The best for the last

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2014 12:06 IST

Over the last fortnight, I’ve been pretty much constantly on the road. Unlike many people I actually like travelling (though I hate the packing/unpacking and the hanging around at airports) and one of the big attractions of visiting new places for me has always been the opportunity to eat the food. Sometimes it can be disappointing. But if you choose well, it can be an adventure in itself.

We’ll start with Bombay where I had two of the most amazing Indian meals in recent times. Both were at the ITC Grand Central in Parel, not a hotel usually known for its cuisine, even within its parent ITC chain.

But The Grand Central boasts of two outstanding cooks. One of them, Haji Mohammad Farooqui is the hidden gem of the group with a completely different style of cooking from the much-hyped Qureshis. I asked Kuldeep Bhartee, the Grand Central’s general manager, to let Farooqui design a menu for me and the food was astonishing.

The star of the show was his trademark dal kuska with chulao rice, a dish that is so wonderful (and vegetarian) that I usually end up eating the rice on its own. The following day chef M Rajan of the Hornby’s Pavilion restaurant, whose South Indian vegetarian food is legendary, pulled a surprise by producing a keema-rice, made South Indian style, which was so delicious that I forgot to ask for the Grand Central’s famous Bohra biryani.

I next went to the Maldives and you probably read about the Velaa private island last week. But there was one other meal. When I got to the airport I found my flight was late so rather than stick around at the airport, I took a speedboat to the nearby Taj Exotica where chef Sheroy Kermani (who featured in the last season of Custom Made) is an old pal.

I sat next to the small strip of beach overlooking the lagoon and Sheroy fed me lightly-seared local tuna and then, unleashed his background as an Oriental chef with a killer Nasi goreng. It was the perfect meal at the perfect location and reminded me of the great strength of the best Taj hotels (now sadly, fading quickly): regulars are always greeted with so much warmth that they feel completely at home.

From the Maldives I flew to Bangalore where my friends Ally and Rahul Mathan had fixed for us to dine at the Chef’s Table at Olive Beach. I’ve always heard good things about Manu Chandra but never had the opportunity to try the food. So I was thrilled to discover that a) Manu would be cooking himself and b) he was using only local ingredients.

Tailor-made perfection: At Olive Beach, Bangalore (above) chef Manu Chandra’s (below) customised spread at the Chef’s Table was nothing short of genius. pretty much live tweeted the meal and I still remember the flavours. The standout dish for me was a single Cochin oyster (how Manu manages to source such good oysters from Cochin is a mystery; the ones I’ve tried all taste like gobs of snot) with shreds of Goan sausage. Sausages and oysters are a classic pairing but I’ve rarely seen it done as well as Manu did that evening.

There were many other wonderful dishes: a deconstructed egg and chips, a rabbit confit samosa in chicken skin, fish and rice in a gassi-inspired sauce and finally an apple and truffle tarte tatin with dahi sorbet. People rate Manu so highly because of such successes as the Monkey Bar. But I think we sometimes forget that when he cooks with his hands, he is a chef of genius.

And then back to Bombay and The Table where I arrived late after a delayed flight, dragged there by my son Raaj who had eaten the truffle menu a few days before and thought I should try it. Because we got there so late, Alex Sanchez, the star of the kitchen, had left but he is obviously such a good chef that his brigade had been taught how to maintain the standards he is famous for.

Better than the best: The Table (top) has the best European food in South Bombay and the star behind its success is chef Alex Sanchez (below).

We started with scrambled eggs on toast, a dish that sounds deceptively simple but was quite complex: a slice of very good bread, cooked on an open fire, perfectly scrambled eggs, which combined extra yolks and a little emulsified butter into the mixture, and slices of white truffle on top. Then came a delicate agnolotti (with more truffles), tuna tartare, given an extra crunch with shards of deep-fried nadru (lotus root) and a roast chicken stuffed with black truffles. kitchen assured me they were using a broiler not a fancy bird; in which case the dish was an absolute triumph: moist, flavourful and juicy. I’ll go back when Alex is there but for my money this is the best European food in South Bombay, far better than any fancy, five-star hotel restaurant.

A brief stop in Delhi led me to revisit Lahori Gate, a new restaurant in the recently gentrified Mehar Chand Market area. I’d been there before for an opening party (full disclosure: the owners are good friends of mine) but decided to sneak in unannounced one quiet winter night. (I was recognised halfway through the meal but by then the food had arrived so I’m guessing I got the same meal as the average guest.)

Lahori Gate prides itself on serving the food of old Delhi in a slightly more refined form and judging by my two meals there, the kitchen is in top form. I ate a close-to-authentic street-style dahi balla, a wonderful shami kebab, so-so Amritsari chhole (I don’t think the chef has been to Amritsar; he should stick to old Delhi), a simple Delhi biryani with tender, succulent meat, great lachha parathas and two truly great dishes: a dal meat that was addictive and a weird and wonderful chicken keema. Weird because chicken keema sounds odd in theory; wonderful because it was so good. The secret is that it’s not really a keema. When the order comes in, the chef roughly chops up the chicken and cooks it a la minute.

Lahori Gate was quiet (as was the rest of its locality) on the night I went. It deserves to do better and I’m guessing the home delivery service will soon pick up.

Street flavours: Lahori Gate prides itself on serving the food of old Delhi, like shami kebabs in a slightly more refined form.

And so back to the other end of Bombay from The Table. If I were to ask any foodie, which hotel has the best Avadhi food in Bombay, the best tapas, and outstanding Malvani food, my guess is that nobody would know the answer.

Even I was shocked to discover that the JW Marriott in Juhu has emerged as the city’s top foodie hotel. Oh yes, there’s still the huge coffee shop and the Bombay Bakery Company (or whatever it’s called) but the real surprise comes when you go beyond the obvious.

I had no great expectations from Saffron, the Indian restaurant, so I was startled by how good the food was: great shami and galouti kababs; amazing nihari, good dal, an authentic Lucknavi pulao and the best keema I have had in months. For dessert, there was the authentic Shahi Tukda, made not like some cake in a milky syrup, but properly crisp at one end and melt-in-the-mouth juicy at the other.

The next day, I had Malvani food from room service. This was not crab-and-lobster Malvani like they serve in Bombay’s coastal restaurants but home-style food. The star of the show was a tender sukka mutton but there was much more: a simple fish curry, amti, great gobi sabzi, prawns cooked with drumsticks and so much more.

For my final dinner, I went back to my favourite restaurant in North Bombay: the Marriott’s Arola. Most people now go for the drinks (they have India’s best collection of artisanal gins) but I just love the food. I had all the greatest hits: Sergi Arola’s famous patatas bravas and his lobster rice, for instance.

Arola’s chef, Manuel Oliveira, has not just learned English since the last time I was there; he has also created his own dishes, the best of which was an Eastern-European melange consisting of eggplant wonton in a light consomme and an airy take on the Baked Alaska.

So the JW Marriott is Bombay’s foodie hotel? Who would have thought it? The credit goes to the executive chef Himanshu Taneja who has gathered the best chefs around him. He found Shahnawaz Qureshi in Lucknow and brought him to Bombay while the Malvani cuisine is the food that chef Mandar Madav’s mother made for him at home.

They say that travel broadens the mind. In my case, it certainly broadens the waistline.

From HT Brunch, December 28
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