Joe was hooked, the moment he saw the hoarding of attractive ladies in chef’s aprons and the glittering signboard ‘Spicy Bella!’ ‘Now this looks great,’ he sighs, ‘what is that word again...bellissima!’
‘The word is bella,’ I retort sourly. What is it about these guys? A single word can evoke responses that definitely put their better half on the warpath. Anyway here we were seated in air-conditioned comfort in this Restaurant at Campal. The rich hues of orange, blue and ochre blend to give one a feeling of meditation and celebration.
And that is exactly what the proprietors had in mind….Nilesh and Kamal Varma. ‘Meditation and celebration, that is your theme….’ I ask the front of the house, ‘the effusive Kamal Varma. Now herein lies a tale…..from the age of 14, Kamal spent a lot of his formative years at the Osho ashram in Pune, working in the kitchens where he catered to the likes of Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Mallika Sarabai etc…the list would be too long to write. It was here that he also came in touch with numerous foreigners…and at the age of 20, he left the Indian shores and went to Milan, his focus to be the Ambassador of Indian cuisine.
Joe interrupts my query stating ‘I would like to have one night with spicy bella!’ I glare at him, but he was not joking. He pointed sheepishly at the cocktail menu…yes that was the drink, ‘one night with spicy bella’ vodka, triple sec, spicy orange juice, red bull. After a few sips of that colorful concoction I can believe in that advertisement….it gives you wings. Joe was grinning from ear to ear like a Cheshire cat. So I decided to carry on the conversation…’why spicy bella?’ I queried. ‘India was the main source of spices in the past…we became rich through that trade,’ Kamal explains, ‘and bella…well in any language ..Italian means good time, our very own language ‘khushi ki bela’, in Portuguese….’ I did not get the latter part of his sentence as Joe was giving me the ‘I told you so’ look…..’bellisima.’
‘But those chefs…those ladies?’ I ask. ‘My brother and I have trained 1490 foreigners…and still counting,’ Kamal asserts. But now let me focus on the second brother Nilesh or Antu as he is affectionately called. Nileash is at the back of the house…the Master chef. He now brings out the items that has created a name for the restaurant. The waiter brings out the starters…’Chicken Pahadi’ an Indian preparation and Chicken tenders. Now let me tell you something about those chicken tenders, and believe me I checked with Piki Pereira who was also in the restaurant...that is her special. Those crisp fried boneless chicken bits stuffed with Parmesan cheese and napped with a creamy cheesy béchamel sauce….heavenly! Piki nods her agreement while Joe and her brother Dick give each other wry smiles. Believe me, this is one dish not for the calorie conscious…but what the heck…you come just once on Mother earth in a lifetime. I promised myself an extra fifteen minutes on the treadmill.
And now it was the main fare….Salads attractively laid on designer plates, vegetable garnishes cut to perfection…boy I could eat with my eyes. Nilesh has salads from all over the world. There was the Israeli Chatsilim eggplant salad, one can order the Lebanese variety too…oh..la…la..this is a must for salad eaters. Then the Mexican corn salad, sweet corn with red kidney beans marinated with basil pepper and olive oil…dieters here is your fare, the Greek pasta salad, fussily, tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, olives and oregano. Zorba the Greek must have twirled faster at this medley. And of course the Spicy Bella Salad. I will leave you guessing. The name itself will concoct the right ingredients. But hold on you guys the dish is vegetarian. But it was the main course that one should leave place for.
The Pasta and the Indian. You have a choice Penne, Fettuccini or Fussily. And then there are the preparations…creme a la funghi (béchamel and mushroom), Pazza (which has seafood galore), darling, and the Spicy Bella. Well each one too himself. All pastas were good. My personal favorite was the darling…you see that creamy sauce with fettucini makes me go into rapture. Joe’s was the spicy bella. I quizzed him if it was the name that sends him into raptures. ‘No,’ he states sourly not liking the joke…’it’s the chicken and the chilli with the thick tomato sauce.’
The waiter had now arrived with the Indian dishes. A kebab platter and chicken Darbari…a new dish on the block. Now let me give you a peek review into the vegetable kebabs. Can I use the word divine? A rich green color with crunchy sesame seeds dotting the periphery…..I spent a few minutes meditating on the taste as the kebab replenished its flavors in my mouth. I sat back content…but the waiter was urging me to try on the chicken tikka…an old favorite. The chicken was juicy and tender, melting in the mouth the spice just right. One thing I realized as I ate the kebabs…the spice is right…there is no need to add the customary lime or even ask for the accompaniment to complement the dish. And then there was the chicken Darbari…a new dish which will feature in the next menu. Boy o boy! It will be worth waiting for. Superb preparation…puts our regular Makhani sauce to shame.
We were stuffed to the gills. But Kamal decided on putting us through the concept of ‘sweet torture.’ ‘Try our desserts,’ he wheedles. We protest but half heartedly. Out comes the French Fantasy, its called Good evening Paris….mixed fruit with chocolate, vanilla ice-cream and dried fruits; and the Middle East favorite ‘Hello to the Queen.’ It has bananas, hot chocolate, cookies and cashew nut with ice cream. My treadmill is going to pack up in agony. Super…calli…superlistic…After that experience it was difficult to get up, so we spent a few moments getting feedback from the other diners. Monica desouza loves the Tortilla chicken wraps and the pizza. Yes there is a menu corner for kiddos too. And I guess that taking pity on diners like me Kamal wants to start an Ayurvedic menu depending on a person’s age, medical history and weight. Joe rubs his hands in glee at this piece of news.
And so here we were at the end of our fantastic experience. Only now it will be my turn to say when anyone asks me about eating places in Panjim..’hey fella…try spicy bella.’