Thursday, July 27, 2017

Babbo, Benoit by Alain Ducasse and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong - Manhattan

You must have read about the “cheap” and “classic” New York meals/dishes/restaurants we ate, and ate at.

This post covers 3 other meals. An Italian at Babbo which has one star in Michelin, a wonderful meal at the Alain Ducasse bistro Benoit which we stumbled on during our meanderings, and a raucous dinner at a Korean barbeque place called Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong.

We had wanted to eat at Babbo ever since we made plans. Babbo is helmed by the charismatic Chef Mario Batali who is instantly recognizable by his portly frame, blond ponytail, shorts and vividly coloured orange Crocs. Batali formed a partnership with Joe Bastianich a hugely successful entrepreneur and restaurateur and of late, winemaker, to open several acclaimed restaurants in USA. You must have seen Joe Bastianich on TV in the US Masterchef as well as in his show Restaurant Startup which ran very recently. Batali, Bastianich and Bastianich’s mother Lidia also co-own Eataly a mega supermarket of all things Italian – [edible of course]. Quite a powerhouse.

Babbo opened in 1998 to rave reviews. They fly in pastas, vinegars cheese and salt, from Italy, which, they say are unique in their taste and are the very basis of true Italian taste in food, with no substitutes. Personally, I agree to a large extent, probably with the exception of salt. If you think about it, cynically, Parmesan, Balsamic Vinegar, San Daniele ham are some ingredients which restaurants world over import. So what is the big deal? As far as pasta is concerned, we have learnt that true Italian dried pasta made by smaller companies [not Barilla] is just so much better that it is not funny.

Babbo is located in Greenwich Village in the area just off Washington Square. We turned up for our reservation, gave our names and were whisked to probably the worst table in the house, just by the toilets. Racist? Is the name Stonethrower an indication of a brown man as opposed to the name Smith? HRH the Queen of Kutch immediately protested and we were whisked to a better table at the very front of the restaurant alongside the main door!!! Note to self; make all bookings in John Smiths name. We were calmer but not at ease. Our table was by the window you see in the photograph.

A glass of Prosecco was ordered and we were asked if and what we were celebrating. “Nothing, particular” I answered, “just life”. The waiter dutifully smiled and handed us the menus. The food was good. This was not the red sauce and pasta type of food you associate with USA. This was genuinely good and fairly different Italian food. No complaints at all. The photographs will show all. I was quite surprised at the high level of chilli in some of the dishes. Not complaining, just pointing out.

Pigs Trotters Milanese

Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrett

Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles

Spicy Two Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style

Charred Beef Tongue with Romano Beans and Chianti Mustard

What struck me the most is something I have written about earlier. Babbo has a star in Michelin. I am not questioning Michelins judgement. We were at dinner. The restaurant is famous, and yet the casual clothes worn by punters, to me was upsetting. I mean, the waiters wore ties, the restaurant managers wore suits. To be fair, a large number of punters were wearing long trousers or jeans, but, shorts were around.

One day when walking we saw a very clean looking restaurant façade. We looked at the name and saw Benoit and the magic words Alain Ducasse below. We were quite surprised and walked up to see the menu that was at the entrance. Alain Ducasse is a mega chef. Through his many restaurants all over the globe he holds in excess of 20 stars in Michelin. You will recall the recent photograph of Donald Trump with Macron and Ducasse following a meal at the Ducasse restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. Benoit served classic bistro food, something that we both absolute love. We had decided not to eat French food in USA, but this was an opportunity that was too good to pass up on. We strode in and made reservations for the next evening.

Do have a look at the menu here. It is mouthwatering. It is often said that a good roast chicken is something of joy. Many restaurants offer Roast Chicken for two, but we have never been tempted to order that. This time I was determined. They offered a ½ Roast Chicken. It arrived a beautiful golden colour. Juicy in the extreme, seasoned perfectly with a beautiful sauce. I now know why Roast Chicken is so loved. Wonderful dish.

French Onion Soup - One of my all time favourite soups

Half dozen Snails with Garlic and Parsley Butter. HRH the Queens favourite starter

Roast Chicken

A special of the day. Gnocci with Langoustines and Morels

A special of the day Dessert. Peach 3 ways.

Whats going on? Mismatched cutlery

The area around the Empire State Building is an ethnic Korean enclave in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, centered on West 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Broadway. This is in what is known as the Garment District and close to the legendary Macy’s. We have never eaten Korean food so we thought we should test the waters.

Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong stood out. It had a long line so we said this looks good. Subsequent research showed that we had actually lucked out. Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is owned by a Korean wrestler and TV star. The restaurant was very popular and many celebrities had dined there from Anthony Bourdain to Ed Sheeran and Maria Sharapova. Pausing here for a moment. There is nothing to show that celebrities necessarily have good taste in food or have the same taste as you. So why should you go to a restaurant where celebrities go? I have no real answer. All I can say is that restaurants frequented by celebrities normally have decent food since taking them there will not embarrass the host.

This was our first Korean and Korean Barbeque restaurant. The place was absolutely full with people happily and noisily eating and drinking. Kpop blared over the speakers. The atmosphere was happy and jovial. Each table had a grill. Around the grill was receptacle. 1/3 of the receptacle was filled with beaten egg which cooked in the heat. A second third had a mix of all things, of, sweet corn and cheese which melted in the heat. The last third had some Kim Chi and raw onion which softened. The grill had a chimney which could be adjusted, to excavate the smoke caused.

On the table was an array of various condiments and staples - tofu, lettuce, rice and various pickled vegetables. We ordered Pork Belly and Kalbi [or Galbi] which is spiral cut beef rib. To explain a spiral cut would be cutting a rib so that it opens up like a roll of paper. The result is that you have thin lengths of beef which then cook very quickly. The waitress places the meat on the barbeque, monitors it, and tells you when it is ready. You can then make a sort of pouch with the lettuce, condiments and the meat and pop it into your mouth. The egg has cooked by now as has the cheese melted. The rice is mixed up and eaten. It was a very pleasant experience. I can imagine this being great fun with a bunch of friends – no Jains and vegetarians please – all having a few drinks and eating barbequed meat. A sort of Korean Kebab and Sharab evening.

The Kalbi - uncooked

Pork Belly - uncooked. Scissors ready to cut

Pork Belly on the fire. Note the Egg and the Corn & Cheese alongside the grill

The Kalbi on the grill

Suffice to say, we ate well in Manhattan.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Claude Bosi at Bibendum - London

Notes: (1) This post was heavily edited by HRH the Queen of Kutch (2) some photos were blurred and hence inserted from elsewhere.

As is our wont, we started researching London restaurants soon after we booked our air tickets and booked our hotel. Besides all the usual suspects, the one new restaurant we absolutely wanted to visit was Claude Bosi at Bibendum. Opened just a few months ago in the iconic art deco building that was formerly the UK headquarters of tyre company Michelin. The restaurant Bibendum was owned by the designer/architect/restaurateur Terence Conran and the publisher Paul Hamlyn. The chef Simon Hopkinson was a minority holder. The restaurant achieved great fame. In 1994 Simon Hopkinson described what he suffered as a `mini breakdown’ and left. The restaurant slowly fell in standards and finally shut its doors. The news that Claude Bosi a French Chef who had achieved two stars in Michelin with his restaurant Hibiscus had decided to resurrect this iconic place which would be renamed Claude Bosi at Bibendum caused more than a few flutters in the restaurant world.

Arriving at the building the first thing that strikes you are the stunning blue tinted stained glass windows of Bibendum himself, more colloquially known as the Michelin Man. The ground floor hosts a small florist and fishmonger store as well as a casual oyster bar, while the more formal restaurant seating just 65 is located on the top floor. This is a staggeringly attractive and unusual restaurant. With the light streaming through the stained glass windows, high ceilings, a skylight, Michelin guide books on the walls, Bibendum making his presence in many quirky ways and a plush blue carpet. Truly a stunning room.

At the entrance to the restaurant we were thrilled to see Claude Bosi standing and peering into the guest resister. A quick handshake with him and we were shown to our table where our friend the Ms. Doctor Businesswoman was already seated.

Aperitifs ordered, we settled down to study the menu. A few minutes later an enthusiastic greeting made us look up and we were delighted to see Enrico, our friend from Le Gavroche was now restaurant manager here. He was quick with his recommendations and all three of us found ourselves agreeing with his suggestions and settling in for the evening.

A selection of nibbles and hors d'oeuvres started flowing out of the open kitchen starting with vinegar salt crusted cashews (addictive) and some delicious Gougeres with Parmesan. Delights of pillowy dough balls with a deep Parmesan flavor. These were devoured with our aperitifs – two glasses of Champagne for the ladies and a Gin & Tonic [Tanqueray No 10 please] for me.

