A tasting session at Chef Atul Kochhar’s NRI

Some gush over actors and sportsmen, some over singers and writers, yours truly, gives Chefs as celebrated as Atul Kochhar the same platform. Hence, when an opportunity to be at a tasting at his newly opened casual dining space presents itself, you make sure you attend. The restaurant itself, has chosen quite the location given the audience it caters to. The interior itself is minimalistic and yet warm. The light wood furniture and warm golden glow from the bare bulbs sees to it. The tables have small pails of cutlery and are casually set on paper menu mats in keeping with the vibe. The table near the entrance is graced by the presence of books written by the man of the hour and that was as close we got to meeting him. The papads, biscuits and indian candy kept on the table are maybe just a tad bit cliched given the number of restaurants employing the same concept.

 

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The concept is derived, quite simply, from the longings of the heart when you are away from the land you grew up in. Again, quite befitting the return of the prodigal. The menu is derived from the food cooked by the indians living far from home, the immigrants and labourers who tried to replicate food that sated their indian souls while sitting in foreign lands. Funny how much you identify with your nationality once you are out of the nation.

 

The service, as is expected was quite impeccable. We were looked after by Rohan Nair who guided us through the menu and made the entire experience so much more enjoyable by regaling us with stories that come with the curries. Take that, all the other restaurants. Does it get any more Indian? Serving stories with meals! Quite the concept! Chef Jerry, in whose able hands Chef Kochhar has left the restaurant, was a delight to meet and convinced us to have a taste of the Daalim shakarkandi chaat, but more on that later.

 

The meal started for us with the drinks we chose, the place has a vast selection of alcoholic drinks and wines but we stuck with the mocktails. The Konkan Medley with Kokam and passion fruit, and the Eastern Elixir with Galangal and kumquat oranges were both refreshing and just the right amount of sweet and tart for our tastes. Both of us are not fond of artificial colours and flavours and these were right up our alley.

 

The Phaldari chaat with the smoked yoghurt dip won our hearts. We love grilled anything and the grilled fruits with the smattering of masalas and the killer dip was perfect. The dip deserves another line on its own, get a taste and you will know what I’m talking about. If you could just liquefy the very essence of a kebab, this is it. So good that we asked the good man to leave it with us so we could scrape off the last bite with every thing we ate. The Pind da Hummus was good. I love almost all hummus and this one was perfect. Could not have gone wrong with me. Flavored with anaardaana and smooth like a dream. The falafel’s served with it were quite a revelation for us. My marathi mulga has never been a big fan of the things, finds them too dry and bland almost everywhere we go. Here? You should have seen the look on his face to have found falafel’s he loved. Made with dal and not dry at all! The guy isn’t star struck with stars of any kind but sports, so you can be sure that the delight was real! The shakarkandi chaat that we had earlier thought of giving a miss was pressed upon us by the friendly chef and we couldn’t say no. A chaat loving health freak’s dream is what this was. The creaminess of the yogurt foam set off wonderfully by the fried dal and the hot, sweet and sour chutneys create an Indianised salad for when you want your chaat and no calories too.

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I love eating curries with breads and buns and the bunny chow deserved a taste just for that. They tell you a story about how the particular dish came into existence as they serve you your meal and this I shall leave you to experience. The chow was a Rajma based curry and tasted like comfort in the bread bowl. The Malaysian Korma with Roti chennai or as it is now called, Roti Canai, won favor with us as we love coconut curries. The spices and the mild coconut curry are beautiful served with the flaky parotta.

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The much talked about Mithaiwala concept is wonderful and fills you with childlike glee as a cart laden with the most beautiful desserts is rolled out to you. We decided to let the head win over our heart here and settled for two of the beauties. The others we shall be back for. The Brownie with baileys cream was indulgent and yet light. Difficult to fault this one. The Raspberry Verrine was loved by moi for the berries. The Gondhoraj tart and the Maricaubu Orange await our return.

