That "je ne sais quoi" moment at The Promenade, Pondicherry
There is such a thing as a dish that melts your heart, I discovered, on a sunstruck getaway last weekend, at The Promenade, Pondicherry. That dish is the Sole Meuniere, served at the hotel’s sea-front eatery, BlueLine.
As a part of the restaurant’s new French menu, the flatfish sole is prepared “in the style of the Miller’s wife (meuniere in English)”, pan-fried with brown butter, and garnished with parsley, lemon and capers.
Without having to rush out for a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I was reassured by my companions at the table about the rustic flavours at hand.
In the solace of spritzers and oven-fresh breads — not to forget the company of bon vivants and food sensualists — the sole stakes a rather invigorating claim, of a dish so light and simplistic, it creates an almost luminescent effect on the plate, and leaves behind a tingling, arousing burst of flavours on the tongue with every forkful.
The kitchen, led by Chef Satish Rajasekaran, and the restaurant’s devoted patrons, clearly benefit from the day’s fresh-from-the-sea catch.
The meat begs for terms more telling than merely tender, moist and fleshy — spurting natural juices that cut through the salty hit of the capers, and result in a mildly sweet layer over the lemony profile. With a sip of a choice white wine, and the sea air wafting over, the sole makes for a perfect state of rapture.
Spoilt for choice
The sole was the fifth item in a special seven-course meal laid out for us, a handful of guests hosted by Dilip Kapur, founder-president of Hidesign.
The meal’s other highlight was another seafood favourite among the entrées — the bouillabaisse, an authentic preparation, in the way of the fishermen of Marseille, with a broth of leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes, served with a traditional rouille, or spicy flavoured mayonnaise, on a grilled slice of bread.
Our other entrée was the Double Baked Three Cheese Soufflé, made with organic varieties sourced from Auroville’s artisan cheese makers, including goat cheese (presented in artful little balls; the pick of the lot), parmesan, gouda and cheese fondue.
Following a delicately diffused lemon sorbet for a palate cleanser, our main courses started with the Wild Mushroom Vol-au-Vent (porcini mushroom pate) — laden with pungent, woodsy flavours; and the unavoidable classic Coq au Vin.
Kapur, who also runs the two heritage properties, The Promenade and Le Dupleix (both located in the heart of the colonial “White Town”), has a clear vision of building his empire in this onetime colonial settlement, a vision that he outlined through our three-hour meal (setting a precedent for extended laidback lunches along the way).
With Hidesign established as a premium leather brand, Kapur is intent on bringing the best of both worlds to his luxury hotels, especially with a sizeable amount of salvaged, repurposed antique woodwork, furniture and valuable artworks.
Now, Kapur is set to make The Promenade (with its lounge bar Risque, and the rooftop Bay of Buddha, Lighthouse, apart from BlueLine) the leading destination for French cuisine in South India, combining elegant and urbane fine dining with an old-world sense of affluence. Going by our meal, Kapur has his money where his mouth is. In any case, the food will have you squealing “je ne sais quoi” in fainéant delight.
Top of the ceiling, guv!
The Dupleix, named after the former Governor-General of French India (1742-’54), Joseph François Dupleix, is a hop-skip away from the Raj Niwas, the official Governor’s residence, and makes a rare case of its efforts to preserve Pondicherry’s history.
Each of its 14 suites are uniquely laid out, retaining quaint elements such as subsurface bath enclosures, toe-operated water faucets, vintage four-poster beds and some distinctly colonial decorative pieces.
At the hotel’s bar, named the Governor’s Lounge, do take a moment to gaze up at the elaborately detailed wooden inner ceiling.
Our meal, meanwhile, continued with the Auroville cheese platter, offering further selections of artisanal cheeses, before winding down with profiteroles (dark Belgian chocolate ice cream filled in choux pastry) and a portion of tarte Tatin for dessert.
The tarte Tatin, a signature upside-down pastry with apples caramelised in butter and sugar, sealed our approvals of Chef Satish’s expertise in French cuisine, as he was ushered in for a prolonged round of applause from around the table.
The Promenade kitchen is determined in setting its own standards, we learned, as they work with locally sourced ingredients, organic vegetables and fruits, apart from homemade mustards, pestos and jams, and fish picked straight from the harbour, not to forget hot breads, croissants and pizzas straight from wood-fired ovens.
The new BlueLine menu also makes room for specialties such as the Sea Salt Roasted Vegetable Lasagna, the Parmesan and Herb-Crusted Grilled Snapper, and the Quiche Lorraine, for its patrons from Pondicherry’s Franco-Indian community, of about 15,000 families in the town’s “Little Paris” locality, who are known for their penchant for spicy Creole cuisine.
For the stouthearted foodies among them, the beef bourguignon from the steaks section is sure to be a preferred dish.
Our lunch, by this time, had drawn-out well into the evening, and we didn’t need much coaxing to sink into personal sessions at the in-house spa.
It wouldn’t be long before we were led back for dinner, which promised more cocktails of fresh fruit, and another bounty of seafood – overgenerous platters, assorted prawn and shrimp preparations, filleted fish, and lobsters in a range of sauces.
For just a few moments there, I got to saunter around with a partner to a conversation chair on one of the hotel’s staircase landings. There is no better way, we decided, to get one’s head around the leisurely French way of life.
Jaideep Sen was in Pondicherry by invitation from The Promenade.