Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Plane food

Airline food is everybody’s beta noire. The vegetarians hate it. Meals classified as Hindu Meal, or Asian Vegetarian, are a bit of a disaster what with salads containing decidedly suspect grilled artichokes or, horrors, mushrooms!! We Indians have this unique concept of alien food `looking non veg’ and therefore wholly suspicious. We have heard and read, ad naseuam about the complex processes each dish has to go thru before reaching the hapless passenger, which results in the food being dead on arrival. Furthermore, the altitude and dry air in the aircraft further detract from the taste. Frankly, the problem seems to be more than just the assault on the food by heat, altitude and dry air.

The first problem is that quite often, the airline presents you with food that is definitely strange, misbalanced and a nutritional disaster. For example, I have been on flights where you get a sandwich, a cutlet encased in potato and a pastry. This is a carb overload. An athlete undergoing heavy training would be pleased with such a selection but this is not something for normal souls. Poor menu selection.

The other reason why there is so much unhappiness, in my view, is that we as passengers are just unwilling to eat food that is out of our normal diet. No south Indian is going to be overjoyed eating a very North Indian Rajma or Paneer. Similarly, a Dravidian Bisi Bele Bhat is rather a tough call for a North Indian who views anything South India other than the bog standard Idli Dosa as non food. I have also noticed that despite airlines best intentions, Indians just do not like eating a cold sandwich. They want it toasted. A few days ago, I was on a flight and had the dubious privilege of having as co-passengers some of the lesser members of the vanquished Indian Cricket Team. Ravindra Jadeja is a promising all rounder, I believe. He can face the fastest bowlers hurling a cricket ball at him at speed more than 150kms with aplomb. But, I must say he was well and truly beaten when faced with a salad and a cheese sandwich. He asked the hostess if the sandwich could be heated or toasted in some way. He abandoned the sandwich and ate the salad with much reluctance after dousing it with dressing.

Then of course, we have problems with textures and viscosity of food. We love food with lots of liquid, be it a Daal or a gravy, we need the liquid. This is not something that can be catered for on board. Most `Conti’ food is decidedly dry by comparison and the vegetarian meals ordered are also very dry. So there is not much joy eating this.

It’s indeed ironic that it has now become politically correct to say that airline food is terrible and that you are better off eating before you board. To say that you like airline food means you are somebody with a diminished mental ability or someone with nonexistent taste buds.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. The food is normally quite decent and extremely palatable. You must have read my post on the Maharaja Thaali served on Kingfisher. That was the perfect food to serve as repeated heating does not affect Indian curries. Airlines do make a genuine effort I believe. There are times when the food is terribly affected by the repeat heat cycles resulting in dried out food and washed out overcooked vegetables. My question is that how can any food served by an airline be worse than eating ice cold stodgy Methi Theplas with pickle? Just be a little less fussy and eat your food for God’s sake.

Have a look at some of the better food served.

Paneer with Sofiyani Pulao and Spinach

Chocolate Mousse

The Maharaja Thaali served on Kingfisher

Terrine with Quail Egg

Sandwich - Cajun Chicken with Onion rings

Lobster Linguini

Clementine Bavarois with a chocolate collar and Almond Tuille

Tandoori Prawns with Mint Raita and Chickpea Salad

Goat Cheese Mousse with Pickled Beetroot

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The mighty tomato

The Tomato, a native plant of South America, was introduced to India, by the sea faring Portuguese sometime in the 16th Century. Since then, the Tomato has become all pervasive in our food.

As a matter of fact, all the major world cuisine, be it Italian, Mughalai, Punjabi, Mexican, the various South Indian cuisines, all use tomato. To my mind the only cuisine that tomato has not touched is the mighty Chinese with all its regional variations. Yes, a few stray dishes like Sweet Sour Pork uses Tomato Ketchup but, tomato as an ingredient is largely missing in Chinese food. So much so, that even with the strong Indian influence that Chinese food has in India, tomato has still not made any inroads as an ingredient.

