Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Colombo - Sri Lanka

Dear readers, Colombo is fantastic. A truly wonderful city, with great food, great shops, great music, great booze, great hotels, wonderful roads, friendly people and big development projects. Fabulous modern apartments overlooking the ocean. Much like Dubai.

Sri Lanka is one more country that has made chutney of us. In my view, only Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and several African countries are below us. Think about it. Almost all our illegal immigrants are from these worthy countries/Continent.

We spent 3 night in Colombo, only Colombo in early December 2018. We had a super time, enjoyed every minute and are waiting to go back.

Yes, I know you will say, Bah! Its Chinese money pouring in. Sure, yes. You will say, the Chinese are not to be trusted. Sure yes. You will say the Chinese have really become big in Africa. Sure yes. I have two retorts. First, I am visiting Sri Lanka as a tourist, I am not getting citizenship or investing in their economy. Second, if only this scale of progress could happen in India, we would be a great place.

Sri Lanka has had huge problems. A debilitating civil war. A small economy and major political unrest. Sri Lanka, is a Socialist Republic, and, according to some polls, deeply religious. Buddhism is the largest religion with Poya [full moon day] being a holiday. Of course, Saturdays and Sundays are holidays too. Lots of holidays there. Despite the unrest, Sri Lanka has made dramatic progress. To me, as a short stay visitor in a luxury 5-star hotel, Colombo seemed far more westernized than Mumbai, with diversity being evident everywhere. The number of white tourists was large. Sri Lanka has made a lot of progress as a first-class tourist destination with infrastructure to match. Top class roads, hotels and destinations. They have everything, mountains with tea gardens, beaches, wildlife sanctuaries with elephant and leopard and a lot of religious destinations. The place is clean, people honest and internal travel is easy.

Indians don’t need a visa to enter. All you do is get online, and log into the Sri Lanka ETA [Electronic Travel Authorisation System] and fill a form online. Pay the fee and literally in 10 minutes you will get your “visa”. That is all. If you are a paranoid or are reluctant to do an online transaction, well, stay home. The flight to Sri Lanka is a short 2½ hours, as close as Kolkata. Flights are at decent times, 4.30 pm either side. What more could you want?

We were staying at the brand new Shangri La hotel. This opened in October 2017. This is located on Galle Face Road, a road much like Marine Drive in Mumbai. You have the wonderful inviting blue Indian Ocean on one side and luxurious apartments and hotels on the other. Stunning vistas. I believe that living in one of these apartments would extend your life by 10 years.  The drive from the airport to the hotel was on a purpose-built elevated highway some 20 kms long. Superb. I must point out that in comparison to the glitz and glamour of the rest of Sri Lanka, their airport is a bit of a dump. That evening we had cocktails at the very very lively bar in the hotel. A superb live band of expatriates was playing. They were good.

A cocktail at the Capitol Bar & Grill Shangi La Colombo

The next day we took a hotel car [Land Rover brand new, with Wi-Fi inside the car – not a big deal technically but who the hell does it in India] on a 4 hour package to see the city. What shocked me was the price of the car. Just, and I am not being facetious, Sri Lankan 3500 which is INR 1750. I was truly gob smacked. Cheap as chips. Cheap as chips was my impression almost all thru the 3 days. Decent Gewurztraminer [an excellent white wine paired with spicy food] was SRL 6300 i.e. INR 3150 at Colombo’s best restaurant – Ministry of Crab. Food was reasonable and excellent. Booze was cheap. You could actually drink in a 5 Star hotel at what were normal Mumbai bar prices, with better quality booze and in far better surroundings.

Using the car we set out to visit the must do tourist shops, Odel, Paradise Gallery [both excellent] Barefoot Café [rubbish, much like Handloom House] Arpico [a great supermarket, if that is your thing – it is ours] and we did not visit House of Fashion. At Arpico I bought a “Chattie” which is an earthenware cooking vessel. My second. Great to make Indian curries, the clay gives the food a slightly different flavor. Cheap as chips SRL 350 for Chattie and lid that is INR 175. By then it was lunchtime, so, Paradise Road Gallery Café was chosen. Excellent excellent food.

My Chattie and lid 

Above: Nasi Goreng at the Paradise Cafe 

Above: Black Pork Sri Lankan Style with condiments at Gallery Cafe

The most famous Chef in all of Sri Lanka is Darshan Munidasa. His restaurants are the toast of Sri Lanka, and, like the country, diverse. He started with Nihonbashi a Japanese place, a short walk from our Hotel, where we had lunch. I am not a Sushi eater, but, what turned up looked fabulous and those who ate said it was decent. He also has a modern Sri Lankan restaurant he co-owns with the actress Jacqueline Fernandez, and specialty seafood place called Tuna & Crab.

