Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Avaratna - ITC Grand Chola Chennai. Outstanding.

On Saturday 16th June 2018, we had, what we collectively thought, the best Indian food in India as well as the best meal [all cuisines] in India.

The restaurant – Avaratna at the ITC Grand Chola Chennai.

Having got that out of the way let me proceed.

The restaurant is open only for dinner. This is a handsome restaurant, bright and open. The lights you see hanging in strands represent Banana flowers. On the wall you have a design feature to represent a wave crashing down on the beach. There were also Banana Leaf outlines woven into the carpet, but I did not take a photograph.

Avaratna is 14 months old. The restaurant has only 4 tasting menus, of 7, 9, 11 and 13 courses, in both a vegetarian option as well as a non-vegetarian option. There is no a la carte. The prices start at INR 2000 all the way up to INR 4500, all, obviously excluding taxes. We opted for two 9 course [Bela] and one 11 course [Jiaa] menus.   

A few lines about the food. First, do not in any way be frightened at seeing a 13-course menu. The quantity of food is not gargantuan. Each course is between 1 ½ to 2 bites, not more, so at the end you will be full but not bursting. There were 3 of us dining, Senior Mrs. Stonethrower, HRH the Queen of Kutch and myself. Different menus were chosen. Each of us wanted a swap of a dish from our chosen menu to one from another menu. The request was handled without a blink of the eye. The food is NOT fusion but is in fact Modern South Indian. Let me explain. Naan with Blue Cheese is Fusion. The new ways of serving Paani Poori is Modern. Fusion food is where ingredients that don’t belong to a cuisine are paired, as I wrote, Blue Cheese and a Naan. Modern could be used to describe a newer way to serve or present traditional food. Avaratna serves Modern South Indian food. 

Chef Ajit Bangera who headed the team that developed the menu said in an interview “that he does not want to tart up or reinvent great South Indian classics. Instead, he wants to take South Indian flavours and masalas and pair them with a few staples (appams, dosas, uttapams, rasams etc.) to create a cuisine that is recognisably South Indian in the mouth, but is not gimmicky or show-offy”. He has also said that they have “moved away from traditional thalis, everything is plated in international standards. Presentation is an important part of the experience and once you dig into your dish, you will realise that it is undeniably South Indian”. Chef Bangera and team has certainly achieved this.

The food was served, as I have written earlier, in small portions of a couple of bites each. The presentation was modern and Western, no bowls of brown curry with Kothmir garnish or onion rings. All the food served to us [except the Lamb Congee & Aubergine Yogurt] came in custom designed plates, designed to show off the food. The Lamb Congee & Aubergine Yogurt seemed like an afterthought served in a clunky Ramekin with an Oriental soup spoon containing the Yogurt. 

Above: Lamb Conjee Aubergine Yogurt 

You did get the obligatory foam in a nod to Molecular Gastronomy. You also got a sorbet, which, like every sorbet we have eaten in India is simply too sweet. You also got several amuse bouche. Thus, all the boxes that have to be ticked by international restaurants were ticked here too.

Above: Cucumber & Ginger Sorbet

Above: Orange & Ginger Sorbet

A few of the dishes were truly staggering in their conceptualizing. You must have heard the cliché that all South Indian food consists of is Rice with Sambaar, Rice with Rassam and Rice with Curds. As is the case with clichés, this is not wrong nor is it particularly accurate. Keeping this cliché in mind, along with what Chef Bangera says about a cuisine that is recogniseably South Indian, you had the brilliant Rassam. Now Rassam is served much like a soup in traditional Chinese food, to be sipped along the course of the meal. Here the Rassam was really intelligently tarted up. A jug of crystal clear flavourful Rassam was poured into a French Press containing fresh Coriander and halved baby Tomato. The flavours infused and you were served the herbed Rassam in a Martini glass. Top class.

Continuing the cliché, a South Indian meal ends with a serving of Dahi Rice, pickle and a Papad or Applam. This is exactly what was done here. A beaker of not rice but Sago balls, Tapioca or Sabudana [all are the same] in cold Dahi, served with a Test Tube of tangy chutney, a fried Apalam and a classic fried Dahi Chilly. This dish was to my mind the defining Modern South Indian dish of the evening.

