next good meal was had at the place we stayed Palais de Mahe – where the road has both names, the French one and the new Indian one, so the address is Rue De Bussy, Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, Puducherry – the latest name of Pondy. The property in one word is “bliss”. We were welcomed by a very friendly front office manager Mr. Fevin who gave us a whirlwind tour of Pondy on the map and the hotel welcomed us with a fizzy dappled alcove which was refreshing. Located far enough to keep the noise and crowds at bay and near enough to make a dash on the promenade in shorts and floaters. A French villa converted into 18 odd rooms across three storied structure, this is the only property we could find inside the French quarters with a swimming pool. The yellow and white plastering is a recurring theme in French quarters and this property gels well with it. Massive doors open up to high ceiling rooms, well stocked bar, neatly arranged chairs and the verandah is a picture perfect setting with sun light, swimming pool, decorative plants and comfortable chairs. What stood out was the solid brass door key, reminiscent of massive mid century padlocks, once a common feature in every house. The Swimming pool has Jacuzzi jets; which was another plus.

In this very hotel, the topmost floor houses the restaurant – Mahe de Malabar, where we had Mahe Chicken and the day’s special – Sesame Garlic Snapper.  The snapper was well plated and came with a mouthful of rice and few grilled veggies. The Mahe Chicken came with Appams, Chicken. The weather, which remained hot and sultry throughout the day, was amazing as the evening set in. Fantastic breeze and no rain made dinner on rooftop a special treat.

The restaurant also took care of our early morning hunger pangs with a delightful breakfast of Omelets which came with Potato, Mushroom & Bacon along with Vanilla or Cinnamon pancake with figs dipped in honey. It had assorted fruits and cereals as well, but we are averse to healthy food

Of the many cafés in and around, the most recommended one would be Café Zuka – located across the canal and few minutes of walk from the promenade. The café features an interesting décor with chocolate butterflies dotting the ceiling and umpteen verities of chocolate and cakes dotting the glass fridge. We opted for Cappuccino – the kind which will not be sweet no matter how much sugar you add and hot chocolate – the kind you won’t get again anywhere else because it comes with cubes of chocolate to make it more chocolaty and when that’s done, the spoon itself made of chocolate which melts as you insert it in the small cup. The quantity of hot chocolate was a little off the mark, it being the smallest serving ever seen; however the richness of the chocolate more than made up for the quantity. A place worth recommending. The sinful double espresso mousse was so rich that the plastic spoon used to eat broke!

A meal of Pizza – the wood fired ones, can be had at Café Xtasy – a small café located in the Tamil quarters, where we successfully reached on our rented two wheeler. The place is tagged properly on Google maps. There is a wide variety of Pizzas here and they come in all shapes and sizes. What they mentioned as sufficient for two, was actually a tad bit more for us. We ordered for Xtasi Pizza with Chicken Salami and chicken ham and came with good amount of Salami, Pizza, Olives and Basel. The pizza could have been a little crunchier but this certainly was not bad. We also ordered for French Fries with garlic mayo and they came with very little oil sticking around – a rarity. To wash this down, we had Masala Lemonade – where the taste was being over powered by the masala more than the lemonade.

The last meal in pondy was had at Maison Perumal – a sister concern of Palaise de Mahe and another heritage boutique property. This property lies in the Tamil Quarters and is a 17thcentury house converted into a hotel. Large long wooden pillars and huge vessels with flowering plants welcome you inside where the patio seating amidst dim lighting and instrumental music from the films of 1990s which make you hum welcomes you. The interiors are immaculately maintained and wooden surfaces gleam in the dim lighting, giving the place a very homely and warm feeling. This is refreshing especially against new age, metal and glass structures.

On offer were three veg and three non veg options which would come with Appams, Rice or Uttapams. Our choice – Coriander chicken with appam which came in a typical South Indian green gravy which was equally tasty to drink as it was to eat along with the appams. The other dish was Varutha Aricha Sambar with rice which was thick tur dal sambhar with drum sticks, carrot. The drinks on offer – Mojito and Pillai were funny on the names part. However, the drinks did not make the cut in terms of taste. However the experience as a whole was one to remember.

We travelled to Auroville to see the Matrimandir from the viewing point. It’s a kilometer away from the place they issue the pass and not this entire walking track is in the tree shade. It was sunny when we went. There are few eating options in Auroville – but we did not find them as tasty as it’s claimed online. We couldn’t quite fathom the concept of Auroville, as we came across few donation boxes in the premise. If people choose Auroville as their lifestyle decision, why should outsiders be expected to make donations towards maintaining their way of life?

The promenade is a stretch of over a kilometer with Bay of Bengal on one side and old French town on the other. The road is closed for vehicular traffic from 1830 each evening till 0730 the next morning. The street turns into one giant play area. Dotting this stretch of sand is a 24 hour café – Le Café! We probably made our way into this at the wrong time, we planned dinner here and it did not turn out to be a feasible option due to its limited menu suitable for snacks. A good place with reasonable prices at a fantastic location – but couldn’t review the food. There were few other places we missed too, due to paucity of time – the Indian Kaffee Express, Le Café des Arts and Bakers Street which have consistent reviews for good food. May be some other time…

There is nothing much you can do in Pondy – Visit to Auroville, Ashram, stroll through the old quarters, some shopping in the tamil quarters and a lot of food. Located on the coast, the weather is more or less the same – hot, humid and sultry across the year. So finally we had a holiday which did not tire us out !

Only thing on wishlist that was pending as we left Pondy was eating Tadgola or Nungu in Tamil [credit: Google :p]. That was finally done on way back to Chennai as we took a break to have Coconut water and Tadgola.

God bless the land of natural bounty… Enjoy Macha

This travelogue was first published by Network Thoughts .