Sunday, February 26, 2012

Welcome to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport

“Welcome to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport”. What effect those words have on each passenger sitting in an aircraft, is probably the subject of a study that would thrill many behavioural scientsists. What do those words mean to you? 

For me, it means the end of a holiday, a not very pleasant feeling. This then means you have to steel yourself for what used to be the walk of shame from your aircraft to the immigration counters. It was particularly horrible walking thru what seemed like bombed out corridors when the building was being renovated. Now this has changed for the better, you now have an Art Walk, walking past large, pleasant and some rather good oil paintings by some of India’s better artists ranging from Anjolie Ela Menon to Brinda Miller. Not bad.

For me it also means that you now have to walk fast, very fast to get to the head of the queue at Immigration. This walk, after lying almost comatose in the aircraft for the last 8 hours eating and drinking yourself silly, is invigorating, gets your blood flowing rather quick. Is this the reason why the airport authorities have placed several Heart Defibrillator machines along the walls at the airport? I am serious, have a look at these!

It also means that you have to get ready to get your immigration card, its smaller tear off portion and your Passport stamped. Then, you need to hold your Passport open to the page with the stamp and show it to yet VIP [Vagabond In Power], and finally enter the baggage claim area.

Here you will see creatures in white. They are not ghosts but are in fact employees of the Government of India’s, Ministry of Finance’s Department of Revenue. To understand what they are supposed to do I suggest that you read their citizens charter. It’s pretty long. Hilarious, to say the least.

It means that after you have collected your bags and passed thru the Customs inspection you have to now be ever vigilant to hand over that tear off portion of the landing card, to a waiting police constable. This can be a challenge. Lots of time has passed since that tear off was handed to you, in the meanwhile here has been much excitement, you have collected your bags, X Rayed them and are walking out when suddenly this Constable asks you for that slip. Many poor unsuspecting foreigners, who cannot understand the guttural utterances of the constable, have no idea what all this is about.

Once you hand over the slip, you can finally exit into a teeming seething mass of humanity. This always amazes me. So I tried to do some research on this. Heathrow Airport has a very informative site. It says that for Terminal 5 alone, which is the newest, largest and is used almost exclusively by British Airways, 23.4 million passengers passed thru it to arrive or depart on a total of 166,940 flights. Mind you Heathrow is closed during the night, so all flights and passenger movements happen only during 18 odd hours of operation. Unfortunately I could not find comparable figures for the International Terminal of Mumbai Airport; however the official website of the airport states that Mumbai Airport [Domestic and International] handled 29.1 million passengers in the same period. Assuming, while it cannot be the case, a 50% - 50% split between domestic and international which would mean 14.5 million passengers in the International terminal in Mumbai as opposed to 23.4 million in Heathrow Terminal 5, the sheer numbers of people outside the airport is, as the cliché goes, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, Why do we have so many bodies outside? 

Amid all this confusion and humanity you spot your driver and feel such a sense of relief. That is the time I am comfortable again, and feel I am home, when I see the driver. Is this how the immigrants felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty when docking at New York? I wonder.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe - Revisited

It’s become a sort of ritual for us, on landing in London after a quick pint or two at a nearby pub we walk to Black & Blue for dinner. When leaving London we have our last meal at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. Nothing like leaving London with a memory of a decent wine and some good French Bistro food. So, in keeping with this practice we had made a booking for dinner at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe.

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe opened in 2005 in what was then a gastronomic desert in Marylebone. Since then the Galvin Brothers – Chris and Jeff – have gone from strength to strength opening several mid to high end French restaurants. Galvin La Chapelle and Galvin Windows have Michelin stars. Marylebone now has not only Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, but you can add Canteen, Texture, Bright Courtyard, Trishna, Roganic, Locanda Locatelli, L’Autre Pied and the Providores & Tapa Room to name but a few.

To get going we had the Aperitif of the day which was basically a version of the classic Champagne Cocktail I had at L’Atellier Joel Robuchon. Here it was made with Prosecco, Grand Marnier, Angostura Bitters and Orange Zest. Along with that we got a delightful, light, low on tannins, Marsannay 2008.

For dinner HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered the restaurants signature dish the Lasagne of Dorset Crab with Beurre Nantais. This is really a superlative dish. Two discs of Pasta with a Crabmeat Mousse between them. Beurre Nantais is a classic French sauce made with shallots, white wine, vinegar and butter is then added and finally chopped Chives.

