Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wun's Tea Room & Bar

Over the past few years, we have developed a sort of “London orientation” routine. After we check in and unpack, we have a quick shower and set out to walk to a pub in Soho or Marylebone. A cold Guinness in cool weather or a beer in summer for me. HRH the Queen of Kutch will have a glass of white wine. A packet of Salt and Vinegar Crisps [wafers] to accompany.

A Chinese dinner then follows. Often dinner is at a restaurant in Chinatown if we are at a pub I Soho or the fabulous Phoenix Palace off Marylebone Road if we are in Marylebone. Chinatown and its environs offer a huge choice of Chinese restaurants. This time we had identified a new place at Greek Street a short distance from the Chinatown environs as our dinner place. The absolutely wonderful Wun’s Tea Rooms.

Chinese food is experiencing a huge surge in London. The demand for, consumption and knowledge of regional Chinese food is growing. Sichuan, Beijing and Northern Eastern Chinese, Cantonese, Shanghai Buns, Dim Sum, Murger’s from Xian, Hot Pots and many other regional Chinese restaurants are opening all over. Wun’s Tea Rooms is a Hong Kong style tea room. This has two levels, the upper having floor to ceiling windows opening onto the hustle and bustle of Greek Street where you can sit and have tea. The basement has a dining room and bar. The walls are with distressed brick work, large green neon signs, wicker chairs, tiny round tables, banquettes running the length of the back walls, potted plants and the gramophones with old style brass speakers help create the tea room/speakeasy feel.

The drinks menu is set out in a newspaper. All the drinks are Chinese/Hong Kong liquor. Of course, there are cocktails ranging from the Classics – Whiskey Sours, Manhattans et al – to more exotic categorised as Fruit Forward, Herbaceous etc. A short beer list, all Hong Kong craft beers, a short wine list with only Chinese Rice wines and Gins. Everything was Chinese based or specially chosen to complement the food or the atmosphere of a speakeasy.     

The food menu was a printed page which you were handed over with a pencil - much like what you get at a Dim Sum restaurant. We pored over the menu, frowned with concentration and ticked off our order. To drink, a bottle each of a Hong Kong IPA. We asked if what we ordered would be enough, being assured it was we waited till the food turned up.

First, what turned up was the absolutely stunning Sugar Skin Iberico Char Sui. Regular readers would know that we are very partial to the Chinese Char Sui Pork and the Chinese Crispy Pork Belly. You see these specimens hanging in Chinese restaurant show windows. This was without doubt the best Char Sui Pork we have ever eaten anywhere. The Spanish have excellent pork clearly evidenced by all the wonderful Charcuterie products they have especially the Jamon. Take the quality pork and cook it with some skill, the Chinese 5 Spice, Sugar, Fermented Tofu and you have a wonderful Char Sui. This is served thickly sliced and warm. The ivory fat melting, the skin crunchy and caramelised, crisp and unctuous.

Above: Sugar Skin Iberico Char Sui 

Also excellent was the Hong Kong Typhoon Shelter style Whitebait. Typhoon Shelter Style is very popular in Hong Kong . This is characterised by serving the food with loads, absolutely loads of deep fried charlic and Chilly. Have a look at what this is all about here. Whitebait is a generic name given to tiny, immature fish. Our waiter said this was Sardines. Whitebait is served without the head, deep fried with loads of deep-fried garlic and Chilly. Addictive, delicious, crunchy. Salty, spicy and garlicy. The IPA suddenly tasted better.

Above: Hong Kong Typhoon Shelter style Whitebait 

The Pot Rice with Soy and Aubergine was excellent. The Rice was cooked in a clay pot. The rice at the bottom had become crunchy, like the bottom of well cooked Biryani or the Socarrat in a well-made Paella.

Above:Pot Rice with Soy and Aubergine 

We had two more dishes, one, a totally luscious XO Sauce Bone Marrow with Fried Mantou. Mantou is a Chinese Steamed Bread or Bao. A dash of Soy Sauce made it all the more delicious.

Above: XO Sauce Bone Marrow with Fried Mantou

The one dud was deep fried Tofu. Yes, the tofu itself was of top quality, the batter light and the dipping sauce good. However, the dish seemed one dimensional.

