Sunday, March 30, 2008

Madras Matinee

Temple in ChennaiIt had rained the week before in Chennai. As I flew into Chennai, our cricket-crazy nation was watching the weather forecast with bated breath. They were hoping the rains wouldn't disrupt the first test match being played here with South Africa. Thankfully for India, the rains stayed away and Indian opener Sehwag smashed the fastest ever triple century!

Peshawari in Chola SheratonI didn't get to watch the exciting match; my entire day was filled with meetings. I stayed at the Chola Sheraton this time, a hotel that's past its prime. The lobby area, the bar and the Peshawari restaurant are great, but the rooms aren't. The corridors smelt of dampness due to insufficient air conditioning, and the rooms - though well-appointed - were a little cramped. However, their superior service did make up for this.

Kababs at PeshawariThe Peshawari is another of ITC Hotels branded restaurants and very similar to their flagship Bukhara's in New Delhi. The menu mainly consists of kababs, dal and breads and you are encouraged to eat food here with your bare hands.

Kulfi Falooda at PeshawariThe Peshawari kabab I ordered was made of boneless cubes of lamb seasoned with royal cumin, ginger-garlic and malt vinegar, and then chargrilled in a tandoor on skewers. The kababs were very succulent and tasty, as was their famous Dal Bukhara. The onion kulcha I had ordered was perfect too. For dessert, I had the kulfi-falooda (see pictures).

Fish at KumarakomThe hotel gets its name from the Chola dynasty which ruled parts of Southern India including Chennai until the 13th century. The Cholas were avid builders and left a lasting legacy through the many temples that adorn this region. The British entered this place in 1969 and went on to make this city, then called Madras, one of their key ports in India.

Incidentally, Chennai is also the one Indian city to come briefly under direct attack during the World War.

Fish at KumarakomMy hosts took me out for lunch at a nearby restaurant, Kumarakom, that serves authentic Kerala cuisine. The ambiance is not upscale, but the food is awesome! I especially loved the fish preparations and the fresh fruit juices. During the evening I briefly stopped by at the much recommended Kaaraikudi Restaurant which serves authentic Chettinad food. Hot, spicy and great sea-food: I strongly recommend the crab-masala here as well as the Chettinad chicken with fluffy appams.

I flew Kingfisher both ways. Thankfully, the flights were on time and I was quite engrossed in Tarun Khanna's Billions of Entrepreneurs. The book is a recent one on how China and India are rapidly transforming themselves. What I found interesting were the contrasts he draws between China and India, and how some of the recent choices these nations have made have been driven by their unique histories.

After a pretty busy day in Chennai, I was glad to be back home for the weekend!

Here are some of my previous Chennai posts:


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Moving to France?

Here are some invaluable tips from the New York Times' Paris bureau chief.

Here's #3 on the list: The customer is always wrong! It is hard for French merchants to admit they are wrong, and seemingly impossible for them to apologize. Instead, the trick is to somehow get the offended party to feel the mistake was his or her own.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Jamavar and The Spa at Leela

Leela Palace BangaloreOf the three restaurants in the Leela Palace, I decided to try the Jamavar. This restaurant was recently voted as one of the world's top power dining spots by Forbes. Luxurious interiors resplendent with chandeliers and jamavar textiles combines with al fresco dining, facing the lush green oasis in the center of the hotel.

Leela Palace BangaloreChef Farman Ali’s culinary journey takes you through Mughlai and Nawabi India. The fixed menu I chose came in three courses. In the first course of kababs, I began with the Jheenga Sultani, jumbo prawns marinated in spiced yogurt with a hint of saffron and star aniseed. The next was the Poda Chapa, crispy fried seer fish sprinkled with spices. The Gosht Nawabi Raan was leg of baby flavored with Awadhi masala and finished in a tandoor. The Murgh Chandni was juicy chicken marinated with cheese, cream, green chillies and scented with green cardomom. While the kababs were good, I have had better.

Leela Palace Bangalore
In the main course, I began with the Rogan Josh, chunks of lamb simmered in a red Kashmiri gravy. The Murgh Handi Lazeez was chicken cooked in a gravy of yogurt, cardomom, saffron and other spices. But the best one was yet to come! The lobster neeruli, their signature dish, was certainly the best. This is the must-try dish here. The rest of the curries were good, but not particularly great. Both the kababs and curries in this restaurant were milder than is usual. I am guessing they get more western guests than Indians in this hotel.