I tossed between a Ham Hock & Foie Gras Terrine and an Imam Biyaldi. I could not resist having a last bit of Foie Gras before leaving for home, so it was the Terrine for me. Sorry, the Imam may have fainted seeing the aubergine prepared for him, but, frankly, it left me cold. It was a decent Terrine with an attractive internal garnish. This is a dish that every French Chef would make with his eyes closed. No complaints.

HRH the Queen of Kutch toyed between Daube of Beef Bourguignonne, Pommes Mousseline, the Roast Sea Bass, Caramelised Endive, Cauliflower Purée, Raisin & Caper dressing and, her favourite, Veal Brains with Beurre Noisette, before finally choosing the Beef. Good choice I thought. The dish was sublime. The Queen was in raptures, she cooed that the Beef was fork tender, the sauce glistening, the potato puree silky [not that she has eaten silk] and the aromas rising, bewitching.

Being winter, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe had Cassoulet on offer. This is a favourite of mine. Pork and beans a winning combination. My Cassoulet had Duck Confit, Pork Belly and a Garlic Sausage. It was served in an earthenware bowl as it should be and was absolutely wonderful. The broth was deeply flavoured and the beans still retained their integrity. Delicious.

To finish, I got myself a Valrhona chocolate fondant with Honeycomb and Ice Cream while HRH the Queen get herself a Rhubarb Crème Brulee. The Chocolate Fondant oozed on cue and the Crème Brulee shattered. To wash this down HRH had a Cognac while I sipped aged Rum.

Another very satisfying meal at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. If you want a reasonably priced introduction to an example of good French Bistro food you must visit this place. It checks all the boxes. Good food, decent well priced wines including some excellent carafes, a great atmosphere making you feel as if you really are in France, and, most of all great service. This is really a very good restaurant. It’s not a budget version of Galvin La Chapelle and Galvin Windows, it holds its own, and very well too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Canteen London

The cliché goes that you should breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and have dinner like a pauper. Fine words! No mention of dining with the Queen!! Our lives are all topsy turvy; our biggest and most expensive meals are all dinner, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. Last Sunday we thought let’s try eating like the cliché so we went bright and early to the Farmers Market held in the Cramer Street car part in Marylebone and HRH the Queen had her customary half dozen Oysters. I am not a fan of Oysters, for one I don’t like their consistency and two I am petrified of falling violently ill after eating a bad one. Anyway, these are not things that have every daunted Blue Blooded Royalty.

After the Oysters we popped into Canteen. This is a small 4 outlet chain of all-day restaurants serving predominantly British food. It’s a trendy restaurant in as much as it has a `Mission statement’, has a Facebook site and a Twitter handle. The Mission statement reads 'Canteen is committed to providing honest food, nationally sourced, skilfully prepared and reasonably priced'. I presume that in the absence of the information in the Mission Statement the food would have been dishonest, sourced from some foreign country, Outer Mongolia maybe, prepared with no skill whatsoever and sold at rapacious prices. Frankly, that is how most of the new restaurants in Mumbai operate what with New Zealand Lamb Chops et al. Anyway, despite the Mission Statement and Social Media thrust, Canteen is a good place with good food and it is indeed reasonably priced. Canteen is close to the Apartment so we popped in for a Sunday breakfast.

After the half dozen Oysters, HRH’s appetite had its edge taken off, so she said that she would like to have a Welsh Rarebit with a Poached Egg and a glass of fresh Apple juice. I ordered the Canteen `Full English’ Breakfast.

A Welsh Rarebit is a delicious open cheese toast made with an English [or Welsh] cheese like Cheddar, Double Gloucester and the like, enriched with Mustard, Beer and other ingredients. This mix is spread on toast and grilled. A poached egg sat on top. It was really very good and the egg perfectly poached. So much so that HRH asked me to keep the camera ready to take a photo of the egg oozing.

Welsh Rarebit

The Full English was a joy to behold. Such a good breakfast. I would have liked some baked beans but this was enough. Good eggs, decent bacon and a well flavoured sausage, what more could one want for breakfast?

