The recently-opened Goa Portugesa’s unique platter includes authentic cuisine from the State and flavours from around the country
It’s easy to be forgiving when you’re at the beach. But when you take the vindaloo out of Goa, does it still work?
Stemming from a Portuguese version made with pork, red wine and garlic, the Goan vindaloo uses local ingredients to create a curry that’s high on drama. Wine is replaced by vinegar. It’s bolstered by red chilli powder. And rounded off with a scattering of spices. The exact recipe changes from venue to venue. In Britain, where vindaloo has become a pub favourite, it’s lavished with a ridiculous amount of chilli powder and potatoes. In Goan beach shacks, the flavours are standardised to appeal to sun-bathing tourists of various nationalities, with exaggerated levels of salt, spice and fat. Whereas a home cook is more likely to take the Anjum Anand route, meticulously using a careful balance of spices like cumin, cardamom and cinnamon, with a hint of fresh red chillies, to support the main stars: pork, vinegar and garlic.
If you can judge a Goan restaurant by its vindaloo, newly opened Goa Portugesa’s an intriguing case study. Partly because I was forced to judge it by its chicken vindaloo. Stop. Don’t go away. Not yet at least. I agree chicken vindaloo is not really vindaloo. Of course it exists, but it’s not the best representation of the dish. Given the fact that Chennai’s Goa Portugesa serves no beef or pork, this is where we have to begin. On the bright side, the dish is bold, sharp with vinegar and spiced with restraint. Eschewing the home cooking route, it’s chooses big standardised flavours over subtlety, resulting in a dish that’s presumably easy to make, and get right, in large quantities.
Goa Portugesa’s big advantage is the fact that its food is unique. Xacuttis, ambolis and balchaos are a refreshing change, in a reassuringly recognisable format. All the advantages of Indian food, with its distinct flavours, familiar ingredients and comfortingly carb-heavy format. But with just enough adjustments to make it an adventure. Case in point: bitter gourd chapattis. They’re light green in colour, impossibly soft and deliciously flaky. I could honestly go there and eat just chapattis. However, that would make for a really staid food review. Hence, I reluctantly move on.
We plough through the menu’s Indian-Portuguese food. There are rissois, which are typically deep fried in Portugal like croquettes. Over here, they’re offered in a paneer version. While the non-vegetarian menu is understandably extensive, with plenty of fish, the vegetarian menu doesn’t limit itself to paneer and potato. (Don’t be fooled by those rissois.) Think apple-flavoured lentil soup. Chops made with green peas and potatoes. And lady’s finger, fried crisp in a batter of Bengal gram, peanut powder and mild spices. The most interesting dish on the menu is Tender Coconut Sukke, strips of pliable coconut tossed together with mushy tomatoes, slow-cooked onions and plump cashew nuts. A clever, and winning, combination of flavours and textures. Confused by the profusion of prawn-based options, I finally settle on an old favourite: balchao. Although it arrives at the table looking suspiciously similar to the vindaloo, it has a distinctly individual flavour thanks to the dried prawns pounded into its thick gravy. We eat it with glossy jeera rice, but the balchao is so strong the flavours clash. So I order garlic-pau, spongy and generously spread with a spicy mix of butter and garlic, which proves to be more suitable vehicle to mop up the potent gravy.
Most of the dishes, with the exception of the tender coconut sukke, are very powerful, so the dishes tend to clash when they’re teamed together. However, when you eat as a family at a restaurant like this, you’re inevitably going to order all the bells and whistles, so be prepared for clanging flavours. In keeping with this Christmas stocking of spice, the restaurant is determinedly cheery, with jangling music that borders on annoying and ridiculously bright lighting. Presumably the result of a dogged ‘Let’s bring Goa to Chennai’ attitude. However, even with successful chains (Goa Portugesa has three restaurants in Mumbai) it’s useful to keep in mind that a restaurant needs to embrace its setting even as it stays true to its core.
We end with dodol, which is too sweet and too stodgy. And bebinca, which I’m not going to find fault with simply because bebinca reminds me of sun-burnt holidays on the beach, and therefore makes me happy. Which, coming to think of it is Goa Portugesa’s strongest selling point. This is the food that good memories are made of.
Goa Portugesa is at Oyster, 9, 3rd floor, Khader Nawaz Khan Road. A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 1,000. For details call 4214 1144 and 2833 2433. Open for lunch and dinner.