Above: deep fried Tofu

The food could be classified as Modern Chinese. All of it, except the Tofu, was better than most Chinese food we have eaten. Each dish by itself was stunning. But there was one problem. Somehow, we were left unsatisfied, I don’t mean that we did not have enough food, but more a situation of unsatisfied because of a lack of balance. Because in some way the meal felt incomplete. The problem is more to do with us. When we eat a Chinese meal, we are accustomed to eating a portion of Green vegetable be it Kailan or Bok Choy or Morning Glory. Also, being Indians, we have Daal Bhat hard wired into us. By Daal Bhat I mean we need some gravy or Sauce or Curry or liquid with our food. Here there was none. None of the dishes had much sauce, and in our minds a Chinese meal requires  Daal. As I said, the problem was more with us rather than the meal itself.

All in all, this was a very good meal. We had some really good exciting food. This restaurant is fully recommended.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Hyderabad - Impressions and Food


This was our second short trip to Hyderabad in two years and both Mr Stonethrower and I are very impressed with the city. We cannot understand why every city besides Mumbai continues to improve and get better infrastructure while Mumbai keeps sliding down a never-ending quagmire of over intellectualisation, lack of political will, outright corruption, shoddy contractors and endless protests to stall any development.

Landing in Hyderabad is a pleasure. The airport is clean, the bags come relatively quickly, the parking is neatly organised to make space to private cars, taxis, Uber, Ola, etc. They have systems in place and seeing the orderly way everyone was exiting the airport, the systems seem to work pretty well. Try getting an Uber from level P7 (west side!) of Mumbai T2 and you will know what I am saying…

Anyway, griping aside, we were soon in our car (hired for the weekend) and zooming away on the super smooth airport exit road. Kilometre after kilometre of straight, un-potholed tree lined joy. Serious joy. When we hit the end of the airport road our driver informed us there was a traffic jam caused by some political rally. He called a friend who had exited the airport a little before us and was told there was a 45 min delay just ahead of us. Mr Driver took an executive decision and swung the car around to the Outer Ring Road - a 158 kilometre, 8-lane Expressway encircling Hyderabad. Again, joy. Serious joy. A road like a runway on which speeds of 120 kms per hour are not just acceptable but actually expected! Mr Driver kept up a steady commentary of all sights and developments and rules and we could hear the pride in his voice. Yes, here was a someone who was proud of how his city had developed. This made me think back at the time we were in Chennai. The taxi driver in Chennai was so proud of the new Metro there and enthusiastically pointed every Metro station en route. Sorry to labour the point, but think back to the last time you heard someone say Mumbai has changed for the better!

Anyway, we checked into the extremely nice Park Hyatt at Banjara Hills – definitely recommended - and were soon in the firm control of Junior Ms Stonethrower – who was the reason why we were in Hyderabad. She zoomed us off to the impressive Arbor Road Estate which Mr Stonethrower has written about here.

Traffic getting back was beyond insane and we were all getting more than a little irritated. Junior Ms Stonethrower saved the day and got us to hop into the super-efficient Hyderabad Metro. This, on the day that the Supreme Court had ordered a stay on tree cutting at the proposed Metro car shed at Aarey! We keenly felt the irony of this ride that cut our commute time by over an hour.

A quick change and we were seated in the extremely pleasant bar at the Park Hyatt. A few much-needed intoxicants for us and a plate of fried calamari started the evening off nicely. Super fresh calamari in a crisp, thin batter. Appetites whetted, we asked for a Prawns Aglio Olio. Again, spot on. Large prawns, not overcooked, in chilli olive oil served with crisp garlic bread. The irritation with the traffic was easily forgotten. After some more assorted warm bread with excellent Truffle Butter we were ready to take the evening up a notch.

We strolled across the floor to the Park Hyatt’s Asian restaurant Rika and in the blink of an eye had a crunchy bowl of Popcorn Chicken with spicy Gochujang sauce sitting in front of us. Sorry to say but there are no photographs of this as it was demolished within minutes. Dinner was a shared platter of sushi for junior Ms Stonethrower and me and Shanghai-Style Poached Chicken With Sichuan Peppercorns And Chilli for Mr Stonethrower

Look at the Sushi platter. A thing of absolute beauty. It takes someone who cares for and is proud of their work to create this. The Sushi came out at the perfect temperature. Was obviously freshly made. The fish cool, fresh and evenly cut. And importantly for me the Sushi had the perfect amount of rice to fish. Both Junior Ms Stonethrower and I were extremely pleased with our Sushi and proceeded to demolish it while complaining that we were destroying a work of art. Without a doubt the best Sushi I have eaten in India – definitely recommended

Above: The Sushi Platter at Rika Park Hyatt Hyderabad

Mr Stonethrower too was very happy with his chicken (unfortunately no pics) and said it was the first time in India he had seen the use of Sichuan peppercorns.

