Appetite for Pondicherry

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on August 10, 2018

O fish: Glazed mahi mahi steak with honey and soy at an Italian eatery   -  ZAC O’YEAH

French food in the UT has healthy competition from Mediterranean and Asian varieties

The Pondicherry food scene can be a paradise for lovers of Euro-Med-Asian fusion. Of course, the town has its French colonial pedigree to lean back on; street names begin with “Rue” and then there’s Le Canal, an open sewer that runs through the centre. So the question I ask myself is: Does one really have to go to France to eat haute cuisine or can one pop over to Pondy when the craving for frogs and snails sets in?

However, my long-anticipated gourmet odyssey started like a genuine catastrophe. The quaint Qualithé, a joint that attracted me on earlier visits for its delectable bar snacks at rates beyond the unbelievable, is boarded up and the heritage building it occupied is probably going to be turned into an overpriced gastropub of the type that the surrounding streets are crammed with. I stray around like a sad dog, until I notice a place with a familiar-sounding name on a faded board. Mentioned in various guidebooks as “top choice” and “best French restaurant”, Satsanga (54 Rue Labourdonnais) occupies a courtyard garden with tables set in pillared verandas.

The owner, a pot-bellied Frenchman, appears drunk but is dodgy when I ask for a bottle of red, which eventually arrives decanted in a tea pot and is served in coffee cups. The wine is chilled, which suggests that the bottle was opened long ago and kept in the fridge. Rather than the dry shiraz I am paying for, it tastes like mixed dregs from different half-drunk flagons of cheap sweet port. When I seek to inspect the label, the Frenchman says that he can’t show me the bottles, since they have lost their bar licence. I appreciate the candour.

Southern accents: Prawns with curry leaves at an old-style bar   -  ZAC O’YEAH


However, the meal that hits the table after an inordinate wait, despite the fact that my wife and I are virtually the only customers, is tragic. Regarding my blue cheese steak, the Frenchman says he had to send somebody on a scooter to find a fromagerie that is open late to buy the necessary cheese. The meat is as chewy as Charlie Chaplin’s shoes and the butter knife I get to carve it with doesn’t cut through the leathery slab. I’m not offered a meat cleaver so I make a mental note to bring a chainsaw if I ever set foot in Satsanga again. My wife’s fish is edible, so I end up filching morsels off her plate. Whatever there is to be said about our romantic dinner, it is certainly not worth the ₹3,000 bill, of which some ₹500 has been added mistakenly. When I point out the error, the Frenchman, who is beginning to seem more and more like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, shrugs, hands me a slip that reads, “Dear Sir Madam, kindly leave your comment through www.tripadvisor.in”, and walks away. In my mind I chant Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror! The horror!”

Next day I am luckier as I cure my hurt foodie sentiments at an old-style bar I chance upon while walking towards the colonial quarters. Every bit as lovely as Qualithé used to be, it’s known as Hotel Dhanalakshmi’s Urvasi Bar (59 Rue Rangapillai) and is set in a mansion that must once have belonged to a merchant. The “roof garden” has no sign of any garden or décor, but gallons of faded glory on the superb street-facing balcony. The heartily welcoming whiteboard announces specials — hot fish balls and wholesome mixed grill (combo of prawns, mutton, chicken and eggs), and beers start at an unbelievable ₹84, which compensates for the plastic chairs. I end up revisiting daily, sampling succulent platters of prawns sautéed with curry leaves (₹200) and plump fish fingers accompanied by a hearty bowl of rich mayo (₹185).

Despite being busy digesting the Urvasi menu, I test the newer bars that have popped up in the French quarters. One of the best is recommended by friends in the know — in an outwardly rather subdued townhouse at 7 Rue Labourdonnais, is the gleamingly glamorous Umami. Seeing the impossibly chic interiors and the trendy waitstaff, I worry that it’ll be prohibitively expensive, but the rates turn out to be about the same as Satsanga’s diagonally across the street. We get excellent cocktails from mojitos to daiquiris and cosmopolitans, priced in the ₹300 range, that go well with aromatic nibbles and mains, suggesting that even posh places give value for money in Pondicherry. I’m especially taken by their superlative fish carpaccio cured in Oriental spices (₹340).

Eventually I find what to my tummy ranks as the best Italian eatery, which again is rather unpretentious — there’s no wine or cocktails, but Tanto (Auroville Main Road) has a range of healthy salads, lovely risottos, and more. I go again and again for the generous pizzas (around ₹300), but also try a glazed mahi mahi steak (₹450), a juicy fish fillet marinated in a soy and honey sauce, served with chickpea salad and fries. So, no frogs or snails on the menus, as far as I can see, but enough delicacies to make for a fabulous eating holiday.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on August 10, 2018

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