What happens when you put three Goans together in a room? They start talking about feni, sausages, argue about whether South Goa is better than North Goa and within minutes, discover a common friend.
It’s what happened to Goan friend and I when we visited the city’s newest restaurant, Porto & Poie in Juhu, and met Chef Gracian de Souza. A Bombay boy, Gracian has spent many holidays in north Goa though he considers the South better and within minutes, was talking about the best place to get rosary sausages.
In the recent past, Goan food has become the flavour of the season. Diners are talking about serradura and caldinha with an enthusiasm that Goans would find hard to understand. In fact, the table near us kept talking about the highlights of the other two places and how nothing can beat food eaten in a Goan home.
I agree. But, if seeking a comforting fish-curry-rice with a little brinjal pickle by the side, Porto & Poie is a good option.
The 110-seater space is situated above Grandmama’s Café in Juhu. A curving staircase (there’s also an elevator) leads to an al fresco section, which is taken up by an open bar. There’s blue everywhere, possibly to make up for the lack of the sea that is part of a Goan experience. Azulejo tiles decorate the underside of a bar and the lamps outdoor, blue and white porcelain plates pepper the ceiling in the enclosed area, and a similar colour scheme gives the upholstery a soothing touch. Inside are faux laterite stone arches and blown up photographs (by Goan photographer Vince Costa) of marketplaces in Goa and Portugal.
Porto & Poie is Gracian’s labour of love, a realisation of the dream he had of creating a place ‘to call my own’. Having worked as a chef and consultant for nearly two decades, he finally got the chance to return to his roots. “This is my home now,” he says with a laugh. “I spend all my time here!”
As we settle in, he comes by with three shot glasses filled with a blood red drink. “This is ginjinha, a Portuguese local liqueur made by fermenting cherries with sugar and alcohol. I experimented with this a lot since I wanted to get the flavours right and I think I have,” he says. We sip on the drink, basking in the strong but sweet flavours of wine, rum and spices. It’s the perfect start for a meal we are promised, features traditional Goan and Portuguese food, done his way. The recipes and dishes are based on his memories of eating this food as a child, and his trips to Portugal to understand the country’s cuisine.
We focus on the Goan dishes, some of which has Portuguese influences. The first dish is Portuguese style hand folded prawn rissois. The crescent-shaped, prawn-filled snack is creamy and cheesy with a crispy outer crust and a touch of green chilli. Slow cooked Tenderloin Chilli with Green Peppers and Goan Spices is a fancier version of the beef chilli we’ve eaten at carts in Panjim – it’s too spicy but the meat is cooked perfectly.
A staple order at any Goan restaurant we visit, the Classic Goan chorizo pav is good but we’ve had better. The pav here is replaced poee – specially brought in from Goa every day. The 48-hour Marinated Salted Tongue is tender with extra virgin olive oil adding a different layer of flavour. The surprise for us is the only vegetarian dish we order – the Mushroom & Tendli Tonnak. Heaped with roasted coconut and spices, it is a twist on the tradition cowpeas preparation, with mushroom and tendli adding different textures to the dish.
The food would’ve been perfect with feni or even coconut rum but since they’re not available, I opt for the Vagator Rave from the restaurant’s tiki cocktail section. The drink has enough cashew to hint at feni, and a sweetness from pineapple and sugarcane juice. Calm Chapora looks good on paper – a mix of bourbon, curry leaves, pumpkin and sea salt – but the bourbon overpowers everything else and the curry leaves are there just for decoration.
Our main course is focused on fish. Amsol (or kokum) is typically used to flavour Goan curries and here it does its job in the Classic Goan fish Curry (Rs 500). The curry doesn’t have coconut but garners flavour from the many spices and tirphal (Goan peppercorn). The Grilled Prawn Caldinho is a creamy, soupy stew with drumsticks and radish. In both dishes, the fish, prawns, and kingfish, are fried separately and then placed in the curries. It feels like we are eating two different dishes – a fried fish and a curry but, the fish is fresh and fried perfectly. Is it tasty? Yes. Will I order it again? Probably not. I prefer keeping those two dishes separate.
Dessert is the bebinca, the layered cake that’s as easy to polish off as it is tedious to prepare. Like the ingredients and the bread, this dish is brought in from Goa and doesn’t have the lightness associated with homemade bebinca.
How does Porto & Poie measure up one the Goan food scale? I’m not impressed with all the dishes and find the prices a bit steep but, Gracian’s food has soul. It reflects his love and respect for the cuisine. He makes people feel at home. And, that’s enough.
After all, only a Goan can create a true Goan culinary experience.
Porto & Poie is located above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road, Mumbai 400049; timings: 6pm to 1.30am (all week); call 2660 2955
[This review was first published in The Hindu: With Heart and Soul, on February 17, 2018]