After eating that, it was a lazy afternoon reading the very large Sunday newspapers. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Empress of Sichuan London

Sichuan food is a style of Chinese Cuisine originating in the Sichuan Province of south western China, famed for bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of garlic and chilli peppers, as well as the unique flavour of the Sichuan Peppercorns. Peanuts, Sesame Paste, and Ginger are also prominent ingredients in Sichuan cooking. The belief is that Camellia Panjabi, then a director at the Indian Hotels Company, introduced Sichuan food to us unsuspecting Indian by launching the Golden Dragon restaurant in the Bombay Taj Mahal Hotal. Unfortunately, for us Indians, life has not been the same ever since. No Chinese meal is complete without some bastardaised renditions of Sichuan food like Kung Pao Chicken or Potato or any dish containing the word `Sechzuan’ in its description. The food served in India contains no Sichuan Peppercorns which are integral to the cuisine. Instead the food contains masses of oil, chilly and garlic characterised by a lurid red sauce. Today, China House at the Hyatt Kalina is probably the only genuine Sichuan restaurant in Mumbai.

Sichuan food got its moment in the sun in London a few years ago with a profusion of Sichuan Restaurants being set up. I believe that Ba Shan, BarShu and Baozi Inn were the first of the wave of restaurants which served Sichuan as well as Hunan food. This food was completely different from the milder Cantonese food that has dominated London for all these years. All these new restaurants were hugely popular. The Empress of Sichuan is a relatively new addition to Sichuan food in London. It’s located on Lisle Street in Chinatown, just opposite St John Hotel and the strangely located `W Hotel’.

We had a quick soup lunch there a few days ago and were so impressed by the restaurant that we made a booking for dinner a few days later. Before dinner we wet our whistles at a nearby pub. Quite a nice looking pub.

The Restaurant is newish and has pleasant interiors. None of the cliched red lantern type decor. On the wall alongside our table was a limited edition photograph of the Rolling Stones. Interesting.

For lunch HRH the Queen ordered Noodles with Spare Ribs in Spicy Soup while I ordered a Dan Dan Noodles Soup Sichuan Style which had minced Pork. Both soups had the same broth which was stunning. The wonderful Ma La sensation coming thru clearly. Since the Soups were relatively small portions we topped up our order with some Pork Dumplings. Very good. We walked out very satisfied.

Dan Dan Noodles Soup Sichuan Style

Noodles with Spare Ribs in Spicy Soup


A bit of background about Ma La. Sichuan Peppercorns are extensively used in Sichuan cookery. In India too , we have and use this spice which we call `Trifal’. This is used a lot in Konkani food. I am quoting from Wikipedia – “Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth (caused by its 3% of Hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for hot spices. According to Harold McGee in On Food & Cooking, second edition, p429 they are not simply pungent; "they produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue)”.  This is what I mean when writing about the Ma La sensation.

After settling down and ordering a couple of Tiger Beers, to start for dinner, I wanted to try a cold Cucumber starter which we had at the China House while HRH the Queen wanted to try the highly recommended 1000 Year Egg with Red Chilli. The Cucumber dish was cold with a thick Tahini consistency sesame sauce coating the Cucumbers. This was not the dish I had at China House but it was good nonetheless. The 1000 Year Eggs had soy, sesame oil dressing and a garnish of the Red Chilli. A word about the Red Chilli. These are the thick skinned variety so have very low spice levels. The 1000 Year Egg was excellent. We had a Cantonese version of this at the Yung Kee Restaurant in Hong Kong where the eggs were served with preserved Ginger. These were as good. An auspicious beginning.

Cucumber with Sesame Garlic Sauce

1000 Year Egg with Red Chilli

Ordering the mains was a considerably more difficult task. There was just so much that absolutely leapt out of the menu. We concentrated, focussed, narrowed our choices and ordered. First up was the vegetarian Aubergine with chopped chilli, served warm. This was ordered because we had really liked the dish when we ordered it at Bright Courtyard. This one was as good though slightly differently presented. The Aubergine was cut in batons and not roundels and the dish was warm. Excellent.

Aubergine with chopped chilli

There were two dishes that competed for the dish of the evening. The first contender was Steamed `Dong Po’ Pig Joint. Very awkward sounding. In reality, this was a steamed Pig Trotter which was cooked in an oily spicy sauce with minced pork and squid added. The dish was brought to the table with the whole trotter and after displaying the dish, much like they do with the Crispy Aromatic Duck, the trotter was shredded. The dish was historic, really good. We have had pig’s trotters in so many versions from the very sophisticated Koffmann version of stuffing it with Chicken Mousseline, Sweetbreads and Truffle to the Joel Robuchon version of shredded Trotter meat, seasoned and shaped into a Quenelle and served with Parmesan and Iberico Ham and now this humble and deceptively rustic version. All of them have been absolute stand outs. I marvel at the ingenuity of the cooks in working with this very humble ingredient.

