Rude Travel: The magic of Goa
I went back to Goa after nearly five years this July. I am not a fan of Goa during the high season, but I love Goa in the rains. All the fancy people stay away, the tourist traps are closed, and even the airport, otherwise known as the Black Hole of Dabolim, is not overcrowded.
It rains nearly every day (which is lovely because Goa looks beautiful in the rain), but it does not rain all day. There are lots of dry spells most days and the skies are often a stunning shade of blue. Plus, the temperature drops so you can go on the beach at say, 3 pm and not have to wipe away the sweat from your brow.
This time Goa was in worse shape than either Delhi or Mumbai when it came to Covid infection rates and everyone told me that even if I liked the rains, was it worth going when the situation was worrisome and there was a curfew (Goa does not like the term ‘lockdown’) in the state?
But I had a strategy ready, based on my experience.
Shortly after it opened a decade and a half ago, I went to the Park Hyatt in Goa, thought it was horrible, badly-run and a rip-off and came back and did a hatchet job (which is unlike me) on the hotel in the Mumbai edition of the HT. I had to go back to the Park Hyatt again and again for conferences and though the hotel did its best to butter me up after that hatchet job, you can only do so much to cover up things in a really badly-run hotel.
Which is sad because Park Hyatt is a great brand and though the hotel was clearly designed by Mickey Mouse (it has a theme park element to its architecture), it also had 45 acres of lush greenery adjoining a lovely beach.
Anyhow, the owners of the Park Hyatt fell on hard times, the hotel went up for auction, ITC bought it and are in the process of redesigning and upgrading it. So, here was my idea: suppose I went to the ITC Grand (as it is now called) and did not stir out of the property, then would I be safe from the Covid threat? After all, the hotel had excellent Covid protocols.
I decided to take the chance. Yes, I would be ignoring the rest of Goa but given that everything was shut because of the curfew anyway, where could I have gone? And with 45 acres and only about 60 rooms occupied, the Grand gave me enough space not to feel trapped. The beach was deserted when I went and the temperature was 12º lower than it was in Delhi.
The design flaws of the original Park Hyatt remain though ITC hopes to rectify most of them by next year. But the food (overseen by my old pal Chef Sunil Gadihoke) is terrific and Amit Kumar runs the hotel with the kind of managerial precision that I would have regarded as impossible in the Park Hyatt days.
The room I stayed in was one I had stayed in before in the Hyatt era but it had been so completely redone that it seemed more comfortable and luxurious. And once the efficiency and attitude of the staff change, it can transform a hotel experience.
I had a great time, staring out at the sea, walking on the beach, strolling through the lush greenery, and inhaling the fresh clean air. And as I posted about my stay on Instagram, many people who were doing interesting things in Goa got in touch.
I got sent sample cans of pre-mixed cocktails by Viraj Sawant, a sommelier who works with experienced partners to create InACan cocktails, a range that includes Gin and Tonic and Long Island Iced Tea. Their packaging is so cool that you can’t easily find the brand on the cans but the cocktails are perfect for drinking straight from the can on the beach.
Then, Arijit Bose, one of Asia’s greatest bartenders, got in touch. Bose (as everyone calls him) has recently moved to Goa and runs a bar called Tesouro in south Goa.
The bar was shut because of the curfew but Bose sent over some bottled cocktails, available at retail outlets as the Mr Jerry’s brand. As you would expect from Bose, these were of international quality and included sophisticated drinks like an Espresso Martini and a Negroni. They should do very well. I gather the bar is pretty amazing, too.
It wasn’t all drinks though. I had noticed the Route 66 Instagram page before, so it was fun to meet the restaurant’s owner, Xavs Norrs (“this is my stage name”, he said mysteriously), a chef who supervises everything from baking to butchery and cooking. Xavs brought me the best hamburgers I have eaten in India along with astonishingly good pork ribs. Just when I had finished raving about his American food, he sent me a great pork vindaloo to show that he could do his own cuisine as well.
Mini Ribeiro, one of India’s top food writers, told me that the greatest chef cooking in Goa was Avinash Martins. Avinash and his wife Tiz came to see me and Avinash explained his food — Goan flavours with flair and a lighter presentation — with a passion that blew me away.
He brought some delivery food as well and it was stunning. There was an excellent chorizo focaccia with Ambotik and Cafreal butters and the main courses included Pomfret stuffed with crab, prawns in a feni gravy, a lamb tagine with xacuti spices and pork cooked with kokum and fresh plums.
It is hard to judge a restaurant chef only on the basis of delivery where he is at a disadvantage but I have no hesitation in saying that Avinash is one of India’s best young chefs.
Then there was the 29-year-old Pablo Miranda who sent me a pastrami sandwich that was straight out of New York’s Katz’s deli. “It was a dream thinking I could come close to Katz,” he said, “but I set out by building my own smoker with oil drums only because a mango tree collapsed outside my house and I thought using the wood to smoke some meat would be perfect.”
Pablo’s pastrami sandwich uses local brisket, house-baked rye bread and cheese from a Swiss cheese maker in Siolim in Goa. It’s very New York. But it’s very local too.
Picu (Rahul Gomes Pereira), one of my favourite chefs in Delhi, runs a branch of Jamun in Goa, too, and he sent me a box of pastries from a local bakery called Padaria Prazeres. It had the best Portuguese egg tarts I have eaten in India, on par with the awesome ones at Mumbai’s O Pedro. Goa has an old baking tradition but this quality exceeded all expectations.
And I have run out of space to mention Gadihoke’s team of chefs at the hotel. The food was fabulous and if you ever find yourself in Goa, here are three sandwiches you should order at the ITC Grand: a lobster roll, made with fresh butter-poached lobster, a shredded crab roll which is a cousin of the lobster roll and a terrific chorizo sandwich that I still dream about. The lobster roll is the best I have ever had in India.
So, despite the curfew, it worked out for me. I lived within 45 acres of green paradise. I wandered on the beach. I ate and drank very well thanks to deliveries from some of Goa’s finest. And I discovered how good management can finally unlock the potential of a badly run property.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, July 18, 2021
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