Other items I noticed on the menu were the Dum Nalli Korma made of lamb shanks in bone marrow curry. South Indian inspirations include Telengana Lamb Chops stir fried with spices, Meen Kuzhumbu which is seer fish in a tangy spicy curry, Prawn Manga Kuruma which is a mango and coconut based curry and the Vendakkai Mulakittathu, okra in a tangy spicy curry. The deserts were nothing to write about: a gulab jamun and a badam kulfi flavored with saffron.

Leela Palace Bangalore
The Leela has two other restaurants. Zen, the Oriental restaurant has Japanese, Chinese and Thai items. Al Fresco dining, fixed and a la carte menus and a good dimsum selection make this an interesting option. Citrus is where the buffet breakfasts and lunches are served and serves a combination of western and Indian food. However, it was probably good I didn't venture into these restaurants! Charles, who left a comment in my previous post says the food is aweful in both of them.

The Library Bar and the Cigar Room are plush, opulent and can make you feel like a maharaja as you nurse your favorite drink or cigar late in the day. The picture below are of white, fluffy idlis at the Citrus.

Leela Palace Bangalore
The Spa at the Leela is spead out over a large area that has fitness equipment, therapy rooms specially designed for western and Ayurvedic body treatments, a sauna, steam room and Jaucczi. The Ayurveda section with its special rooms and therapists seems more authentic than the ones I have experienced in Goa. This may have to do with the fact that the Leela is run by a family who came from Kerala, the Indian state that first made Ayurvedic spa treatments popular in recent times.

I tried the Abhyanga Snana followed by Shirodhara (see picture below). In this, you are bathed in oils and massaged with long, fluid strokes in traditional Kerala ayurveda tradition. They use a wooden massage table with grooves on the sides for the oil to collect. The therapy room had an attached shower room. The medicinal oils, herbal body scrub, herbal drink post-massage were all pretty exotic and cool.

Leela Palace BangaloreAyurveda massage differs in two ways from western massages (which are also available here). In Ayurveda, the techniques differ, the oils are medicated and the table is of wood and you get a loin-cloth to wear. Western massages here are administered by a female masseuse and the massage technique depends on what you selected. The steam room here is quite good and recommended as is their large Jacuzzi.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Leela Palace

Leela Palace BangaloreKempe Gowda who built the four towers more than 4 centuries ago to mark the ‘eventual’ boundaries of Bangalore, would never have imagined the city’s transformation over the last 150 years. The evolution from a city of a mud fort, few markets, military establishments and hamlets, to a British Cantonment – a mixture of army barracks, marching roads, parade grounds, and the attendant conceniences of ‘ a bit of England’ – started in 1809 when the English shifted their troops from Srirangapatna to Halasooru (Ulsoor).

Bangalore’s climate and setting, its strategic location in the political struggles of the time, the high ground nippiness of its air, and the sheer beauty of its landscape made it a easy choice.

Leela Palace BangaloreModern Bangalore, and most of its architectural tradition, has its origin in the cantonment seeding of the city and the introduction of bungalow style homes.

Leela Palace BangaloreBuilt in the architectural style of the Royal Palace of Mysore, Leela Palace epitomizes the opulence of a bygone era. The Leela was voted as the Best Business Hotel by Conde Nast in 2007 and as the business hotel with the best rooms in 2008. The rooms are large, airy and all of them come with pool or garden views.

Leela Palace Bangalore
The pictures here are of the hotel, its rooms and the royal portraits that adorn the corridors and rooms. Look carefully! The jewels on the portriats are real gemstones and pearls that have been embedded into the drawings!

Leela Palace BangaloreLeela Palace Bangalore Leela Palace Bangalore Earlier, as I drove down to Pune airport to catch my flight to Bangalore, I was not sure what to expect. There was an airport strike and yet I found flights on-time– airport privatization is already proving good for us! Of course, Calcutta was the only one completely in disarray. The Telegraph carried an article about a man who cracked his skull when he slipped in the puddle in the airport bathroom that had not been cleaned due to the strike. The poor guy is still in an ICU and not out of danger yet. That’s Bengal for you – more communist than even China and willing to go on strike at the drop of a hat!

Leela Palace Bangalore
I flew Kingfisher to Bangalore this time. Very much like Jet Airways in service quality if you can stand that much of red! They have hired all the cute girls from Jet, have decent airline food, complimentary headsets, and – believe it or not – live TV on-board. The news was not so good though! More signs of recession in the US, a slowdown in industrial growth in the country, and the markets were crashing – again!