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The only grouse from us would be, for a casual dining space, the impeccably mannered and extremely warm staff seem a little restrained. Introducing an atmosphere of bonhomie and relaxed wear would perhaps add to the charm. For us the restaurant delivered just what it promised, a simple and comforting taste of home. Seeing how close the place is to us and how much we loved it, a repeat visit or two is definitely on the cards for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surreal sunsets of Kanyakumari

 

The next stop for us was Kanyakumari. This place stole our hearts in a way that has us craving for a repeat visit. And this even before we had left. We started the day with a visit to the Thiruvalluvar statue and the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. The entire thing was done in such an orderly manner, given the teeming crowds that they had, that it made us wonder at the endless queues and jams we get back home in the cities for almost everything. Once you buy the tickets, you join the queue and wait your turn to get onto a jetty that takes you to both the islands. The breeze and the beautifully coloured greenish blue ocean is sure to take your breath away.

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We had just the two days in Kanyakumari and regretted our short stay the very first evening. The windows looked right over the sea and we could tell we had a spectacular sunset awaiting us the very evening we checked in. As we left our resort and walked towards the beach, we were waylaid by the sight and smell of bhajiya’s being fried right in the open. The absolutely charming and beautiful mother-daughter duo ladling out the goodies, were absolute sweethearts and gave us a couple of freebies too. Language is really not a barrier when you’re travelling, we barely spoke and yet I doubt any of us would ever forget them. Our evening was spent taking in the most spectacular sunset of our lives till date. The beach is a short walk from the hotel and we stayed out watching the colours till the last trace vanished. This is one of those things that you must do once in your life if not more. I find it hard to believe a more beautiful sunset is possible anywhere.

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Our hotel was the Sparsa Resort. The property is beautiful and has efficient staff who make your stay as comfortable as they can. Could not find any faults with the place given the rates they charge. Complete value for money and pretty good food. We  have had our Karwachauth vrat happen on quite a few of our trips every year and this hotel hosted us during the karwachauth of ’14. Since the both of us fast on this day, not religious but sentimental, almost all the hotels we stay have had staff that go to such lengths to make us juices and make sure we eat well at night. Not to mention the “aw, so cute” looks and comments we keep getting. These guys were the same and we were bestowed with beaming smiles all day.

We left but not without witnessing two of the most gorgeous sunsets of our lives and a wish to visit again and stay on to see a few more.

 

The pristine beaches of Varkala

Varkala was a much looked forward to destination for the both of us. We are your typical beach bums and had read so much about the powdery soft sands and clear waters. We reached the sleepy little town pretty late in the afternoon and after a quick stop at our hotel headed down to the beach while the rest of the family stayed back to get over the travel fatigue.

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The hotel we were at was the Deshadan again. Apart from the absolutely heartwarming service we received from the staff, the hotel itself left a bad taste. They really need to refurbish the place. We had a humongous spider visit one of the rooms and mosquitoes were in plenty even after the staff took pains to light “kachua” in and outside our rooms everyday. The property itself is beautiful and with such excellent staff, it’s a shame nobody is putting in more time and effort to better the place. As we were leaving, the manager offered to give us his bike keys to go down to the beach to ensure we got back safely. Varkala, being a small town, most places concerned about the safety of their guests prefer you back before dark. It was a short walk down, and we did not take him up on the offer but it did tell us so much about how much of himself the guy put in his work. Lesson in it for all of us. Almost all places we visit leave us with such fond memories of not only the places and the food, but the people. Makes you believe in the goodness that makes the world go round.

As we neared the beach, we saw a lot of hotels at the edge of the cliff and we would try to get a place in one of these if visiting again. The views must be breathtaking. High tide had rendered the paapnasam beach inaccessible and we had to make do with the black beach. The difference in both being, The paapnasam beach is usually thick with tourists, both indian and foreign, as the temple is right on the beach. The idea being to wash away your sins after a dip in the waters. Maybe the guy above just knew we had not committed enough to wash them away ;).

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The way to the black beach, which stays underwater for most parts and is visible only when the other one goes under water, is either by climbing down a winding flight of stairs, which seemed way too mossy and slimy to be safely walked upon, or by climbing over the black boulders that flank the beach. As we got down, and it is fairly easy to do even for people who have a tendency to fall like moi, we felt our feet sink into lusciously thick and soft sand. The waters are beautiful and compared to the other beaches, pretty clean. A lot of the people seemed to be into yoga and beach sports, surfing et al. The shacks on top of the cliff , Cafe Del Mar and Trattoria’s, remind you instantly of some beautiful places you’ve been to in Goa. Varkala itself does the same, like a quieter, less crowded Goa.

