February 14, 2009

A Taste of Home - Part III

And finally, going from worst to best - here are the three best meals I had in Delhi on this trip:

Flavors in Defence Colony: This one was a tough call. Back in the day, the owner of Flavors, one Mr. Tarsillo Nataloni, treated the brother rather nastily and we decided we would never go back. Fast forward about 10 years - a friend and I are looking for a place for lunch with outdoor seating and her first choice, Blanco in Khan Market is reserved for a private event. She suggests Flavors and I reluctantly agree. Good thing too. She had the risotto (what is it with women and risottos by the way? Is this some new Delhi trend that has completely passed me by?), I had a linguine Amatriciana and we shared an antipasti platter. Her risotto looked really good and she said that it tasted even better. The antipasti platter was really really good. I don't know if the salumi on it was imported or home-made (it wasn't priced as if it were imported and if it was home-made, my respect for ol' Nat just increased tenfold - as a salumist that is, not as a person). The Amatriciana was of course limited by the fact that Nat was using (per force, I'm sure) bacon instead of guanciale and linguine instead of bucatini but I had anticipated that and, within those limitations, it just about hit the spot. The sauce was appropriately chunky harkening to its rustic Roman origin, the sweetness of the onions and the fierceness of the red pepper flakes complemented each other beautifully and the linguine, which was perfectly al dente, wasn't drowned in the sauce. For a garnish, there was a drizzle of olive oil and shredded Romano cheese. All I can say is this - Mr. Nataloni could probably run a restaurant in Little Italy. I mean, he's already got the disposition to match!

Karim Hotel on Matia Mahal: Well, actually it's on Gali Kababian, if you want to get all technical about it, but Matia Mahal will do fine I think. Pretty much every non-herbivore foodie in Delhi knows where Karim's is. Everything that needs to be said about Karim's has already been said so there's little more that I can add. We used to go to Karim's fairly often when I was in college, to get their famous Nihari for breakfast and the place seems to have expanded since then. It's also a lot spiffier - less of the dhaba feel. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. What I can say with certainty is that their Tandoori Raan - an entire roasted goat leg, carved at the table (or not, if you prefer to use your fingers. And we did) is all that. And they probably make the best mutton qorma in the city. 'Nuff said.

Chez Mom's: My mother makes, by an order of magnitude, the very best mutton pulao in the whole wide world, bar none (yes, I'm looking at you Chef Imtiaz Qureshi). I don't know how she does it - I haven't been able to replicate her dish despite scrupulously following her recipe - but she does it, time after time after time. Her hit ratio has to be in the high 90s. If you control for the fact that she is a brilliant cook generally (she has a repertoire that would allow her to go three meals a day for a year without having to repeat herself), one reason for her extraordinary virtuosity with the pulao has to lie with her growing up in Faizabad and Lucknow (from where, incidentally, Imtiaz Qureshi also hails). Her pulao is a thing of beauty - each grain of rice is separate and seems like it was individually coated with the juices from the meat. The spices are perfectly balanced. The meat itself is falling of the bone tender. It's topped with the most perfectly fried crispy onions. She usually serves a raita to go with it - let the record show that I have never, ever eaten that raita. My standing request to her is that on these annual trips to India, my first meal and my last meal at home be her mutton pulao. Thus far, she's indulged me. I just hope that I continue to stay on her 'good' list.

February 12, 2009

A Taste of Home - Part II

And so... on to Delhi. Before we get to the food, I just want to mention that the traffic situation seems to have improved a little bit from a year ago. Last year, it seemed like every time I stepped out of my house I was stuck in a traffic jam. This year, except for one nasty jam on Press Enclave Road in which I spent something like 300 hours, the traffic seemed to be moving for the most part. (And that one jam was exacerbated by the fact that the person I was with was trying really hard to pretend that she wouldn't rather be anywhere but there. Which made it all the more awkward and uncomfortable. Another story – let's move on.)