Leela Palace BangaloreLeela Palace BangaloreLeela Palace Bangalore


Monday, March 10, 2008

More Bangkok Goodness

Mango Pudding at Conrad BangkokEver notice how the best American-owned hotels are located in Asia? I had written about the Grand Hyatt in Beijing and the Sheraton in Ho Chi Minh City, both far more luxurious and larger than hotels in the USA. During this trip to Bangkok I stayed at the Conrad Bangkok Hotel located in the heart of the embassy area in Bangkok. A Mercedes Benz S-Class - gleaming with polished wood and leather - drove me from the airport to the hotel. The girl from the front-desk was waiting for me at the door and within seconds I was whisked away directly to my room where she completed the check-in formalities.

Wonders! I had been upgraded to their Executive Suite. And what an opulent hotel room that was. A large living area, a large bedroom and a large bathroom with a free-standing tub and a shower stall. Three flat-screen TVs, a DVD player, a cradle for iPods, and a Bang & Oluffsen music system. Varieties of teas, a gourmet coffee-making machine and fresh fruits in the room. I could definitely get used to this place!

Thai food at Conrad BangkokThe Conrad Bangkok is a great place for food. Liu is a neo-classic Chinese restaurant that puts a contemporary spin on traditional Chinese cuisine. I can recommend the food here, even though I didn't actually try any exotic stuff on their menu (such as pigeon) since I was looking for a quick lunch. The picture here is of the chef's special Roasted Duck in Red Curry while the first one is of the delicious Mango Pudding which was served in a sweet coconut sauce.

The lunch buffet at Cafe on the second floor was awesome too: local Thai fare combined with many Japanese, Indian and Western delicacies. Colorful Thai curries co-existed with sushi, parathas, tikka masala and pasta. A variety of eastern and western desserts brought the lunch to a close.

Sweet Bento Box at Conrad Bangkok
The Sweet Bento Box above is an Asian dessert I ordered from room service. Innovatively packaged, this dessert contains green tea cheese cake, Azuki bean bread, chocolate ice-cream profiteroles and fresh fruit sushi (!) with strawberry and chocolate sauce. The sushi was made of sweet sticky rice topped with friut slices and the profileroles contained the most delicious mint ice-cream.

Liu at the Conrad Bangkok
The Conrad is also home to Drinking Tea and Eating Rice - a Japanese restaurant that serves fresh sashimi and has a teppanyaki table and a sushi counter.

And finally the spa. Any visit to Thailand is incomplete without a massage. The Seasons Spa has 11 luxuriously appointed rooms each with its own changing room, steam room and shower. On the first day, I selected the Seasons Spa Massage, their signature massage that uses a combination of Thai, Hawaiian, Swedish and Balinese techniques. In both Thai and Hawaiian techniques, the masseuse uses elbows and forearms in broader strokes than in the Swedish variety.

Seasons Spa at the Conrad BangkokOn the day I was flying back, I came back for an Aromatherapy massage and took the extended 90 minute option. I also asked for the 15 minute complimentary steam room before the massage. The Aromatherapy massage was very good; this masseuse was more skilled than the earlier one and worth the money I spent at the spa! I also loved the welcome drink which was cold, refreshing with a fragrant, exotic flavor. The hot herb tea they served after the massage contained spiced ginger and was very good and relaxing too!

My other posts from Bangkok:


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Snapshots from Bangkok

Roadside temple in BangkokOn my last day in Bangkok, I took a morning stroll through the streets. Food vendors lined the pavements on small mobile stalls. I noticed fried banana fritters, skewers of meat, fish rubbed with spices ready to be fried or grilled to order, skewers of satay, and a variety of cut fruits. I noticed a number of small temples on the roadside and they reminded me of temples back home (which are dedicated to Ganapati in Maharashtra or Hanuman in most of North India).

The day before we had strolled through the Suan Lum Night Bazaar which is very much like Janpath in Delhi or Fashion Street in Pune, but opens only during the evenings until midnight. Rows and rows of small shops sell everything from cheap toys, clothes, silk, handicrafts to leather goods. Unlike Beijing, the vendors don’t hardsell as much (at least in the one I was in). And very much like Beijing, bargaining is done with the help of a calculator where you take turns at keying in your price until you reach agrement. :-)

Roadside temple in Bangkok

Many of the palaces and temples built in Bangkok are faithful reproductions of earlier buildings in the older Siamese city of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the splendid capital of the kingdom of Siam before the Burmese invasion of 1767 in which it was completely razed to the ground. This city enthralled travelers was and was popular with traders. At the confluence of three rivers, Ayutthaya was an island city. The city was never rebuilt even when King Taksin defeated the Burmese and drove them out of this region. Instead a new capital was constructed in Bangkok.

