Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Thomas Keller's Bouchon

Bouchon Las VegasIt ain't quite the French Laundry, but that's the closest I could get to this time! Like the original bouchons of Lyon after which it was modeled, world-renowned chef Thomas Keller's Bouchon serves an award-winning menu of bistro classics and daily specials, featuring the best seasonal products available. Located in the Venezia tower of the Venetian in Las Vegas, Bouchon is quite clearly the top ranking restaurant in this resort-hotel.

Breads at BouchonThe restaurant's exquisite decor is the perfect setting for its award-winning culinary delights. Soaring ceiling, potted plants, close tables, dark-wood furniture, and Parisian murals, together result in a great ambiance. The menu was interesting: printed on a thin sheet of paper that was folded around the napkins.

Carrot Soup at BouchonRoast Lamb at BouchonI chose their specials for today: Sweet carrot soup followed by an entree of roast leg of lamb, thinly sliced and served on a bed on greens, peppers and lamb jus. For dessert I ordered the coffee infused custard. The Pinot Noir went splendidly with my lamb entree; actually, the lamb was so good, it would have been great by itself. The dessert too was smooth and creamy and a fitting end to a great meal. The Spanish dessert wine our waiter recommended was very good too!

Infused Custard at BouchonCheese Plate at BouchonI think the sauteed scallops which some of my dinner companions turned out fine as did the cheese plattter. All in all a great evening! Everything I ate, I liked very much. The service lived up to its reputation; the waitstaff was knowledgeable, friendly and fast. Incidentally, this bistro has a great oyster bar too if you are so inclined, and they also serve a first-class breakfast in the mornings.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Venetian Indulgence

For those who have never visited this resort, the Venetian is a re-creation of (duh) Venice, right in the middle of Las Vegas. Frescos, paintings and sculptures abound: on the roof, on the walls, and around you. The all-suite hotel boasts of rooms that have sunken living areas, gold and marble bathrooms and three flat screen TVs. The Canyon Ranch Spa in the hotel occupies almost 100,000 sq.ft of space and provides a wide-variety of options to choose from. This resort has a multitude of upscale restaurants run by celebrity chefs that include Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batalli, Emeril Lagasse and Thomas Keller. And the Grand Canal Shoppes re-creates the magic of Venice with its cobbled streets gondolas, shops and bistros, all under an artifical evening sky!

I had a couple of lunch meetings at the 'outdoor' restaurants in the Grand Canal Shoppes area. Due to the artificial sky, it always seems like evening here, which also means 'outdoor' is actually indoors! Also, with European street performers singing and performing at the St. Marks Square, this place is quite lively and a good place to relax after some hectic meetings.

On one day, I ate at the Canaletto which serves authentic Venetian cuisine, and on another I tried Mario Batali's Enoteco San Marco. On both days I opted for pizzas. The Pizza Con Salsiccia at the Canaletta was a thin-crust pizza with spicy sausage, mixed bell peppers and carmalized onions with tomato sauce was delightfully crunchy. The Peppers & Sausage pizza at San Marco had Italian sausages, roasted peppers and mozarella. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them!

Cirque du SoleilThis time, I haven't even ventured out of the Venetian - yet. I also don't have time to watch a show; during my last visit I had watched KA by Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand and was completely bowled over. Extremely exotic, the characters, costuming, lighting, music, special effects and superb athletic and acrobatic artistry combine to give you so many memorable, visually spectacular jaw-dropping experiences that the intricately involved story will prove relatively insignificant compared to what dazzles your eyes and boggles your mind. It is useless to say that you have to see it to believe it because you still won't believe what you're seeing.

Cirque du SoleilHowever, Cirque du Soleil maybe going down the same path as Starbucks - too much expansion, too fast. When I first came to Vegas in the early 90s, there was only Mystere at the Treasure Island, their only show in the US. Now there are half-a-dozen of their shows here and more in Orlando and elsewhere in the US - with Beatles LOVE being their latest show at the Mirage.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Delmonico and The Venetian

Venetian Las VegasI landed in Las Vegas on a bright, sunny afternoon. I was back at the Venetian after two years, and this large casino-resort is now even larger with the addition of Palazzo. With over 7000 luxury suites, hundreds of shops and gaming areas, the Venetian-Palazzo complex is now the world's largest resort and hotel complex. Incidentally, the Palazzo under construction featured in an early scene in Ocean's Thirteen.