Desserts were a good Passion Fruit Panna Cotta and an indifferent Cheesecake. Apologies for the blurred photos.

Above: The Cheesecake with Matcha Ice Cream and Caramel

 Above: Passion Fruit Panna Cotta

A very happy meal indeed.

Early the next morning Junior Ms Stonethrower whisked us off to the recently restored Qutb Shahi Tombs for a bit of a walk around. Impressive. Good renovation supported by the Aga Khan Foundation, though, still a work in progress. It is evident that the tombs were badly neglected for centuries and the renovation is a huge, uphill task. We did not see much evidence of the blue tiles that were supposed to have once adorned the domes. Not much expensive material used in construction either, no marble. Lot of plaster mortar work.

Above: An abandoned Mosque

Above: A synthesis. On the lower level 9 arches, mid level 5 and the top has a dome. Typical of the mix of Persian, Muslim and Hindu architecture. Tombs for more important individuals had this 9 -5- dome architecture. Lesser individuals has lesser number of arches

Above: The water supply for the Tombs and the then exquisite gardens

Above: A half completed Tomb for Aurangzeb

Lunch was at Junior Ms Stonethrower's favourite new patissiere-café Feu. Sorry to keep harping back to this, but Feu will give a tough fight to any patissiere-café in Mumbai and would probably win hands down. We shared an excellent thin crust Pepperoni Pizza and a Spaghetti with Pesto. Both were exactly what was promised on the menu.

But the errr… icing on the cake here were the desserts. We shared a Chocolate Mousse pastry and a Blueberry Cheesecake. Look at the photographs! Look at the Glaçage Miroir (mirror glaze) encasing the mousse! Good quality chocolate. Not overly sweet. Just perfect.

Above: The Chocolate Mousse

The Blueberry Cheesecake too was not just a work of art but extremely delicious and again not cloyingly sweet as cheesecakes can sometimes be.

Above: Blueberry Cheesecake

Above: Loads more in the display cases.

Great choice Junior Ms Stonethrower. Thanks for introducing us to Feu. We are sure we will be back there soon.

The afternoon was spent on a bit of retail therapy, including a visit to Tonique, India’s largest liquor store. A staggering 15,000 square feet spread over two floors. It is such a pleasure to walk in a liquor store see and pick up bottles. Most liquor stores treat you as a kleptomaniac and you are kept behind a counter and served by a minion. Before you ask, bottles are sold at MRP.

Dinner was at Chicha’s which Junior Ms Stonethrower said is her go to place for Hyderabadi kebabs and biryani. An extremely inviting place with mouth-watering food smells that hit you as soon as you enter. We were whisked away to a semi private dining area and proceeded to order way more than we could possibly eat. This was a classic case of the eye is bigger than the stomach.

We of course went to the Posh Chicha's. Brilliant name. Someone has a sense of humor.

Without much ado, we demolished a melting tender and flavourful Patthar ka Ghosh, a lurid red Chicken 65 (for some unknown reason, a long-time favourite for Mr Stonethrower), most of the Talawa Ghost and made a fair headway with the Special Mutton Paya. The food arrived hot, fresh and fast. No time to linger or chat, this was a place to eat till you can’t eat anymore.

Above: Chicken 65

Above: Talawa Ghost

Above: Patthar Ka Ghost

Above: Malai Paya

The Special Mutton Biryani however defeated us. We were too full to even attempt a mouthful. We asked if it could be airline packed to carry back to Mumbai for dinner the next day. “Airline packed” is a term Junior Ms Stonethrower taught us. On our way back to the airport we saw signs on many restaurants for “Airline pack” Biryani. It seems everybody wants to carry back Hyderabadi Haleem and Biryani and restaurants for a measly Rs 50/- pack these dishes in multi-layered leak proof containers.

The Special Mutton Biryani and accompanying Mirchi Ka Salan arrived safely in our suitcases without a drop leaking and we ate it over two meals. Yes, you read that right, it took two dinners to finish that quantity of rice and meat. Not that we were complaining. The Biryani was moist, flavourful and thankfully not oily at all. The Mutton pieces (9 large pieces) were tender and succulent with a nice coating of spices. We were glad for the lingering taste of Hyderabad.

A most fun, interesting and delicious two days. Looking forward to our next visit.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Aarey to Zoru -A to Z. Miyawaki Method. My views on the royal mess.