Tomato is one of India’s biggest crops after potato and sweet potato and India is one of the world’s larger tomato producers. Despite this, the quality of Tomato in India is rather poor and the variety is almost nonexistent. It’s only hybrids one gets here which are largely flavourless and rather watery.

While in London a visit to Borough Market got me thinking. Several varieties of Tomato were on sale, in myriad shapes colours and sizes. This ranges from the marble sized cherry tomato to the almost cannon ball sized beefsteak tomatoes. Colours range from the usual red to green, yellow, purple and more. Goaded by HRH, I would buy myself some assorted tomato and hand carry them back home. After much deliberation we picked 4. An heirloom, a yellow, a couple of golden and a tiger striped. I put these in my handbag and carried them thru security and into Bharat. I was carrying contraband. The customs form sternly tells you to declare if you are carrying any fruit of vegetable. Gosh that was a victory.

The hoard. 

With such good tomato, we thought the best way to eat them would be raw, in a tomato salad with freshly baked crusty bread. A tomato salad is all about good tomato, so with my hoard we were confident that we would have a delightful dinner.

The recipe is dead simple. Slice the tomato and place them in a flat plate. Lightly salt the Tomato. Make a simple French Dressing which you spoon over the tomato. Scatter a few thinly sliced onion rings and some freshly torn basil leaves. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for about an hour. During this time the salt and the dressing will have worked their magic and the Tomato would have released their juices into the plate. After an hour eat the salad with some crusty bread. I guarantee that you will sop up every bit of the delicious juices. Using Indian tomato is not a bad idea. They would also work reasonably well.

The salad with basil chiffonade

The salad with a basil leaf garnish

A simple, tasty and cheap dish. Great for a light supper.

Here is recipe for a simple French Dressing

Less than 1/2 clove garlic minced [I did not use this]
1 tablespoon white vinegar
tablespoon Dijon mustard
tablespoons warm water
tablespoons olive oil
Salt pepper to taste

Add all ingredients into a bowl and whisk till blended.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Galvin Bistrot

As we walk out of Galvin Bistrot on our last evening in London, several silly clichés buzz through my brain: Leave the best for last, tried and tested, security blanket, familiarity breeds comfort and most of all, there is no substitute for victory!

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, the flagship restaurant of the Galvin brothers Chris and Jeff, started in 2005 has been a touchstone of our London visits for the last 7 years.  It is the only restaurant in London where we are on the mailing list and we have rejoiced in the steady expansion and increasing accolades enjoyed by the Galvin brothers which now has Galvin Bistrot, Galvin La Chapelle and Galvin Windows. In fact, as early as 2006 I had foreseen a Michelin star for Galvin and though the Galvin Bistrot has yet to get one, the newly opened Galvin la Chapelle achieved this feather within one short year of its existence.

We visited Galvin Bistrot after almost a year and as always were charmed off our feet. The advertising term ‘customer delight’ is something these people live and breathe.

We had a table for 7pm for 2 persons, but reached the restaurant at 6.45 as a party of 3 along with our lovely London friend, philosopher and guide in tow. No problems at all. We could have a drink in the bar and they would shift the reservation to a slightly later time. No frowns, no disapproval. Just charm and friendliness although the restaurant was more than half full and there was a steady stream of people pouring in. The bar was calm, clubby and intimate and 1 drink flowed easily into 2 as we chatted and caught up in the dim calm. Although it was almost 7.45 by the time we finally got to our table, we were never reminded of our reservation or hurried through our drinks. Fabulously accommodating, in my opinion.

The restaurant was absolutely buzzing. By 8.30 there was a queue of people waiting for a table. But despite this we were never hurried and more importantly, the service never missed a beat. Everything happened at its appointed time with precision and friendly efficiency.

For starters we had a Ham Hock & Foie Gras Terrine, Red Onion Marmalade and a Lasagne Of Dorset Crab, Beurre Nantais. Both dishes were honest cooking, great quality ingredients and absolutely bursting with flavour. You know you have a good dish when conversation drops and the silences are punctuated with ‘you must try this’. The lasagne of crab was rich and generous and had a taste that lingered long after the last bite.