Delmonico StarterAfter a much-needed hot shower and and a change of clothes, I went out for an early dinner. The Delmonico Steakhouse located within the Venetian seemed like a good choice. Owned and operated by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, Delmonico delivers exciting New Orleans-style cuisine with flair. Specialities include bone-in ribeye steak and double-cut pork chop.

Twelve-foot oak doors open into a comfortable and intimate dining room with vaulted ceilings. A petite grand piano adorns the adjascent lounge and bar area which features French glass doors.

Delmonico SteakI began with an appetizer of ahi tuna and salmon tartare duet served with wasabi aioli and cucumber salad. This turned out to be an excellent choice! I enjoyed alternating between the tuna and salmon, enhanced by the tingling of wasabi on my taste-buds.

I ordered a rib-eye steak for my entree and was surprised by the huge slab of meat that was served to me. This was much larger than the steaks I usually order. The steak was very tasty but was a little over-cooked: I had ordered medium-rare, but I think they cooked it medium. I had ordered steamed brocolli on the side, and that went rather well with the steak.

Delmonico DessertFor dessert, I had a Molten Kahlua Moccachino, which was delightfully rich with dark chocolate brownie, molten chocolate and kahlua topped with a dollop of coffee ice-cream and served in a coffee cup!

I retired early without leaving the hotel. But given how large the hotel is, even the walk from the restaurant to my room took about 10-12 minutes. And did I mention the room itself? The Venetian holds the world record on the largest standard hotel room - each of them over 1000 sq. ft. Here are some pictures of the room. The other cool thing is that two out of the three TVs in the suite are HDTVs and are showing HD movie channels - not that I have time for any this time around. :-)

Venetian Suite

Venetian Suite

Venetian Suite
Related post on my trips to Las Vegas: Sin City


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dining at Trendz

Trendz MumbaiTrendz at the Intercontinental Grand, Mumbai, serves contemporary western cuisine. I had a midnight flight to catch, which left me with just enough time for a leisurely dinner before driving to the international airport. Earlier, I (and my bags!) had survived the madness in Pune airport - Jet Airways' computers were down and they had to manually check everyone in.

Trendz MumbaiTrendz has a distinctive, modern decor and interesting touches: check out the glasses on the table in the picture. Grilled meats, fresh seafood, and pastas make up it's menu. I was the only Indian in the restaurant; this place seems to be mostly popular with visiting westerners. The hostess took her time in seating me, even though the place was only half full and the service that followed was a little slow too.

However, the food was pretty good. I ordered the Bombay rock lobster with lemon-butter sauce and baked potatoes on the side. While my entree was being prepared, they brought me a complimentary shrimp starter. I had chosen the Sula Satory Merlot with my meal, and it went well with the spicy shrimp starter.

The lobster came impressibly plated and was fresh and tasty. The lemon-butter sauce complimented it and the baked potato cooked in it's jacket was good too.

For dessert, I had ordered an Old English custard tart with stewed fruit and clotted cream. While the fruits were good and fresh, the tart itself was only ok. I would have prefered some more clotted cream with it!

All in all, other than for the unfriendly hostess, the experience at Trendz was a good one. By the time I got done, I just had time to take the car to the airport. Thankfully, check-in was fast as was immigration. BTW, there is finally a decent-enough duty-free shop (run by DFS Singapore) in Mumbai International, but they are still awaiting their liquor license from the government (!).

Singapore Airlines and the Singapore girls continue to be their impeccable selves. I watched two movies during the flight: National Treasure-Book of Secrets (not as good as the first one), and The Kite Runner (very well made movie with awesome backdrops of Afghanistan).

They also serve the best airline food. During this flight, starters included Prawns with Nicoise salad - sauteed prawns with potato, green beans, olives, quail eggs, tomatoes, and mache lettuce served with citrus vinaigrette. Another time it was 'hot' smoked salmon with mesclun, cherry tomatoes and ranch dressing.

For lunch, my entree was sirloin steak, horseradish butter, bordelaise sauce, celeriac dauphinoise, green beans. For dinner, I had Oven-baked Salmon fillet with rice flakes in cauliflower cream and black olive oil.

Desserts? How about Japanese red bean ice-cream with green tea sauce, and Rum & Raisin ice-cream wth chocolate sauce and roasted almonds. Difficult to imagine you are eating this on a flight, eh? I guess the American and European airlines have a lot of catching up to do before they get anywhere close to Singapore Airlines.