Gougeres with Parmesan 
Then a waitress brought a bonsai olive tree (gimmicky) under which were three olives made from an olive flavoured cocoa butter shell filled with a liquid Ratatouille, stunning in composition. Then came a Pea and Coconut Foam with Curry Powder served in an eggshell (interesting) and probably influenced by the Potato Mousse and Truffle egg at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Lastly, a Foie Gras Ice Cream cone with sprinkles of an unknown origin (fun).

Olive Tree

Pea and Coconut Foam with Curry Powder - Note the Bibendum motif 

Foie Gras Ice Cream cone with sprinkles  

Before I get onto the food I must say the service was amongst the best I have ever experienced. Friendly, efficient, extremely attentive and very witty. They really did add to the charm of the evening.

The motif of Bibendum was carried onto the butter dish as well as the egg stand. The Dessert Napkins had the motif too.

The photos and captions below will tell you more about the food than a wordy paragraph ever will. All three of us had deliberately ordered very disparate dishes and each one was a true winner.

HRH the Queen of Kutch Veal Sweetbread starter was caramelized on the outside, melting inside and the Gremolata was a knockout sauce. The dots of Black and White Garlic puree added to the flavor and were not just decoration. Her main of “My Mum’s Tripe and Cuttlefish Gratin” was funky and bold and absolutely delicious. But to make it even better were two crusty slices that turn out to be Pig Ear and Ham Cake to soak up the funk of the gratin.

 Veal Sweetbread

My Mum’s Tripe and Cuttlefish Gratin 

Pig Ear and Ham Cake & Parsley 

The doctor Businesswoman had the Cornish Cock Crab with an Elderflower Jelly as a starter and the highly recommended Rabbit with Langoustines for her main. Both delicious.

Cornish Cock Crab with an Elderflower Jelly - Note the Samphire sprouting, just like in the ocean! 

Rabbit with Langoustines 

I had the Scallops with a Strawberry Dressing. I thought it was a little bland, unfortunately. For my main I had a dish carried over from Hibiscus, the Turbot Grenobloise. In French cuisine a dish described as Grenobloise is —literally, "of Grenoble", a city in southeastern France—is served with a sauce of browned butter, capers, parsley, and pieces of lemon Here the dish was reformatted. I had a piece of steamed fish, on a bed of crushed potato, caper and lemon with a foamed butter sauce. Beautiful.

Scallops with a Strawberry Dressing 

Turbot Grenobloise 

Desserts were an Indonesian Chocolate Soufflé with Basil and Vanilla Ice cream which was rich, dark and bitter. I had a Cherry Vacherin. This comprised of Cherry Compote as well as some whole Cherry inside a spiky Meringue – something like an Eaton Mess. The knockout dessert was ordered by HRH the Queen of Kutch. This was a Millefeuille of Chocolate, Mint and Peas. Yes Peas.

Indonesian Chocolate Soufflé with Basil and Vanilla Ice cream 

Cherry Vacherin 

Millefeuille of Chocolate, Mint and Peas 

A word about my impressions of Claude Bosi’s cooking style. The menu you see online is a sample menu and was not given to us. Even so, three factors stand out. First, to keep costs down, there are a lot of ingredients that are not luxury, but far cheaper. Tripe, Cuttlefish, Rabbit, Sweetbreads, Pigeon, Frogs Legs are all cheap. That does not in any way detract from the deliciousness of the food. This makes a lot of sense. My second observation was that a lot of the dishes had a sort of Surf & Turf feel. Rabbit with Langoustines, Cuttle Fish & Tripe, Artichoke [I know it’s a vegetable] and Prawn and so on. The last was the artful and intelligent combining of vegetable & fruits in the food both in the savory and sweet part. The Strawberry dressing with the Scallops. However the most brilliant combination was HRH the Queen of Kutch Chocolate Pea and Mint Millefeuille. We all know that Pea and Mint combine. Chocolate and Mint also combine. So why not combine all three. Especially when you get such beautiful sweet English Peas.

The best though was yet to come. Enrico invited us to visit the kitchen and meet Chef Bosi. That was an honour because this Chef is truly a star. If I was a betting person I would say this restaurant will have a Michelin star before our next visit.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

New York - The Classic Food

We did eat well when in Manhattan. Our meals could be classified into four buckets – (i) the classic budget New York eating places and foods, no 11 Madison Park here;11 Madison has just been voted as the Worlds Best Restaurant by that slightly dubious Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants Survey. The places we were looking forward to eat at served the classic American, New York food – Hamburger, Pizza, Cheesecake, Cannoli, Hot Dig, Bagels & Pastrami (ii) restaurants we were taken to by S&T our delightful resident New Yorkers (iii) the big meals the ones we wanted to go to in the first place Peter Luger & Babbo and (iv) the utterly delightful serendipitous Korean Barbeque restaurant Baekjong and the French Bistro Benoit by Alain Ducasse .