Mains were Braised Pork Cheeks, Ox Tongue, Ham And Pickled Mushrooms with Madeira Jus and a Confit Duck Leg, Black Pudding, Glazed Figs and Lyonnaise salad.  Both dishes displayed a very high level of cooking and were perfect example of honest French bistrot food. Robust, well seasoned, generous and totally unctuous. The sauces glistened, the meat fell off the bone, the vegetables had bite and the mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy. Everything was as it should be. No surprises and absolutely no disappointments.

All this was washed down by a fabulous red wine we last had at the Galvin la Chapelle and were happy to order again. Do try and get your hands on it, it is really a happy drinking wine. The wine is called Irancy. It is a fairly recent red wine appellation in the far north-west of the Burgundy region in France. Created in 1999, the appellation is specifically for wines made from Pinot Noir (with a permitted 10 percent addition of Cesar) from the communes of Cravant, Irancy and Vincelottes.

Dessert was a single Valrhona chocolate delice with milk ice cream.  Very dense and chocolaty. The perfect bistrot dessert, according the Cordon Bleu Lawyer.

After all the clichés have buzzed through my brain, I am left with just one question. I don’t know why we do not come to Galvin Bistrot de Luxe more often. It deserves at least one of not two visits during every London visit.  A definite recommend for everyone. Friendly, comforting, outstanding food and great atmosphere. What more could one want from a restaurant??

Ham Hock. Please see the internal garnish of Onion, Carrot and Gherkin and of course Foie Gras 
Lobster Ravioli
Duck Confit with Figs, Salade Landais and Black Pudding

Pork Cheeks

Chocolate Delice

Friday, September 16, 2011

Helene Darozze at the Connaught

Dinner was scheduled at Helene Darroze at the Connaught. The Connaught is a classic hotel located in Mayfair, which every Indian knows is next to Park Lane, literally, and on the Monopoly board is the most expensive to set up house. The Connaught changed management a few years ago and has been renovated. The renovation has resulted in the termination of the contract with Gordon Ramsay Holding and consequently, the closing of his protégé, Angela Hartnet's restaurant in the Hotel. The Connaught asked Helene Darroze to set up. Helene Darroze is a Frenchwoman and a 4th generation Chef who schooled under Alain Ducasse, a man who held at one time a total of 19 Michelin stars. Helene Darroze herself has a restaurant in Paris and soon after opening at the Connaught, she got a star at the Connaught. Last year she was awarded her second star. She is probably the only woman other than Elena Arzak [who has 3] to have two Michelin stars.

It was a short walk to the restaurant and on being seated we were greeted and handed menus by a young man who, it turned out, lived at Andheri, studied first at Rizvi College Bandra and then the Hammersmith Hotel Management School before joining Helene Darroze as a commis at the very at the very bottom of the ladder. In the last 5 years, he proudly said, he has risen to the position he now held. It was indeed a proud moment for a Desi to be a captain in a 2 Star French restaurant in very proper Mayfair. We told him so. He beamed and swelled with pride, and why not.

We were handed a menu with, once again, three options, a short Signature Menu, a 3 course A la carte menu and the Inspirational Menu. This time we chose the Inspirational Menu which was something like a `best of Helene Darroze’. Lots of tables around us did the same.

Now a word about the service and ambience. The room was large, carpeted and wood panelled giving it a nice gentlemen’s club feel but with definite feminine touches. A modern chandelier dominated the centre. One section of the room was sort of cordoned off by a set of work tables from where butter, cheese and bread were dispensed and the Champagne trolley and Petit Fours trolley were parked. Water glasses were Baccarat and wine glasses Reidel. Custom made crockery for each dish and Sterling Silver cutlery set the tone. 