Above: Sago Yogurt, Tamarind & Dried Berry Sauce, Apalam & Chili

The third dish that blew my mind was Slow Roast Belly Port, Coorg Vinegar Masala, Barley and Ghee Candle. A photograph is just below. This was nothing but the traditional Coorgi Pandi Curry made with the Kachampulli Vinegar. The bit that got me was the Ghee candle. They really made a candle of Ghee, lit so that the Ghee melted into the dry powder Mulgapodi. Normally, hot ghee is spooned onto the Mulgapodi.. I was gob smacked.

A course that was pronounced a winner by both Senior Mrs Stonethrower as well as HRH The Queen was the Lamb Brain Fritter. A photograph is just below. It was absolutely melt in the mouth and wonderfully light. Almost Foie Gras in texture. It was served with a thin and crisp shard of Rava Dosa. Absolutely brilliant.

The mini Idlis served with the lamb chops were a work of a master. We all agreed that these were the best Idlis we had ever eaten, soft, light and amazingly smooth textured.

Also, the fish was accurately cooked across all courses. Be it the Sea Bass or the Cod with Coriander Broth. The Scallops too were perfectly cooked (which is not the norm in India)

Yes, there were duds too. The sorbets were rubbish. Another amuse bouche of Paniyaram with a Garlic Chili Chutney was foul, it was left unfinished by all of us. Too much raw garlic and chili in the chutney. A photograph is just below. The Pork Dumpling simply did not work. This photograph is much lower down.

The rest of the food I am not describing. Here are the photos for you to drool over.

Above: Amuse Bouche - Marina Beach. Fried Apalam with Mango, Orange and Chili Powder 

Above: Poached Red Prawn. Pickled Onion & Tempered Cream Cheese

Above: Fish In Chips [Not "and" but "in"] Coriander Emulsion. Much Like Patra Ni Macchi

Above: Pepper Chicken with Spiced Meringue. The Meringue is the white bit with Fennel.

Above: Pork Dumpling, Jaggery & Pepper Chutney, Sesame Gunpowder

Above: Asparagus & Coconut Stew, Fried Channa Daal, Mini Appam 

Above: Amuse Bouche. Dehydrated Fried Karela, Potato & Beetroot Yogurt Cream

Above: Chilli Scallop, Peppercorns and Mango Ginger Sauce

Above: Pan Fried Cod, Coriander Broth & Rice Pancake

Above: Steamed Sea Bass, Tangy Cumin Sauce Crisp Okra & Sesame Rice

Coconut Masala Lamb Chops, Coriander Seed & Shallot Chutney, Mini Idlis. Photo of Mini Idlis higher up

Duck Roast Charred Onions and Mini Malabar Parotta

Above: The Mini Malabar Parotta

Above: Asparagus, Coconut Turmeric Cream & Idiyappam or String Hoppers

Above:Fennel Panna Cotta & Angel Hair Caramel [spun sugar]

Above: Trio of Payasam - Tender Coconut, Jasmine & Banana 

Above: Carrot Ice Cream, Black Rice Pudding, Green Gram Dumpling AKA Modak

Above: A modern Paan. The filling was frozen Gulkhand Coconut et al

The service was excellent, prompt, knowledgeable and cheerful. The food came out quickly and together for all 3 of us on the table. Without exception each plate had food that was hot [as in Garam] and perfectly seasoned. This is very difficult to achieve. Full marks to the coordination between the front and back of house.

To conclude, please do make a visit to this restaurant. Excellent and without doubt the best food in India today. Do go. And no, it is not expensive.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Part II - The decline and fall of the IIT's

This is the continuation of the previous post.

The theory in the previous post was that the education system is in a flux, and there is a constant desire to upgrade and upscale – SSC schools want to upgrade to CBSE or ICSE, ICSE schools want to upgrade to IB and GCSE. As far as SSC schools are concerned, this process has only just started while with ICSE schools this has been going on for quite a few years. In addition, there are several new schools that have been set up that offer IB/GCSE from the beginning. The Ambani School was set up in 2003, followed by Ecole Mondiale and then B D Somani. Today in Mumbai there are a few dozen IB schools and, in India, probably hundreds.

For the rich, getting admission for their children into school is easy, far easier than the time before these new schools were set up. Generally speaking, the academic standards of these IB/GCSE schools is superior to ICSE/CBSE and hugely superior to the SSC schools. The academics are such in IB/GCSE schools that students who graduate are prepped and prepared to immediately shift to colleges in the USA, Canada and the UK. Do keep in mind that parents of students of IB/GCSE schools are themselves generally well educated, often from abroad, and are reasonably wealthy. This means that the parents have on the one hand no qualms, and, on the other hand, the desire and ability to send the kids abroad post IB/GCSE graduation.

