Friday, January 27, 2017

New restaurant: The Druid Garden

Having extolled the virtues of a small menu in the last post, this one’s all about a restaurant that is decidedly huge. Massive is evidently a virtue at The Druid Garden in Bangalore’s Sahakar Nagar, just off the airport highway. It can seat 500 people at a time, the in-house brewery (to launch soon) is one of the -- if not the – biggest in these parts, both in terms of space and volume of Czech beer it’ll be brewing, and the multi-cuisine kitchen is a sprawl, a luxury few restaurants can afford.
To be honest, I am biased towards small restaurants with compact menus that deliver intimate dining experiences. But the style and design of The Druid Garden had me pleasantly surprised. While it’s a vast space, it’s cleverly tiered, providing seating at various levels and in niches. The retracting glass roof is a marvel and there’s a high-end grill and pizza oven lending warmth to the place. The colours and lighting are subtle, the style understated. Such a huge restaurant could easily have gone over the top with the décor; that, thankfully, has been averted.
The long bar makes a speciality of its cocktails. Some, like the Moscow Berry Mule (vodka, fresh berries, ginger beer) and Breakfast Martini (orange marmalade, Cointreau, Bourbon) were superb, while others such as the Basil Sees Red (red pepper, basil, tequila, soda), were unremarkable.
The chefs deserve congratulations for the bar snacks menu which has on it Spiced Latino Chips of sweet potato, tapioca and plantain and Fried Okra Slivers. No nachos or potato wedges in sight and I was pleased. The Druid Garden Menu is a mix of Indian and global cuisine and covers a vast range; I can only imagine all the activity in that humongous kitchen. The Campagna Burrata (fresh cheese, heirloom tomatoes, blood orange dressing) from the salad list was one of the picks of the menu for me, as was the Asian Spiced Tofu Tacos with cripy quinoa and wasabi mayo. Reflecting the scope of the menu was the Scandinavian-inspired Smorrebrod with Anchovy Paste. These dishes feature in the ‘Small Plates’ menu. Then, there are Burgers, Sandwiches Wraps, Pizza, Grills and Large Plates which run the gamut from Karimeen Polichathu and Andhra Kodi Pulao to Crab Ravioli and Tamale with Chicken.
The beef from the grill, I was told, is locally sourced and it was of very good quality and came perfectly cooked. The Druid Garden has a Thai chef and he delivered super quality in the spicy Tom Yum and Pineapple Fried Rice. I find chocolate desserts in most places just too creamy or mousse-like. The Druid Garden’s Hazelnut Torte, was a work of art, with lush textures, intense flavours. I was recommended the Aztec Coffee – espresso martini, vodka-proofed coffee, chocolate, cardamom foam – for an after-dinner cocktail. It comes in a Champagne tulip coated in cocoa and cinnamon and there was just too much going on there.
Serving it all with a smile and a spring in their stride was the staff. Here is a team that appeared highly motivated and so very happy to be on the job. Well done!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

New Restaurant: Grill 99 at the Ritz Carlton

My first restaurant visit of the year was, I’m happy to report, a refreshingly different experience. Grill 99 at the Ritz Carlton has a gorgeous poolside setting on the hotel’s fifth floor, though the approach, passing the hair salon, spa and gym doesn’t quite give you the idea of what to expect.
Open only for dinner, Grill 99 has stylish gazebos for intimate dining and spaces for large groups as well. It’s the perfect spot then, for a pleasant, if pricey, al fresco evening. I wanted to stand up and applaud when I saw the menu, a compact list of appetizers and soups and just ten items on the ‘grills’ menu, plus a small round-up of sweets.
Small menus announce that the dishes are of the best quality, created from the freshest ingredients and cooked with care. There is certainly a difference between the way the kitchen approaches ten dishes and two hundred. There is no pre-cooking here, nothing to be pulled out of cold storage and reheated for the diner in order to speed up service.
Ritz Carlton Executive Chef Anupam Banerjee is, obviously, in his element here. His style is classic, from his training at some great hotels across the world, even as he blends it judiciously with the modern.  In a market where ‘Not enough choice’ is a frequent – not to mention poorly articulated – complaint, it takes confidence, even audacity, to put out a menu this small. In fact, the Grill 99 wine list is much longer than the food menu.
We began with a rich and creamy mushroom soup in demitasse cups and a superb salad of scallops with apple salsa and caramelised cauliflower and then came the piece de resistance. Giant prawns on restaurant menus can so often be all style and no substance. At Grill 99, these were juicy and oozing flavour, benefiting, no doubt, from a good basting of herb butter. The meats, plump lamb chops and tenderloin with delicious grill marks were perfect. The grills are served in heavy copper pans, nestling amidst sprigs of thyme and rosemary, with cherry tomatoes on the vine, whole heads of roasted garlic and lime. It’s a picture, possibly Provencal, and quite lovely. The accompaniments are comfort classics: truffle mash, creamed spinach, buttered vegetables and pepper sauce which, was, quite frankly, redundant.