Peter Luger I have already written about. Babbo and the serendipitous ones will feature by and by. This post will cover those in bucket (i) i.e. New York classics

Before I plunge into the post, we noticed something strange. In all the places we ate [with the exception of the Halal Boys and the expensive restaurants] the food had less salt. This was something that not only HRH The Queen of Kutch and I faced but when we had S&T along, they too reached for the salt cellar. So it wasn’t that we Mumbaikars had differently tuned palates. Probably, Mahatma Gandhi only influenced Martin Luther King. He did not do a Dandi Salt March here. Is salt hugely expensive in Manhattan? I am being facetious. But there was a problem with seasoning, or lack of.

What can be more American than a hamburger? When arriving by taxi to the hotel I had noticed lines of people outside a restaurant called Black Tap. I passed this in a flash. This was about 2 pm Then later, about 5 pm while exploring the environs around our hotel we had noticed lines of people still standing outside Black Tap. So on our first night, after a few beers at the local bar we thought we should see what the fuss was about at Black Tap. By now it was close to 9.45 pm. There were still lines. So, we stood in line and soon enough we were granted entry. Since there were only two of us as opposed to larger groups, we got a place to sit almost at once. A beer, a glass of wine and two burgers were ordered – the All American and the Texas Burger. We have eaten lots of burgers in London which are touted as being excellent. These burgers beat everything we have eaten hands down. You could taste the meat in the patty. The bacon was generous and most importantly the ratio of bread to meat was such that you had less bread. Plus, they did not needlessly fancy up the bread by using the pretentious Brioche bun, the favorite of gourmet burger places. This was good old white bread toasted on the inside. It was delicious, the best burger we had eaten. Excellent start.

Wine in a Jam Jar

Another peculiarity we noticed was the huge number of `Halal’ street carts in Manhattan. Street carts are famous in Manhattan, with all manner of food being served. Over the years this new category has mushroomed. The food they serve is rather peculiar, from all beef frankfurters to chicken kebabs [much like chicken tikkas] to versions of chicken and shrimp served on rice. The carts have a predominantly yellow colour scheme. Arabic music blares from these carts which are run by predominantly Egyptian and Bangladeshi migrants. The explanation for their existence is that they started to cater to the taxi drivers in Manhattan who are generally of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan origin i.e. Muslim i.e. eaters of halal food.

Besides these, there is a loose, probably franchised operation, under the name ‘Halal Guys’. They have the yellow colour scheme, with yellow T Shirts and yellow carry bags and they are located in and around 5th and 6th Avenue and 53rd Street. For reasons unknown, they have acquired cult status. They serve the chicken kebabs I mentioned as well as a beef product comprising of mince, mixed with spices and cooked on a flat top. This personifies mystery meat. Long lines of people wait to buy the food. The after office lines are long. Tourists as well as locals seem to be customers. The food is either served on a platter or in Pitta bread. We had one Pitta. This comprised of an 8 inch Pita bread topped with shredded lettuce, chopped mystery meat and doused with a mayonnaise/tahini/yogurt sauce. This was wrapped in foil. Fairly tasty but bloody oily. This was on day two. I am thankful to God, that neither of us was food poisoned. The hygiene levels were abysmal and the composition of the mystery meat, was, a mystery. We were very lucky and foolish. Not recommended.

A Cannoli is a famous Sicilian dessert. You must have seen several documentaries where Cannoli is featured. Dough is rolled out wrapped around a small wood cylinder and deep fried. The cylinder is removed and the hollow crisp pastry is filled with sweetened Ricotta. Rocco Pasticceria in Bleeker Street in the West Village has been making these for years. We were taken to this famous institution by S&T. Quite good. Also had a New York Cheese Cake. Delicious, but more of that later.