Steamed `Dong Po’ Pig Joint - with the whole joint intact

Steamed `Dong Po’ Pig Joint - shredded, you can see the bone on the top

The second competitor for dish of the day was a simple Beef stir fried with Chilly, Sichuan Peppercorns and crushed Peanuts and Sesame. In a word – superb. Once again the Ma La was stunning. I guess the dish had been tuned for western palates therefore the chillies had no heat despite having copious quantities of them in the dish,

 Beef stir fried with Chilly, Sichuan Peppercorns and crushed Peanuts and Sesame 

Accompanying this was a small bowl of Egg Fried Rice which remained unfinished. The rest of the food was just so good. Needless to say we could not finish the food, so we had the remains packed to have them for lunch the next day. It should be a good lunch.

I seriously recommend this restaurant if you want to eat pungent Chinese food. It’s very reasonably priced and service is good and friendly. Make time for this place.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bright Courtyard London

Dinner was set up at Bright Courtyard, a spanking new Shanghainese Chinese restaurant on Baker Street. Joining us for dinner were our long standing Friend Philosopher and Guide [FPG] and his effervescent better half [using Indian English] the Most Respected Auntieji [MRA].

The Bright Courtyard is set up by a Chinese business house whose website has all the correct adjectives that, unfortunately, when strung together make absolutely no sense. Words like  – “The Group is always dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. The heartfelt commitment to innovation, development style and health .....” - and so on and so forth. Anyway, the Restaurant had been highly rated and is located very close to our apartment, so we thought why not? The restaurant is large, bright and tables set far apart.

After our coats were whisked away from us we settled down to order. To set the mood for the evening we all ordered a round of beers. Oddly only Tsing Tao [Chinese] and Tiger [Singapore] were available. HRH the Queen of Kutch as well as I have a problem with Asian beers which is that they have a rather sweet undertone. Anyway we settled on Tigers which we drank and cracked rather juvenile jokes about – A Tiger for the Tigress, ha ha ha. The menu consisted of a single side of an A4 sheet with some additional dishes which were on an Ipad. This was not your usual Chinese menu with 400 dishes with numbers alongside. The Ipad captivated the table. You could see a photograph of your dish and you could make the image larger or smaller. More juvenile hilarity. Soon we settled on our meal.

To start, at the persistent request of FPG, we had a ½ Peking Duck. The real roast duck not the made-in-UK Crispy Aromatic Duck. The decapitated duck was brought to the table and then skilfully sliced. It had all the usual accompaniments, sliced scallions, sliced cucumber, Hoisin Sauce and Pancakes. Pleasant dish, non threatening, competent dish. We have had better renditions elsewhere. Also ordered were the Shanghai speciality Xiao Long Bao. Here the dumplings are stuffed with a pork mixture and an intensely flavoured jelled stock. When steamed, the jelly melts so when you bite into the dumpling you get the meat and the delightful jelly which is now liquid. These were very good.

Xiao Long Bao

There was strictly no classification of dishes as starters, main course, meat, poultry etc. etc. So the rest of the food arrived in a swift progression. First up was an absolute knock out of a dish. It was Aubergine steamed and topped with sliced chilli. First class dish. I presume it was simple to make however the real test was getting the correct Aubergine. The Aubergine was so soft and tender that I had to double check that it was not a reformatted Aubergine. By reformatted I mean the Aubergine cooked, mashed and then rolled into a sausage and served. It was actual slices of Aubergine. Another vegetarian dish that was ordered was another knockout. This was Morning Glory simply stir fried with Garlic and a hint of Chilli. This was really good. By now MRA was purring with delight.

Aubergine with Chopped Chilli

Morning Glory

To satisfy our need for protein, we got something called Glazed Marble Pork Belly. This was very good too. Pork Belly with a rich sticky glaze. Two staples were ordered, a simple Egg Fried Rice and a Singapore Noodles both of which were thoroughly competent dishes. I thought that we needed a bit more food, so I request that in the interests of [ill]health, a sort of stir fried dry Pork or Beef be ordered. The waitress conveyed the Chefs suggestion that Chicken was the best option. I agreed and she got us a fantastic Chicken with Chilli and loads of Sichuan Peppercorns which I love. The typically Sichuan `Ma La’ sensation was apparent. A great end to a  great meal and a fun evening.

Fried Rice

Singapore Noodles

Marble Glazed Pork Belly 

The Chicken with Sichuan Peppercorns

Bright Courtyard is a good place to eat at and the service is relaxed and friendly. The food is a couple of notches above most stand alone Chinese restaurants in London. The biggest surprise of the evening was the relatively modest bill at the end of the evening. 

