It’s food with a purpose at The Marina. The new seafood restaurant has adopted two villages by the sea to encourage traditional method of fishing

At night, The Marina feels like an aquarium. A happy co-incidence, really. Glass on either side, and a backdrop of fresh fish glistening against a canvas of snowy chipped ice. Granted this is no place for a vegetarian. Even I quiver under the steely glare of what looks like a particularly annoyed pomfret. Nevertheless, the effect is dramatic. Especially in conjunction with the massive black and white photograph of a solitary boat on a rippling sea, which dominates the restaurant.

This is restaurateur M. Mahadevan’s latest adventure. Two villages, heading out to sea. Sounds like a great beginning for a children’s tale, huh? Well, it’s a significant story. So here we go. Once upon a time there was a good fisherman, who went out on his boat everyday. Then, technology wiped him out. The end? Well, not yet. Hopefully.

Big fishing boats corporations, unscrupulous methods and greedy corporations have systematically exploited the sea over the last five decades. “We’re encouraging people to go back to a style of fishing that is sustainable,” says Mahadevan, talking about how they have adopted two villages, Kovalam and Kombuthurai for this project. The idea is to encourage them to return to traditional methods of fishing, by supporting them, and buying the catch every day. “In Kombudurai, the whole village does only hook and line fishing. In Kovalam, we have given them about 21 boats. No trawlers.” Mahadevan adds, “We buy only from the simple guys. We don’t want them to take big boats out to sea, and put the fish on ice for days. Besides, with those big boats, the owners get 70 per cent of the catch.”

To ensure that they connect with the right people, the restaurant manager Herbert spent a week in the villages. “Kombudurai is unique, because their boats return at night — around 8 p.m.” says Herbert. “By 11 they put in on the train and we receive it in Egmore at 5.30 a.m., so it’s very fresh.” This freshness is on display at the restaurant. Seer fish alongside silver, white and red snapper. Black and white pomfret. Mackarel, barracuda and Sole fish. Tiger prawns, jumbo prawns and shrimp. And a glass case featuring a rowdy gang of crabs.

The pricing can be confusing. You pay Rs. 150 per head, first. Think of it as a cover charge. Then, you pay per weight for the seafood, which is priced marginally above market rates. It’s a good idea, especially for a group, encouraging you to try more. On the flip side, if you’re ordering just one plate of prawns for two people to share, it means you pay Rs. 300 (cover for two) plus the market rate for that single dish.

The Marina feels like a different restaurant depending on the time of day. At night it’s dramatic, hugged by darkness and strings of decorative lights. During the day, it’s like eating in a greenhouse, surrounded by a lush canopy of trees.

At dinner eat buttery thattukada prawns, zingy with pepper and aromatic ghee rice, topped with caramelly onions. We also order nethilli fry, redolent with coconut oil, but fairly low on flavour. There are also flaky Kerala parathas teamed with a silky prawn curry, spiked with mangoes and thick with creamy coconut milk. It’s one of the highlights of the menu.

I’m back for lunch, locking horns with a pushy waiter. Fish newbies need some unbiased guidance here as the menu is fairly open-ended and flexible, allowing you to pick your fish and then ask the chef to make it any way you want. Our waiter insists we try the honey squid, which tastes like batter fried plastic. After that, I make my own decisions, picking Kerala prawn biryani, delicately flavoured and generously studded with plump jumbo prawns. We also try rich, golden Goan fish curry, with seer fish. And chunks of spongy paneer, crusty on the sides and topped with fresh coriander.

Don’t miss the striking black and white photographs taken in the fishing village by Kunal Daswani, which are on sale, along with paraphernalia of fish-related products. This will soon include bottles of The Marina’s distinctive masalas. All the money made from these sales go towards a counselling centre run by The Banyan in Kovalam village. Mahadevan takes us upstairs to show us his next project, a smart café connected to The Marina, which will offer casual food, like tuna sandwiches and fish fingers. But that’s a whole new story.

The Marina is at 39, College Road, Nungambakkam. Call 4203 5265 for reservations. A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 1,000.

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