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Archive for May, 2009

Eastern Promises

A good friend told us about East, the Pan Asian restaurant tucked away in a busy corner near Gowalia Tank in South Bombay. As we know, there are limited opportunities to try Malaysian, Vietnamese and Sichuan-style Chinese food in Bombay. We’d heard that East’s chef, Nachiket Shetye, had studied at the C.I.A. and worked at Nobu, and that he aimed to make more than the ubiquitous Indo-Chinese and Thai fare for Bombayites craving Asian food.

We sipped on two excellent cocktails, a spicy bloody mary and a lychee martini, while admiring East’s subdued bamboo decor and ordered their signature Roti Canai,  which came with a dipping bowl of zesty, flowery Malaysian curry. This was no ordinary dinner roti but a layered, flaky roti, yielding and stretchy, the croissant of all rotis I’ve ever eaten. We then enjoyed making inexpert tacos with the smoky, plum sauce moo-shoo vegetables in their soft rice paper wrappers and dipping them into the fiery chili sauce on the table. The spice-loaded Burmese curry Khow Seuy had a gleeful assortment of toppings; we made little mountains of scallions, peanuts, fried garlic and onion on our bowls and slurped till we were stuffed.

Not all the food is so engaging, however. The steamed Shanghai wontons were a glazed, limp mess, the wontons so soft they collapsed into the mash of flavorless cabbage filling spilling out. The Sichuan Broccoli was tolerable when mixed with a curry, but alone, it was simply broccoli doused in an overload of chili sauce and red chili flakes. The Malaysian noodles were boring and the Penang curry, though loaded with coconut milk and vegetables, was flat. Last night for dinner we ordered Black Bean Vegetables,  pan-fried Japanese Gyoza dumplings, Crispy Eggplant in Hot Bean Sauce, and Chili-Garlic noodles. All of them, unfortunately, were resoundingly awful.

East has been around for a couple years now, though when we went, on a Sunday evening, it was more or less empty. We’ve heard of similar empty sightings from our friends but despite the lengthy list of mishits, we plan to go again, to try the Vietnamese Eggplant Fritters and the Indonesian Curry. East certainly needs to fix many dishes, but at least they’re attempting to introduce Bombayites to more than just the standards. Now, if only they would add pho to their menu.

Roti Canai: Rs. 160; Shanghai Wontons: Rs. 160; Moo Shoo Veg: Rs. 240; Khow Suey: Rs. 250
76 Nidhi, August Kranti Road, off Kemps Corner. 022-2381 1010.

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We drove past Del Italia’s plant-filled enclosed porch three times on the evening we were attempting to find Aurus. Lushly lit and packed with diners, it looked pretty promising. “Why don’t we just go there?” grumbled Hrishikesh. We definitely should have. After the disappointment of Aurus, eating at Del Italia was a refreshing reminder that Bombay’s restaurants can do justice to Italian food.

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I journeyed to Juhu many months later to meet a friend from America for lunch at Del Italia. The restaurant was empty when I arrived at noon, and two hours later, when we left, just one other table had been occupied. Unfortunately, the front porch, with its hanging potted plants, bay windows, and colorful throw cushions, was being used to complete some minor renovations work, so we sat inside, which was designed to resemble a Mediterranean home.

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While waiting for my friend to arrive, I ordered a competent cappuccino and studied the menu. Small plates; soups; salads; bruschettas; pizzas; pastas; other vegetarian mains- though the categories were comprehensive, the handful of options under each seemed selective. Lured by the toppings, we started with the spinach, rucola and artichoke bruschetta, a mess of extremely garlicky greens on tough, questionably stale bread doused with olive oil.

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Not so great, but our woodfired pizza, topped with herby tomato sauce, real mozerella, and a generous scattering of cremini mushrooms, was definitely the best I’ve eaten in Bombay. The care taken in choosing quality ingredients was apparent in each surprisingly delicious slice.

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One appetizer and a pizza is all we needed but I’m glad we also ordered the rotolo, two rounds of a soft pasta sheet filled with minced mushrooms and onions, swimming in a pureed caramelized onion sauce and garnished with a sprig of woodsy rosemary, leaves of which I kept pressing into my pizza. This more unconventional dish on Del Italia’s menu gave me a taste of the restaurant’s potential scope.

delItalia, Juhu Tara Road, next to Mocha, Juhu, Mumbai. 26184040.