I had lunch at Sartoria at the Priya Complex in Vasant Vihar. They did a good Caesar salad and the chicken soup that I had was pretty substantial and well made. And my friend seemed to be pretty happy with her pasta, which came in an American sized portion in a huge platter. However, in what would become a recurring theme of my Delhi trip, the dessert was a disaster – what was billed as a blueberry cheesecake was instead congealed paneer with what had to be the equivalent of Hershey's syrup.

To make amends we went to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the Select City Walk Mall ('least that's what I think it was called) and tried their 'mousse-style' cheesecake. Word to the wise – don't.

Maybe living in a city which gave the world Junior's and Roxy's has made me a cheesecake snob but I make no apologies for that. After all, it's called a 'New York style' cheesecake, ain't it?

I also had lunch another day with the same friend at a place called Azzurro at the PVR Complex in Saket. It's supposed to be a Mediterranean restaurant and it is run by a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu. When we got there for lunch around 1 PM, admittedly on a weekday, it was completely empty which to me is always a bit of a warning sign. Maybe it gets really busy for dinner – I sure hope it does. She had a mushroom risotto and I had a fillet of sole with lemon butter sauce. The fish itself was pretty good (although I have my doubts as to whether it was actually sole) – light, flaky and full of flavor. From all accounts the risotto was pretty good too (once again in a gigantic serving – what's up with these super-sized portions in Delhi?!). What wasn't so good was the side of mashed potatoes served with the fish. It is described on the menu as a fondant, which is actually a sugar, water and gelatin paste used for icings on cakes and stuff. Well, the kindest thing I can say about the 'potato fondant' was that they nailed the  paste part – dense, heavy and almost totally devoid of taste. When a Cordon Bleu chef can't get mashed potatoes right (especially after pretentiously calling it fondant), then it's probably a portent of things to come. Sure enough, the dessert – a strawberry cheesecake this time – was another disaster. The chef clearly loves his fondant though, 'cause there is a chocolate one on the menu as well.

The lesson as always: when in India, stay away from the cheesecake! Stick with rasmalai or rasgullah or something. Would I heed this lesson? Of course not! And good thing too because otherwise I would never  have rediscovered Big Chill.

Back when I still lived in Delhi, Big Chill was a newly opened ice-cream, coffee and dessert place in East of Kailash. It had already begun to make waves and was giving Nirula's, the then reigning ice-cream and dessert place a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Well, all these years later, Big Chill has expanded to three stores in Delhi (although the original one in EoK has apparently closed), one of which is in Khan Market and where I, over the course of the next couple of weeks, became a regular. They make a blueberry cheesecake which was far and away the best cheesecake I would eat on my trip and which, I am reasonably assured, is in fact the best cheesecake in Delhi. The cheesecake at Big Chill is wonderfully  light and airy, the blueberry topping is just so and it even has an authentic graham cracker crust. Over the next two weeks, I ended up buying 10 slices and not only were they consistently good but my Dad said that they reminded him of his last visit to New York.

In fact, Khan Market has quite the collection of nifty, hole-in-the-wall gems. I got kababs one day from Khan Chacha's Kababs which were absolutely brilliant (and for how good they are, pretty damn cheap). There is the old reliable Café Turtle of course where I took my dentist and her husband, both visiting from the US, for tea. They gave high marks to the falafel and hummus at Café Turtle and they're originally from Israel so I figure they should know a thing or two about falafel and hummus. It seems that Café Turtle has also become a franchise and have stores in other parts of Delhi. More power to them, I say!

We had lunch, my family and I, at the Host in Connaught Place and I don't know why or how we ended up there. I mean, I've lived in Delhi for over 25 years and I had never been to the Host. Not once. And, as far as I know, my parents had never been to the Host either. The only reason I can think of is that it was late in the day and we were too lazy and tired to walk the additional 100 yards to Berco's. Anyway, we went to the Host and the food was the worst I ate on this trip. The portions were meager, the butter chicken was an abomination – dry and cloyingly sweet, and the tandoori rotis were more burnt than not. But... they had Kalyani Black Label beer! The only place I ever found it. I couldn't find it in Mumbai (it is apparently only a northern Indian brand) and most places I went to in Delhi didn't have it either. So props to the Host for at least getting that one thing right.

