Thursday, 13 March 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: Proud To Be Indian Yet Refusing To Be Stodgy

This is my bi-monthly column, Fortune Cookie, which appeared in the edition of Mail Today dated Thursday, March 13, 2004. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

There's nothing in-your-face 'South
Indian' in the look of the new Zambar
at the DLF Cyber Hub, and the menu
too is deliciously unpredictable.
By Sourish Bhattacharyya

DELHI/NCR'S Indian restaurants, even after successive waves of liberalisation, have had a limpet-like tradition of looking like a half-witted Bollywood set designer's bad dream.
Oily furniture, formica-topped tables, slouchy waiters in fancy-dress costumes, Brian Silas's repetitive renditions of Hindi movie classics on piano (or worse, live ghazals!) and boudoir art -- these were (and still are) the staples of the ambience of Indian restaurants. Such was the seeming permanence of this dolorous decor, that when the late lamented Corbett opened at The Claridges, recreating the game park theme accompanied by a menu that ventured beyond the obvious, and Park Balluchi at the Hauz Khas Village deer park capitalised on its wow setting by serving kebabs on mock swords with burning charcoal, we let out a collective sigh of relief.
It turned to be a short-lived escape from the dead weight of predictability, though, for Corbett got replaced by the Mediterranean restaurant, Sevilla, and Park Balluchi became a haven for discount-devouring tour groups. Indian restaurants went back to their cocoon of complacency as the city flirted with newer tastes and more titillating flavours. At last, there's a glimmer of hope. Three recent openings, all at the DLF Cyber Hub in Gurgaon (bordering the country's IT/BPO hub), have shown the way forward for Indian restaurant decor.
The wacky decor of Dhaba by Claridges, also at
the DLF Cyber Hub (and DLF Place, Saket),
prepares you for masterpieces such as the
vodka tharras and the best butter chicken
in Delhi/NCR
A venture of Olive Bar & Kitchen's promoter, AD Singh, steered by Mohit Balachandran (Mr Chowder Singh of the blogging world), Soda Bottle Openerwala was the first off the block with a quirky decor borrowing heavily from the unintentionally funny notices on the walls of Mumbai's Irani restaurants. Even the glass tops of its old-fashioned tables are balanced, imaginatively, by the railway station chai glasses and the LED screen at the bar, which awaits a licence, enhances the visual narrative by playing rushes of Hindi film classics and of acts by Parsi stand-up comics.
At Zambar, filmmaker-turned-chef Arun Kumar's ode to the gifted home cooks and famous tea shops of the south, backed by the corporate muscle of Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal's Lite Bite Foods, the minimalist decor doesn't have anything in-your-face, or stereotypically South Indian. Yet the art on the wall are digitally embellished prints of old South Indian film posters (you can't miss a Rajnikanth or a Sivaji Ganesan); the music, A.R. Rahman's chart-topping Tamil numbers; and the menu has happy surprises such as Prawn Rasam, the addictive Cauliflower Bezule (fried cauliflower florets coated in spices and rice flour batter), mutton mince balls (kola urundu), Kerala tea shop chilli chicken, and the unbeatable squid rings with seafood filling.
Unsurprisingly, Zambar has been drawing full houses ever since it opened a couple of weeks back. It's still impossible to find a table at Soda Bottle without waiting -- people just want to have their Mutton Berry Pulao, the juicy fried chicken (Marghi Na Farcha) and Bheeda Par Eeda (fried eggs on spicy okra) again, and again, and yet again. And it's not any different for Dhaba by Claridges, the new capital of the Republic of Youngistan, promoted by Sanjeev Nanda, its wacky menu laid out by Ravi Saxena, Corporate Chef of The Claridges Hotels and Resorts.
Dhaba by Claridges takes the hotel's hugely popular restaurant, famous for its Balti Meat, out of the stuffy five-star environment, and funkifies (I don't know if there's such a word!) the highway dining experience. The ambience is playful, the signs on the wall have that irreverential quality that has made Comedy Nights by Kapil the current rage, and innovations such as vodka cocktails (nicknamed tharras) served in quarters (pau-a bottles) and the humble baigan bharta arriving in a beaten-metal canister, are all drawing trendy young people to this restaurant in droves.
These restaurants are rewriting the rules of how purveyors of Indian cuisine must look without playing around with the basics. The butter chicken at Dhaba by Claridges is the best, in my view, in Delhi/NCR, and people in the know insist that Soda Bottle's Berry Pulao is better than what you get at Britannia in Mumbai. We are in for good times.

