Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: My most memorable meals of 2019
New restaurants and tiny street side joints are where you can find some of the best meals!
It is that time of year when I make a list of the all memorable meals I have had in the course of the last 12 months. You will be relieved to know however that this year, there isn’t just the usual collection of highly acclaimed restaurants and the legendary three Michelin star places that often turn up on this list.
In terms of eating, at least, it has been a slightly strange year for me. Searching through the photo library on my iPhone and looking back at my Instagram feed, I was surprised to note that some of my best meals were at new restaurants and often, at little street side places.
So read on.
Disfrutar, Barcelona: The most surprising meal I had this year. We were in Barcelona to eat at El Celler de Can Roca, one of those temples of gastronomy that many foodies aspire to go to. The restaurant is an hour or so from Barcelona so most people stay the night in Barcelona and then drive there the next day.
Which is what we did though it did leave open the question of where we would eat the night before we went to pay homage to the Rocas. My son suggested Disfrutar, a restaurant I had never heard of. I looked it up and discovered that it had been opened by chefs who had worked at El Bulli, in its time, the most famous restaurant in the world.
Oddly enough, this made me turn against it. I have eaten at El Bulli spin-offs all over Spain and have always left feeling somewhat dissatisfied. There is a sense with some of the food created by the Adria brothers that it is now past its sell-by date. But given that my son had already booked us in, I went anyway but with zero expectations.
I was wrong.
It turned out to be one of the most interesting meals I had all year – and easily among the best. The El Bulli legacy was reflected in the use of science to pull off effects that seemed hard to believe. A pastry ball, warm from the oven (or so it seemed) was filled with delicate caviar that had been unaffected by the heat. A signature dish of (wheat-free) “carbonara pasta” was both delicious and surprising. If these guys can keep up these standards they will restore the legacy of El Bulli.
El Cellar de Can Roca, Spain: This is universally regarded as one of the world’s greatest restaurants. Run by the three Roca brothers, it offers modern (but not too modern) takes on European cuisine with a Spanish focus. The plush dining room was full of people like us who had booked ages in advance and expected the meal of a lifetime.
And was it the meal of a lifetime?
Well, it certainly took a lifetime to finish eating; the food just kept coming. And of course most of the dishes were wonderful: you don’t acquire a reputation of the sort the Rocas have by serving mediocre food.
Was it better than Disfrutar?
Okay. Shoot me now.
I’ll go back to Disfrutar but not to the Rocas.
Yannick Alléno, Paris: Alléno is one of France’s great chefs with three Michelin stars but the older I get the less fascinated I become with fancy, three-star food. So, I was pleased to go to his latest restaurant (in the same building as the flagship), which combines Alléno’s highly sophisticated food with an open kitchen and a counter that is either Spanish or Japanese (depending on your perspective), in character.
I’ll go with Japanese. Alléno also runs a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant and that chef was in the kitchen the day I went and Alléno’s head sommelier did the wines. The restaurant had only been open for a few days so Alléno was there himself.
I am sure that all this made a difference to the food. I have no idea if standards will be maintained. But the meal I had there was exceptional. Two stars in the next guide unless they want to make Alléno sweat a little.
Esora, Singapore: A friend who understands the intricacies of Japanese food took me to this modern Japanese restaurant in Singapore. It was not kaiseki Japanese but it wasn’t exactly Nobu-style modern Jap either. Instead, the meal combined Japanese flavours and ingredients with innovative presentation and immense imagination.
I thought it was brilliant. Bizarrely, Michelin gave it only one star. Perhaps the chef should learn to speak French to improve his prospects.
No name; Cheng Du: I am sorry. I was sent here by my hotel after I insisted on going to a place that no tourists had heard of. They put the name and address of the restaurant on a piece of paper and gave it to my taxi driver.
Afterwards I checked out the paper and it only had Chinese script. As nobody at the restaurant spoke a word of English, all conversation was limited. Fortunately, the menu had photos so my wife and I ordered by pointing to the dishes we thought we recognised.
The food was amazing – and it turned out we had (mostly)ordered the right things: the greatest hits of Sichuan cuisine. I will never be able to enjoy another Ma Po Tofu, another Fish in Hot Chilli Oil or another Double Fried Pork again unless it approaches these standards.
This was the best Sichuan meal I have ever eaten and (unless I go back to Cheng Du) will ever eat for the rest of my life.
Gaggan Anand, Bangkok: I ate twice at Gaggan in the space of a few months. I went to one of the last meals he did at the old restaurant and I went back to Gaggan Anand, his new restaurant, three days after it opened.
Everybody now knows what Gaggan’s food is like so, I won’t waste time on the details. But I will say that the new place is a quantum leap over the last one. It is more Indian in its flavours, less obviously scientific in its presentation and far more focussed on local ingredients. Something like 75 per cent of the dishes are brand new.
Book well in advance; this one is an even bigger success than the last one.
Punjab Grill, Washington DC: We all know the Punjab Grill chain from its outlets all over India. What we don’t know is that the overseas branches are far more upmarket and adventurous than the Indian restaurants.
I was blown away by the newly-opened DC branch (and local critics have written rave reviews), which is not just beautifully decorated and hip and happening but takes Indian food to a different level, playing around with new and ancient grains, refining recipes and even managing to pair caviar with papad.
DC is not the centre of Indian cuisine in the way that say, London is, so this restaurant has not yet got the attention it deserves.
Bengaluru Oota Company, Bengaluru: Ask me to pick one restaurant in Bengaluru and this is the one I will choose. It is not a dive but it’s not five-star either. It is run by two women who serve the food of their families: Gowda cuisine and Mangalorean home food. There is usually only one menu for everyone and they need 24-hour notice for bookings because they cook just enough for each meal. There is no tradition of refrigerating leftovers for the next day.
The food swept me off my feet. Delicious, authentic and home-style. Call and get a table if you are going to Bengaluru. You won’t regret it.
The Smoke Co., Bengaluru: I sometimes wonder if I am the kiss of death for restaurants. I loved this restaurant with its emphasis on home-dried meats, smoked and grilled pork products and its own delicious sauces (which you could buy).
I wrote so much about it and praised it sky-high that I was startled when it suddenly closed down. It always did well as far as I could tell so I have no clue why it went out of business. I still miss it.
Bhopal streets, Bhopal: Bhopal gets a bum rap. People rave about Lucknow. And when it comes to street food, it is Indore that gets all the publicity. So, I was surprised when I spent three days eating my way through the city to see how great the food was.
The kachoris, the jalebis and the street dishes were astonishing. But the real surprise for me were the court cuisines: refined, lighter than Lucknow and much fresher because of the use of dhania leaves.
A great foodie destination but one that nobody pays much attention to.
Eating with Heston, Delhi: Some months ago Heston Blumenthal came to Delhi and cooked at the JW Marriott. Well, of course, the food was great; this is Heston Blumenthal we are talking about.
What I enjoyed even more than the food were the insights Heston had into taste and how it could never be separated from the brain. When I spoke to him at the end of the meal, he asked the audience to take a sip of the wine in their glasses. Then he asked them to think of something sad. He made them try the wine again.
Did it taste different?
Of course it did. Taste is less objective than we like to think and more influenced by our state of mind than we realise.
Heston was back in Delhi for the HT Summit again a few weeks ago and we had an epic lunch at the Maurya with all the classics: Kakori, Galouti, Dum Pukht Biryani vs Delhi Biryani etc.
It was the single best meal I have had all year. Was it the great food? Yes it was.
But was that why we enjoyed it so much?
I think Heston had already answered that question.
Every thing tastes better when you are having so much fun!
From HT Brunch, December 29, 2019
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