Food Fight On The Western Front
With two new eating places, Bombay is on to a good thing. If Delhi does not catch up soon, it might lose its historical advantage in the western food areabrunch Updated: Jun 16, 2012 17:41 IST
The fashion for western food comes and goes in Bombay. During my childhood, the city was dotted with famous European restaurants: Bombellis, Napoli, The Little Hut and of course, the grand old Rendezvous. All of them closed down. Many of the ones that came later also bit the dust: The Supper Club, Ménage a Trois, Café Royale, The Rotisserie etc.
Delhi has had more luck with western restaurants. Perhaps, this is because it attracts more European and American tourists. Or perhaps there are more expatriates and embassy types who can keep western restaurants in business. Until a few years ago, I would have argued that the market for western food in Bombay was limited and that Delhi would always have the edge.
For instance, the Zodiac Grill, the high prestige restaurant at the Bombay Taj, does not get the custom that its food and reputation suggest that it should draw. Similarly, when the Leela chain tied up with New York’s Le Cirque restaurant to open a branch in India, they chose to locate the first such venture at The Leela in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, giving their flagship Bombay property a miss. It was a sound decision. Delhi’s Le Cirque is packed out night after night and it is hard to imagine any similar restaurant finding that kind of success in Bombay. Also, if you look at the standalone sector, there is no real counterpart to someone like Delhi’s Ritu Dalmia in Bombay. While Bombay chefs have always struggled to find opportunities, Ritu has gone from strength to strength in Delhi, opening a new restaurant every year.
But, on the other hand, this could be changing. There has been a huge resurgence in western food in Bombay in recent years. It started with Indigo, still one of the best western restaurants in India, and has continued with such places as the excellent The Table, Two One Two, Amadeus etc. And now, there are two more options. One of them is easily the city’s best café and the other may well turn out to be the finest European restaurant in India.
The cafe is a surprisingly well-designed room with a mezzanine floor on the premises of a mill in Lower Parel. It is called Café Zoe and is currently one of the city’s trendiest restaurants. I went for lunch last week and was impressed by the ambience, the service and the wholesome and satisfying nature of the food. In the interests of journalism, I ate my way through much of the menu and while the approach was slightly hit and miss, most things worked. If I had a suggestion, it was that somebody should confiscate the chef’s bottles of synthetic truffle oil to give him more time to concentrate on genuine flavours.
I started with a buffalo carpaccio served as a salad (so-so leaves) with the meat cooked in the familiar Trattoria style much loved by Bombay punters. I would have preferred a rawer, more intense flavour but either way, there was no need to give it a truffle oil dressing.
The scrambled eggs with truffle came with small black flecks of what I imagine was bottled truffle. I have few expectations from preserved truffles but I do think that the chef could have used a better quality of eggs. Nor did it make any sense to serve a fruit preserve with this dish (unless the jam has truffle oil as well!). That said, the cooking was fine and the bread was terrific.The standout dish for me was the buffalo hamburger, which was easily the best burger in Bombay. The patty was juicy and perfectly cooked while the bun (homemade I was assured) was vastly superior to anything I have eaten in this city. The fries were crisp and remained that way for the duration of the meal.
Another success story was the pulled pork sandwich, served as small sliders. The pork was brilliant, the sandwich had a mustardy tang and the bread was great. The same pork turned up again in what was described as a carbonara pasta but turned out to be the least successful dish of the day: a slop of soggy pasta in a cheesy creamy sauce that had more in common with a boarding school macaroni - cheese than with any Italian dish. Frankly, the excellent pork deserved a better setting. Desserts were good – an acceptable creme brûlée and a nice cheese cake – but the best pudding was a walnut pie that was moistly melting in the middle. The wines were well chosen and the ones served by the glass came at reasonable prices.It is hard to be sure but I think I went in under the radar and got no special attention. If that was so, then the service was outstanding: knowledgeable, courteous and efficient.
You can argue about which one is better: Café Zoe or The Table. But I like both ( though Café Zoe has the nicer room). And I will be back. If Café Zoe appeals to expats and trendies, then Arola, the new restaurant at the JW Marriott has a more mainstream target. It is run by Sergi Arola, a Michelin two-star chef from Spain, and its launch was accompanied by glamorous parties, Page 3 pictures and film star sightings.
But don’t let that put you off. I am always wary of judging a restaurant during its first week. But if the dinner I had with Sergi Arola on Monday is anything to go by, then this is going to be a superior gastronomic experience.
Spanish chefs fall into one of three categories: the molecular wizards like Ferran Adria, the brilliant traditionalists like the late Santi Santamaria and all the tapaswallahs that Spain exports by the boatload. Arola is the exception because he fits into none of these neat characterisations. His personality is rock ’n’ roll: he is more passionate about the electric guitar than he is about the stove and his tattoos will stop any conversation in its tracks.
And his cooking combines science (he was Adria’s sous chef for three years) with the clean distinct flavours of Santi’s food. His reputation in his native Spain is massive and he runs restaurants in a variety of cities including Paris and Sao Paulo.
His food is distinguished by his cerebral approach to cooking. For instance, he has worked out that no restaurant in India can flourish on the basis of high-cost imported ingredients. So, he goes into the market and finds the best local ingredients. And when the flavours are not necessarily up to the standard that he is used to, he relies on his culinary skill to bridge the gap.
A simple salad of black olives, tuna and tomatoes works only because Arola has spent several hours adjusting the flavour of the tomatoes (he blanches them, removes some of the juice, dunks them in olive oil, leaves them in the fridge after removing the skin etc) before throwing them into the salad.
Another dish, comprising crunchy white asparagus in mayonnaise seems straightforward enough. But the asparagus have been cooked sous vide in olive oil for ages before being served. A carpaccio of porcini relies on frozen mushrooms that have had their texture and flavour improved by similar wizardry behind the scenes. Nearly everything I ate at dinner was delicious: buffalo tartar using an Oriental dressing and the bright orange yolk of a perfect egg; Arabian sea prawns in garlic and olive oil and an entirely amazing rice dish made with lobster and prawns.
I have no idea whether these standards will be maintained as time goes on but Arola says he will be in Bombay five times a year and the Spanish chef he has installed in the Marriott kitchen seems talented and skilful.
If the cooking continues to be this good then the restaurant will set a new benchmark. It will demonstrate to Indians that western cuisine can be made with local ingredients, can use a lot of vegetables so that vegetarians need not always suffer, and that the food need not be heavy but can be light and fresh. All things considered, between Café Zoe and Arola, Bombay is on to a good thing. And if Delhi does not do something soon to catch up then it might lose its traditional historical advantage in the western food area.
From HT Brunch, June 17
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First Published: Jun 15, 2012 13:51 IST