Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Viva Panjim

If you sneeze at an injudicious moment, you can easily miss the Viva Panjim restaurant, tucked down a tiny cul-de-sac, off a nondescript side-street in Goa. We spot it in the daylight – the taxis are swerving round the 2’ x 3’ placard parked in the middle of the road, so it’s hardly detective work. Still, it’s less chancy, locating the restaurant after nightfall, when the sun’s gone in and hunger’s come out again. Despite there being only five other diners (a Danish couple, here for Her Nephew’s Wedding, and three Germans we fail to bond with (whose fault’s that, I ask you?)), we’re squished onto a table-for-two the size of a small tea-tray. By way of ambience, fragrant spiced odours from the kitchen meet less fragrant emanations from the toilets, half-way, over our heads. After a while, I don’t notice.
One row of tables perches on the veranda, then there’s a slender passageway, then a second row of tables nestles against the wall. All the waiters are very thin, it seems. It’s probably on the job spec – “Two years’ experience in restauration, menu-English and seventeen-inch hips.” They are the politest, smilingest waiters I’ve ever met. Our one shows us the label on the cold, sweating beer-bottle, saying, “May I?” Don’t let me stop you, Rajesh...
We bend over the menu, sharing glasses – not the beer, the spectacles – until we give up and submit to superior knowledge, as always. It depends on how hungry we are, how long this charade lasts. The wine list is called, “Liquid Diet.” Someone must have known we were coming.
As we pore, tonight, a motorbike weaves its way through the dining-room, hesitating and stumbling as it meets table-legs and tourist-feet. The rider parks his bike, noisily, in the courtyard at the end of the alleyway, and goes into his house, already having a conversation with someone three floors away. We’re all poised, mouths open, forks suspended. No, really, who needs Eastenders? Within fifteen minutes, he’s out again, helmeted and goggled, to run the gauntlet of foreign diners. He comes back, with a bag of potatoes hooked over his handlebars. Twenty minutes later, he goes out again, for a newspaper. Then a third exodus, for nothing we can see. Either he has a very demanding and forgetful wife, or he’s making a strategic point. For us, it’s the cabaret, with carbon monoxide on the side.
We order Xacuti fish, a relic of Goa’s Portuguese days. You should try it, it’s gorgeous. The window by the kitchen has been taken out, and replaced with a fish-tank. We watch the chefs, chopping and laughing and arguing, through a watery filter, which we hope doesn’t include our dinner.
More customers arrive, and are sidelined, with smiles, into a holding-pen. We sit with full plates and glasses, pity mingling with complacency. We’ll do the unfashionably early 7.30 kickoff tomorrow, too. The would-be diners pile up, so the waiters drag out extra chairs and tables, filling the courtyard, much to biker-man’s disgruntlement. In the middle of the square, visibility’s reduced to zero, but nobody seems to mind.
As we eat, piped music soothes our digestion. Everything about this evening leads us to think we’ve slipped into an alternate universe – we’re on a Goan Le Mans circuit, with wallpaper fish, and Indian waiters serving us Portuguese food, listening to “Moon River.” I don’t know which car-boot sale this tape came from, but it’s a winner. Next up, it’s “Lara’s Theme” from Dr Zhivago, followed by “Tomorrow’s Another Day.” Then the waiter brings the cardamom seeds and the bill, and we float out, to the strains of “The Way We Were.”