At both Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Helene Darroze we noticed slate being used as crockery and, in both, gold leaf was used to garnish luxury ingredients like caviar. The ambience at Helene Darroze was much better than Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The staff were better proportioned [I mean number wise] and things looked promising, in fact quite promising. Being in Mayfair, the restaurant attracted a much older set of diners as well as a fair number of what seemed to be, senior corporate honchos dining. Everybody was in a suit.

No tomfoolery of menu with prices and menus without prices. Everybody got menus with prices. Permit me to go into a bit more detail here on this menu issue. Restaurants deal with menus differently. For example, at Le Gavaroche, the person in whose name the booking stands is regarded as the host and automatically gets the menu with prices. How they determine who is the booker remains a mystery for us but we are certain they always have it spot on. At Restaurant Gordon Ramsay the captain asked, rather brusquely, `who is the host’? On being told that it was me, I got the menu with prices. This was repeated with other customers as well and often caused confusion for the people at the table. Imagine doing this at a kitty party or at a table of Khandelwal’s where everybody will point to the next person!! At Restaurant Paul Bocuse, I, presumably being the man, was assumed to be the host and got the prices.

Unlike at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, we could not order different menus at the table. The whole table had to select the same menu. You could, if you liked, change a couple of items in the Inspirational menu. One table said they did not want Oyster so that was changed. A nice touch was that after you chose your menu, you got a small print of your menu which was placed on the table so you could refer to it. Obviously if you had a couple of things changed, the change was reflected on the table top menu. 

I am not going to give you a detailed description of what we got. Have a look at the photographs and comments.

Butter. Salted and unsalted. Note the Slate. 

“Fines de Claire” oyster tartare, caviar from Sologne,chilled white bean from Béarn velouté. Note the Gold leaf in the very centre. Note the Slate base

Duck foie gras from Les Landes, cooked “au torchon” [my translation-wrapped in cloth and cooked slowly in a Bain Marie], fresh and confit figs from Solliès.

Gratinated ravioli with brebis Basque cheese, sautéed barigoule artichoke, chicken jus pearled with Sicilian olive oil

Roasted XXL Scottish scallop, cauliflower and hazelnut couscous, cauliflower mousseline, parsley jus, garlic emulsion

Poached pavé of seabass, marmalade of fresh and confit tomatoes and confit fennel, lemon verbena pistou, olive oil sauce with lemon and capers from Pantelleria

Grouse from Yorkshire, pink roasted and flambed “au capuchin” [my translation-with a small tartlette. This was the shredded confit of the leg wrapped in Kataifi pastry], grilled duck foi gras from Les Landes, Mirabelles, Betroots and Parsnips, intense jus with Mexican Mole.

The Cheese course

Note the Slate base. An amuse bouche 

Crystallized rose petal with a rose flavored panna cotta, strawberry sorbet, almond joconde sponge. Note the slate base.

Manjari chocolate cylinder from Madagascar, raspberry sorbet and galangal cream
Fallen apart

Manjari chocolate cylinder from Madagascar, raspberry sorbet and galangal cream. Correctly presented

When we arrived, the restaurant was operating at 15% capacity. Slowly it started to fill up. Alarmingly, service started to get ragged, long uncomfortable pauses between courses became the norm. The speed with which waiters dashed about increased and the seemingly imperious senior managers were soon pacing the room carrying food. It seemed that the kitchen could just not keep up. While we were almost rushed through the first few courses, the time it took to clear our plates and set up for the next course became awkwardly long. Have a look at the photo of the Grouse. The menus said it was served with grilled Foie Gras. No Foie Gras on the plate. The Grouse dish was a disaster, and I told the waiter so. Tables all around us were also abandoning the dish. It was simply awful. Unseasoned, un sauced and with the crucial Foie Gras missing there was just no unctuousness. We did not realise at the time that the Foie Gras was missing and figured this only when we looked at the menu back at our apartment.