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The endless tea gardens of Munnar

On our trips to the rolling hills and beautiful plantations of Munnar, we always make multiple halts along the way. Either it is the bewitching sights begging us to take pictures or some absolutely enticing food stalls. Along with the plantations, the elephant rides are also just outside the main town and you need to make a stopover if you want to experience the joyride. Not to be missed if you’re a fan of all beings four-legged like yours truly.

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Being as it is, situated at an elevation higher than quite a few in our country, the joy of sipping on a cup of cardamom chai, smelling the eucalyptus and pine trees along the way is to be experienced. We have walked in beautiful plantations, had passion fruits fall in our laps from trees and tasted the almost watery, yet so flavourful burst of fresh cardamom picked off plants in front of our eyes. We don’t think we can do justice to the wonderful local food we have encountered while we’re talking about our staycations and will talk about the culinary adventures of each destination in a separate post. 

On our earlier visit we had chosen to stay at Blackberry hills, this unfortunately, was not to be. There was some rioting in the town the day we reached, friction between the local and tourist cab drivers and our man of the hour – Danny, wonderful as he was, was not very keen to go on ahead and asked if we would be willing for a change in plans. We then proceeded to the Sienna Village. All our trepidation was cast aside when we had a look at the property and our cottage. Everything from the breakfast to the romantic candle lit dinner they arranged for us was pretty good.

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The trip that we took last year, had us staying at the Ambady Estate. The place, though a little difficult to locate, stole our hearts the moment we got down from our tempo traveller. With such picturesque cottages, the completely private plantation and birds calling out to you, it is very difficult to leave even for day trips. We were welcomed with a herbal tea, and the manager was kind enough to share the recipe with us. They have an old cardamom drying facility that he took us to get a look at. Warning : Go up to the attic like space only if you are comfortable climbing up seriously old stairs and not claustrophobic. The cardamom needs a lot of dry heat to lose all the moisture and hence the breathing issues once you’re inside. Out of the seven of us, just the two daredevils that we are, ventured up. The dining area is right next to the cottage they use as a reception and the food is scrumptious to say the least. The family that owns the property lives on it, along with their wonderful staff. The owner was friendly enough to enquire about our stay almost everytime we ran into him inspite of the manager being on his toes all the time.

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This property charmed us so much, almost felt like leaving home when our stay was over. p.s They sell the organic cardamom they make. Be sure to get a packet or ten, like we did.

Among the things to do while in Munnar would be, a visit to the Rajamalai National Park, something we missed doing on both our trips even after hours of waiting in line. It’s almost like the Zara store has announced a pick anything for free promotion in Mumbai. The kalaripayattu or the kathakali shows, suit yourself, we being a family of adrenaline junkies, chose the former and renewed our resolve to get fitter after we had been suitably chastened by their feats.

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The natural or manmade beauties at the Matupetty Dam, Top station and the tea gardens. The freshly cut pineapple they sell everywhere, inexplicably, tastes better in Munnar than anywhere else. A well guided tour of the plantations is also something we enjoyed. The guides do tend to get carried away while they take pictures and you might find yourself strugging to contain your laughter as you humour them and take the most awkward poses. Almost all plantations have shops near the main entrance and hold a treasure trove of spices, oils, tea, coffee, sandal and what not. The Kolukkumalai tea estate was a favourite with us on both the trips. Just a word of caution, this being the highest place in the world for organically grown tea, the ride is pretty bumpy and not for the faint of heart or full of stomach. Eat light and please avoid this if you have any serious health problems. Once you reach, it is quite a delight to the sense. The cool, misty air and the wonderful, soul soothing tea that you can have, is sure to leave snapshot memories.

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The one thing I absolutely love in Kerala are the freshly fried, salted yellow banana chips. You cannot imagine what popping a crisp and hot banana chip, straight out of the kadhai, feels like. Life changing. Go already.

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The lush greens of Alleppey

Kerala’s backwaters have been popularised through innumerable hindi movies and music videos. The lush greenery and shiny, happy faces that surround you while your stay are second only to the beauties of the hills of Munnar.