Early morning activity and Tuctucs in Bangkok

Like Paul Theroux once put it, Bangkok smells of sex. Despite Thai modesty and shyness, the business of sex thrives here. Much of the industry caters to locals and this seems to be an accepted part of life. While sex tourism attracts worldwide attention, it is a fraction of the business which is primarily driven by local customers. If you are male and traveling without a female companion, every tuk-tuk driver and cabbie will offer to take you to one of the many adult entertainment districts that are replete with go-go bars, and the ‘special’ massage parlours and haircut saloons.

Crafts and local girls in Bangkok

I didn't have much time to tour the city. If I am here again, I want to see more of the enchanting temples, especially the ones which house the Reclining Buddha and the one of the Golden Buddhha cast of 25 tons of solid gold! Kickboxing matches are held regularly in two stadia which ought to be interesting to watch too. The Floating Markets on the river are another popular attraction.

Crafts and Local Girls in Bangkok

In the newspaper I noticed that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin is ending his exile and returning to Thailand. Thankfully that doesn’t delay my journey to the airport or my flight back home.

The pictures here are of roadside temples, the ubiquitous tuk-tuks used to ferry people and goods, local girls displaying their skills in traditional craft, and finally the imposing statue at Suvarnabhoomi Airport. The statue appears to depict the Hindu mythology of the Gods and the Demons churning the ocean with the help of the King of Snakes, Vasuki.

Sculpture at the Suvarnabhoomi Airport in Bangkok

Other Bangkok Posts:


Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Dinner to Remember

Baan Khanitha at BangkokI had only two evenings in Bangkok during this visit, and one was reserved for a formal poolside dinner at the hotel. On the other evening, a few of us decided to find out a great place for local Thai fare. The concierge directed us to Baan Khanitha, an upscale Thai restaurant which has two branches in Bangkok. We went to the one at Sukhumvit 23 Soi.

Spring-rolls at Baan Khanitha BangkokThe restaurant looks like a re-converted house where each room has been turned into separate dining areas. Tiled roof, stone sculptures and potted plants made the place very appealing and homely. We decided to go with a set menu that came with a combination of a dozen items including starters, entrees and dessert.

As we ordered our drinks, they served us a complimentary starter that looked like a variation of the Indian paan. The idea was to stuff the ingredients - that included tiny fried shrimp and spicy condiments - into the leaf and eat it. It actually tasted good.

Our first starter was fried spring rolls served with sweet and sour plum sauce. The springs rolls were freshly made and fried just right. The sauce which was sprinkled with sesame made for a good combination.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokNext came the Deep-fried Chicken wrapped with Pandanus leaves, the most popular starter at our table. The fried chicken was moist and the leaves had left their distinct flavor. We ordered another helping of this dish before we moved on to the next item.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokOur final starter was the Spicy Papaya and Carrot Salad liberally mixed with seafood. The tangy flavor of the salad and the fresh seafood was refreshing as we moved on the spicier soup.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokThe Spicy River Prawns Soup with Herbs was my favorite Tom Yum Soup with a pretty large prawn. Very hot and spicy, the way I prefer this soup!

Baan Khanitha, BangkokThe Green Curry with Chicken came next. I tried both the white steamed rice and the brown local rice which was a very dark shade of brown and tasted really good.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokThe Stir-Fried soft-shell Crabs with Yellow Curry Powder Sauce was the mildest of the lot. The crabs were very fresh, and the coconut-milk flavored sauce was thick and fragrant.

After this came the delightful Sea Bass, stir-fried with chili, hot basil leaves and eggplant. This dish would have gotten our vote for the best entree on the table tonight. The fish was tasty and the combination of flavors and textures was amazingly good.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokI loved the Stir-fried Broccoli with Oyster Sauce too; this was the only veggie dish on the table tonight. All my dinner companions tonight were Indians, but - wonders - none were vegetarians! :-)

Baan Khanitha, BangkokOur final entree, the Stir-fried Chicken and Cashew Nuts with Roasted chili paste looked tempting, but I had only a little. By now I was feeling quite full and wanted to keep some space for the dessert.

Baan Khanitha, BangkokDessert consisted of Mango and Sticky Rice served with Coconut Ice-Cream. I will let you look at the picture and drool over it. :-)

In addition to the great food, I must mention the excellent service throughout. The waiters were helpful, fast and courteous. They came out, sat us in our taxis and saw us off! Another great dinner that I am going to remember for some time.

Baan Khanitha is located at 36/1 Sukhumvit 23 Soi, Prasan mitr, Bangkok. Ph: 0-2258-4128, 0-2258-4181.