Above: At Nihonbashi. The best Okra "Bhendi" I have ever eaten. Japanese style

Above: Saute fresh Shitake Mushroom

Above: Rolls at Nihonbashi

Above: The Sashimi Platter

Above: Cup of Miso Soup

 Above: Okonomiyaki

Munidasa biggest hit has been Ministry of Crab which he co-owns with Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, the cricketeers. The restaurant is located another short walk away from the Shangri La in the Dutch Hospital Complex. This reminded me of Chijmes in Singapore. The Dutch Hospital, was exactly what its name suggests, to look after the health of members of the Dutch East India Company. It was then used as a Police Station which was attacked by the LTTE. Then, in 2011 it was renovated and has become an upmarket leisure centre with top shops, bars and restaurants. Ministry of Crab is located here. As luck would have it, Darshan Munidasa had just opened a large sports bar alongside where he was glad handing press and VIP’s. We had a few drinks there. Then it was on to Ministry of Crab for dinner.

We had made our bookings from Mumbai and were glad we had done so. The restaurant is large and was full. Non airconditioned. There are community tables inside while the outside has smaller tables. Wines were ordered. The restaurant had plenty of expats and many of them Oriental. Crabs are available in myriad sizes. We decided to order two small crabs so that we would have a bigger selection from the menu. The food was superlative. Better than what we get at Trishna Apoorva? By a mile.

Above: My Apron and crab crackers

Above: The MOC branded wine cooler

Above: Clay Pot Prawns

Above: Black Pepper Crab

Above: Chilli Crab

Above: Coconut Panacotta

Another aspect that struck us was the number of places that had live music. As I have written previously, an expat band was playing in the Shangri La bar. There was a singer at Munidasa’s new sports bar. Inn On The Green a bar in the famous Galle Face Hotel had a particularly good trio. The three guitarists were taking requests – Freefallin – Tom Petty, Hotel California, Reason – Hoobastank and so on. Much hilarity about Cocaine – the song. That band made the evening for us. Refused an offer for a drink to be sent to them, claimed they did not drink. Most enjoyable evening.

Above: A must have in Sri Lanka. Devilled Sausages.

To conclude, if you ask me honestly, do not waste your time and money travelling anywhere, I mean anywhere, in India. For almost the same airfare you can go to Colombo. Hotels are cheaper [unless you are staying at your in laws or relatives’ home] food is better and cheaper and the place is beautiful. So, why not?

Sri Lanka 100% recommended.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Hampton Court - London

Dear Readers, this is written by HRH the Queen of Kutch. 

I have always been a sucker for historical fiction. Being an avid reader, I have over the years have devoured the magical Far Pavilions, Train to Pakistan, Shogun, Roots, The English Patient, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Baburnama, Conn Iggulden’s gritty Khan series that traces the rise of Chengis Khan and his brutal legacy, the brilliant Amitav Ghosh Ibis trilogy, all of Anchee Min’s books, especially her Empress Orchid series with her sensitive portrayal of Empress Tsu Hsi (Cixi), and more recently George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. There are many books and authors I haven’t mentioned here, but you get the gist. So, if you are ever in need for historical fiction recommendations, you know whom to ask

Besides transporting me to another time and place, these books have also added so much joy and depth to my real-life travels. In China, I trekked the Great Wall imagining the time it was built to ward off the mighty Khan and later, wandered through the Summer Palace picturing Empress Cixi walking through the gardens during her short retirement. In Istanbul I examined the kitchens built during the Ottoman Empire and conjured up the armies that needed to be fed.

But more then all these, it is British historical fiction that has most captured my imagination. From CJ Samson’s historical crime fiction to Philippa Gregory especially with her outstanding Plantagenet and Tudor novels and Hilary Mantel with her award-winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. The more I read, the more I want to visit the places in these books so I could shut my eyes and imagine the lives, intrigues, wars and romances that were so vividly captured in these books. And of all British history, it is the Tudors that fascinated me most, especially the famous Henry VIII and his six wives.

So, I was more than pleasantly surprised when the Gourmet Lawyer suggested we take a day trip to Hampton Court Palace. I had read all the books, devoured the mini TV series Wolf Hall, was transfixed by the 4 seasons of the TV series The Tudors which is now on Netflix. I couldn’t wait to see the grand residence of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey which he built in the image of the Versailles Palace and eventually gave as a gift to Henry VIII after he fell out of Royal favour for being unable to get the besotted King out of a troublesome marriage.

