Thursday, 8 May 2014

Delhi's Finest Italian Restaurant is a Banker's Tribute to the Man Who Gave Italian Cuisine an Identity

This my fortnightly Fortune Cookie column, which appeared in Mail Today on May 8, 2014. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Artusi's talented and cheerful
executive chef, Romina Lugaresi
(left), strikes a pose with the
restaurant's promoter,
Gurpinder Balcon
THIS IS A story in many parts, which starts in the Cayman Islands, where an Italian banker meets an Indian from Calgary, Canada, also working in a financial institution, and the two fall in love and marry, travel around the world, nurturing their passion for good food, and finally land in Delhi to open what promises to be the city's finest classical Italian restaurant at Greater Kailash-II's M-Block Market.
The restaurant is named Artusi, an ode to a banker, Pellegrino Artusi, who wrote the first pan-Italian cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), which has gone into numerous reprints since its publication in 1891 because of its mix of easy-to-do recipes collected from across Italy, peppered with amusing stories. The restaurant's name is a personal tribute of one banker, Oscar Balcon, whose romance with Gurpinder is the starting point of this story, to another.
In addition to the professional bond, Balcon also shares a common geography with the immortal Artusi. The Italian cookbook writer spent his life in Florence (and lived till he was 90 -- a glorious example of the power of good food), but he owned land in Emilia-Romagna, in Forlimpopli and Cesena, which is Balcon's original home (and that of the restaurant's executive chef, Romina Lugaresi). Emilia-Romagna is also Italy's centre of gastronomy -- this is where you'll find Parma, famous for its ham (prosciutto di Parma), cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), and also the world's largest pasta maker, Barilla; Modena, renowned for its syrupy balsamic vinegar; Bologna, the capital, which is synonymous with the most popular pasta dish, spaghetti bolognese, and tortellini.
Artusi's star offering is the
panna cotta layered with
caramelised almonds and figs
Artusi therefore is not just any other Italian restaurant. Its soul is that of the table of Emilia-Romagna. Even the hand-made decorative tableware and jars on the shelves, which you'd want to take home with you, are from the famous village of Deruta, which is 50km from Cesena. More importantly, there's passion written all over the restaurant -- from the sleek wood-and-stainless steel design of its bar (which starts as a cafe at 8 a.m. and turns into a watering hole after 4 p.m.) to the pasta room, the only one perhaps in India, where 14 different types of pasta are made by hand daily by Lugaresi's boys.
Talking about hand-made pastas, I must share the story that Balcon narrated to me about one of them. It is about the tubular strozzapreti, which, translated into English, means "choke" or "strangle the priest". Balcon said that Emilia-Romagna has produced an equal number of priests and communists because the Church, being a major landowner of the region, has never been popular in the region. The pasta, according to a popular story, had to be given by peasant families to the Church in lieu of rent for the land they tilled. And each time they gave the pasta to the priests, they wished they could strangle them with it (or that the priest would choke while eating it)!
Artusi faithfully presents this vibrant culinary heritage. On my first visit, I ordered the Emilia-Romagna tasting menu, which started with a platter of crescione (piadina flatbread stuffed with spinach in this instance) to balance the piled-up slivers of meats -- two-year-old Parma ham, coppa and a regular salami -- served with pickled vegetables.  Then came the invigorating broth, Cappelletti in Brodo (the cap-shaped pasta was stuffed with a two kinds of cheese and had a hint of nutmeg), followed by pappardelle (the flat pasta cooked to perfection) with a gamy minced guinea hen ragu, and finally, roughly chopped fillet of pork, grilled and served with artichokes, rucola, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The preparations are light and delicious, and the wine selection is intelligently organised, so you'll definitely find your favourite, and the panna cotta layered with caramelised almonds and figs will leave you with the urge to return soon for more.

