Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why can’t some of our best bars serve better food?

I went to Toit after several months the other day and loved it as always. It’s got beer that cannot be faulted, the buzziest vibe and efficient service, even when the place is packed to the rafters. But, oh the food! I wouldn't say it's abysmally bad, just very boring and uninspired, which is such a pity for a place that seems to have got everything else right.
I’m aware this gripe will evoke howls of protest from devoted Toit fans or, at the least, have them wondering what on earth I’m complaining about.  I note from restaurant review sites that they seem to love the pizza most. But I wasn’t in the mood for pizza and simply wanted some hit-the-spot nibbles to go with my Basmati Blonde. I pored over the menu and found nothing that jumped out saying 'Pick me'. My companion, a Toit regular who's tried pretty much everything on the menu -- and is rather forgiving when it comes to food -- turned down anything that seemed like a possibility.
Eventually, we settled for baked nachos with an extra of bacon. It was a mountain of masala papad, drizzled with some runny cheese, chopped onions, tomatoes and bacon that was far from crisp. Let's just say, it didn't get me raving.
It's not just this particular brewpub. Most places I go to leave me asking, why can’t bars here do better food? Sure, there are the few like the Socials and Monkey Bar which have given pub grub an exciting new twist and interpretation. But for the most part, we seem so stuck in a rut of nachos and potato wedges that come out of a freezer bag, it's a definite dampener on an outing to these places. I wonder why they cannot, for instance, dip into the endless array of Indian snacks and street foods and come up with finger foods that can really lift up the drinking experience. When in doubt, deep-fry, is not the best approach to building a finger food menu.
I can think of things that can be done with murukkus, sev and chakli, chaat, vadas of every sort, kebabs and mini rotis and naans. A chef I was chatting with, told me of a snack menu he’d devised which had small triangles of khakra with an array of chatpata toppings. Now that’s an inspired idea, to be sure.
I don’t think I can face another plate of nachos anytime soon, unless they are the real deal. And I’m waiting for a time when pubs and bars here get truly inventive with their food, coming up with dishes that use fresh ingredients and capture local flavours. All it takes is some imagination and a determination not to look in the direction of nachos, French fries and jalapeno poppers.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Raise a toast to this Indian wine

‘Indian wines have finally come of age.’ It’s a statement that’s been uttered often in recent times and still sounded more like wishful thinking than fact. But a quiet revolution certainly seems afoot and leading it, I’m convinced, is KRSMA, being produced in the Hampi Hills, not far from the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The other day, I attended a vertical tasting of the KRSMA Cabernet Sauvignon. Passionate wine-maker couple Uma and Krishna Prasad Chigurupati, unveiled their 2015 version – still fresh from the barrel – and invited guests to compare the 2011, 2012 and 2014 vintages alongside.  
I am not the sort of wine connoisseur who can detect cassis fruit, pear drops and freshly-cut grass in my glass. And I don’t subscribe to the belief that it’s important either. I know what wines I like to drink and derive endless pleasure from these. By that standard, I thoroughly enjoyed the KRSMA Cab Sauv, particularly the 2012 vintage.
The serious wine buffs at the tasting gave the various vintages a thumbs-up, but each had their personal favourites – again proving how subjective the business of wine-tasting is.
What emerges clearly is that KRSMA, a boutique winery that focuses a great deal more on quality than on volumes, is doing a superb job making a truly Indian wine. Their Sauvignon Blanc is splendid, too, by the way.
KRSMA wines are now also available in New York City and grace the tables of such reputed restaurants as Le Cirque. If you’re a restaurateur, you’d do well to have KRSMA on your wine-list. And for wine drinkers, it’s a lovely wine at an excellent price.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A kitchen tour at Bangalore’s new Shangri La

