As you may know, French food or for that matter “Conti” food, as it was known a few years ago, is HRH the Queen of Kutch and my favorite cuisine. Senior Mrs. Stonethrower also really likes this cuisine. Liking the cuisine is one thing, getting it in a restaurant in Mumbai is quite another.
It is indeed sad that the last bastion of French food – the Zodiac Grill – died a quiet death some time ago. There is no restaurant serving French food in Mumbai.
Our restaurants now serve some very strange food. I am completely ignoring the so called modern Indian restaurants – Bombay Canteen, Farzi Café, Kode, Punjab Grill and so many more. The remaining “Conti” restaurants are an almost indistinguishable breed. In this you can include Indigo, Indigo Deli, Table, Clearing House and the various avatars of Salt Water. They have all serve burgers/sliders/pizza in some shape or form. They all serve sandwiches. What is most striking is the use of synonyms indicating spicy that they have strewn across their menus. Read them and you will realise how, Siracha, Piri Piri, Habanero, Jalapeno, Harissa, Ghost Chili, Bhut Jholakia, Gochujang, Togarashi, Cajun, Jerk, and so on, are used as adjectives in so many dishes. Several menu items are Pasta based, but with the aforementioned chili adjective being added to the dish. Basically, the food is supposed to be tikkha. Our Bombay Clubs used to have a semblance of “Conti” food, but unfortunately, eating in a club today is not a pleasant experience and neither do these dishes really exist as there are not many takers. I mean how much Vegetable Au Gratin can a man eat?
You may well ask what really is French and “Conti” food. Where does Italian fit in? I do not want to complicate matters. I make two assertions. First, for the purposes of this post, I regard French “Conti” and Italian as one broad class of cuisine and use the terms interchangeably. The second assertion is that to qualify as French, “Conti” or Italian in Mumbai the food must meet the following tests, cumulatively, not alternatively:
1. It cannot have a tikkha ingredient;
2. It cannot have an outer layer so no wraps, Enchiladas, Tacos, Chapati, Roomali Roti et al;
3. It has to be cooked using French techniques so no stir fry, no Wok, no bhunao;
4. By the same token it cannot have Asian ingredients;
5. It cannot be a fast food i.e. burger, hot dog, pizza and so on;
6. Lastly, it has to be a known recipe with traditional ingredients that makes the dish. No newfangled made up stuff like the classic Swiss Rosti being made with raw banana as the Jains do. A Risotto is a known recipe, as is a Lasagna Bolognaise;
I am willing to consider a pasta which meets with (1) to (6) as “Conti”.
What I find intriguing is that it is not that our chefs have lost the ability to cook classic French food, not at all. On international flights out of Mumbai you always have a choice of a classic French or “Conti” dish. This is served with a real Jus and some simple saluted or buttered vegetable like the humble carrot and French Beans beautifully topped and tailed. But would you get this in a restaurant? Nope.
Out of the blue, HRH The Queen of Kutch got a message from our friend at the ITC Grand Maratha about a “Truffles on Tour” special evening. This was to be a 5 course Italian meal, devised by Chef Vittorio Greco for Rs 4500/-. Moet Chandon were offering unlimited Champagne, Belvedere Vodka, Hennessey Brandy and a selection of Whiskeys at an added cost of Rest 1500/- The truffles were being offered by Boscovivo an Italian Truffle supplier. This was a one-off evening, a pop up as it is called, to be held at the exclusive dining room in the ITC Grand Maratha. Without a second thought, HRH The Queen of Kutch reserved a table for 3. Senior Mrs. Stonethrower would join us.
When we reached the dining room, albeit 15 minutes early, the place was deserted. We were the only punters. This was disconcerting. Anyway, champagne was ordered, poured, sipped and menus studied. Decisions made, orders placed, and, we settled down to the meal. Soon bread and butter arrived. Good bread, excellent Focaccia. Two quenelles of butter were served, one being plain yellow butter, the other was much more interesting. It was basil butter, lurid green, covered with Truffle dust. It was excellent to pat onto bits of bread.
First course was described as Egg 65 with Parma Ham, Potato Foam, White Truffle and Truffle Caviar. Egg 65 is not a version of Chicken 65! But is in fact an entire egg, shell and all, cooked at 65 degrees Centigrade for between 45 to 60 minutes Sous Vide or in a water bath. This results in the White and the Yolk being similarly set. The Yolk gets to an almost Custard like consistency, so it can be spread like butter. Most unfortunately, and I must add, disappointingly, what we were served was a poached egg. This was certainly not what we were expecting. However, with such beautiful ingredients, the dish tasted great so on that score we had no complaints. But it was not a 65 Degree egg cooked Sous Vide. Pity.
The next course ordered by Senior Mrs. Stonethrower was described as White Asparagus with Sour Butter, Hennessey VS White Truffle and Parmesan Foam. Looked as pretty as a picture. Lots of use of edible flowers. The Parmesan Foam, which is the white circle on the top right of the photograph was, to use a cliché ‘to die for’. Really excellent. However, I did not see any Sour Butter in the plate. Possibly the Asparagus was grilled with sour butter, but, it was not on the plate.
Instead of the Asparagus HRH The Queen of Kutch and I had the Mixed Pasta with Borlotti Beans, Prawns, Pancetta and Truffle. Excellent dish. Faultless. Beans and Prawn and Pork is a winning combination. Well-seasoned and top notch.
After this much food, the ladies were wilting. They shared a Truffle Risotto which was also faultless.
By this time, HRH The Queen of Kutch was flattened so she cancelled her main course and Senior Mrs. Stonethrower opted for the Vegetarian option. Glenmorangie Marinated Australian Lamb Chops with Potato, Bone Marrow, White Truffle & Cauliflower was my dish. Well-cooked Chops and it was nice to see Baby Carrots and Mange Tout on my plate, however, the accompanying sauce which had Bone Marrow was rather dull. Seemed to me to be thickened with Cornstarch and not a true Demiglace. Well, we live in a BJP ruled state, Veal Jus is an impossibility.
Senior Mrs. Stonethrower dish was Fondant Potato with Vegetables and Fontina Reduction. She said her dish was dull and simply too creamy. Looks like that in the photograph too.
Last up was dessert, which if you ask me, was the dish of the evening along with the Pasta and Borlotti Beans. This was a White Chocolate Semi Freddo with Truffle in which was a centre of sweetened Balsamic. This was really a good dish. The Chocolate was mild and the Truffle well balanced. The Sweet Balsamic centre was liquid. The whole thing was put together very well. Looks pretty too.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening. We all left happy, smiling and stuffed. You cannot get this food in Mumbai easily and in an adult surrounding. The food was on the whole good with a couple of big hits. A big thumbs up was the fact that there was no, and I mean no, chili anywhere. I was expecting some spicy Pasta, but I was not only wrong but foolish. Thankfully Chilly and Truffle simply do not go together. God is really Great.
At the end of the evening I thought to myself. Here was a great little pop up. For Rs 6000/- including taxes mind you, you are getting some really good quality expensive booze, unlimited, a meal with Truffles cooked by a decent Chef in a very decent surrounding and ambience. I agree that except for the Truffles there were no luxury ingredients like Foie Gras or Lobster and no expensive ingredients like aged Beef or fancy fish. Come on this is India. Service was excellent as was expected. This was rather in expensive. The tragedy was that ITC could not manage to fill the restaurant [which is small] for even one sitting. This my dear readers shows that there is something really wring with our appreciation of fine food.
Sad, but true.