I am in Kochi after ten years and it is the same because much of it is protected but it is also different. Snazzier and cooler. Call it the Biennale effect but there is an artsy vibe here- cute little cafes, wine bars, venues opening to the sea, quaint boutique hotels converted from old granaries, warehouses and trading posts redolent of Kochi’s ancient trading partners and fresh paint on walls. Service is still slow and Kochi pretty much gets to bed by ten pm. My home stay is the charming Fort bungalow (not a heritage home despite the name) on a residential street off the Santa Cruz Basilica. Breakfast is included and it is an amazingly good breakfast though it can be slow as it is cooked fresh. Expect fresh fruit, eggs, toast and jam but hold onto for the authentic local dishes – iddiappams with thin coconut milk and kadala black gram curry, puttu and param (ripe cooked banana), appams and egg curry, dosas, depending on the day of the week. Every second home and street here seems to be offer home stays, visitors to the biennale colonize nearly all of which. Friends swear by Bernard’s near the Parade ground and the boutique Warehouse Granary further down.
Others stay at the posh Brunton Boatyard by the ferry terminal. The reception is a bit snooty with me so they go off my list though their waterfront café has great views. Seagull Restaurant near Pepper House offers great views as well. It gets its wine chilled just right (though the choice is severely limited) and the freshly cooked fish molee /curry and Kerala rice seem perfect as I watch ships go past. “You can see dolphins here in the mornings,” says the effusive manager. “When do you open in the morning?” I ask. “The bar,” he says, “opens at ten am.” Ok, he thinks I am an alcoholic. But on that note, the wine bar at the chic Malabar House by Relais &Chateaux is where everyone heads for a pre event and post event drink. I head there too but it is crowded so I retire to the two hundred year old red walled Koder House hotel’s Menorah restaurant for their honey drizzled French fries and a glass of wine.
Tiny, unpretentious Fusion café next to the Santa Cruz Basilica has a buzz and is always crowded each time I pass. A good sign I think. I go there and discover a delicious home-style fish tail, which comes with a generous selection of Kerala style thorans or veggies. Ayna Hotel is a beautifully converted nineteenth century British courthouse that retains the original structure as part of its lobby and is worth a visit or stay. Ginger cafe and Crafters in Jew town are good places to retreat to for a break. For another quiet escape the Drawing Room at the Cochin Club is open to the public and is charmingly designed. The service is slow and the food is uneven but the location and the ambience is worth its while when the heat and biennale crowds get a bit much. I don’t get to try the famous Matancherry biryani at Kayees or any of the little restaurants I pass when i go through Mattancherry. There is a small restaurant right next to Cabral yard where terrific smells emanate and which is always crowded but I don’t see any women there so I pass. Killan’s opposite Brunton Boatyard has an open to the street restaurant that serves a good Kerala style beef fry with chunks of roasted coconut and pepper and a passably good Malabar parotta but you have to insist you want the real thing or else they will give you a denatured version of both, targetted at western tourists. After seven pm there is an entire pop up of stalls near the beach and Vasco da Gama square serving fresh catch. I was too stuffed to sample the wares but made do with Suleimani chai and biscuits at the beach instead. Kashi art cafe with very poor service can be given a miss despite all its rave reviews.