I’ve had a pre-opening peek into the towering Shangri La on Palace Road. The façade is still getting finishing touches and inside it’s all vast and opulent. What really had me gasping in wonder though was the hotel’s central kitchen. It’s a marvel of planning, design, top class fittings and equipment. Naturally, Executive Chef Antonio Tardi and his team are proud to show it off and that’s exactly what they did.
I’ve seen some modern restaurant kitchens, but nothing quite like this. The flow of supplies and food has been carefully mapped. Raw and cooked foods are kept well apart, to cut down any chance of contamination. The floors are gleaming white, the fittings all high grade stainless steel. Even the garbage room is spotless and they have ideal recycling systems in place, including composting on the premises.
The hotel has a food safety management expert and he wields a glow torch to randomly check bacteria counts on the hands of kitchen staff. Training vendors and suppliers on maintaining hygiene standards is also part of his responsibility.
The store rooms are a delight, with smooth, sliding doors to close off shelves. An Indian spice room has stainless steel grinders for making fresh dry and wet masalas and cool cabinets for storing these.
It’s a kitchen good enough to eat in, and that’s what we did. Chef Antonio conducted a short, fun class on pasta-making in the pastry kitchen and we hung about there, nibbling on pass-arounds. There was bruschetta on crisp toasted rustic bread, mini pita pockets filled with shrimp, served with hummous, sous-vide cooked chicken and fresh pasta with mushrooms.
For dessert, we trooped off to the ice-cream and chocolate room. The pastry chef told me he had to do very little, except make the crème anglaise, because the fabulous – and intelligent – ice-cream maker does all the work. It’s a Carpigiani, widely recognized as one of the world’s best ice-cream machines and makes the smoothest, creamiest gelato in just 10 minutes. A smaller machine from the same brand makes the perfect whipped cream and I had a swirl to crown my fresh mango ice cream.
B Cafe is the hotel’s all-day diner and is also packed with the coolest gadgets and fittings. The chef de cuisine ran his hands along a cooking station, saying, ‘Working on this, is the chef’s equivalent of driving a BMW.’

Shangri La will have some 9 F&B outlets, offering everything from global tapas to Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Mediterranean. With the food coming from those kitchens, I’m expecting it to be something special. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Freedom Café: Size doesn’t matter

This tiny eatery in North Bangalore is commendable for all the thoughtfulness that has gone into it.

It doesn’t have to be Riedel glasses and rose petal-dusted desserts. A small café can make a huge impact, too. The Freedom Café, newly opened near M.S Ramaiah Collge, is one such place. It impressed me especially, with its simplicity and honesty. And several other little things that count.
The Freedom Café is tiny, seating only 20, and still manages to be warm and welcoming, thanks mainly to a certain openness in its design. 

There’s a newsprint graphic element that adds a zing to the muted walls and it’s made up of carefully chosen words:
Affection Calm Compassion Creativity Debate Degrowth Feminism Green Integrity Kindness Solidarity Think Touch Transparency Values Walk Warmth – all ideas that represent freedom.
Owner and first-time restaurateur Manohar Elavarthi is a social activist and establishing the freedom to be, regardless of gender, caste, religion or sexual preference, defines much of his work, whether with transgender people or farmers in Karnataka.
His philosophies also inform much of how things are done at Freedom Café. Even with his small team, he has an inclusive hiring policy and wants more women on the staff. He pays better than market rates and strives to create a positive workplace experience for them.
While, in his activist role, Manohar Elavarthi espouses sustainable agriculture, as a restaurateur he’s attempting to be as eco-friendly as possible. The furniture is crafted from re-purposed wood, areca leaf plates are in use and the water is in reusable glass bottles.
Freedom Café’s menu is small and unpretentious, comprising breaded chicken and veg strips, served with four flavoured mayos, rolls, soups, burgers and two rice dishes – a Mexican rice and a veg dum biryani which I tasted and found most satisfying. There are hot and cold drinks, such as cold coffee made with filter coffee. For dessert there was a Mizo rice cake, a lovely thing Manohar apparently discovered while working with the Mizo community here during the time they were fleeing the city in droves because of a perceived threat.
There are several dishes priced under Rs 50 and nothing priced above Rs 100 – perfect for the student population in this area. Customers are welcome to linger, chat, debate or work here. It’s about freedom, remember?
My hope for this little venture, created from so much positive thought and energy, is that it should quickly become a commercial success as well.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A reading list for chefs and restaurateurs