Now let us step back in time.

In the good old days, you did what was a classic education. School from Campion or Cathedral in Mumbai, or Doon, or any of the top-notch schools in India. Then you went to a top-notch college, say St Stephens or St Xaviers. If you were technically inclined, you went to an IIT. Except for the really very rich, not many went abroad. If they did, it was almost always for a post graduate education – an MS, or an MBA or similar. Going abroad for an under graduation was unheard of. Look at the resume of high level business executives aged 50+ and you will observe this.

Since going abroad was such a big deal in the good old days, it meant that our IIT’s and IIM’s were guaranteed to have a huge demand. Getting into one of these required serious brain power. You had to be really and I mean really bright. The number of IIT’s was few, first IIT was set up in Kharagpur in 1951, then in Bombay (1958), Madras (1959), Kanpur (1959) and Delhi (1963). The next IIT was set up 31 years later in 1994 in Guwahati. Today there are 23 IIT’s. As far as IIM’s are concerned the first was set up in 1961 with a very slow addition. Today there are 20 IIM’s.
Admission to the IIT is determined by several factors, including primarily, the marks you score in the Joint Entrance Exam [JEE]. The number of seats available is finite. So, obviously you would have to score well in the JEE to ensure that you get into the IIT of your choice in a course of your choice.

There was, however, trouble brewing on the horizon for the last ten odd years. This year, the bomb has exploded.

With the availability of internationally compatible education in schools and the desire and ability to send the students abroad, parents were simply bypassing the IITs and IIM,s. Students who were well prepped had the education and money to secure admission in universities abroad. They, obviously did, as however you look at it a college education from abroad is better than one here in India. So, you had a perfect storm. You had far fewer students who wanted to go to an IIT, coupled with the fact that the number of IIT’s has increased. This year, the admission board suddenly found that after tabulating the results of the JEE, they had not enough students to fill the seats in the IIT’s. Incredible.!

Now here is what the admission board did. They simply lowered the cut off marks thereby ensuring that about 10,000 to 15,000 students became eligible to apply for an IIT. They simply had to fill the seats.

If you like you could read the newspaper reports here:

Now here is the problem. The IIT courses are pretty academically challenging. If to put bums on seats you have increased your student body by lowering the admission qualification, you will have classes full of relatively not so smart students. What happens next? They fail, they drop out, they commit suicide, and, worst of all, they may have to be simply pushed to the next year to ensure that they do not repeat the year. How does this end? Simply by having masses of Dumbo’s, promoted year after year entering the workstream thoroughly unqualified. I shudder!

The admissions board has sought to justify the lowering of the admission mark by explaining that this year the JEE was unusually difficult, hence, students got lower marks! Really?

Mind you, this is the first time this has happened. The lowering of admission standards can only be deleterious for India. As it is we have lakhs of students who are educated but unemployable unless trained by the employer. With this lowering of standards, the consequences are truly scary.

The fact that a larger number of good students are going abroad has been known for some time. The graph has been rising every year. What has our government done? Nothing! Increased the seats offered when the takers are reducing. The consequence today? Lower the standards.

Did I not tell you, leave it to the Government to fuck it up?

Friday, June 15, 2018

The decline and fall of SSC

This is a two-part post on my views on (i) the conversion of SSC Schools to ICSE/CBSE etc. and (ii) the announcement that the admission standards for IIT have been lowered to enable more applicants to qualify.

Let me start with some disclaimers. I went to an ICSE school, I was a privileged child, and, now am even more privileged. As a regular reader of this blog you should know this. I have not had the need nor the opportunity to admit a child into school and college, therefore, all the hoopla that goes with it has not been experienced by me. I have some information on this hoopla all obtained thru hearsay and by reading. So, do forgive me if I deeply offend you or display a shocking lack of knowledge or facts.

Let us plunge headlong.

The SSC syllabus is devised, managed and conducted by the State Government of Maharashtra. After you finish 10 years of school, you appear for the SSC Exam. The medium of instruction for several SSC schools is Marathi, but now it seems more and more people are choosing to place their children in the ‘English medium’ schools. Over the years, for various reasons, the academic standard of the SSC system, as a whole, has been declining. In the past, with very few options, most parents put their children into SSC schools, and, these students are today hugely successful.

SSC schools, to put it in a nutshell, have a lower academic standard, have far lower fees, have more ordinary teachers, and, today, cater to a different economic demograph. I am not interested in the reasons, nor justifications, nor am I criticizing the system. This is a simple fact.

