The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: All about truffles
This is an article about service in elegant restaurants and not about Ritu Dalmia, the celebrated chef(who I wrote about in Rude Food some weeks ago). But I first need to tell you how Ritu inspired this column.
A couple of months ago, Ritu took my wife, Seema, and myself to lunch in Milan. She chose Alice, a Michelin starred restaurant run by Viviana Varese, a famous Italian chef and TV personality. Viviana said she would be in Delhi later in the year and we offered to take her out for dinner.
“Thank you,” she said. “I like Indian food but not too much spice.”
Because her own restaurant is so lovely, I tried to think of an elegant Indian restaurant to take her to; a place where the chef would understand how to spice dishes without resorting to too much chilli.
In the event, it wasn’t too difficult. I booked Viviana, Ritu, Michaela Tedsen, (who is Ritu’s friend; and now, ours ) and the two of us into Dum Pukht where the chef, Gulam’s, food has always impressed everyone I have ever taken there.
As it turned out, Gulam was off that day but his son Azaan cooked so well (yes, his son; the Dum Pukht kitchens maintain a fine balance between passing on an artisanal hereditary culinary tradition and a little Qureshi nepotism) that I didn’t miss Gulam at all. The service was just as elegant as I had hoped it would be and Viviana was delighted.
I was relieved it had all turned out so well. Contrary to what people may believe, I hardly ever go out to eat in Delhi. Because I travel so much, I like eating at home when I am in Delhi and most times, Seema and I only go out if we are entertaining or I have to go for work purposes. There are only four restaurants in Delhi where we have gone for fun this year. (Ok. Here they are: China Kitchen, Shang Palace, Town Hall and Sodabottle Openerwala.)
So I am always nervous when I select a Delhi restaurant to take people to. And frankly, if we hadn’t gone to Dum Pukht, I don’t know where else we could have gone for classic Indian food, elegantly served.
This got me thinking. We are in the middle of a restaurant boom and yet it is getting harder and harder to find elegant restaurants for special occasions because the boom is in casual dining. Even the hotel sector has gone casual.
There was a time when the Taj Mansingh ran the super-elegant Longchamp but now, like most of the chain, the hotel has gone casual. Even the Mumbai Taj which once had such restaurants as The Rendezvous and the Zodiac Grill is now fully casual. (I exclude the Taj Palace’s excellent Orient Express from this list because it is a tiny restaurant and no table seats more than four people.)
The Oberois have gone in the same direction. Delhi’s La Rochelle has been replaced by the swinging ThreeSixty. In Mumbai, The Rotisserie has made way for the more relaxed Vetro. And I have never been to a really elegant restaurant in Chennai, Kolkata or Bangalore either. (Though the new Dum Pukht in Hyderabad might make the cut.)
All of this became important because, two days later, Ritu, who has the best contacts in truffle country in Alba, Italy, sent us a gift of five white truffles. The truffles arrived just before we left for Mumbai. This was fortuitous timing because we intended to have dinner there the following night with my son and his girlfriend who are both truffle fans.
If you are a truffle lover then you will know how special this gift was. Not only do white truffles taste of the earth, they also cost the earth. And good ones are hard to find. By the time the truffles make the journey to India, their aroma and flavour have been almost completely extinguished. (Ideally, you should eat a truffle within four or five days of its being dug up from the ground.) But these were fresh, powerful truffles. If you took one out of the little jar in which Ritu had packed them, the aroma was so intense that it filled the room.
The next day, at our Mumbai hotel, Seema and I decided to share a truffle for lunch. As the hotel did not have a European restaurant, it had no truffle slicer (fair enough). I was not confident that the kitchen would know how to cook pasta or risotto. So we played it safe and asked for eggs: fried and scrambled.
The fried eggs were leathery and though we got them to redo the scramble, it came looking and tasting like an ugly, lumpy mess of yellow curds.
Disappointed, we searched for a venue that would be elegant enough for us to enjoy these, the most elegant of ingredients, at dinner.
I was never, overall, a fan of the original New York Le Cirque. It always reminded me of left over debris from the Reagan era. The food was dated, its best days were long behind it and the old snobbery about the rich people who ate there struck me as being even more out-of-date than the food.