Bright Courtyard is a very welcome addition to the now buzzing restaurant scene in the Baker Street/Marylebone area.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Maroush London

Just as there is a deep relationship between India and the UK, there is an equally long and deep relationship between several Arab countries and the UK. A large part of the Middle East was been colonised by the British and today, the Arabs have huge investments in the UK particularly London. You must know that the iconic British store Harrods was owned for years by Mohamed Al Fayed the Egyptian businessman. He recently sold it to Qatar Holdings owned by the Qatari Royal family. The Arabs do have a large presence in the UK.

Lebanese food is of very good quality in London. There are loads of Lebanese restaurants scattered all around London with a huge concentration on Edgware Road. This is virtually mini Lebanon. Lebanese food is a great favourite of ours. Sometimes when we want something different from a Chinese soup for lunch we grab a Shawarma and a glass of fresh juice. Sometimes we have a full Lebanese meal for dinner. If we are on a budget and want a quick meal, it’s Beirut Express for us. For a more relaxed meal in more restaurant surroundings it’s often Maroush Gardens.

During the time we spent almost 6 months here, completing our Cordon Bleu course, we ate Lebanese food quite often. It was a Friday night and we thought it was wise to make a reservation at Maroush at Vere Street. We were asked if we would prefer to enjoy some music and some belly dancing which is on offer at the lower level of the restaurant, but we chose not to and opted for the more casual upper floors.

We started the evening with a pint or two of Cider [for HRH the Queen] and Guinness for me to prepare us for the meal.

For starters we ordered Baba Ghanouj also called Moutabal, which is Aubergine [Brinjal] roasted, mashed and mixed with Tahini and seasoned with lemon. Here it was garnished with some Pomegranate jewels. The deep smoky taste was lovely. A sort of cold sans masala Baingan Bharta. One of our favourite starters is Sojuk which are lamb sausages which are cooked with a tomato sauce. These are quite delicious and contrast well with the cold  Baba Ghanouj. Grilled Haloumi Cheese is a mild rubbery cheese. It makes your teeth squeak when eating. Of course we must have a Sambousek which is exactly like a mutton samosa though its shaped like a Maharashtrian sweet called `Karanji', its crescent shaped. Another favourite is the Homus which is a Kabuli Channa Paste mixed with Tahini. To further up the vegetable content you could order the Okra - Bhindi to you and me which is cooked in a Tomato sauce with some pearl onions.All delicious.

`Free' vegetables that come to the table

Sambousek - Like a Mutton Samosa

Baba Ghanouj

Grilled Haloumi

Sojuk - A Lamb Sausage


Maroush Kalaj [A sort of  grilled cheese sandwich with Pita and Haloumi cheese] 

Homous Awarma [Homous with fried Lamb]

For our main course we had decided that we would not have the usual Shawarmas. The Lebanese do grilled meats quite well, though they are quite different from our Kebabs. The advantage you have eating grilled meat in London is that the quality of the meat is so good that grilled meat is really a good choice. I had what is known as Kafta Khosh-Khash which is skewers of minced lamb. HRH the Queen had Koussa Warak Inab and Stuffed Aubergine. This is actually a stew. Courgette [Zucchini] and baby Aubergine are hollowed out then stuffed with a mixture of uncooked rice and seasoned raw minced meat. The Vine leaves are also stuffed with this mixture and wrapped into tight cigars. The whole lot is then stewed in a tomato based gravy. The Gravy gets flavoured with the stuffing and the vegetables and the vegetables get flavoured with the tomato gravy. Really delicious. All this is sopped up with fresh hot Pita bread that they serve you free.

At another meal,we had a Kafta Yoghurtlieh. This is partly Turkish. The dish comprises of a Lamb Kofta that is grilled. They add crisp fried Pita bread and some fried Pine Nuts as garnish. To this they add a sort of `Dahi Kadhi'. Yoghurt is whisked, thickened with some Cornflour and enriched with a egg and heated and, naturally, the whisked Yoghurt thickens. Dahi Kadhi is basically the same concept. Yoghurt thickened with Chickpea [Channa/Besan] and boiled till it thickens. The combination of the Kebabs and the Yoghurt is really quite delicious.

The Kofta 

Stuffed Courgette
Kafta Yoghurtlieh [Minced Lamb kebabs with fried Pita, Pine Nuts and Yoghurt] 
It was a good meal. Meals at any of the Maroush restaurants are always a good bet and the good thing is they come at different price points. It felt nice to be eating without a suit on.