Greatest hits: Kunal Vijayakar lists his favourite restaurants from 2019
Let me start the year’s last column with the slightly tweaked words of Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra…
And now, the end is near / And so I face the final column
My friend, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a year that’s full / I hogged from Saturday to Friday
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.
You see where this is going. I’m going to disregard all the noise and PR, all the launch parties, free gifts and damn social media, and just share unbiased, honest-to-goodness simple praise for the restaurants, cafés and eating joints that left an impression on me this year.
Some may be brand new, some may not, and I don’t really care, as long as these places aroused a basic sense of excitement and joy in me, this past year.
Remember, these are in no particular order. Yet, I’m going to start with the newest, Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît at Churchgate. The vibe is as Parisian as the name. The charm of the cafés on the Churchgate road is that they all have large windows that open on to the street. Very European. So lunchtime at Soufflé feels like lunchtime. When in France, have a French onion soup, so I did. My mind was on toasted bread loaded with Gruyere, caramelised onions in a deep meat broth. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My other favourite soup was made into a soufflé: Lobster bisque. This too was très bien. For mains, Soufflé does five kinds, all very airy — truffle and Camembert; roquette and Parmesan; blue cheese; chicken and mushroom; and the lobster bisque.
After the entrees, my eyes always light up if there is any foie gras to be had. And there was, instead of a pâté, a parfait of duck liver with port jelly, rhubarb pickle and brandy reduction.
Next up was homard or lobster thermidore doused in Cognac, Mornay and Champagne sabayon, with a few clams for fun. I’m going to skip the dessert and move on to the next place.
La Loca Maria, Bandra, is a combination of chef Manuel Olveira Seller’s Toledo heritage and global influences, especially those of his Maharashtrian wife, Mickee Tuljapurkar. It’s a great place with some inspired food. For someone who’s not a big fan of ravioli, his lobster ravioli with apple puree in a seafood bisque was path-breaking. Braised steak with pineapple chutney, yum. As were the carpaccio layered with truffle, parmesan and spicy aioli, and the ever-so-popular Gambas al Ajillo or Spanish garlic shrimp. If you can cook prawns in chilli oil with pretty much nothing else, and have it taste so good, you’ve got my salute.
The big surprise for me this year was the newly fashioned Eau Bar at The Oberoi, Nariman Point. I was blown away. Bloody burgundy against the expanse of the Arabian Sea and a sweeping black granite bar. Cubby holes, levels, and a terrace (still to be opened). A retro band playing music my generation could not only recognise but sing along to. It was like being in a New York jazz club.
The unsung genius, chef Satbir Bakshi, has created an eclectic small eats or tapas menu of extraordinarily familiar flavours, but with refinement and art. Between sips of exotic cocktails, we munched on luscious beer-battered truffled brie cubes with cranberry and jalapeno relish. A simple but spiky prawn aglio olio (with pepperoncino crab, Caesar dressing and black garlic). Merguez lamb sausages with quinoa mash and onion gravy. And the chef’s own take on kheema pav (with grilled lemon and onion relish) as well as rava bombil fry with coconut-and-mint chutney and grilled lemon. No bar embodies Mumbai as this one does.
After successfully running Mirchi and Mime in Powai, Prashant Issar and Anuj Shah have created another working environment for the differently abled. Along with Riyaaz Amlani, they opened Ishaara a few months ago at Palladium, Parel. The wait staff are speech- and hearing-impaired, the menu is vast and India-inspired.
We started with the Calicut crab bisque, which was like mild crab masala curry, just refined; and the nihari shorba, meaty and sticky yet gentle as a soup. Then there was the vast chaat section, with the usual Dilli aloo tikki and sev puri, but also a sweet potato brûlée that was vivid and inspired. The samosas, small mutton patti ones, had a street-side quality and an air of sophistication. In the kabab section, the galawati, lamb-seekh and dori kabab were all soft, gently spiced and luscious.
But there’s much, much more — curries, saalans, raan, bharta and biryani. For me it was good food, great service in a really inclusive and welcoming space.
I’m going to end with two diametrically opposite places. First, CinCin at BKC. To start off the bar is indoors and outdoors and connects the two light, breezy spaces. With an air of casualness and friendliness, the cheerful Italian mixologist Matteo plies you with the deceptively mild-tasting house-made favourite, the limoncello sour. After that it’s a medley of cocktails, pizzas, hand-made pasta, and exotics like the crispy crumbed Brie (with truffle honey), scrambled eggs (with truffle caviar), burrata e fichi (with a salad of rocket and figs) and risotto con l’aragosta (lobster bisque and carnaroli rice in a light tomato sauce).
Finally, the newly opened Foo Town at Churchgate, which replaces one of my favourites, Kamling. The space is in good hands. It’s been spiffed up and now does an Asian tapas menu. My top picks from it are the slow-cooked lamb chop soup, fragrant, spiced and hot; the prawns in pink pepper with lots of garlic; sushi of Nikkei prawn tempura with chimichurri mayo and coriander oil; and po-po, a sharp Thai-style salad of Belgian pork, pomello, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and peanuts.
There are many I may have missed, but these were indeed the places that made me sit up and eat this year. I hope there will be many more in 2020, and I hope the ones I have so enjoyed don’t shut down. And to you my readers, here’s wishing you a great year ahead, and the assurance that I will always do it my way.