At Taj Vivanta Fisherman's Cove, the sea, sky and green come together to weave a magical spell.

Settling down for dinner at the Upper Deck restaurant facing the sea, before sampling the delicacies prepared by Samir Mulaokar, Executive Chef at the Taj Vivanta Fisherman’s Cove, the dilemma is whether to listen to the sound of the sea or the whirr of the pedestal fan meant to keep mosquitoes away.

That was decided by a quick lighting up of a mosquito coil — the chef’s offerings get attention. An immediate hit with me is the Harissa Shrimp, which is done with Mango Ratatouille. While the Spanish tomato and crisp tortilla soup doesn’t excite much, what follows — a sorbet made with Champagne and pomegranate on a day the temperature has soared to 42 degrees Celsius — is heaven-sent. The smoked chicken Risotto that follows is delicious and just right.

For the main course there are tough choices — a Grilled Snapper with pickled eggplant, tossed fennel and orange butter; Herb-Crusted Lamb rack with brown rice and bean torri, apricot and fig tajin; and an Algerian Cilantro Chicken with saffron pepper paella. With the waves creating magic, I naturally go in for the grilled snapper and am happy with the choice. For one thing, the much-dreaded but always lapped-up carbs have been avoided, and for another, it is just right — delicious, soft and full of aroma.

When I comment on the shrimps and the snapper being just right, the Chef smiles and says that seafood should not be marinated for long. “If you marinate seafood even for an hour, it starts cooking in the masala and you won’t get the flavour and taste of the fish or shrimps.”

But if the fish is chunky, as in fish tikka, then it’s fine to marinate for 30 minutes. Also, he uses two marinades for seafood. “The first is very simple; we use olive oil, lemon juice and a little mustard. The fish or prawn is just dipped into it; marinate immediately again — this could be the lambdong or local spices or only olive oil, or lemon and garlic — that is great too. Never use marinades that overpower your seafood and kill its flavour.”

Keep the shells!

He gives another useful tip during lunch at the Watch Tower, an elevated cabana decorated with flowers and bang at the seashore… the right place to take your sweetheart to if you can afford it, for it provides total privacy! This is about serving prawns in their shells. Chef Mulaokar says that many a time his guests ask why he serves prawns — including tiger prawns — with their shells. “I tell them it’s because the prawn’s flesh is so soft that if removed from the shell and cooked it tends to dry. But cooking it within the shell not only retains the juices and flavour and taste, the spices used too coat well inside the shell. So you get to taste the meat and not be overpowered by the ingredients of the masala. Learning never stops for any chef!”

But before I go to the sumptuous seafood platter I lapped up at the Watch Tower, the calamari tossed in beer batter and fried have to be mentioned. Served with Wasabi mayo and tomato-chilli jam, they made the perfect entrée.

The Vietnamese lambdong-marinated tiger prawn was delicious — soft and crunchy, and so were the masala-fried nethli (white bait), which brought back memories of a particularly special meal last year at the Civitavecchia port in Rome, where the very similar anchovies had been the highlight of the sumptuous lunch! Those, of course, came soaked in olive oil. But the highlight of the main course was the prawn manga curry, which had just the right tang and sourness lent by the mango… It was devoured with string hoppers.

At the Saturday lunch buffet in Seagull, the all-day diner overlooking the beautiful pool, the Chef has concentrated on South Indian cuisine to showcase the local flavours. “But we do provide other choices too, as many of our guests are foreigners; while some continental choice is available, the focus is always South Indian.”

Aapams galore

On that Saturday I was delighted to find my favourite — aapams, and a variety of them. Muthai (egg), podi (sprinkled with specially powdered masala and gingelly oil, so essential in South Indian cuisine), and plain aapams served with a delicious vegetable stew.

Also on offer was the kothu idiyappam (string hoppers). “The kothu parathas of Tamil Nadu are very famous; sometimes on the buffet we also do a kothu idiyappam biryani, which is popular,” says the Chef. His food philosophy is simple. “I try to keep all the traditional flavours intact and offer a simple menu which is acceptable to everyone, rather than attempt too much fusion. If you stick to your basics and cook food that is as natural as possible, people appreciate that these days… simple, authentic food.”

He gives the example of some South Indian dishes requiring gingelly oil. “Now I can’t replace gingelly oil with olive oil in the name of healthy food, because then the flavour and authenticity are gone.” In both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes he prefers to use just one or two ingredients and “let the full flavour of that ingredient permeate the food. At our seafood restaurant too, the funda is very clear. Whatever catch we get, I don’t like preparing that fish two or three times... like first boiling it and then frying it or use too much masala to douse the fish. I want my guest to eat the fish and not the masala… retaining the original taste and flavour of the fish is very important.”

With the podi aapam I opt for the Kadamba Mutton curry. The traditional Indian recipe of pan-fried chicken with spices, fresh fenugreek leaves and bell peppers is a perfect spicy accompaniment. The meal is rounded off with a taste of the chocolate pudding and beet and fig halwa.

Refreshing green

Built on the ramparts of an old Dutch fort, Fisherman’s Cove has undergone some changes to suit the stylish Vivanta brand of hospitality. The mix of guests at the Fish Cove, as it is known among locals who have long patronised its Sunday buffet, fluctuates with the movement of the barometer. In the summer months, the number of foreign guests drops, but during weekends this breathtakingly beautiful sea resort is mostly full.

Apart from Chennaites, expats love to come to the lush-green environs of its well-appointed cottages to relax with family. People from Bangalore too drive down during weekends. The number plates in the car park — many with Karnataka registration — are a pointer to this.

But as the weather cools, as much as it can in Chennai, western tourists who yearn for the sea, sand and lush tropical greenery, and are looking for a beach holiday, account for over 70 per cent of the guests. The Jiva Spa with its array of massages and other treatment offers an adequate relaxation and rejuvenation menu.

If you are planning a romantic getaway, combine the Watch Tower experience with a luxurious couple therapy at the spa. Surrounded by fragrant candles, soak in a bath of rose petals, sip on your Champagne and experience a traditional rejuvenation or beauty therapy.

While the new block has rooms done in a breezy, modern style, the USP is, of course, the cottages with their high ceilings, an open-to-sky shower area (with total privacy, of course!), a spacious sit-out with a swing, and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. Combine it with the music of the sea, the chirping of the birds in the mornings; what results is sheer magic.

The most memorable part of my stay, apart from the food and the beautifully landscaped greenery, was a catamaran ride in the sea, with the option to jump in. If you don’t know swimming, no worries! The lifejacket you have to compulsorily wear is adequate to keep you afloat. Followed up with a leisurely swim in the well-maintained pool, it was the most ideal way to beat Chennai’s khatri (dog days)!

rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on June 21, 2012)
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