Saturday, November 19, 2011

Masala Kraft

From the time I was a child, going for dinner to the Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder [Gateway of India] was something really special. You dressed for the occasion and excitement steadily built up. After dinner, as a special treat you were allowed into Nalanda, the book shop which was open late into the night, where you were allowed to buy a book. The aura of going to the Taj for dinner has never left me. The Taj was and continues to be quite special to many.

Much has changed from the times I went there are a child. The Shamiana has been relocated and its space filled by the Starboard Bar, The Rendezvous, a French restaurant on the top floor, has now become the Souk a restaurant with Mediterranean cuisine [not the Pasta Pizza type but more Levantine]. The old Tanjore has now become Masala Kraft [their spelling]. Neither HRH the Queen nor I had been to eat at Masala Kraft. So we thought why not have a drink at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and walk across to Masala Kraft for dinner. So we called and made a reservation for 8.45 pm. I looked at the website and found to my considerable surprise, the Taj Mumbai has the menus for all its restaurants online. The menu looked promising though not unusual nor distinctive. The dress code specified `Smart Casual’. I wondered whether I should wear a jacket without a tie as that is what smart casual is in Europe. HRH dismissed my thoughts and said, pityingly, that a simple trouser and shirt would do. “Why do you not wear a jacket when we go to the ITC?” she asked. “How is this different” she continued? As always, her logic was impeccable. I protested weakly, the Taj was special, but to no avail. Shirt and trousers it was.

The Taj website says that the Masala Kraft “started with a dream of Chef Hemant Oberoi to retrace authentic Indian cuisine. It became "Masala" a circle of restaurants where time-tested ingredients are given a new life. Gone are the masks of butter, cream, and gravy. Instead we use extra virgin oil and researched preparation techniques to retain the authentic flavors.” The Menu says “traditional masalas or spices are artfully blended with an eclectic mix of classic and unconventional ingredients, to create new renditions of authentic preparations, each unmistakably light, yet bursting with colour, aroma and flavour”. 

I say bollocks! The food was rubbish, dull in flavour, utterly boring and something that many ordinary restaurants do much better. As far as the claim of the food bursting with colour, it did not! It was the traditional brown red like all Indian food unfortunately is. You can be the judge of the colour when you have a look at the photos.

Since you have my verdict in the fourth paragraph, I will spare you the bother of reading thru this and you have the choice of getting back to work.

The restaurant has a couple of levels to make it less visually dull. The wooden pillars from the Tanjore are still there. The tables are large, quite large and reasonably placed to provide some privacy. Despite it being Friday night, 8.45 pm during Mumbai’s approaching tourist season the restaurant was only about 75% full with a vast majority being foreigners, probably hotel guests. When we left at 10.15 it was still not full. There were lots and lots of waiters, Captains, Restaurant managers, hostesses, barman and a Sommelier mincing his way thru the restaurant. All the staff operated in a rather languorous manner. The word "Susegad" comes to mind. They all needed a jolt of lightening or dare I say it, the brandishing of an AK 47 to get them to work. I could provide neither. All very friendly, or more correctly, affable, I must say but rather ineffectual.

Soon after we were seated, a bowl of very South Indian fried goodies appeared on our table with a very peculiar chutney, neither tamarind nor tomato, and not particularly good. Along with this were crudités which were wilting and dried out. Unacceptable. Then we got an Amuse Bouche - A Dahi Batata Puri which HRH pronounced as soggy. Cute touch, would get most foreigners rather tickled. 

The South Indian Fried chips 

Dahi Batata Puri
We ordered two starters. The first was outstanding, I honestly say so. This was Haleem Ke Kebab. Haleem was spread on some kind of Channa Daal Roti and grilled. Absolutely first class. Dish of the evening, unique, tasty and using the Haleem in a modern twist. The second starter was Prawn Balchau Roll. Prawn Balchau is a pickle and should therefore be oily, spicy and tangy as you need the acid to prevent spoilage. Here the Prawn Balchau was very mild, without any tang and frankly tasted like a prawn fished out from a Prawn Curry. This was wrapped in a Rice Bhakri. The dish had a fundamental problem. It was impossible to serve without disintegrating, as you can see in the photo. Silly dish. Innovation for the sake of it. They would have been better off as a Prawn Balchau served as is with a Rice Bhakri on the side. A Prawn Pickle in its true form real is quite unique without all these unnecessary gimmicks.

Haleem Ke Kebab

Prawn Balchau Roll
For our main course we ordered one of our favourite dishes – Nehari or Lamb Shanks in a red sauce/gravy that is often thickened with collagen or sometimes flour. At Masala Kraft they call it Dum Ki Nalli. At the Dum Pukht in the ITC they call it Hyderabadi Nehari and at Delhi Durbar they call it Mutton Nehari. The dish is basically the same. Lamb shanks slow cooked in a gravy which is then strained resulting the finished product being a piece of meat falling of the bone with a smooth sauce. Here at Masala Kraft it ticked all the boxes except in the flavour department. Everything was muted, very muted and they could not achieve the clarity that the gravy at ITC manages. The other dish we ordered was the old Parsi warhorse, Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo – Chicken cooked with Apricots and topped with straw potato. Looked Ok, but once again such terribly muted flavours. My friend the Big Fromage Tax Lawyer's mother without any formal training makes a much better Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo as do the very ordinary Ideal Corner at Gunbow Street or Britannia at Sprott Road. Dare I say it again; the Chefs needed the brandishing of an AK 47 to get them to work. As a moment of whimsy HRH ordered a Chilli Olive Naan. Very attractive looking, rather normal tasting. What more would you want from a Naan?

The Dum Ki Nalli

Dum Ki Nalli Gravy

Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo

Chili Olive Naan 
Have you had a look at the photos? Does the food look “unmistakably light, yet bursting with colour”? Not to me it does not.

I know what you are all thinking as you read this. Stonethrower, you are a fool, what did you expect? This is all for foreigners, for tourists. You deserve what you got. I do not want to even get into a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena [MNS] type argument that the Taj should be shut down for catering to foreigners and all food should be   Batata Chi Sukhi Bhaji, Poli, Bhat, Paplet, Koshimbir ani Amti. I ask you my friends; does the ITC have a sign outside reminiscent of the British Raj saying “Foreigners and Dogs Not Allowed”? I mean come on guys get real. Is this the food we want to portray to some of the richest and most powerful who visit Mumbai? I understand that spice can be an issue but this kind of tomfoolery of Olive Oil and vibrant colour? I mean we Indian are not dropping like flies eating oil and ghee we have a billion and more souls in this country all hale and hearty. How can you be so presumptuous to suggest that Indian food is unhealthy and can be eaten only if made with olive oil? Am I stepping into MNS territory here? In my view this is a restaurant surviving on a captive audience, unmotivated staff, lazy and slothful. The lack of competition has killed them. Harsh words but in my view very true.

To have a great Indian meal, lavish, expensive, no holds barred, eat at the Peshawari, Dum Pukth or Dakshin in the ITC. Or else eat at Trishna, or, if your guests are adventurous enough Mahesh, Gajalee, Apoorva or Great Punjab. Are they not catering to tourists as well? Is their food this watered down rubbish touted with marketing verbiage of "bright vibrant colour and flavour"? Give the Taj Mahal Mumbai a miss. They have misssed the plot. 

You know something, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both ate at Bukhara - the original Peshawari. I doubt they ate at Masala Kraft.

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