NO PLACE FOR TASTE ENHANCERS IN POLISH VODKA
VODKA, in our imagination, may be irrevocably associated with the escape it offered to people weighed down by communist drudgery in the erstwhile Soviet Union, but it is Poland that possesses the oldest written record of the drink dating back to 1405. And it is home to some of the world's most acclaimed vodkas, notably the Wyborowa, whose bottle was designed by the celebrated Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehri.
So, I spent an afternoon with Charles Gibb, President of Belvedere, the vodka brand instantly recognisable for the image of Poland's presidential palace (Palac Belwederski or Belweder Palace, Warsaw) that it carries on its slender bottle, quizzing him about what sets Polish vodka apart from its competition. A Polish vodka, like Scotch, has to be produced from Polish rye or potatoes (Belvedere is made from a rye named Dankowski, which has quite a distinguished heritage and is famously associated with another notable Polish vodka, Sobieski). The water has to be drawn from a natural source at the distillery -- Belvedere's formula requires its water, sourced from an artesian well, to be purified 11 times, so that, in Gibb's words, "it provides a completely blank canvas for the expression of rye".
Polish vodka makers cannot also use additives such as glycerine and citric acid -- and this came as a revelation to me -- that the industry routinely uses to add a hint of flavour to what is erroneously supposed to be a tasteless product. "The idea of a neutral-tasting vodka is the American definition of the drink," exclaimed Gibb, a Scotsman who's married to an Australian and lives in New York. "You must be able to taste the Belvedere in your drink." (Look out for a more detailed interview with Gibb will appear on this blog very soon.)

WE SAY MACAROON, THEY SAYS MACRON
CELEBRATED patissier Pierre Herme's visit to the city, courtesy of the India Today Conclave, has triggered off a spirited debate, started by the man himself, on the difference between a macaroon and a macron. Well, it's simple -- macron is French and macaroon is English. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first recorded usage of the English word,  macaroon, dates back to 1611. And Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, which was first published in 1861, has a recipe for making a macaroon. Both the words are derived from the Italian maccarone or maccherone, and they mean the same thing: meringue-like cookies made with egg white, almond paste, ground almonds or coconut, and sugar with a crisp crust and soft interior with a filling at the centre.
The confusion, I believe, has been caused by the picture accompanying the Wikipedia entry for macaroons -- it's of a coconut macaroon, which was a best-seller on the Wenger's menu and looks very different from the standard image of the confection. It was L'Opera that changed our mental image of a macaroon and more recently, Breads & More has outdone the French patisserie. Now, did you know that the bakers of the Tamil Nadu town of Thoothukudi (or Tuticorin) have an old tradition of making macaroons with egg white, cashew and sugar? You'll love the ones from Shanti Bakery, which has been making macaroons since 1964.

AND WHAT'S THIS 'POLMOS' BUSINESS ALL ABOUT?
EACH bottle of Belvedere, or for that matter any vodka produced in Poland, carries the acronym POLMOS. Its expanded form is 'Polish Monopoly of Spirits'. The expression harks back to the time when all vodka in this East European country, then behind the Iron Curtain, used to be produced in state-owned distilleries. After the Polish people got rid of communism in 1989, the government started selling its distilleries to the highest bidders and Belvedere, produced at a place called Zyrardow, 45km from Warsaw, was picked up by Eddie Phillips, a serial entrepreneur and son of 'Dear Abby', America's most famous agony aunt. The brand has been owned since 2001 by the luxury conglomerate, LVMH.