Above: The Ceiling in the main entrance

The recommended way to get from London to Hampton Court and back is by boat from Westminster. It is the way The Royals would have travelled in the days of yore. It is the journey Queen Anne Boleyn took to the Tower of London where she was imprisoned and later beheaded. So many books have captured that barge trip. But for us, it was not to be. On further investigation we found that the boat ride from Westminster to Hampton Court takes 4 hours one way. That was really too long. I imagine it would have taken far far longer for Queen Anne to sail to the site of her beheading!

The other option was a train from Waterloo which covered the distance in a mere 30 minutes. Much better idea though far less romantic. All the way as the train wheels clacked, in my head was the eerie mnemonic “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”

The Palace is a short 5-minute walk from Hampton Court station. So, this really was a very convenient option. Even as we approached the Palace, we were amazed at the grandeur and sheer size of the structure. It is a magnificent structure set in the midst of vast, well maintained grounds and parks.

There were very few tourists about the day we went so we were able to get many lovely pictures and walk around without jostling against crowds. Docents dressed in period costumes re-enact life in the palace hundreds of years ago and are without fail friendly and happy to help and answer questions. While buying our entrance we were told there was a guided tour of the great hall and Henry VIII’s private apartments starting in an hour if we were interested. Of course, we were, so we set off for a brief walk around before joining the tour.

One of the first things that caught our eye was the was the gorgeous Hampton Court astronomical clock, an early example of a pre- Copernican astronomical clock. Still functioning, the clock shows the time of day, the phases of the moon, the month, the quarter of the year, the date, the sun and star sign, and high tide at London Bridge. The latter information was of great importance to those visiting this Thames-side palace from London, as the preferred method of transport at the time was by barge, and at low water London Bridge created dangerous rapids.

The guided tour was charmingly conducted by a man and woman playing the part of members of Henry VIII’s royal household. It was entertaining, engaging, informative and utterly charming. Why oh why can’t we learn something about how to do tourism in India???

The Palace is very well maintained. A lot of excavation and restoration work is ongoing and every effort is made to transport the visitor to another age. Do see the pictures.

The highlight for us were the vast medieval kitchens which fed over 1000 people every day. Today, professional chefs are in the kitchens every day to show visitors how to recreate recipes and cooking techniques from the 1500’s.

Hampton Court Palace is known for its vast grounds, the famous hedge maze and the King Henry’s tennis courts. The courts are still in use and there was a match on when we went!

Above: Inside the Maze. In case people really get lost, health and safety mandates the ladder from where they can see you and guide you out. 

All in all, a great day and a wonderful bringing to life of the many Tudor books I have read.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

La Mere Brazier - Lyon France **

No visit to Lyon should be without a meal at one of the high-end restaurants in and around Lyon. The most famous is, of course, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, the restaurant with 3 stars in Michelin owned by the Late Paul Bocuse. In addition, there are 4 with 2 stars in Michelin. We chose Mere Brazier. This place has some serious history.

I had written about the Mothers of Lyon. Eugenie Brazier was one such mother. She was born in 1895 in a farming family. In 1921 she established La Mere Brazier and in 1933 she was the first female chef ever to be given 3 stars in Michelin. A few years later, she earned another 3 stars in Michelin for her other restaurant Le Col de la Luere. She must have been a formidable personality, a force of nature. The legendary Paul Bocuse began his career at her restaurant in 1946. Her cookbook and autobiography were translated into English and published in 1977 shortly after her death. Two French Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Valèry Giscard d’Estaing were amongst her many regular customers and admirers. Film stars like Marlene Dietrich ate at her restaurants. She was offered lucrative employments by the Aga Khan and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. But she remained in Lyon. After her death the restaurant ran for a few years and then shut.

In October 2008, Mathieu Viannay, himself a rather extraordinary Chef, took the place over and today it holds 2 stars in Michelin. Mathieu Viannay is the holder of the very prestigious MOF award (Meilleurs Ouvrier de France). Wikipedia tells us about MOF:

The title of Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (shortened to MOF) is a unique and prestigious award in France according to category of trades in a contest among professionals. The awarding of medals occurs at the Sorbonne in Paris, during a large reunion followed by a ceremony in the presence of the President of the French Republic.
This award for special abilities is unique in the world. Created in 1924, initially between the best workers of the era aged 23 and over, this contest was given the title of Un Des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (One of the Best Craftsmen of France). Today, by the diversity of specialities, the list of which is regularly updated, the award has also been awarded to more modern trades and high technology fields.
The candidate is given a certain amount of time and basic materials not only to create a masterpiece, but to do so with a goal of approaching perfection. The chosen method, the organization, the act, the speed, the knowhow and the respect for the rules of the trade are verified by a jury just as much as is the final result. The winning candidates retain their title for life, with the indication of the specialty, the year following the one in which they obtain the title. This prestigious title is equally recognized by professionals and the greater public in France, particularly among artisan-merchants such as pastry makers, hairdressers, butchers, jewellers, and others whose trades are recognized, particularly those for more luxurious goods.
This competition requires months, sometimes years, of preparation. Technical skills, innovation, respect for traditions and other aspects are all practiced repeatedly to a level of refinement and excellence, effectiveness and quickness to succeed and be crowned by the jury, which makes its decision according to the distribution of points awarded during the entire process

