We're jolting through the jungle. Trust me, it's not as exciting as Jim Corbett made it out to be. My colleague and I are on a mission to unearth stories from Auroville and Puducherry. Since it is raining buckets, a good amount of this research involves rattling though potholes, wading through ditches alive with wriggly tadpoles and cursing steadily as our umbrellas cheerily turn inside-out like extras in a Mr. Bean movie.
Auroville seems lusher than ever, with vegetation barely restrained by the dirt roads. We stop off for our obligatory visit to their ‘Boulangerie', then realise we have to take off our shoes and wade though mud to get to the apple pie-laden counters. Fortunately there's a café that's sprung up opposite, and we head there instead to revive ourselves with cups of overly-milky coffee and typically Aurovillean chocolate cake — vegan, plump with wheat and sweetened with jaggery. It's surprisingly delicious.
Tipped off by a source, we decide to investigate ‘Tanto pizzeria' just outside Auroville. Their flaming wood fire is reassuringly authentic, and the restaurant is crammed with a healthy mix of tourists and locals. Although the menu offers an array of pastas (from carbonara to lasagne) as well as steaks and salads, the smell of fresh baked pizzas proves impossible to resist. A word of warning, since this is set outside, there are also quite a lot of winged insects buzzing about, so perhaps the fastidious should stay away. We almost lose our nerve when a very fat, very wet dog shakes himself dry beside us and then curls up cosily right at out feet. The ‘regina' pizza we order, however, is worth it: thin crust with a crisp bottom and bubbling Aurovillean mozzarella cheese on top, all studded with dainty triangles of ham and luscious mushrooms.
We're eyeing the sweet pizza, made with apples and gorgonzola cheese when the pudgy dog at our feet yawns and looks at our ankles in a meaningful manner. Dessert, we decide, rising with ungraceful haste, can be quite over rated sometimes.
At the end of the day, we meander through Puducherry town with a bad tempered taxi driver who alternates between shaking his fist at us and yelling at passing motorists. (It doesn't help that we dissolve into giggles when part of his bumper falls off and he tenderly retrieves it in the rain, to set it beside him on the front seat like a much-loved girl-friend.) When La Maison Rose appears shimmering in the distance, we hail it with delight, charging in like rhinos and frightening the staff.
Fortunately Benjamin, who recently moved to Bordeaux from India is made of sterner stuff. He seats us in the garden, lit with flickering candles set in candy-coloured lamps. Strings of pretty little lights are laced through the grand old trees in the courtyard. The La Maison Rose restaurant, attached to a set of boutiques, is a year old, but was formerly called La Caravelle. It's now “renewing energy” as Benjamin puts it, with a new chef and manager. Young chef Alex Stocker, who is from Switzerland, focuses on local ingredients and seasonal produce, transforming them with his imagination and European flair. His menu is short and simple, a good sign in a small kitchen like this.
Sipping contentedly on chilled mojitoes, fragrant with crushed mint leaves, we decide between the ‘Prawn and lemongrass curry served in a banana leaf' and ‘Seer fish with coriander dressing.' I end up sticking with my favourite Pondicherry dinner, a steak. It arrives perfectly cooked, for a change. Far too many chefs reduce fillets to cardboard. It's served with cubes of potato rosti scattered with fresh herbs. My colleague orders the chicken brochettes, which arrive on skewers, juicy with coconut milk marinade with a stodgy Lebanese galette.
As we conclude dinner, the rain starts again, but this time we skip through the puddles. We even smile hello to our driver's metal girlfriend, still sitting grandly on the front passenger seat. A good dinner, powered by mojitoes, has the power to make even the most rotten day end well.
For details on Tanto pizzeria call 0413 2622368.
The La Maison Rose is open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. everyday. On weekends it is open between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. The rest of the time, it functions as a café serving just cakes and beverages. Call 41342 10806 for details.