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Bombay is high on heat and humidity. When I was melting in October, people just muttered cryptically. October was an oven, but it was the infamous “May in Bombay” that would be the test of my survival in this bright, blistering city. The heat is brash and inescapably agitating. I’m waiting for June’s promise of ominous skies and cold, sudden rains. Oh, the things I look forward to now.

I bide my time and divert my mind by making and eating cake.

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Ostensibly, I made this sort of plain looking lemon-yogurt cake with figs for my mom-in-law, for Mother’s Day. She really liked it (whew), but when I ate my first piece, I literally felt transported -to a balmy place where my only thoughts were about the mild perfume of ground almonds, the dusty pink of fresh figs and the fragile subtleties of spring, all that is the opposite of a brazen Bombay summer. So I ate another piece, and then another, marveling at the cake’s dewy lacing of lemon and frankly, it’s a good thing I made this cake for my mom-in-law and not for myself because that means there’s still some remaining at her house right now, where I’m going for lunch in an hour. There, I’ll have another soft slice of the season that Mumbai’s missing: the spring.

It’s a simple path to happiness for me. Dorie Greenspan, whose recipe I adapted, says that this French yogurt cake is “absolutely foolproof and shamelessly easy.” I tweaked her recipe by folding in the fresh figs (you can make it with any other fruit or no fruit at all), upping the amount of lemon rind, and substituting brown sugar for half of the white sugar. And at the very end, I squeezed the juice of one lemon all over the top of the baked cake and let it slowly seep through the moist, freckled layers to give it a very faint, tart tinge. DSC_1011

Don’t be alarmed if it looks squat; this is a low, short cake, something you would eat around tea time, or for breakfast or lunch. Or even for dessert, with some whipped cream, fresh fruit, or jam. But I like to eat this spring cake plain, to savor the scents of almond, lemon and fig. Dorie says the cake is best the day after it’s made, which is when we ate it.

A Cake for the Spring, or Lemon Yogurt Cake with Fresh Figs
adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (Indian refined sugar has bigger crystals than American refined sugar. When I’m baking, I usually stick my sugar in a mixer/grinder so the crystals become finer and resemble American sugar. I have no idea if this makes a difference to anything but I do it. Don’t grind it too much or you’ll make confectioner’s (or powdered) sugar.)
grated zest of 5 Mumbai lemons (or 1 American lemon)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup flavorless oil, such as canola or safflower (I used sunflower because that’s what I had)
4-5 fresh figs, sliced in 1/4 inch rounds, then halved
juice from one Mumbai lemon

Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F (or 175 degrees C). Generously butter the bottoms and sides of a 9 x 2 inch round cake pan.

Whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt.

With your fingertips, mix together the sugars and zest in a medium bowl until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Add the yogurt, eggs and vanilla and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very well blended. Add the dry ingredients in 3 steps, whisking after each addition. Use a rubber spatula to wipe down the edges of the bowl and fold in the oil. You’ll have a thick, smooth batter with a slight sheen.

Pour 3/4 of the batter into your prepared cake pan, using the spatula to spread it all over. Place as many fig halves as will fit all over the batter, and then pour the remaining batter over the figs trying to hide all the pieces. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to the counter and let it cool for five minutes, then take it out of the pan and let it cool some more. Squeeze the juice from one lemon all over the cake. Let cool to room temperature and eat!

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More hype than bite

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After much googling and vacillating, I finally picked Aurus, the ultra-hyped outdoor restaurant-lounge in Juhu, as the site of my birthday dinner. The internet and our friends had positively reviewed both the ambience and food of Juhu’s number one nightspot. Since driving into suburban traffic is a journey that H. only undertakes for special occasions, I figured I should take advantage of this on my birthday.

From the road, Aurus is all but invisible and not even marked by a sign. We drove past the restaurant, calling at multiple intervals to ask for directions. Each time the hostess told us, “It’s opposite the Ajanta Hotel.” When we finally spotted the (unlit) marker, we advised the hostess to give better directions than obscure landmarks. She argued with us- I guess mystifying entrances contribute to the hype.