On Friday 4th October 2019 the Bombay High Court declared its Judgement in the various litigation filed challenging the construction of a car shed in the Aarey Milk Colony for the new Metro infrastructure Project. This Project is massive and should transform public transport in Mumbai. The construction of the car shed would entail the cutting of several fully-grown trees. In case you are living in the dark ages, the Bombay High Court did not grant any relief to the Petitioners. Hence, from Friday 4th October, post the Judgement, thru until Monday morning, in a systematic, well-co-ordinated, cold blooded efficient movement, all the arms of the Government and bureaucracy organised cutting down of some 2141 trees.

The media, social, print, television was ablaze. Peoples passions were at a zenith. All kinds of opinions were bandied about from, blaming the BJP, to you cannot cut trees at night, to pending proceedings in the Supreme Court, thieves in the night, and many many more.

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that a very small number of people would have even bothered to read the well-reasoned 39-page Judgement. What was more disturbing, in my view, was the subsequent Judgement also by the Bombay High Court, rejecting an application to stay operation of the original 39-page Judgement. This subsequent judgement only further exposes how poorly advised the Petitioners were. I am unsure if the Petitioners -effectively D Stalin and Zoru Bhathena - were poorly advised or simply so bloody egotistical that they refused to listen to sage advice. My reason for this rather provocative conclusion arises, firstly, from two passages in the Judgements and secondly, from the fact that no big name brand Senior Counsel appeared for the Petitioners in this litigation. Surprising indeed.

I am reproducing these two passages. However, I really and earnestly urge you to read the original Judgement. It is illuminating in many ways. The link is here.

The two passages are reproduced under. The first is the passage from the original Judgement.

“29. Repeatedly, Davids (environmentalist) take on industrial Goliath's. Relationship with nature and love for environment alone is true and all other relationships are unreal and temporary, is their belief. Their hearts are a temple of devotion to flora and fauna. In the instant case, the Davids row their boat with faith, courage and devotion in the storm of development; but directionless. The Greens fail in the instant petition because they have lost touch with the procedure to be followed as per law.”

In the original fable, David won. Here, unfortunately that was not the case. 

As I have written, the Judgement was declared on Friday 4th October 2019. On Saturday 5th October 2019, on a holiday a Bench of the Bombay High Court was specially constituted to hear an urgent plea for stay of the Judgement declared on 4th October 2019. Who should appear for the Petitioners in a matter of such utmost importance? Ms. Sonal. Alas, poor Ms. Sonal has not been graced with a surname. Ever heard of her? While that may be shocking, do read the two paragraphs extracted from the Special Bench order. More shocking. You can read this short Judgement here.

“6. Having noted the rival contentions, we are of the firm opinion that the petitioners attempted to question the tree cutting at the site in not one, but two legal proceedings. The Division Bench has followed another order dated 25th October, 2018 rendered in the writ petitions, one of which was also by Mr.Zoru Darayus Bhathena. Now, in the second round, all the petitions are dismissed by the detailed judgments dated 4th October, 2019. Once all the substantive proceedings are dismissed, it would not be proper to pass any restraint order and merely on a praceipe.

7. There is nothing on record to show that any request was made to stay the operation, implementation and enforcement of the judgment and order, nor any specific restraint was sought. We cannot proceed on any oral understanding. Merely because another Bench is constituted, it would not be proper to grant any relief. The nature of the relief is such that if it is granted, that would directly contravene the observations, findings and conclusions in the detailed judgment.

8. Hence, the request is refused.”

Now do you get why I ask if the Petitioners were poorly advised or simply so bloody egotistical?

One last point. In a previous litigation on the same subject, the Bombay High Court passed a detailed Order among other things expressly directing the planting of trees. I reproduce that passage. Makes interesting reading.

“(1) Open area shown on the Part Plan of proposed modification shall be kept open and it shall be binding to conserve the trees on part of the said land permanently.

(2) To mitigate the environmental impact to Aarey Colony following measures shall be undertaken:

i)               Ground water recharging arrangements to be provided in the Depot.
ii)              Plantation of Trees as per recommendation of the Committee
iii)            Trees above 10 feet height of native variety only be planted.
iv)            Plantation to be undertaken by professional agencies only.
v)             Annual Audit of plantation by Third Party and Reports posted on the Company's website. vi) MMRC to maintain these trees for 5 years.

(3) Total 33 Hectors of land shall be used only for Metro Car Depot/ Workshop, allied users only. Commercial user shall not be permitted.”

If this was already ordered by the Bombay High Court, and this order was in full force did the Petitioners challenge once again out of stubbornness, ill advise or ego? I leave it to you to decide.