On the other hand, the Indian Le Cirques can be good. A month ago we were invited to dinner at the Delhi Le Cirque for a pop-up by Armin Leitgeb who made his name at Per Se in California and Les Amis in Singapore and the food was outstanding.
So, how about the Mumbai Le Cirque? I hummed and hawed. The Delhi meal had not been cooked by a regular Le Cirque chef: it had been a pop-up. Would the Mumbai kitchen be as good?
Eventually, I bit the bullet and booked the four of us into Le Cirque.
I don’t pretend that I am not recognised at restaurants. So I don’t rate the service by the attention I get. (In fact, over attentive service annoys the hell out of me.) I judge restaurants by professionalism and technique. Does the chef know how to cook a particular dish? Do the waiting staff strike the right balance between discretion and prompt service? Is the sommelier a bright guy? (90% of Indian sommeliers are worse than useless and treat guests with the contempt that comes from ignorance.) Does everyone else in the restaurant look happy?
If I see a table sending its food back or if I see a guest signalling again and again for service, then I never go back to that restaurant, no matter how well I have been treated. As for the food, I am realistic enough to know that the chef may have taken extra care with my order but you would be surprised by the number of bad meals I get served. No matter how much trouble he takes, a bad chef can never turn out a good meal.
So I was in a slightly sceptical frame of mind when I stepped into the Mumbai Le Cirque. If they were going to send me scallops dressed in little bow ties (yups, they call that a speciality) or if I was going to be told that Daniel Boulud had invented this “Le Cirque classic” 30 years ago, I was going to just get up and leave. (And go where? Well, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.)
But almost from the time we entered, the vibes were good. The Sommelier Gaurav Dixit was passionate about wine and extremely well-informed. He recommended three excellent bottles and even though I chose the cheapest one, he said, in the manner of all good service staff, “Excellent choice sir!”
And the food? Well, it was technically perfect. The creamy scrambled eggs looked like molten gold and tasted even better. The truffles were expertly sliced over them and the dish left the whole table gasping in admiration.
The others then had a taglioni with truffles, a classic pairing which, they said, was very good. I had a risotto. You may know that I am a risotto bore. It is the one thing I know how to cook so I always hold forth on the subject. And unless Ritu herself is cooking, I am rarely pleased with a risotto made in an Indian kitchen.
But this was fabulous. No extra cream and no cheese overdose. A perfect texture secured only from the starch in the rice. And a wonderful balance between being too dry and too wet. It served as the ideal foil to the truffles we grated on it.
I asked to speak to the chef to congratulate him. He turned out to be an Indian - not one of the expats who normally populate Le Cirque kitchens. But he had cooked one the best Italian meals I have had in Mumbai in many years. His name is Prasad Jaguste and he is the mainstay of the Mumbai Le Cirque kitchen.
By the end of the meal we were having such a good time that I stopped judging and began enjoying myself. We had a white truffle each to consume; an awesome quantity. We had great food, we had service that was attentive without being obsequious and we had excellent wine.
What was the point in trying to judge how the meat was cooked (it was terrific, by the way) and in asking the chef how he had cooked his amazing lentil side-dish?
So, my critical faculties subsided and I had a wonderful time.
Afterwards, I thought about the evening and wondered why we did not have more formal/elegant restaurants. Yes, I know that the world is going casual. But even in New York and London, you will still find, in the middle of all the trendy places, lots of old-fashioned elegance and high quality food and wine. (In Europe you will find even more such places.)
So why not in Delhi and Mumbai? Why do none of the foreign chains (Hyatt, Hilton, Accor, Marriott-Starwood etc) run a single elegantly formal restaurant ? Why are there so few places like the Delhi Dum Pukht and the Mumbai Le Cirque? Frankly, they are not much more expensive than other upmarket places. Dum Pukht is actually cheaper than the more casual Bukhara. Anything in Mumbai is cheaper than Wasabi. I know loads of Indians who go to elegant restaurants when they travel abroad. Why aren’t they willing to do the same when they are in India?
I have no answers. Just a lasting memory of two excellent evenings out.
And, oh yes, of Ritu Dalmia’s gift of truffles.
God bless her generous heart!