The inside of Aurus is uninvitingly dim compared to its gorgeous and peaceful outdoor area. Twinkling lights illuminate pots of plants and flowers and the low, white sofas contribute to the laid back lounge atmosphere. Some lucky tables can even gaze onto a quiet stretch of Juhu beach where a few stragglers hawk their wares against the vast stretch of sea.

Sadly, we enjoyed our surroundings and view of Bombay’s cool crowd more than we did the food. The rice paper rolls with avocado didn’t taste like much other than the mayonnaise-heavy dressing slathered inside them, and the mushroom-topped bread squares were also tediously creamy (the dish had a really appealing name but I can’t remember it). Our pastas tasted like they were made at Spaghetti Kitchen, a chain restaurant similar to Olive Garden. I don’t object to eating generic sauces and fillings at Spaghetti Kitchen once in a while because I know what to expect, whereas Aurus’ prices (at least double of those at S.K.), interiors, and misleadingly tempting menu had me anticipating food that was a tad more unique and exciting. Oh, and the hype. With all that hype from our friends and the internet, both of us did expect better food. (Perhaps the non-vegetarian food is good. I don’t know.)

Aurus’ alluring open-air vibes make it a great place to drink with your friends, but if you’re in the mood to eat a gourmet meal, then look elsewhere. It definitely didn’t fulfill my birthday dinner dreams.

Ground Floor, Nichani Kutir, Juhu Tara Road, Santacruz, Mumbai, 022 67106666

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a sweet spring day in prospect park

a sweet spring day in prospect park

I want to walk in the park while wearing a jacket. Or at least, a sweatshirt.

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Birthday dinners should be ultimate, exquisite. Whether I’m dipping bread into a pot of fondue at home or out celebrating at a restaurant, my meal should contain taste, effort, and decadence much beyond the tasty food we eat every day.

This birthday, I fretted for a week over where we should eat. Those with prior experience know that my process of picking a restaurant is painfully thorough, and on birthdays, I become even more obsessed with finding the perfect place. This being H’s first time celebrating my birthday, the poor guy was spent by my selection process.

But, while I admit I am pretty ridiculous and probably intolerable when it comes to picking a restaurant for a special occasion, trying to choose the ultimate restaurant in Bombay is about 100,000 times more difficult than in New York, or Boston. This is because:

  1. In those cities, besides word of mouth from your foodie friends, there are so many sources to consult for reliable reviews: New York Magazine; Time Out; The New York Times; Chowhound; Yelp, and of course, well-written food blogs. After consulting one, or a few of them, you’re highly likely to find a fulfilling restaurant. In Bombay, we’ve got Time Out…and, um, Time Out, probably our best resource, because most of the online restaurant review sites (like mumbai.burrp.com) are questionably written and don’t inspire me to trust the reviewer. Also, Bombay foodies haven’t yet developed the thousands of restaurant reviewing food blogs that New York’s foodies have, so googling a restaurant doesn’t yield many comprehensible results.
  2. Aside from Indian, the variety and quality of Bombay’s restaurant food simply does not compare to the delightful and assorted fare you can order in New York or Boston. But, how can it? The American cities were home to immigrants who tested their culinary creations and reincarnations before a panel of diverse tastebuds- other immigrants. Those dishes I’m so familiar with (dan dan noodles, onion tarts, pizza) have been refined and perfected over long immigrant years. Have you ever been to a Mexican restaurant in Bombay? The food is flat, sweet and sad (though, judging from the crowd outside New Yorker every Sunday, the Guju aunties love their ke-saaah-dyas for deener). (Of course there are other factors- the fairly new culture of eating out, the sudden expendible income, etc.)

I promise I’m not complaining, just explaining why it can be incredibly difficult to choose a place to eat in Bombay when you’re craving something other than Indian food or sizzling frankies from the sidewalk. So. I aim to change this, in a small way. Maybe one day I’ll open a restaurant that serves enchiladas how I like them, with no trace of that horrid, ketch up-y sauce, but until then, what I can do is write restaurant reviews on those occasions we manage to stop cooking and go out for dinner. It’ll be my attempt to make it a modicum easier for the discerning, or annoyingly persevering, vegetarian who loves to eat out.

And did the place I finally picked for my ultimate birthday dinner meet my expectations? You’ll find out in my next restaurant review.

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