By Geeta Rao
Sawantwadi in Maharashtra is a taluka (district) of Sindhudurg, an area famous for Malvani cuisine with its coconut-based seafood curries—often fiery, scooped up with rice-based roasted chapatis like ghavne and the pancake-like soft lentil-and-rice amboli. It is also the seat of the Sawantwadi Bhonsle royals who once ruled the area. Established in the seventeenth century by Khem Sawant 1, Sawantwadi shares a cheek-by-jowl border with Goa.
It certainly isn’t the place you would expect to get a three-course Ramen-tasting menu. But at Sawantwadi Palace Hotel, my dinner begins with a marinated tuna amuse bouche, followed by a mushroom and truffle oil gyoza, and then the star dish arrives—a robust chicken and fish shoyu ramen bowl with hand-pulled noodles, soy-marinated soft boiled eggs, chunky grilled leeks, shimeji mushrooms and the tenderest pork belly. The meal winds up with a tart raspberry torte that balances the rich hazelnut mousse it accompanies.
It isn’t surprising once you know that the husband-wife duo Shraddha and Lakham Bhonsle, members of the erstwhile ruling family of Sawntwadi are both trained chefs from the Culinary Institute of America. He is the patisserie chef, the one who likes precision plating, and you can see his skill embodied in his menu. She describes her own approach as ‘rustic’ and has specialized in Korean and Japanese food. Her menu reflects her culinary journey.
There is a doff of the hat to the legendary chef Floyd Cardoz under whom she worked briefly at the Bombay Bread Bar in New York with a dish that has triple chilly chicken with jalapeno, serrano and local green chilies. There is a nod to Charleston USA where she honed her Korean fusion skills with a dash of Southern comfort (yes, there is buttermilk fried chicken and a po boy, the classic french bread sandwich from the American South with a twist on the menu). There is a reflection of her time at the once Michelin-starred Oceana at Rockefeller Centre in New York with calamari and prawn ceviche with an orange and celery concoction. The US is where they earned their culinary chops but family ties brought them back to India and The Sawantwadi Palace boutique hotel started in January 2023 with their personally crafted menu.
Local cuisine gets its due. Royal thalis at lunchtime give you an authentic regional experience. I opt for the fish thali with sol kadi, ghavne, kismur, fried fish, prawn curry and a delicious mixed vegetable Kaju Kurma a cashew curry made with a typical Malvani kand- kobra-otti, onion and coconut masala. I am a Mumbaikar, so Malvani cuisine is comfort food and I enjoy the thali. I particularly like the kismur (also called jawla) a dried shrimp chutney-like accompaniment, that is eaten in both Goa and Sindhudurg. I wash the meal down with Salt of the Earth, a sour jowar beer by GreatState Aleworks. The beer is served with a slit green chili that completely elevates the experience.
A Bhutanese chicken curry on the all-day menu surprises me because it seems completely out of context. It is listed, because it is a family favourite introduced by the current Rajasaheb Khem Sawant VI. A chocolate cake on the menu follows ‘Maa’s recipe’ passed down from Lakham’s maternal grandmother Mrs.Mrunalini Shivajirao Sawant. There are a lot of personal stories to discover and if you catch the chefs in their downtime, it is worth chatting with them.
At breakfast the next day the choice is between misal, a traditional Maharashtrian breakfast of pao with a fiery gravy sprinkled over with chickpea flour fried sev, chivda and chopped onions, and a croissant egg benedict with curry leaf powder and green thecha (a coarsely pounded green chili, garlic, and peanut chutney). Flaky croissants and pain au chocolate are freshly baked and served with a trifecta of flavoured butters—thecha, marmite and a local salt. I miss jams and preserves and that would be a welcome addition.
The evening menu is a round of small plates and snacks. There are no wines by the glass, so a wheat beer by the brewery Athang is my go-to option to complement the small plates. Sunti goli is a palace recipe originally made with wild boar meat. Now mutton mince is macerated with ginger, garlic and whole spices and shaped into small balls. The mix is so soft that each is tied with string in a bullseye pattern to hold its shape, then deep fried. Shraddha gives a quick unravelling tip: hold one end of the string and let the kabab roll out like a top. I like the manageable marble size of the golis and the fact that there is a gentle warmth from the spices but no chilly heat.
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The po’ boy that follows is an experimental mix of flavours – Vietnamese herbs, rawa-coated spicy fried prawns, a dash of sriracha and sol kadhi sauce squished together in a bread roll. This is Shraddha’s Charleston training meets Maharashtrian flavours with the latter getting the upper hand.
Despite the five and seven course tastings available at dinner there are several stand alone all day options. Truffle mushroom pizza with Thai chillies jostles with Kimchi bacon fried rice and Butter poached prawns sit along with Chicken Katsu. There are a lot of options on the menu and I wonder if it will prove too much to manage when the palace gets crowded as the two chefs are personally involved in every dish and plating.
The star this evening is the dessert, Flavors of Sawantwadi, that captures the local produce. Fresh tender coconut cream is whipped into a mousse and filled into chocolate half shells to resemble a coconut split open. A bed of crushed cashew ‘soil’ and kokum jelly is accompanied by a pineapple sorbet. Pineapples are becoming a popular new crop to cultivate in this region.
Converting the historic 'Taisaheb Wada' (one of the palace wings dedicated to the powerful women of the family) into a boutique hotel has been a passion project for Lakham and Shraddha, although it is still a work-in-progress. There is a sense of duty to the local community–jobs and training are open for the locals including coveted ones in the kitchen. The palace is still the hub for cultural and community activities, so local opinion matters. Efforts are on to preserve the palace museum and its Ganjifa art.
Mopa airport, that’s less than an hour away, has made Sawantwadi more accessible. Reservations are essential should you visit because everything is cooked fresh.
In Sawantwadi for a solo weekend, my greedy taste buds make me suspend the discipline of intermittent fasting. Fortunately, a pool on the premises and a walking track at the local lake are at hand to work off some of the calories.
The seven course tasting menu is priced at ₹ 2100, the five course tasting menu at ₹ 1800 and the Ramen Tatsing menu at ₹ 1500. Reservation and pre orders advised.
Geeta Rao is a Mumbai based writer who writes on luxury, travel and beauty.
- FIRST PUBLISHED10.10.2023 | 09:00 AM IST