Sunday, May 18, 2008
Rio Rico-a legacy of the past
The Mandovi River vends its way slowly to the sea….derived from a Persian word meaning ‘Custom House’. I am given to understand that the river’s name was changed from Gomati, by Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur…so rich were the revenues it earned for its sovereign.
We are sitting on the first floor of the Hotel named after the river, the same river in which Adil Shah had crocodiles that were so huge that they could upset a big boat or swallow a big bull, to keep intruders at bay….in a restaurant called the Rio Rico. Looking at the delicacies passing our table, I knew exactly how those crocodiles must have felt. Ravenous.
Chef Agnel D’Souza did not keep us in agony for long. ‘Try our seafood,’ he urges. That was definitely not the crocodile fare, but I had heard about the legendary cooks, some as old as the institution itself.
We look around the restaurant, as we wait for the Hors d’oeuvres, it was designed in the Art Deco concept, the same firm that had designed the Marine Drive in Bombay. The Baby Grand Piano on the stage is still a legacy of the hotel’s inception, as is the Marriot & Scott lift, they no longer make such lifts, the first ever to be installed in Goa.
The waiter walks softly across the wooden floor…..the marble around it originated from Italy. As he places the Crab Cafreal, squid stuffed with prawns in a tangy red masala, and ‘Foddi’ the assorted vegetarian’s seafood, my mind goes back to the diners who would vend their way up the red carpeted staircase, hand over their hats and cloaks to the hat check room on the landing, its now the Food & Beverage office, straighten their ties in front of the large ornate mirror before entering the restaurant. Yes, my friends, there was a strict dress code in those days, and from 1952 to 1961, the guests at a princely sum of Rs600/- a month could have all the meals in the house absolutely free, and were free to invite their guests to tea.
Blame the ambience, I am digressing…the Crab Cafreal was heavenly, the Foddi…a Goan Saraswat preparation…out of the world…definitely to be recommended. As we wait for the main course, the Goan melodies being played by the one man band, brings back nostalgic memories. The dance floor filled with laughing couples..even in 1954, when there was an economic blockade imposed by the Government of India, the Hotel delivered. The steaks were got from South Africa and Argentina, Oranges from Israel, Potatoes from Holland and apples from Japan. Their commitment to service and quality.
The prawn curry rice, the masala fried Chonak and the Mackeral kishmur had now reached the table. Yes…a new innovation…not the usual prawn kishmur…although that too is a treat…I try a little bit of the preparation with the tendli pickle and rice…..to die for. I close my eyes in ecstasy, savoring every grain of the morsel. After a moment I look around guiltily…after all there is a certain decorum to be maintained, but the Japanese and the French…yes even at this time of the year…were in the same mode of enjoyment, silence reigning at their tables as their cutlery clattered against the crockery in their quest of detaching every small sliver of seafood off the bone.
The kitchens of this hotel has been catering to celebrities galore…right from inception. Did Johnson and his Jolly boys perform here? I wonder. Did Goa’s Portuguese General Paulo Benard Guedes..the one who initiated the hotel with the late Shri Purxotoma Ramanata Quenim…dine here with his family on the opening night? Did they try the Hindu Goan Saraswat cuisine…like the raw mango panne and the Harve Kombdi che masala, or was it the old time favorites like the Vindaloo, Caldin, Balchao. The décor of mirrors with framed canopies and wooden trellis’s add on the romance of the bygone era. But even today, as Chef Agnel assures me, the restaurant caters to your tastes. With an advance order for groups, one can even have the tesroi sukhe and the tesroi cutlets served at the table.
The desserts had now arrived. The old favorite…crepes wrapped around jaggery, coconut and ice cream…with oodles of chocolate sauce…no limited quantity here. And the tender coconut pudding…soft and melting in the warmth of your palate…a fitting finale to a scrumptious meal.
The restaurant Rio Rico was one of the first class accommodations built in the year 1952, for the tenth exposition of the relics of Saint Francis Xavier that year. It has stood as a beacon for every boat entering the river with tourists galore, and its legacy in terms of Goan atmosphere, grandeur, ambience, food, tradition and culture will linger on for many more years to come.