ARTUSI: QUICK BITES
Address: M 24, M-Block Market, Greater Kailash II, New Delhi
Reservations: 011 4906 6666
Artusi's Pellegrino wrote the first Italian
cookbook containing recipes drawn from
all regions of the new republic  
Timings:
Lunch: 12:00 NOON TO 3:00 P.M.
Dinner: 6:30 TO 11:30 P.M.
Café Bar: 8:00 A.M. TO 4 P.M.
Cocktail Bar: 4:00 P.M. TO 1:00 A.M.
Average Meal for Two (without alcohol):
Lunch: Rs 3,000
Dinner: Rs 4,500
Parking: Easy throughout the day. Valet parking available.
Credit Cards: Accepted
Website: www.artusi.in


GREATER KAILASH-II M-BLOCK
MARKET HAS BECOME
DELHI'S NEW FOODIE HUB
IT WAS Ritu Dalmia's Diva and Nelson Wang's China Garden that gave Greater Kailash-II's M-Block Market its initial lift. Hao Shi Niann Niann followed, Goa's Souza Lobo shut shop,  old-timers Chungwa and Not Just Paranthas have chugged along, but now it has become the city's new restaurant magnet. Consider the restaurants that have opened in that market in the past two years: Rara Avis, Mini Mughal, Chocolateria San Churros, Uzuri, Amalfi, Sattviko, and now Artusi and Yeti: The Himalayan Kitchen. Each one of these restaurants has a distinctive menu, an upmarket look and feel, and a dedicated fan following. Can they now combine to promote the market as a foodie destination and steal the thunder of their Greater Kailash-I counterparts.

THE GOOD LAMA OF HIGH SPIRITS
YANGDUP LAMA is my favourite bar magician. Like a smiling Buddha, he brings a whiff of his native Darjeeling when he speaks in his gentle tones; when he works, he's a picture of meditative concentration. And the surprising bit about Delhi's most in-demand bar consultant, who now has his own 'speakeasy', Cocktails & Dreams at Sector-15, Gurgaon, is that he imbibes alcohol only in taster's portion drops! He took this call early on in his professional life after figuring out that to be a good bartender, you have to stop drinking socially. And his advice to all his customers is that they must "drink to enjoy, not to abuse".
I have been waiting for the day this cocktail guru comes out with a book of recipes with his distinctive twist. He has finally done it with Gitanjali Chaturvedi, a Ph.D. from JNU who, in her own words, has "lived and worked in vodka-infused post-Soviet republics, in dry Afghanistan and in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a mix of the two". Cocktails & Dreams: The Ultimate Indian Cocktail Book (Wisdom Tree) is in a league of its own, because you'll never find a recipe for a Cognac & Chai or a Paan Supari Martini, or even a Masala Maar Ke in another cocktail shaker's book. Lama has the knack of knowing which Indian flavour will do well internationally and that is what makes this book special (apart from the loads of tips for the home bartender).
My personal favourite is the Paan Supari Martini because it uses the distinctive flavours of betel leaves, which lend a refreshingly enigmatic twist to any drink they are added to, or for that matter to the Paan Biryani served at Baluchi, The Lalit's Indian restaurant. By experimenting with these flavours, Yangdup isn't trying to be exotic, but is making our palate more receptive to a more creative approach to cocktails. His Sazerac Inspired by India, for instance, turns around the classical rye whiskey cocktail by using aniseed (saunf)-infused premium domestic stuff, replacing Peychaud's with orange bitters and adding rose syrup instead of the sugar cube. Aniseed, orange and rose -- that's a combination of flavours you'd expect from a Pierre Herme! Well, creative minds do think alike!

BIRYANI WITH A PIZZA TWIST
IT'S BEEN a fortnight since Pizza Hut, much to the bemusement of the Twitterverse, became the first international restaurant chain to add biryani to its menu. Birizza, which is what the biryani is called because it comes in a pan pizza dough purdah, has come to India a year after its launch in Sri Lanka. Now, Pizza Hut hopes to leverage the product, as the chain's country head, Sanjiv Razdan, explained to me, to go beyond the 100 million "relatively rich Indians" and reach out to the 300 million "urban Indians".
The Birizza launch announcement was greeted by social media denizens with more shock than awe, but I found it to be a welcome innovation. I loved cutting open the pizza dough top and eating it after dipping it into the accompanying makhni gravy "with a twist", and the biryani inside tasted good. Arjyo Banerjee, product innovation head of Yum Restaurants (Pizza Hut's parent company), said it had been inspired by the tawa biryani he used to eat in his student days at a restaurant that's no longer there at Dadar, Mumbai. From Kabul to Kerala, from Karachi to Kolkata, our part of the world is studded with biryanis, each significantly different from the other. The Birizza is a welcome addition to this sub-continental bouquet.