The filmmaker D A Pennebaker whose films were mostly quasi-documentaries on various music stars [Dylan, Bowie, Alice Cooper & Jimi Hendrix] made a film in 2009 on the MOF called “Kings of Pastry”. I believe the film is quite something. I have not seen it though would love to.

With this kind of background, we were expecting good things from La Mere Brazier. We had made our bookings from Mumbai. So, when we arrived in Lyon, as a matter of precaution, we requested our Concierge to reconfirm our reservation. When we mentioned La Mere Brazier, much to our surprise and amusement, the Concierge responded with, and I kid you not, “Oh la la”. Yes, they really do say that in France.

As we entered thru a longish passage, our coats were whisked away, our names confirmed and we were escorted to our table. There were two rooms, we were seated in the outer room, tables well spaced, well lit and one did not feel at all claustrophobic despite the fact the room had no windows. Menus were handed out, aperitifs ordered and meal decided.

An amuse bouche was served comprising of a typical Lyon dish, Pate En Croute. It was this first dish, an amuse bouche at that, which showed the kitchen’s skill. The pastry on the En Croute was light and crisp. The Pate inside deeply flavored. It is difficult to see in the photo, but the jelly between the crust and the Pate on the left of the slice was rich and meaty. The Cherries that garnished were the best I have eaten. Well begun.

Above: Pate En Croute

We were not done yet. Another amuse bouche turned up, this was a dish with Pasta and Mushrooms. It was served lukewarm. I do not know if that was intentional. This was nice, nowhere as good as the En Croute.

Above: The second Amuse Bouche

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered “Sea Spider with Condiments, Celery Emulsion and Caviar” – a Sea Spider being a poor translation of a Crab. Beautifully served cool and refreshing.

Above: Sea Spider with Condiments, Celery Emulsion and Caviar

I ordered Artichoke and Foie Gras. Here an Artichoke Heart is encased with Foie Gras also served cold, with an Oven or Sun-Dried Tomato and shaved Fennel. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish.

Above: Artichoke and Foie Gras

For the main course we decided to share a Roast Chicken. This was no ordinary chicken but a Poulet Bresse the famous French chicken, renowned for its taste and colours – the red head, white feathers and blue legs – very patriotic, the colours of the French flag. This was to be served in tow courses, breast and leg. Good tableside action. Excellent Breast and sauce. Unfortunately, the second service of legs was overcooked.

Above: Roast Chicken. Table side action and the superb Breast 

 Above: Second service. Overcooked legs. Looked good though

One dessert was ordered, the Paris Brest. This is a very traditional dessert named after the Paris to Brest cycle race. The dish comprises of a circular Choux Pastry representing the wheel of a bicycle, which is cut horizontally and filled with a Hazelnut Cream. What I got was a very modern version. Really beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. I was a happy bunny.

Above: Paris Brest

Another dessert was ordered by HRH the Queen of Kutch. With fruit. She said it was delicious.

Above: Royal Gala with Hibiscus Juice, Tahitian Vanilla Mascarpone Cream, Caramelized Pecan Ice Cream, Blackcurrant Crisp 

All in all, I was very happy with the meal and the evening in general. There was some stiffness with the staff, I believe on account of the language problem. I did get a smile or two from the Sommelier when I asked him, in jest, why a French restaurant was serving Italian water [San Pellegrino]. He had a go at me, also in jest, when I ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir which is a light wine, which he said was “like fruit juice”. Possibly he was bashing me for not ordering a pricier wine. But who cares. We liked the wine.

Service was good all throughout. One odd thing. Once we finished a course, our plates were not cleared. They remained on the table. Then once the next course was to be served, there would be a flurry of activity when our plates would be cleared, fresh cutlery set and the next course served. This was odd. You don’t leave the diner with dirty plates in front of him. Possibly this system is what is used in France. I don’t believe we were singled out or discriminated as I could see this happening all around us.

Personally, I had a good evening and a wonderful meal. HRH the Queen of Kutch was a bit disappointed. The uncleared plates and the overcooked second service of chicken did her in.

Would I recommend this place? Oh yes.