Sujay Gupta, @SujayGupta0832
As Business with Pleasure (BWP) enters its sixteenth year, a quick look back to take it all in is at times tempting. But every pause in the journey holds back the journey ahead. What’s par for the course is perhaps to revisit places that are a part of the soul of the column. At times, old places change and need to be relooked at – with new people with new ways of doing things.
The oldest brick on the wall or the showpiece on the BWP mantlepiece is the red brick walled, ivy hanging piece of nostalgia called Cavala. Over the years, it has been a platform for meeting people who have made the Goa experience or at least a fair part of it, their life. Sixteen years later, the demographics at Cavala are changing. The world of Delhi has recognised it. It is a go-to place. It’s a box to be ticked and why not. At the very least, it has made the simple listening to the hits of the sixties and dancing the old fashioned way a to-do thing, for the classical, the hip and the hipster. But then, you don’t see the old timers, the gent with a hat and cigar jiving with his lovely wife, or the Dutch Indian couple from Saligao who went there each week, with friends from all over. Those were the times when this was truly a local, where conversations happened and everyone knew each other. It still does happen but not quite on Friday, its busiest most crowded night and the centre piece of Cavala’s action.
But for old timers like yours truly, the quieter days of the week work better when it seems like the old times. There are less people, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, excellent music you can listen to and imbibe, with an added extraordinary facelift to one department at this magical place, which one can be honest enough to say was underrated – its food. It is the pitch-forking of the food as Cavala’s show stopper when entertainment was always its strongest pillar, which is today’s story.
Christopher Fernandes has spent his life at sea, cooking and chiselling his art before returning home, which always placed a premium on excellent food and food pairing. All that Marius, the head honcho and Cavala’s soul, did was inspire Chris to make it a little more talked about by not just making changes to the menu but working on the essentials – excellent cuts of meat, moving out dishes that were very popular with the old timers but not quite fathomed by the new guests and doing a smart mix of traditional and loved Indian, and fusing it with European without eliminating the Goa touch.
In a mid-week evening, three Cavala veterans including yours truly, a little singed with the noise and friendly mayhem of Friday nights at Cavala, settled for a Thursday evening dinner. There were a couple of tables of diners, the bar area was deserted but Chef Chris was in full flow. We had pre- ordered two steaks, the speciality of this culinary artist. And he did not disappoint, except that the meat itself was a trifle tough, which made negotiating a tad difficult, but only just. When we suggested caramelised onions to go with it, he went a step further and made a sauce out of the caramelised onions, which we draped around the medallion. This was served with three kinds of butter – a reddish prawn balcao butter, a red wine and balsamic onion butter, and a thyme garlic and orange butter. Imagine such flavours in fresh butter, which you could generously apply on the steak or use as a dip with different cuts of the steak through the meal. This was complimented by truffle oil (the Kohinoor of all cooking oil), mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables garnished with the same oil.
In all the years about writing about good steaks, Cavala didn’t quite feature on that list. It’s a measure of changing times and what Chris has brought to the table, inspired by Marius, that our favourite place to mingle and dance is also one of the best spots to now have steak.
The other regular that one has almost on the run, as snack or a full meal, is their mutton sukha with chapattis, just like at home. Goa, as regulars would know, isn’t the best place in India to have lamb or mutton. Genuine lamb lovers, chefs and restaurants either look towards Belgaum, Rajasthan or Delhi to get their mutton. We remember Alila Diva in Utorda, during its hey days under the stewardship of Sid Savkur, served the best mutton spicy curry in these parts. His lamb was carefully procured from North India. But Goa does have its little secrets and Chef Chris actually gets his cuts from Parra from a butcher near the Parra tinto, for his melt in your mouth mutton curry or sukkha. Have them with simple hot chapattis with some onion and pickle; you just feel a lot better, mentally and spiritually, with that kind of a meal.
Post Script: This story will not be complete without referring to the key essence of Cavala – long term relationships. Sitting on a table behind us, in the outer courtyard, was Darshan, dear friend of Marius and Cavala. Old Cavala folks like Professor Gomes and Jayant were very dear to him. Darshan was the mainstay of the kitchen and a lot else for years, having lived a life well travelled. He has a Danish passport but lived in Nepal for over 30 years. Five years ago, he left Goa to move to Bulgaria. Darshan lives close to where his son does, in a little village in the country not far from the old capital of Bulgaria. He leads a quiet life, goes to the neighbouring small town to shop and writes books. When Darshan wanted to come ‘home’, he chose Goa and Marius invited him to come and stay where Darshan would be most comfortable, at Cavala. He is now spending a few weeks relaxing, with old friends coming over. He reads, has a few drinks and rests. The old twinkle in his eye hasn’t faded though he laments at what Baga has become