February 10, 2009

A Taste of Home - Part I

It's been a couple of weeks since I got back Stateside from my annual pilgrimage home to India. As vacations go, this was actually a lengthy one – nearly three weeks 'in-country'. As with any vacation, this one had it's highs and lows but at the end of it all I had got to spend some quality time with perhaps the only five people in the world who love me unconditionally (even though, thanks to some spectacularly bad math on my part, two of them got less than 48-hours of the total, but that's groveling for another time) so it was all good.

The great thing about long vacations in India is that you get to eat a lot and culinary terms this trip was a particularly varied and rich experience. Here, in a semi-chronological order, are the highlights of that experience:

Let's start with Mumbai and lunch at the Renaissance Hotel Powai's buffet. We went there on a Sunday, which the brother, in an effort to lower expectations, told me was a slow lunch day. It must have been because the Renaissance clearly had its B-team on duty. The food and the service were, in a word, sad. Except for three things. The first was the Rahra Mutton, which was qualitatively so much better than the rest of the spread that I am wondering if it might have been stale – you know, leftovers from the night before when the alpha chef presumably still had the con. Then there were the Gol-Gappas (or pani-puri, as they call them in those parts), which were crisp and golden brown; the 'pani' was salty and tangy and the proper sewer green color. Finally, there was Nikita – the sous chef at the chaat station. I have never, in all my years, seen a female chaat maker before. It is easier for me to imagine a female president of the US than a woman in India making chaat professionally. That has to be the last male bastion left. I did double takes and triple takes. I stared. (The fact that Nikita was rather good looking and had a winsome smile is entirely besides the point.) Just for having the testicular fortitude to put Nikita on the chaat station the Renaissance gets a place in the highlight reel – even though their food generally sucked.

Yea, even Nikita's chaat unfortunately (the gol-gappas, although at the same station, were made by a different dude 'cause Nikita was on a break at the time, I think).

We had dinner at Mainland China in Andheri (I think) that night in order to sate my Indian-Chinese cravings. The service was prompt and courteous; the food was good; we ordered too much; a jolly time was had by all – in other words, it was your typical family outing to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I only mention it because it would be the only Chinese food I would eat on this trip. And for the fact that I discovered the secret to restaurant style crispy spinach upon my return (it's somewhat of a speciality at Mainland China apparently. But that's another post).

The best food I had in Mumbai were the bread pakoras that the brother's mother-in-law made for breakfast the next morning. Ab-so-lute-ly spectacular. They were crisp to the point of being crunchy on the outside while the filling inside was moist, almost gooey. They physics of how such a thing is possible is a bit of a mystery to me. They took me back to my childhood and my school canteen and the Moonlight sweet shop in Munirka, New Delhi. I ate at least half-a-dozen of those bad boys, maybe even 10.

Before I go on to the Delhi leg of the trip, a quick word about the Rajdhani Express, which I took from Mumbai to Delhi (my first train ride in six years! As the bro' and his wife will testify, I was as excited as a 6-year old!) – they feed you a lot on that train. I mean like all the time. It seemed like every time I turned around, there was a dude standing there with a snack or a juice or soup or tea or coffee or something! Amazing.

And the staff on the train was unfailingly polite, always ready to accommodate requests – for extra coffee, extra sandwiches, extra blankets, extra ice-cream, you name it – and always with a smile. And they had like six(!) choices for the dinner entree – vegetarian or non. If non, then eggs or chicken. If chicken, then Indian or Continental. You don't get that kind of choice in first-class on an international flight! The next morning, as the steward started to rattle off the seemingly endless choices for breakfast, I actually had to stop the guy and ask him to get whatever he thought best (he was so pleased he got me idlis and veg. cutlets!).

The fact that Lalu Yadav screwed up Bihar is probably indisputable. But that in the railways, he's found a calling is probably equally indisputable. Maybe the Indian Railways would be willing to teach the staff at the Renaissance a thing or two about customer service.