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At Viva Goa, authenticity sometimes trumps taste 

Wednesday, Sep 15 2010
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With every new regional Indian cuisine to arrive in the Bay Area, it's as if Crayola has inserted new shades of blue — cerulean, sky, cornflower — into the 24-crayon box. Where you once had one crayon at hand to represent everything from the iridescent tip of a butterfly's wing to the hue of the evening sky, now you can shade your drawings a tad more precisely.

The giant tandoor wave of a decade ago brought swaggering, ghee-drenched Punjabi cuisine to every corner of the Bay Area. More recently, buoyed on the shoulders of a thousand tech workers, the dosas and curd rices of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have surfed into the city. And when a new place like Viva Goa on Lombard Street announces that it's serving Goan regional food, anyone who has lived or traveled on the Indian subcontinent pricks up their ears, while curious outsiders dive into a Google vortex of blog posts and recipes, trying to figure out what new tastes it might bring their way.

Nicholas Fernandes and Joseph Alvares' Viva Goa indeed salts its menu with dishes from the southwestern coastal state. In their flavors you can sense the confluence of Portugal and India, where the Catholic saints play gin with the many-limbed gods and where wheat bread is more likely to resemble fluffy French rolls rather than whole-wheat chapathis. There is beef assado ($12.99), sliced meat folded around fresh tomatoes, which looks like it could be served in Lisbon or Braga; taste the sauce, though, and you detect cinnamon and cloves. The chicken cafreal ($11.99) is marinated in a bright green masala of green chiles and mint and cilantro leaves, whose floral perfume softens and sweetens; the meat is simmered until tender, then served with a mound of rice and some pale-blanched green beans, the old European one-two-three of meat, starch, and veg. The pork vindaloo ($10.99) is not just the spiciest dish on the menu, its chile burn is applied with a lashing of vinegar; the vinegar stands in for the "vinha d'alhos" — wine and garlic — embedded in its name.

I went to Viva Goa, accompanied by a crowd of expectations and extra bellies, and ate a gigantic meal evenly divided into highs (the vindaloo, for one) and lows (the fish cutlets, $5.99, which tasted like old tinned salmon). It was delivered in the upscale Indian restaurant manner, with waiters dressed in black ties, glasses faceted and stemmed, and platters garnished with bulbous carrot roses (chef Trizon Rebello has spent time in five-star hotel kitchens in Goa). I returned with my friend Sarah, a food-industry pro who'd spent a chunk of her childhood in Goa's main city, Vasco de Gama. That's when the questions began.

My thought — to get some context for the food — backfired the moment Viva Goa's rechardo pomfret ($13.99) arrived. Thin and saucer-sized, the diamond-shaped pomfret resembled an overgrown angelfish, with skin that had browned and wrinkled in the hot oil. There was a slit cut along the line of the belly, and when we used our spoons to pull away the flesh, we found the insides coated in a beet-red paste, sweet and dense with chiles. I tasted the pomfret at the same time as Sarah did. We chewed. We considered. "This doesn't taste Goan," she said. "The cloves and cinnamon overpower the masala, and where's the vinegar?" That was the beginning of her concerns. While I savored the fragility of the tilapia in the bright-red fish curry ($11.99), for instance, she was put off by its mildness and by the stewed tomatoes, which the chefs had used to approximate the fruity sourness of kokum fruit or tamarind.

What to do with the differences that emerge between the ways one cook adapts his home cuisine for American audiences — with American ingredients — and the way someone else thinks it should be interpreted? And what's a reviewer to make of the so-called authenticity of the menu, considering the preponderance of standard-Indian-restaurant dishes like lamb biryani and naan? (Actually, I'd have to say that Viva Goa's airy naan, whose bubbles explode in a shower of crackles and tandoor-charred flecks, is better than at most of the Punjabi restaurants around town.) What a pain in the ass, the word authenticity, so unevenly applied, so subjectively measured.

What could I do, then, other than appreciating the Goan dishes for their distinctiveness? Well, authentic or no, sometimes bad is just bad: The fish cutlets I mentioned above? Bad. The "seafood platter" ($14.99) was practically inedible — overcooked scallops, leathery shrunken squid rings, mussels, and prawns in a coconut curry off-tasting enough to scare anyone away from a second bite.

And then there were dishes I was thrilled to have encountered, such as the vegetable caldin ($8.99), mixed vegetables simmered in a thick, turmeric-tinged sauce of grated coconut, soothing and spiced all at once. And the chicken xacuti (pronounced shah-koo-tee, $9.99), one of the loveliest masalas I've tasted in months: fresh cilantro leaves and the lemony flash of coriander giving way to the richness of coconut and ground poppy seeds, with red chiles crescendoing and peaking soon after. I ordered the chicken xacuti on my first visit, and it disappeared from the table too quickly for me to mull over a second helping.

I had the unexpected opportunity to taste it again. On the second visit, the waiters, who'd noticed my friend frowning over our plates, came around with more and more frequency as the night progressed, with each pass asking her how everything tasted. As an enticement to return, I think, they snuck a full order of chicken xacuti into our bag of leftovers. I was at home a few days later, looking for accompaniments to the Thai sticky rice I was cooking, when I discovered the freebie. One bite brought it all back — the elegant suggestion of sweetness, the coyly floral aroma. If I'd been cooking with an eye to culinary appropriateness, I suppose I should have taken the bamboo steamer off the stove and replaced it with a pot of cumin-laced basmati. But I was too hungry. And the chicken xacuti was too good to wait for. I enjoyed it all the same.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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