Now, have a look at the two photographs of the Manjari Chocolate desert. Notice the difference in the two photos. In one dish the presentation has come apart and the desert has collapsed. Should this happen in a 2 star restaurant which the Michelin Guide describes as `excellent cooking and worth a detour, first class cuisine of its type’. No not to my mind. It should have immediately been whisked away, re-plated and re-served.

The cheese course was not much fun. They had only 3 cheese. A Goats milk, a hard cheese and a Ewes Milk Blue [I cannot stand chese made of milk from Ewes, Sheep or Goat. I find the barnyard flavour extremely unpleasant]. For a restaurant of this class, the punter should have been given a choice, not have had cheese thrust on him.

Ultimately the meal was much like how the Indian Cricket team performs. The same clichés could be applied here. The restaurant snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It was inconsistent, performance fell away, fantastic on paper but poor on delivery crumble under pressure and so on and so forth.

Pity, a sad end to a very good start. The kitchen collapsed and by the end the service collapsed. What a shame. Don’t waste your money going here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is the flagship of Chef Ramsay's empire. It has 3 Michelin stars and is one of the 4 in UK to have this honour. The other three being Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal at Bray, Waterside Inn by Alain Roux also at Bray and Alain Ducasse in London.

Ramsay, the l’enfant terrible among Chefs [well, he is still only 45] is now probably better known for his aggressive posturing and strong language on television shows, but let us not forget that he is an extremely talented, capable and intelligent Chef who has been schooled by some of the present greats. He has worked with Albert Roux, Guy Savoy, Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffman. His style is more modern and European influenced than that of his previous employers, while retaining its French base. People often view Ramsay’s foul temper and shouting on his TV shows as unfair or harsh and in some instances as drama. I for one believed that he was always justified. I mean you are running a restaurant with paying customers and you have to have high and consistent standards. After eating at his restaurant, I have greater respect for his demand for standards as well as his capabilities. 

The restaurant is in Chelsea, a nice part of London but away from the usual Mayfair/Park Lane/Soho locations of fancy restaurants. It’s small with only 45 covers and the room is quite simple and stark. Exquisite fresh white roses are dominant as far as decor goes, and the room is also predominantly white.

Before I delve into the food, let me tell you a bit about the service and ambience. The dress code is “smart. Jackets and shirts are preferred for gentlemen, but ties are not required. We would ask our guests not to wear jeans, trainers, T-Shirts or any form of sportswear.” To me this presents a problem. Remember, that this is a really good restaurant with 3 Michelin stars which by its very definition means it’s a restaurant `exceptional cuisine worth the special journey’. By having this dress code you have the unhappy situation of people turning up in all kinds of clothes. The Americans have a field day with their odd semi casual khakis/chinos, tasselled shoes and peculiar bomber jackets while some of the Brits turn up in crumpled shirts. This, I did not like. For a restaurant of this stature, I believe a jacket, at the very least, is necessary. The second problem, I felt was the lack of atmosphere, lack of calm and intimacy in the restaurant. The room was small and I counted at least 10 wait staff [maitre d, captains, sommeliers, and waiters] and 3 bus boys continually pacing. The staff were not all French but rather like Ramsay’s influences, more eclectic. A few were Oriental, a Canadian, a Desi and a Scot with the usual complement of Eastern and Western European.

Service standards were excellent, absolutely no complaints. You were escorted to a toilet, your coats taken and returned with no questions concerning identification. If on a table for 2 one person went to the toilet, immediately, a captain would walk up and engage in conversation with the person waiting at the table. Communication between the staff was complete and seamless. They saw we came in by taxi, so, on paying the bill we were asked if we would like a taxi ordered. And, oh yes, the menu with the prices is only given to the host.

The food was absolutely top notch. Very skilfully prepared with each individual ingredient shining through. Each sub component to a dish [and there were many sub components to each dish] had an independent cooking technique which was in itself intricate. Each dish had customised crockery all of which means greater cost. The cutlery was all Sterling Silver, which must have cost a fortune to get and now with silver prices being what they are, must be worth a proverbial king’s ransom. There were 3 menus. A 3 course with multiple choices in each course, a 7 course menu exceptional and a deluxe, seasonal 7 course. The advantage was that each person on the table could, if they wanted, have had a different menu. Imagine the service standards to serve this kind of order. Imagine the stress in the kitchen. Remarkable. What we discovered while eating was that the simple 3 course meal had 1 pre starter and 3 amuse bouche. We both stuck with the a la carte 3 course.