Related post: Kababs at the Baluchi


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Off to Vegas!

I am taking off for a three-week trip to Las Vegas and the Bay Area. So, you can expect to see more about these cities here in the coming days.

Until then, here are some Vegas fun facts for you...

  • Gambling was once made illegal here in 1930 (thankfully reversed the very next year!)
  • The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino was the first hotel & casino to open in Vegas - the year was 1906!
  • The Mirage was the first 'mega resort' and opened in 1989 at a cost of $630 million
  • 89% of all visitors gamble in Sin City, with an average gambling budget of $500
  • About 150 couples get married in Las Vegas every day
  • Bugsy Siegel named his casino, The Flamingo, for the long legs of his sweetheart


Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Best Lounges and Bars in Pune

Drinking in PuneBen Franklin once said, "There cannot be good living, if there is not good drinking"! So here's a primer to 'good living' when in Pune.

The list below is my selection of the best bars and lounges in Pune. To relax with a caipiroska in hand after a long day, for a casual evening with that special person, or for some quality time with buddies over drinks and music.

1000 Oaks: The grand-daddy of them all, and still going strong! A hit with both the old-timers and the young, this place is usually crowded and full of cigarette smoke. However, 10K Oaks has great DJs, good bar-food to accompany your drinks, and an old-world British pub ambiance. After your drinks, you could move outdoors for al-fresco dining, away from the smoke and loud music. They mostly play Rock from the 70s and 80s, but some House too on selected days.

Kiva Lounge in PuneKiva: The original, smaller one is located in Ashok Nagar on Range Hills Road and is popular with the college crowd. The new, larger one is located in Lane 6, Koregaon Park. Large and tastefully decorated interiors, excellent ambiance, great music and a dance floor make this among the best places for an evening; Kiva gets enough people even on Monday evening, when most other lounges are either closed or deserted. Both the drinks and food menu have a large variety of options. Try some shots first: I recommend the Death Wish. The food here is excellent too; options include continental, oriental and Indian items that come plated. Ph: 2553-8339, 3052-0987

Update, Nov 2008: Check out the new Stone Water Grill. My review here.

Blue Fire: The new entrant in town, Blue Fire is located in City Point, Dhole Patil Road (beside Bombay Brasserie restaurant). Blue Fire has contemporary chic interiors and a large projection screen which makes this a great choice during Cricket matches. They also have a choice of indoor and outdoor lounge seating. As for food, I can recommend the Tandoor Lobster and Chicken in Pepper Sauce. Among cocktails, try their signature Blue Fire cocktail, if you are looking for something strong. Update, Dec 2008: R.I.P. Now converted into La Dolce Vita's world cuisine restaurant.

11 East Street Cafe: Another new entrant that is current very popular but expensive. This cafe has creative interiors that try to replicate a London street including a double-decker bus at the entrance, street lamps, window displays, the works! There is even a hookah lounge upstairs. Appetizers include Cheese jalapeno balls with beer sauce, Banger and Mash, and English Ratatouille. You can try their Cardinal Punch or the many other interesting cocktails. For desserts, try their Bailey's Mousse or Green Apple Cheesecake. Ph: 2633-3711

MojitoFlags: With contemporary decor and some innovative cocktails, Flags is primarily known for its multi-cuisine food. It boasts of one of the longest menus and includes food from most regions of the world. However, I like this place for it's cocktails too ( I recommend the Caribbean Storm) especially so if you have come out of the INOX cineplex next door after watching a movie. Note that this place is a little expensive. Ph: 2614-1617

Mauve: Adil Poonawala's new, upscale Japanese resto-lounge-bar is located where Athena once was in Lane 5, Koregaon Park. Haven't tried this place yet, but it's making a buzz right now. Ph: 98927-10175.
Update, June 2008 : Cramped interiors; only good during special weekends when the bold and the beautiful of Pune congregate!

Not Just Jazz by the Bay: This place has a lively ambiance especially during Karoke nights or weekends when musicians and stand-up comedians from outside Pune come in to entertain. Great cocktails, multi-cuisine food, and a wonderful ambiance make this a welcome choice for a couple of drinks during the evening. Not Just Jazz is located within the ESquare cineplex on University Road. Ph: 6604-4200

Hard Rock Cafe: Just opened where River View restaurant used to be. Ahead of ABC Farms on North Main Road. I expect to see better live bands, American starters, and an upscale ambiance when HRC finally opens (currently scheduled for April 18th).
Update, June 2008: Expected to open in July now.