Chef Anupam said they were aiming for ‘rustic, yet elegant’ with the serving style and they’ve hit the mark. Dinner at Grill 99, right down to the caramel choux buns, was splendid, the sort of meal that leaves you with the satisfaction of having dined very well, never mind the price. My only niggle is that the core ingredients – Norwegian salmon, New Zealand lamb – must leave such a heavy carbon footprint on their journey to Bangalore. If local produce could somehow replace these, that would be perfect, right?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A diner’s wish-list for 2017

It’s still early enough in the year, isn’t it, to dwell on our hopes for the new year? Food websites and bloggers have been in overdrive these past few weeks predicting the eating trends of 2017. Korean is the new Vietnamese/Japanese/Peruvian, depending on what you think is currently trendy, say some. Others say purple is going to be a hot colour on plates, black seemingly having had its day, and bar-watchers are predicting that mocktails will shake off their dowdiness.
Much of this emanates from dining capitals across the world and some of these trends will, no doubt, trickle down to restaurants in India. While I’m looking forward to more Korean and won’t really care for mocktails, no matter how dressed up they are, here’s what I’d like 2017 to be serving up:
Authentic-ethnic: The food forecasters are definitely betting on this. In India, we don’t even have to try. It’s only a matter of taking out all the excess restaurants have been putting into dishes, hoping they’ll appeal more to customers.  So, stop adding ‘tastemaker’ to sambar – yes, South Indian restaurants are guilty of it – and don’t pass off green food colour as hara masala. We have the ‘ethnic’, the trick is to keep it ‘authentic’ and we’re on to a winner. I’d love to see the delightful street foods from across the country get their due, too.
More vegetables: Western tables, they say, will see the arrival of lots more vegetables. Here, too, I want vegetarians – and even non-vegetarians -- to be able to eat more than paneer, button mushrooms and babycorn. Bring on the gourds and the indigenous beans. The once celebrated kale is bowing out and other greens are taking its place. Why don’t we showcase our wealth of greens? Recently, in Sri Lanka, I saw sweet potato leaves on menus and tapioca leaves on supermarket shelves. These are super foods restaurants should learn to work with.
Care for the produce and the producer: There’s no doubt that chefs who are concerned with the provenance of their ingredients create better food. The chef who seeks out the in-season brinjal or bitter gourd grown without pesticides will certainly present it with greater care. Concern for where produce comes from and how it is grown also indirectly benefits the growers of this produce. We cannot hope to eat better without giving farmers their due.
Better bar food: Microbreweries are mushrooming, particularly in Bangalore, and bars are popping up everywhere. Which is all very well, but for the usually pedestrian, unimaginative food that passes off as pub grub here. No more nachos, please! The Socials and Monkey Bars have figured out what one food writer describes as ‘hasty tasty’. Their style of familiar foods with funky twists hits the spot. That’s a trend worth copying.
Forget plating: Pretty plates are passé, right? All those dots, dusts and drizzles are looking just a bit too arty these days; which is why bowls – think poke and ramen – are very in vogue. Unpretentious small plates are perfect for that dinner a deux and sharing platters for a meal with the gang. So fussing over plated presentations should be left strictly for that special occasion.