The best time to visit Alleppey would be from October to February. The place tends to really heat up during the day and the best way to take in the blooming water lilies while sipping on coconut water, would be the shaded boats that ply to take you on rides through the day. While we stayed at a luxury houseboat the first time we were here, we would not advice you to make it an overnight stay unless you’re fine with a few creepy crawlies coming in to say a hello.

The resorts we favoured during our stays were the Kondai Lip Backwater Heritage Resort and The Deshadan Backwater Resort.

Kondai Lip made us fall in love with it as soon as we reached. It was, in it’s isolation, the ideal place to spend a romantic couple of days for our newly married selves and we adored everything about it. The canoe ride that circles around in the moat before it takes you to the secluded wooden beauty that the entire place is.

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I could wax poetic about the place. We loved the wooden structures, the individual cottages and the brass decoratives.

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The food was all locally sourced and so fresh! Whether it was the wonderfully cooling kokum juice that was the elixir that welcomed us or the beautiful kerala parrota’s with chickpea curry that we had for breakfast the day after.

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The staff is not only very warm and welcoming, what adds to the charm is that everyone is traditionally attired. They have the most beautiful lakes, one of which you can wake up early to fish from! We did not go fishing but seeing the huge beauties jump up in the lake made me squeal with happiness. The only thing that made us sad here was the part when we had to leave.

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The Deshadan chain has this beauty right at the shore and has the Taj property flanking it.

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We were in luck as two of our rooms were upgraded from being Superior Lake view rooms to Lake view rooms with private dip pools. The property itself is beautiful but the view and feel these individual pools give you, as you sit with your feet or yourself immersed in the water and look out at the lake, is unsurpassed.

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They have tried to create the feel of an infinity pool and succeeded, almost. The breakfast spread is varied and pretty good. They even arrange day or overnight trips on houseboats and we took the former. Staff is once again, extremely helpful and warm. The spa was also frequented by some of us and they found it pretty good.

 

The luxury stay on a houseboat, taken on our earlier trip, started wonderfully with refreshing fresh juices and the most luxuriant kerala thali.

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We still drool when we think of the food we had on the boat. The two guys on board were extremely friendly and the room was pretty well equipped with an air conditioner and a fairly nice bathroom. Tea and dinner were served on board as well, and though not as spectacular as the lunch, were pretty nice.

 

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The morning boat ride

 

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The pretty backwater lanes
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The Lilies are in abundance
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Going to school
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Or to your work
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Makeshift bridges
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A docked house boat

All the houseboats need to dock at night and so did ours, the covers were pulled on the boat as it prepared itself for a nighty night. What we had not taken into account earlier, however, was the huge cockroaches flying in at night. The guys dealt with the best they could but it clearly is something that is part and parcel of staying on a swampy lake. Hence the earlier warning. On to our next destination..

 

And so the adventure begins…

IMG_1500God’s own country – We have visited this beautiful, lush state twice in our travels and have returned equally charmed both the times. The first time would be on our honeymoon and well, we would have loved any other place just as much I suppose. Pretty hard to dampen spirits of a pair that has gone through the rigours to be together. The next time was when we took la familia to the place to get them a taste of what they had been craving for since they saw our pictures.

Kerala has, not only an inherent natural beauty, but a wonderful diversity and the most charming, ever smiling locals. Hills, plains, beaches, lakes, cities, villages, forests, there is nothing that you would miss experiencing in this coastal state.

The main cities are all well connected by flights with the rest of the country and almost all the locals understand and speak english. The food in particular is impossibly fresh and delicious. Eating local is always the best way to travel according to us and the fresh produce makes the bounty you can savour, limitless in Kerala. From the delightfully salty, fresh out of the oil banana chips to the passion fruit off the orchards in munnar, from the spice plantations to the freshly made kerala thali on the houseboats, we could go on and on about the deliciousness we encountered on our trips.

IMG_0355 1The places we covered during out sojourns were varied, from the towns of Kochi and Trivandrum to the beautiful backwaters of Alleppey. From the lush hills of Munnar to the beaches of Varkala. We even ventured into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu during our second visit and took in the surprisingly beautiful sunsets of Kanyakumari.

The following posts shall guide you through planning a trip with references to the hotels we stayed at and the operators who helped us organise it all. [This is not a sponsored post and we do not gain monetarily or in any way from it]. We hope it helps you plan a beautiful vacation with your loved ones with some local know-how.

Let’s get tripping 😉