While having our Champagne, we were served a pre starter. This was what I called a play on shapes. No photo unfortunately as the starter came out so quick we could not react. A mini Cornetto filled with Cream and Smoked Salmon, a Scotch Egg with Quails egg soft in the centre with a shaving of Truffle and a rectangle pastry sandwich containing Caponata wrapped with a bit of Salami.

We ordered a very nice wine. This was the St. Laurent Alte Reben, Gerhard Pittnauer from Burgenland, Austria. It was a light elegant red with a heady berry aroma.

After this came an amuse bouche of Lobster topped with Caviar in a Tomato Consommé with peas, double beans, tomato and a minute amount of spring onion. This was astounding. The Tomato Consommé was so full of flavour while being so clear that my mind was fooled, I could not believe this liquid was tomato. Each vegetable in the dish was perfectly cooked and vibrant.

Lobster Amuse Bouche
Now it was time for the Starters. HRH the Queen of Kutch had Ravioli of Lobster, Langoustine And Salmon with a light bisque of Lemongrass and Chervil Velouté while I had the Slow braised Pied De Cochon [Pigs Trotter] pressed then pan-fried with Ham knuckle, poached Quail’s Egg and Hollandaise Sauce. HRH's Ravioli, unlike most, was exceptional as it had small chunks of Lobster, Langoustine And Salmon instead of the cheaper option of making a Mousse of the ingredients. Both were outstanding.

Lobster Ravioli

Pigs Trotter

For our main course, it was Roasted fillets of John Dory with Chorizo Couscous, Baby Squid, Artichoke and spiced Tomato Jus for HRH. I had the all male dish of Butter poached Dedham Vale Beef with Braised Short Ribs, Roasted Bone Marrow and Scottish Girolles. The trick here was that the Girolles came in a little, very hot cocotte that had the Girolles sizzling in butter. So if they were not promptly served you would have had burnt offerings resulting in the entire table’s food requiring to be returned to the kitchen and represented.

John Dory

L-R Short Rib, Girolles & Fillet

Potato Crisps

After this it was another amuse bouche of mango with Jasmine Tea and Passion fruit. A quick refresher.

Deserts were a Banoffee Pie Soufflé (banana and salted caramel crumble) for HRH and Bitter Chocolate Cylinder with Coffee Granité and Ginger Mousse for me. Once again superbly cooked and the Soufflé was as it should be, light, flavourful and holding its shape. The Chocolate cylinder was, to use Rashmi Uday Singh’s language, yummy.

Banoffe Caramel Souffle

Chocolate Cylinder

Skill. Chocolate drizzled on a perfect ice cream sphere

Gold on top of cylinder
Despite this it was still not game over. It was time for Petit Fours. We got 3, a truly ghastly Turkish Delights; Strawberry Ice Cream coated with White Chocolate and really smooth bitter chocolate ganache. We were instructed to eat this with our fingers, which we gladly did. The Turkish Delight, I must repeat, was anything but that, it was horrible.

Turkish Delight

Strawberry Ice Cream with Dry Ice smoke

Ganache. Note the little silver trowels
Last impressions? Great food, high quality, highly refined, impressive use of techniques, skill and presentation. Service to match the food. Very ordinary atmosphere and ambience in the restaurant, much too busy with all the staff bustling and frenetic.

Has this bested our favourite restaurant overall - Le Gavaroche? Nope. Has this bested the most charming restaurant – Galvin Le Chapelle? Nope.  Has this wowed us with the food like Koffman did? Nope.  Is it very good and should you go here. Of course. Does it deserve 3 Michelin stars, yes.