Today, parents have a much greater choice in what system their children should be educated. You have the IB schools, the ICSE schools, the CBSE schools, and the GCSE Schools, to list but a few. It goes without saying that all these are more expensive, have better academics and infrastructure, better faculty and cater to a different segment. These schools are generally unaffordable to large swathes of the population that send their children to SSC schools.

Today, if you pass by schools in Mumbai which offer SSC and are “Convent” schools [i.e. run by Priests or Catholics] you will see that a vast proportion of the students are – gasp – Muslim. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. Once again this is a statement of fact. I don’t want explanations. Besides a disproportionately large Muslim student body, you will observe that the parents come from very humble backgrounds and, often are, blue collar workers, domestic help and rickshaw/taxi drivers. Nothing wrong with this. Once again is a statement of fact. I don’t want explanations.

In other words, horses for courses. Broadly, there is a school and a system of education on offer at several different price points. Depending on where you lie in the economic demograph, you choose your school.

What this boils down to is that today, the more well off parents do not send their kids to SSC schools.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading of the considerable disquiet among parents whose children are in the SSC primary sections. I am sure you have read of how Sharadashram Vidyalaya - a hallowed SSC school in the Maharashtrian stronghold Dadar - the alma mater of the God Sachin Tendulkar, the tragic Vinod Kambli and jug eared Ajit Agarkar has attempted to change from SSC. Mind you I know that Sachin and Vinod came from humble backgrounds. Howls of protest from indignant parents. The main opposition is that with the change from SSC, fees will rise. The Hansraj Morarji Public School is attempting the same change. Slightly different push back in this case. A teacher has protested as she will lose her job once there is a system change.

I believe, far more SSC schools will attempt to either discontinue SSC – albeit in a scaled manner – or offer an additional system be it ICSE or something else. I may point out that the ICSE schools are now upgrading and offering GCSE and IB. To that extent there is a gradual shift to a better academic standard.

In my view, there is one reason, and one reason alone, at the very heart, the core, why on the schools are upgrading. That reason is money. Money for the school. Let me explain.

At the very bottom of the pyramid you have the SSC schools with poor academics, poor faculty and poor infrastructure. They attract poor students. Mind you the term poor is relative. Poor with regard to SSC is in relation to ICSE/GCSE etc. As you go up the pyramid, at the very top are the IB schools which have the highest academic programme, best paid faculty, the best infrastructure all meeting some international standard. Obviously, the fees are the highest and the student body is the wealthiest. We all know that with things that are more expensive, the profit margins are the highest. The schools that offer more expensive programs most often make more money. Therefore, the logic for SSC schools to upgrade becomes obvious and clear. Mind you, I am not saying that just because the school makes the most money its owners are laughing all the way to the bank. The owners may have more noble or philanthropic ideas. This is not a question of taking money home, it’s simply a way to make more money for the institution. What it does with the profits is a different matter which I am not discussing here.

There is a fundamental problem with SSC. You may well ask why can SSC schools not get better teachers, pay them more, have better infrastructure and charge students more. I believe that this is simply not possible as the course is so academically poor that paying more simply breaks down the economic or value proposition. No one in his right mind will pay more for the SSC system. It is as simple as that. Thus, the SSC system has its inbuilt limitations.

However schools and their trustees try to camouflage their upgrades, the bottom line is there is simply more money as you move up the value chain. It follows that if there is an upgrade, there will be displacement. Let us for the moment leave teachers out of this displacement. I mean the teachers who will be rendered redundant as they do not have the skills to teach a higher academic program. The displacement I fear more is for the masses of students who will be unable to afford non SSC schools. Where will these students go? The free Municipal schools that are so terribly broken down that doing an SSC from there is a downgrade? This is the disruption I fear.

What could the answers be? Further subsidizing education for the economically backward and putting them into say, CBSE or ICSE schools? Simply preventing or as we love in India “banning” change of education systems? I really don’t have an answer. Our demographics and economic upliftment in urban areas is so great that upgraded schools will be able to easily fill classrooms with relatively richer students. In fact this increase in wealth across India has had a direct effect on the fortunes of the IIT’s and IIM’s. I shall point this out in part two of this post. But as things stand, it is the really poor that will get caught out.

What is happening is, on several fronts, disturbing. It is also inevitable. How it is handled remains to be seen.

Of one thing I am sure. Our government will undoubtedly fuck it all up.