Kunal Vijayakar looks back on a week of glorious restaurant meals
From desi food with a twist to a visiting culinary star, it’s been a stellar time for eating out, if you know where to go.Updated: Aug 09, 2019 21:19 IST
You guys know me; I don’t normally lunge straight into talking about a restaurant right at the beginning of the column. But this has been an unusual week. There’ve been too many lunches, too many dinners and some of exceptional quality. Let me lead straight off the bat with chef Amninder Sandhu and her Arth at Bandra. I first went there with Rocky Mohan (the man who makes Old Monk). He’d hosted one of his Gourmet Dinners there, and between flutes of Moet and colloquy, I was quite impressed with the kababs and the vegetarian bits going around. As my feet ached from politeness and stomach yearned for larger plates, I sat down to an impressive banquet of Indian food; all hot and ready to be had.
I remember starting with a cool and crisp Tokri Chaat with the most luscious tamarind chutney, then Bhareli Mirchi, which are huge Bhavnagari chillies stuffed with a mixture of peanuts, garlic and green chilli and roasted; and a portion of Galawati Kababs made from a fine mousse of Naga mushroom, spiced and served on a crisp saffron biscuit.
With the mains came a basket of finely leavened bread (my kryptonite) — kulchas, naan, a dozen kinds of roti and taftaan.
In the mains with Amritsari Kulche came a dark, classical-tasting Pindi Chole with an unprecedented addition of chicken. A bowl of home-style Sarson-ka-Saag with crisp Makai-di-Roti and Amninder’s signature Mutton Deomali (bamboo smoked mutton served with fragrant alpine leaf-wrapped jasmine rice).
Chef Amninder is petite and has a bounce in her step that makes it impossible to catch her for a few words. She’s in and out of the kitchen in a trice, magically appearing at the barbecue pit, then suddenly behind the counter, popping up amongst her guests and then back at your table. I told her that I had to come back for a meal when I could sit and chat with her and try the rest of her menu. That is what I did this week.
Her whole kitchen runs on wood fire and coal; there is no gas. Which means all the food is cooked the way it would have been cooked way back in time. No wonder the Mutton Kakori Kababs come to the table soft, tender and smoky, quite like the Mutton Chops, which are served in a shuttered wooden box to keep the smoke in. The Dosa Squares Stuffed with Chicken Makhani is an odd but ingenious idea and are a super hit.
And in between the exceptional Nihari, Biryani and her legendary pressure-cooked Mutton Curry, there are her quirks. Rhododendron Seekh (carrot and beetroot kababs drizzled with a syrup made from rhododendron flowers), Chicken Makhmali (kebabs under a white cloud of stiffly whipped egg whites), Thecha Pork Chops (rubbed with a thecha of green chillies, garlic and coriander, and smoked), and for dessert, delicious Black Gajar Halwa, available only in winter, served with smoked black cardamom ice-cream.
There were such strokes of genius that it was difficult for me to decide whether the food was just smoked or the chef had smoked up too.
I had heard that Hoppumm, a Sri Lankan joint, had opened up somewhere in Bandra and several attempts to go there fell through. Till they opened up in Churchgate, at Eros Building. Now if there’s a cuisine that I warm up to instantly, its Sri Lankan food. And the honour of a true Sri Lankan meal lies in the making of Hoppers and String Hoppers (like appams and idiappams).
The triumvirate of Lakshit Shetty and brothers Jai and Sahil Wadhwa have opened up a cheerful café of sorts which makes a rather exciting array of Sri Lankan food with a focus on Hoppers. First and foremost the Hoppers are really good and are distinctly different from our south Indian appams. They are firmer, chewier and with a distinct hint of coconut.
We started with Chicken Pol Roti (flatbread stuffed with chicken and curry leaf served with pol sambar butter). Then came Elumas Pattis (Sri Lankan curry powdered mince in pastry, deep-fried) and my all-time favourite, Mutton Kottu (shredded parathas tossed and sautéed with mutton gravy and egg).
Laksith, who sat with us and closely supervised the order, then sent in an array of Hoppers — a Traditional Hopper, a Chilli Cheese Hopper, a Multi-Grain Hopper and the king of all hoppers, the Egg Hopper. I just love an egg hopper. It’s a traditional hopper with an egg sunny side up in the centre of the half sphere. Alongside, a Black Mutton Curry, a sweet and spicy Pineapple Curry, and Prawn Moilee.
To be able to break an egg hopper, smear it with the yolk and dip it in the dark, peppery Black Mutton Curry is like being transported to the lush villages of Ceylon.
Finally, old friend and buddy, chef Romy Gill from England was here. Her little restaurant in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, may now be closed, but she’s been travelling the length and breadth of her country cooking like she’s possessed.
She was in Mumbai at Soho House and her pop-up was inspiring. A Punjabi, born in Bengal living just outside Bristol, cooking Indian food. Starting with delicately spiced crabmeat with a touch of pomegranate molasses on rye toast. Tray-baked chicken wings with a drizzle of lime, muscatel vinegar dressing salad, and baby gem pomegranates. Amritsari Masala Pomfret with Panch Phoran, tamarind and raw papaya salad, and a finale of cauliflower, which seems to be the new kale, baked with rose harissa, served with turmeric hummus and beetroot salad.
What indulgence. Glorious is the week when I can eat.