Let's talk books. Not those that list recipes, but books that delve into the depths of restaurants, capturing for readers all the drama, the highs and the heart-aching lows that go into the making of a culinary landmark. Here are some of my favourite books about restaurants; some are insightful, others inspiring and yet others simply a rollicking good read about one of the world's most exciting businesses.
The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander
Nicholas Lander is a respected food critic for the Financial Times and was also once a restaurateur, having owned the legendary L’Escargot in London in the 1980s. His book traces the untold stories of 20 remarkable restaurants across the globe -- from Michelin star winners, to vastly popular bistros and stylish cafes. It's also about the highs and lows of the business and what it takes to succeed and be celebrated. This beautifully illustrated book is a keeper. 
Memorable lines: “While chefs may use plates for their art, restaurateur’s imaginations work on much bigger canvases. They look at empty spaces – modern, old, on one floor or on several, in bustling parts of town or in down-at-heel areas -- and begin to paint pictures in their heads of what these spaces will look like when they are full and bustling with customers and staff. This exhilarating experience is the most exciting aspect of this noble profession.”
Restaurant Man, by Joe Bastianich

Yes, he's the nasty guy on American MasterChef. He's also the man behind some of New York's most successful restaurants such as Babbo, Del Posto and Eataly. Bastianich also produces a signature line of Italian wines. Vulgar, but vivid is how this New York Times best-seller has been described. Restaurant Man is also the story of a man, who grew up as an alienated immigrant kid in Queens, spent his teens in a drug-fuelled haze and went on to become one of the city's most celebrated food entrepreneurs, eventually making his peace with his past.
Memorable lines: “He (Bastianich’s Father) taught me at an early age the enigma of the business - you need to appear to be generous, but you have to be an inherently cheap f*** to make it work. It’s a nickel and dime business and you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try and make dollars by grabbing dollars you will never survive. It’s come down to a simple concept that my partner Mario Batali and I live by in all our restaurants: We buy things, we fix them up and we sell them for profit."
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
If Bastianich's book was rated highly for its no-holds-barred 'macho memoir' tenor, it's the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and TV star, who set the trend. Part professional story, part behind-the-scenes peek into restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential holds up a mirror to the restaurant business with unapologetic honesty. Bourdain describes restaurant kitchens as intense, unpleasant, sometimes hazardous workplaces staffed by misfits. His account will either have you drawn inexorably into the underbelly of the culinary world or have your running scared, depending on how adventurous you are.
Memorable lines: "For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all had to become disappears when we're confronted with a something as simple as a plate of food. When we remember what it was that moved us down this road in the first place."

Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer
It's well worth reading what Danny Meyer has to say. He opened his first restaurant in 1985 at the age of 27, and spent the next 30 years building an empire. Meyer now heads the Union Square hospitality group which includes a landmark restaurants like Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, the Modern, Maialino, Blue Smoke and Shake Shack.  Danny, his restaurants and his chefs have won a stupendous 25-plus James Beard Awards. Setting the Table is both an excellent business book and the remarkable story of a restaurateur.
Memorable lines: “Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes the recipient feel. Service is a monologue- we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guests side requires listening to that person on every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top”.
Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas
While Anthony Bourdain and Joe Bastianich make you chuckle and, occasionally, shudder at the goings-on in restaurant kitchens, here is a touching story that will overwhelm you with its eye-watering intensity. It's the story of Chef Grant Achatz of the conceptually radical and much-starred Alinea. Achatz was on top of his game, awarded the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year multiple times when he was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. Unwilling to lose his tongue, Achatz opted out of surgery and went in for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments resulted in him losing his sense of taste. Achatz then trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. This is the story of one man's love affair with cooking, and how he survived terrible odds to keep that love alive.
Memorable lines: “You can’t decide to turn creativity on or off.  All you can do is present yourself with interesting problems and try to find solutions.”