Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Restaurant diaries
I am one of those people who hardly ever goes to a restaurant without booking a table (though sometimes I use a fake name) on the grounds that it is mad to just turn up and expect to be seated at the time of your choosing.
This is not necessarily the Indian way and a surprisingly large number of restaurants are not equipped to take reservations. Often, the harassed hostess at the door is made to accept bookings even while she is greeting guests and the reservation gets lost in the confusion.
But sometimes, the results can be fun.
I have been keen to go to Slink and Bardot, a much-talked about Mumbai bistro-style French restaurant almost from the day it opened but something has always got in the way. So this time, when I landed in Mumbai, I took no chances. I phoned from the car as soon as I left the airport.
A cheerful man answered: “Hello!”
“Could I book a table for dinner tonight please?” I asked. “One person at nine pm?”
“Only one person?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Ok. Then, you come.”
“Would you like my name or number or anything?”
“No, no. It’s empty. Just come.”
I admired the man’s candour though when I got there the restaurant was not really empty. It was at least one third full (it was a weeknight) but because it comprises so many rooms, the crowd was scattered.
It was, to be honest, not the kind of place I had expected. The surroundings (near the Coast Guard building in Worli) were not exactly salubrious: the smell of fish in the air, piles of garbage right outside on the street and stray dogs prowling around the entrance. The restaurant was nice enough but not terribly French in ambience. The lighting was too low, the walls were bare and Roxanne, Walk on the Wild Side and other such great hits of the 1970s, played on the sound system.
But the welcome was warm. Service was attentive. (Actually, it was excellent throughout the meal.) And the menu looked good. There were lots of things I wanted to try and as I was there trying to review the place, I ordered everything that sounded interesting.
Sadly the meal did not begin well. What was described as a Black Rice Paella with seafood and chorizo (and let’s not get into any tedious controversies about what a true paella should be like) would have worked (and Assamese black rice is a good idea) if the chef had actually extracted more flavour from the seafood or the chorizo – or if the dish had contained more seafood, perhaps. The menu listed a Rosti potato starter as well as a Dauphinoise Gratin. I asked the chef to recommend one and I suspect he chose the wrong one. Pommes Dauphinoise is one of those classic potato dishes, which should be rich and creamy. This was a dried-out slice of potato pie. A Tartine (a tartine is a French open sandwich) of rillettes (which should be like a fatty, coarser pate) of pulled pork failed because the bread was stodgy (though the rillettes were fine). A pasta (gluten-free) dish with lamb ragout suffered because the sauce lacked any oomph.
Then, it all suddenly got better. A dish of slow-cooked pork was excellent. A citrusy tartare of beef (buffalo in this case) was delicious. And a duck was so perfectly cooked that it reminded me of the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil runs to another restaurant to get the food.
Could these wonderful meat dishes have come from the same kitchen that cooked the failed early courses? Either somebody worked out that the man sitting alone and ordering half the menu was writing about the restaurant (which I doubt; I think I managed to stay anonymous) and they upped their game or this is an uneven kitchen with no proper chef at the pass ensuring that the food is of a high enough quality.
I gather that the place does excellent cocktails and rocks on Saturday night (the bar focus might explain the dingy lighting) but honestly, this is an opportunity being squandered. If the whole menu can reach the standard of the duck and if they can take trouble over the decor (as Joey would say in Friends: “Hey, French it up!”) this is potentially a welcome addition to the Mumbai scene.
One reason I was keen to go to Slink and Bardot was because it is so hard to get good quality European food in India. Pasta, pizza, burgers and masala sushi are all that people want to eat.
Oddly enough, the response to upmarket Japanese food is confusing. The Delhi Wasabi, India’s best modern Japanese restaurant, has closed. Akira Back, a branch of the global Disney-like Japanese chain is set to shut. And the Mumbai Wasabi survives by keeping the lighting low so that slightly tipsy socialites can pretend that they are at some more glamorous Nobu outpost.
Currently the best Japanese restaurant in India is Megu at the Delhi Leela (though its sushi is not in the same league as the Delhi Wasabi’s version used to be) and it never does as well as it deserves to.
On the other hand, modern Japanese is booming in the less pricy standalone sector. One of Delhi’s hottest openings has been the super-cool Kimono Club at the Chanakya Mall. The restaurant is the brainchild of Ashish Kapoor (Whisky Samba) and the room is superbly managed by Anurodh Samal.
The kitchen is in the hands of Vikramjeet Roy (ex-Wasabi, Delhi) one of the brightest chefs of his generation and though some of it (it includes a Chinese section) may be too complicated and sophisticated for this audience, Roy keeps pushing the envelope.
Also in Delhi, Nege and Ju, newly opened in the same market as the highly acclaimed Tres, does complex modern Asian food in glamorous and sophisticated surroundings. The restaurant has the same owners as the super successful Town Hall chain and has been packed out since it opened. I went 10 days after the opening and they were turning people away. (On a weeknight.)
Town Hall relies on Augusto Cabrera’s formidable skills with modern-style sushi but the new place aims higher with dishes that are so complicated that it is exhausting just to listen to the chef describe them. It was early in the restaurant’s life when I went and I thought the starters were too complex but the main courses – including a very nice Black Cod, done Chinese (i.e. not with miso but with black beans) style – and the desserts (including a cheesecake that is destined to become a classic) are much better.
This is all in the evening. During the day, the restaurant changes its vibe and serves serious European food (truffles grated at the table etc.). I haven’t tried that yet but it sounds promising. And the chef Ravi Kant Shukla is both imaginative and talented.
For over a year now I have been hearing cool people in Mumbai talk about Izumi, a small Japanese restaurant that is so exclusive that the owner cheerfully turns away movie stars. I took my courage in my hands, made a booking 10 days in advance, got a table and turned up at the appointed hour to find that a) it is no longer small (they have moved to larger premises), b) the owner was actually standing at the door, warmly welcoming guests and c) that far from being a hoity-toity “exclusive” place, it was large, cheerful and packed out with people of all age groups. Some were, admittedly, millionaires but most of them were young, happy and proudly middle class.
The menu is vast and straddles many kinds of Japanese cuisines from ramen to sushi to yakitori. Though this is less obvious, there is also a distinction between the more authentic dishes and the masala sushi that Mumbai loves.
I discovered that chef-partner Nooresha Kably had spent time in Japan studying the cuisine so I let her choose the dishes Omakase-style. The food was excellent. We had pork gyoza, thin delicate skins dissolving over spicy minced pig; and the yakitori was the best I have ever had in India, nicely charred on the outside and meltingly-tender on the inside. Hardly anyone in India cares about the quality of the rice in nigiri sushi, but even so Izumi went the extra mile and made a real effort to ensure quality Japanese style rice. The toro came as nigiri rather than sashimi because the chef thought the day’s batch was not good enough to eat as sashimi.
There is a more popular version of Japanese food on the menu too (the masala sushi!) and it is good but it is the real thing you should go for. Order Omakase. And relax. It will be much less than half the price of somewhere like Wasabi with the same quality of ingredients. And the food will be better.
But just one word of caution. Don’t take my word for any of this. You should make up your own mind.
From HT Brunch, January 26, 2020
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