Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Conti" food. A great meal at the ITC in Mumbai.

This post, sort of, continues on the unimpressive food we got in Australia. I had compared the “Conti” food in Australia with the food served in Clubs in Mumbai as well as at Indigo Deli and the Smokehouse Deli type of restaurants. Some of you may wonder what I meant by “Conti” food, and how it exists in India. This post is also about a wonderful “Conti” meal made for us in Mumbai a few days ago.

“Conti” food in India is normally a mélange of Italian with a few American dishes thrown in. Pizza, Pasta in various forms, burgers and sandwiches. Chicken and occasionally fish and more rarely Pork form the non vegetarian component. Potato features heavily with cheese, and, “English” vegetables – Broccoli, Carrot, French Beans, Lettuces – form the garnish. The food is often cooked with or served with a sauce which has a main flavor, chili.  Habanero, Harissa, Jalapeno, Bhut Jholakia, Arabiata and so on are adjectives used. I can tell you what “Conti” food is not. In other words, “Conti” food does not have Oriental ingredients nor does it have the North Indian influence of onion browned with ginger and garlic, tomato and then the trinity of Turmeric, Coriander and Cumin powders. So, while there are no North Indian influences, “Conti” food is often spicy. This is our notion of “Conti” food.

Finding a simple Roast Chicken with golden crisp skin served with creamy Mashed Potato some vegetables and a Pan Jus is extremely rare. The simple Fish and Chips a classic, even rarer considering we have 3000 km coastline. You may just find these dishes on the menu of a 24 hour Coffee Shop in a 5 Star Hotel.

What may be surprising to you is that in reality “Conti” food is very much alive and well, and, cooked very competently, in India. But you cannot eat it unless you fly internationally on Business or First Class. Yes, dear readers, our flight kitchens prepare for the airlines some very good classic “Conti” food. Take virtually any flight from India travelling west and you will always have an excellent “Conti” dish on offer. This is obviously demanded by International airlines. Do you know the further irony? Our flight kitchens are more often than not, owned by our 5 Star hotel chains. Yes folks, the Taj Flight Kitchen, Oberoi Flight Kitchen, Skygourmet [which is run in collaboration with the Narang Group who have the Ambassador hotel] and surprise surprise, Chefair Flight Catering, Mumbai a division of Hotel Corporation of India Ltd a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India!!

So, you have a situation where there are more than enough chefs who can make international standard “Conti” food, but not serve it to us. Our 5 Star Hotels who have the skills, find “Conti” food un workable in their outlets.

An Indian Chef in London, a friend of ours, who had years of experience in India, the Gulf and finally in the UK told us that Indian Chefs were the best in the world. There were like chameleons, they were flexi and could be taught anything. You had Indian chefs making myriad cuisines effortlessly. The same was not generally true of Orientals and French trained Chefs, these chaps are far less flexible and generally stick to cooking what they are trained in. In light of this observation, I can understand why Indian Chefs are so adept at “Conti” food. Ocean Cruise lines have a large complement of Indian chefs for precisely this reason. They are adaptable and can replicate. Flight kitchens are staffed with Indian chefs turning out thousands of portions of good “Conti” food every day.  

As regular readers know, we are really fond of “Conti” food, in its true sense. We get virtually none in Mumbai.

A few days ago, on a Friday after a tough week, all we wanted was to be served a drink in a calm sophisticated bar and to finish the evening with some “Conti” food. We scoured online menus of the Shamiana at the Bombay Taj, the Cellini at the Grand Hyatt and the Peshwa Pavilion at the ITC Grand Maratha. Everything was just Burgers, Pizza and Club Sandwiches. Somehow, the Peshwa Pavilion seemed to be slightly more interesting. Knowing that the bar at the ITC Grand Maratha is good we called in and told our friends there that we would pop by.

Boy were we in for a huge and most pleasant surprise. Chef Taranjit told Chef Anshul that we were coming for dinner and Chef Anshul decided to make us a “specially curated 4 course dinner.” Just by way of background, Taranjit is the King of Kebabs and runs Peshawri. Anshul is a vastly experienced “Conti” food chef. He has worked in the UK for years and was part of the great Raymond Blanc group. He knows what he is doing. It was a wonderful and thoughtful gesture to make us the meal. All spontaneous, well, with a couple of hours’ notice. It was the second time Chef Anshul has cooked for us, and it was fantastic. Like flight kitchens food, this food and the Chef’s talents remain hidden. Pity.

First up was a Jerusalem Artichoke Soup. This was garnished with Enoki Mushroom. Very nice smooth soup. Jerusalem Artichoke is a very humble vegetable, we know it as ‘Arbi’, the normally mud coated sad looking root. This was quite magically transformed to this delicious soup.

Lasagna which was vegetarian was the next course. The filling was mixed mushroom, not quite a Duxelle but very mushroomy. Lashings of a good rich Bechamel topped with Buerre Noisette [burnt butter] with Hazelnuts and Pine Nuts to provide texture. A spear of Asparagus added colour, sautéed Boletus Mushroom and Parmesan shavings finished the dish. 

A palate cleanser followed. A Fruit Soup with a Sorbet and some Fruit. A lovely deep red colour and without doubt the best palate cleanser we have had in a long time. Very well balanced, without the sweet overpowering the sour, which is often the case.  Looks as pretty as a picture.

The fish course was next. Extremely well cooked fish, moist and flaky with crisp skin. This was international standard cooking. A smooth creamy Mash Potato, Burnt Onion and Mushroom as garnish. Skillful cooking indeed.

The dessert was a comforting Sticky Toffee Pudding. A moist sponge with the Caramel, Date Sauce topped with ice cream. A fitting end to a very satisfying meal.

The effort taken by Chef Anshul to make and serve the meal was enormous. If you look at the photos you will notice that each dish has been served in a different plate. The colours chosen to complement the food. Good clean presentation. The attention to detail. We were really gob smacked. And, you know what? Not a single chilli or bit of spice in the food. And, you know what, it was delicious! Honestly, we could have been anywhere in Western Europe. The food was that good as was the presentation. If there is one minor complaint, it would be that 3 dishes contained some form of Mushroom. But that is unfair. Anshul cooked all this with no real notice. Obviously he had severe constraints.

I find it very hard to understand why we Indians are so bloody close minded about our food. Mumbai is probably the most conservative with its food. Jainism, vegetarianism and, lately, mumbo jumbo diets enslaving diners. Food has to be spicy and ‘chat pata’ or else it does not work. Entire cuisines are disappearing from our restaurants and this is sad.

In a post I had written about Hemant Oberoi, I had written about the schizophrenic meal. The restaurant was running empty. We were told that that they would be serving ‘twisted India’. Well, now they do. Even a great Chef like Hemant Oberoi whom I had written about  cannot serve and sustain a “Conti” food restaurant.

I feel so sorry for the future of “Conti” food in Mumbai.     

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