My personal view is that of course cutting of trees should not be permitted. By the same token, of course the Metro should be established. If various experts have decided that the Car Shed for the Metro should be at place X necessitating cutting of trees then, so be it. Undoubtedly, replacement trees have to be planted. The amazing thing is that an order to plant  trees was already in place. I would have been happy if the Petitioners had instead asked for strict implementation of that order instead of making such an unholy mess.

Anyway, so much for legal niceties.

As things happened, we were in Hyderabad over the weekend of 5th and 6th October. And, Hyderabad has a Metro. A good one. The Queen of Kutch and I travelled on it and it was a most pleasant experience. Air conditioned, clean, and quick. Rs. 40 for the journey we took. Oh yes, there are actually fully functioning escalators to take you from street level to the Metro Station some 30 - 50 feet up. Escalators work in Hyderabad, unlike in Mumbai.

What however was completely coincidental was that while in Hyderabad we visited a mini forest. In the light of the Judgement and the cutting of trees, our visit to the mini forest was truly eye and mind opening for us.

A couple we know, after years of corporate jobs, bought an 11 acre plot some 50 kms outside Hyderabad. The land was rocky and had no ground water. At first, they constructed some outhouses, then their home, and now work is feverishly on to establish a petting farm an eco resort, with cottages, tents and dormitories, a central dining facility a library and what not. The construction is being done by compressed stabilised earth blocks  made on site, sustainably. The ultimate goal is to give back, get green, organic, educate, and be nice to nature. Very noble. I could never be like that. They call their property Arbor Road Estate. Here is their link, have a look.

What truly astounded me was the mini forest. Some of you readers may be aware of the Miyawaki Method. This is an exceptionally successful mini forest grown by Arbor Road Estate following the Miyawaki Method. Miyawaki Akira is a Japanese Botanist. Under the "Miyawaki method" he demonstrated that it is possible to restore native forests from seeds of native trees on very degraded soils which were deforested, without humus. Humus is the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves and plant material by soil micro-organisms.  Humus is not the chick pea paste you lather on your Sharwama! There is a huge amount of science that goes into the Miyawaki Method. The method postulates planting native trees very densely. At Arbor Road Estate in 2015 they planted some 6600 trees. In 2016 a further 1800. In addition, they planted in excess of 3000 landscape and fruit bearing trees. All in all, there are about 12,000 trees planted in 4 years. Of these more than 8000 trees are densely planted in 35,000 square feet.

Arbor Estate took technical assistance from a for profit, yes a for profit organisation called Afforestt. which helps create forests using the Miyawaki Method. You could read more about Afforestt here.

What Arbor Road Estate has done in just 4 years is truly awe inspiring. The trees in just four years are tall and lush and some are towering at over 30 feet. The wooded area is a haven for all kinds of wildlife. Today, as a result of the mini forest, the rain on the land has increased. They have harvested over 40 lakh litres of water, enough water to sustain them for an entire year, The number and variety of birds has dramatically increased. Butterflies and all kinds of insects are happy among the trees. In fact, the couple has identified and photographed more than 45 species of migratory and native birds on the land.

The fruits are fantastic, and HRH the Queen of Kutch will vouch for the Custard Apples. Originally the land had a few Custard Apple trees, but over the last 4 years they have multiplied. No chemicals or fertilizer is used on the land. Arbor Road Estate has in fact changed, for the better, the eco system of the entire area. A look at the photographs will show you the progress.

The point I am trying to make is simply this. A couple with only commitment and little knowledge, has successfully planted on barren land 12,000 trees including 8,000 in just 35,000 square feet. What can be done in Aarey and a hundred other places by using the Miyawaki Method boggles my mind.

Do you know how many trees were cut in Aarey? 2141. These 2141 trees were in 33 hectares which is 35,52,090 square feet, yes 35 lakh square feet. I am assuming that the entire 33 hectares are now without trees, I may be wrong in that assumption. Arbor Road Estate has planted 8,000 trees in 35,000 square feet. Do you realise the significance?

I really don’t want to bleat on. What has happened in Aarey is so sad. I so much wish that our Petitioners were a little more sensible about things. According to me, Stalin and Bhathena never had the plot. Zeal, vim and vigour, passion and commitment are one thing, however, this must be tempered by common sense, practicality and humility.

Above: Arbor Road Estate circa 2016. Barren land and fencing.

Above: A couple of years later. Miyawaki Method, Forest coming along the fence. The large pool in the centre that is now happily full.

Above: If you look carefully in the top centre of the photo you will see the under construction Machan. See how small the trees are in comparison to the Machan.

Above: The Machan now has trees towering over the rooftop. That is more than 30 feet. Just 4 years.