Seafood all the way
The word on the street or rather, on online food forums, is that you ain’t had seafood until you’ve had it from Ustad Hotel. So, with hungry stomachs and mouths watering in anticipation of an ethnic treat, we set off in search of this eatery out in the boondocks in Vizhinjam.
Finding it the first time, especially late at night, is a bit tricky, particularly if you have friends, who give you convoluted directions from Vizhinjam junction. This route involves driving through a blink-and-you-miss bylane and then onto an unpaved, unlit road and nearly running into a gutter next to a boat shed and almost reversing into a bollard or two! Thankfully, friendly locals point out the twists and turns of the road and soon we were at the nondescript Ustad Hotel, recognisable by that rubber tyre painted bright yellow, with the restaurant’s name in bold ( a la Ustad Hotel, the film), hanging out front, and the hotel’s purple-coloured auto parked in front of it.
For nigh on 20 years, Ustad Hotel was the best kept secret of many a foodie, who used to head there for all manner of seafood, fresh from the harbour, at all times of the day and night. In fact, Hassan, and his son, Moideen, who run the restaurant tell us that it was only after DQ’s movie of the same name released in 2012 that the hotel was actually given a name. “It was only when the restaurant became popular with the city crowd that we gave it a name, at the behest of a cousin, a journalist,” says Moideen.
It was not until chowhounds on Facebook forums like Trivandrum Foodies and EAT At Trivandrum started waxing lyrical about the restaurant that word really spread. Today, it’s not surprising to see youngsters, women, well-heeled families with children and foreigners, tucking into plates full of seafood at the restaurant.
That said, it’s not a restaurant for everyone, especially not for the faint-hearted and we don’t mean because of the overload of spice on the menu. You need to look beyond the dim interiors, questionable crockery, the excuse for a sink and the four rickety and greasy tables and benches and instead, focus on the satisfied gleam on the faces of the diners and the waste plates heaped on empty tables, while you wait to get seats.
Being a stone’s throw away from Vizhinjam harbour, the city’s fishing capital, it’s seafood and only fried seafood on the menu. “Each day’s treats depends on the morning’s catch. We serve all kinds of sea fish that are caught in or near Vizhinjam,” says Moideen.
If one day a whole avoli (pomfret), marinated in a special, spicy masala of red chilli flakes and fried crisp, is the star of the menu, on other days it might be paara (Malabar trevally), a big fat ayala (mackerel) or a vella para (emperor bream) to tempt your taste buds. You can tell that the fish is fresh as soon as you dig into it; it comes apart beautifully, fleshy and moist, so finger-licking delicious, that you’ll find yourself chewing the whole fish to the last bone.
In addition, they will also usually have chunks of neymeen (seer fish), choora (tuna) and so on. Some of these might not be as hot-off-the-wok as the fish of the day but tend to covered in the same spicy chilli flake mix and thus equally tasty. For lunch, usually, there will only be steamed kappa and puttu as ‘accompaniments,’ and that too mostly only to offset the spiciness of the fish. Juicy jumbo prawns (with shells intact), fried kakka (mussels) and plump squids are mostly dished up from afternoon onwards, to go with freshly-made porotta, appam and idiyappam. You usually get an extra side of fish gravy and can ask for a plate of tangy onion salad that garnishes all the fried dishes.
The local way to finish off the meal is with a glass of the restaurant’s special pudina chai – hot and sweet black tea, laced with a few mint leaves. Quite the refreshing end to a scrumptious meal.
Food for thought
Pocket guide: Meal for two would cost about between Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000, depending on the kind of seafood you order. There is nothing on the menu for vegetarians.
Taste guide: Prawns fry and squid fry are out of this world
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Ustad Hotel is to take the scenic Vizhinjam Harbour Road (a.k.a. Marine Aquarium/the Inspection Bungalow road) from Azhakulam Junction all the way to the Vizhinjam Juma Masjid, the first of the two mosques at the end of the road. From the Masjid, take a left and then another left and it will bring you right in front of Ustad Hotel.
The restaurant is closed from Thursdays 5 p.m. to Fridays 5 p.m. Otherwise it’s open 24 hours.