I am sure you would have heard of Lombardy’s Pizza in Little Italy in Manhattan. It has been serving Pizza from a coal fired oven since 1905. Legend. Like Peter Luger, cash only. Tourists from the world over make the pilgrimage, as do, obviously, American tourists. We ordered the classic Margherita and a simple salad of fresh Mozzarella and Tomato. The Salad was good. The Pizza was much like what you get in Mumbai. A medium crust with a lot of tangy heavily flavoured tomato sauce. This was not a nirvana causing pizza. It was passable, we have eaten many better. Thoroughly decent but nothing exceptional. Pizza making has advanced a lot since 1905. No complaints. This restaurant was on our list as a must do and thus was done.

A hot dog is classic Manhattan food. From street carts that sell it to Archie comics of our youth to every teenage movie, hot dogs form part of Americana. Grays Papaya is considered one of the better hot dog places. Nathans who hold the famous hot dog eating contest at Coney Island on the 4th of July and Papaya King being also highly regarded. Grays Papaya has its iconic shop at Broadway in the Upper West Side. On our way to the other legend Zabars – a grocery store – we had lunch at Grays Papaya. The best thing to order is the Recession Special which gets you a 200 ml juice [except Pineapple and Orange for which there is an extra charge] and two hot dogs for a super cheap $5.95. The hot dogs were good. I know the obvious, the hot dog itself is better than what you get in India, however the primary difference why this was so good is the ratio of bread to meat. The hot dog rolls here are quite small, thus you have, in proportion, a lot more meat. This, I believe make a much better product. Good stuff.

Katz Deli was the other Manhattan legend we ate at. Those of you who are movie buffs would remember the fake orgasm scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally – I mean the original Hollywood one with Meg Ryan not the new Bollywood knock off Jab Harry Met Sejal. That was shot in the deli. Katz is a Jewish Deli and has lines snaking out of the door during mealtimes. We went at a reasonably late 9 pm on a Sunday so we got a table. Katz is famous for its Pastrami, Corned Beef and Hot Dog. S of S&T was with us. We ordered the Pastrami on Rye with Mustard [excellent, melt in mouth, tasty meaty and delicious] Corned Beef with Sauerkraut [not as good as the outstanding Pastrami] a single Hot Dog [top notch better than Grays] a local Jewish Potato Latke [potato grated and formed into a patty and deep fried – very ordinary] and at S request a New York Egg Cream [Fizzy soda water, milk, chocolate and vanilla – much like the Coca Cola float we used to have as children]. The Pastrami was really good. For those who want to know, the difference between Pastrami & Corned beef is while that both are cured, which means they've been brined in a salt water solution with spices and seasoning, the cooking process differs after the curing. Corned beef is boiled while Pastrami is smoked. Well worth going to, but stick to the Pastrami sandwich.

Potato Latke with Sour Cream 

The brilliant Pastrami Sandwich

The Corned Beef Sandwich 

Bagels. All American, but, more than that, all New York. The legendary place to have Bagels is Russ & Daughters. For a variety of reasons we went to Ess A Bagel, highly rated though not legendary. A single bagel is large, too large for HRH the Queen & me to have one each. So we split a classic, Bagel & Lox that is a Bagel with cream cheese, tomato, lettuce, hold the onion, and Smoked Salmon. It was nice, but frankly did not float my boat. HRH The Queen, loved the Bagels. She thought they were among the best she has eaten. 

A paragraph of the other Jewish delicacy - Matzo Ball Soup. You must have heard of the phrase, chicken soup for the soul. This was exactly that. It actually tasted Golden. It was like no chicken soup I have ever eaten. You must have this with a Pastrami Sandwich.

And Cheesecake. New York Cheesecake is world famous and enjoyed all over the world. Without getting caught up in details, a New York Cheesecake uses only Cream Cheese as its ingredient. In other versions, all considered inferior and/or healthy, add Ricotta, Mascarpone, Sour Cream and, in India, Paneer. A true New York Cheesecake is very rich and dense. Of course you get several flavoured versions too but the classic is unflavoured. We had three, all highly rated by critics. The first was at Rocco Pasticceria. The second was at Peter Luger. The Peter Luger Cheesecake is bought out by them from S&S Cheesecake a well-known bakery. The unquestioned star of the Cheesecakes, was the one from Juniors. This was heads and shoulders above the other two. Lighter creamier and simply better. If you are to have a New York Cheesecake do have it at Juniors. Excellent. Have a look at the three photos. See the differences. Also note that there are varying degrees of collapse in each of the versions.

The Cheesecake at Juniors 

Cheesecake at Peter Luger 

Cheesecake at Rocco Pasticceria 

So folks, that is a longish post on our quest to eat classic New York food. All of it was enjoyable.