Zaha: At Viva Inn, NDA Road, Chandi Chowk, this is a popular haunt for the college crowd wanting to let their hair down during weekends and Wednesday evenings. Decorated in white, Zaha is popular for its thematic days such as Retro on Wed, Bollywood Nites, etc. Zaha is closed on Mondays. Another one by Tehseen Poonawala, whose nightspots keeping popping up and closing down every few months (he's the one who setup the once popular nightspots Lush, Area 51, and Palazzo). Ph: 2295-2839.

TC's lounge in PuneTC's: Located in Millenium Plaza, FC Road, this multi-cuisine resto-lounge has a chic, modern decor that is attractive and has an extensive cocktail and food menu to please most. You can even order flavored teas, gourmet coffee, creamy shakes, or flavored hookas. Try the Chimichangas here with your choice of drinks.

Vie Lounge: This lounge is located in Koregaon Park, close to Blue Diamond hotel, in the same road as Mocha. They began about six months back with a lot of fanfare with all the rich and beautiful people wanting to be seen here initially. The decor and crowd is upscale and perfect for a special night. However, please note that they are still trying to get into their groove in Pune. I understand they have recently slashed their prices, but the service and food is inconsistent, particulally galling as their prices are high.

SoHo: Curently in vogue with the younger crowd, Soho can get very crowded during weekends and on most other days too. Soho is located in Kalyani Nagar on the opposite side of the same road as Lifestyle. Soho has a cover charge during weekends and special nights. They have ample indoor and outdoor seating. The indoor turns into a crowded dance floor on weekends. There isn't much to write about their decor, but this is the place to be if you like an younger crowd and the food/drinks are very affordable. Ph: 2668-1987

Bar Asia: Located one level above the street opposite Pune Club and co-located with Nawab Indian restaurant. This bar is small, has lounge seating, and modest prices. With live music on some days, intresting (and very spicy!) oriental and Indian starters, Bar Asia is a good option if you are in the vicinity of Blue Nile and shopping at the mall nearby. Ph: 6520-2475

The Ship: Designed to resemble a dining room aboard a yatch, The Ship boasts of a well-stocked Sports Bar and plated multi-cuisine food. Frequented by visiting foreigners as well as Indians, this is another place to consider if you are in Kalyani Nagar. The Ship is located one level above street in the Fortelezza Shopping Complex opposite the AMC Gold Labs CinePlex. This place is too quiet for the younger clientele which is why the older ones prefer it!

ZK's Lounge in PuneZK's: Owned by Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan, from where this resto-bar gets its name, ZK's has a seperate lounge area on the 2nd floor done up in modern chic. Lots of glass, vibrant colors and mood lighting make this the perfect choice if you are in the Kondhwa area of Pune. A variety of Indian and Continental food options accompany a decent drinks menu. Ph: 2683-2366

Indyaki: Recently reonvated, this restaurant-lounge plays House and Trance most often. The lounge is indoors, while the restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating options and serves pretty good Indian food. The owners also run the popular Koregoan Park restaurant, Arthur's Theme. The chief grouse I have is that children from the restaurant section aren't kept out of the lounge area.

Curve: Located in ABC Farms on North Main Road, Curve is located on two levels. Curve used to be popular some time back and still has a good atmosphere during weekends. With an eclectic selection of food that includes some great thin-crust pizza, Italian entrees and some mean cocktails, this is another place to choose from if you are in the Koregaon Park area. Ph:6400-0410

At TC's in PuneShisha Cafe: Amidst green trees, Persian carpets, hookahs and live musicians, this one is a rather unique experience. However, the food is it's weak point. I haven't found anything on the menu that I have really liked, but Shisha makes up with its live music, deewans to sit on, and hookahs. Ph: 6520-0390

High Spirits: Live Retro on Wed nights, but you will many times find it closed for private parties. Affordable liquor which is why they are popular for a certain section of the younger crowd. Ambiance not great but food is ok. Stick to whiskeys, rum and vodka; their cocktails aren't the best.. Ph: 93710-06430

Update, June 2008: High Spirits is now called ONE. Initial reviews suggest it's worth checking out.
Update, Dec 2008: Correction, ONE is a different place altogether like reader 'trips' points out below. My brief review comments posted here.

July 2008 Update: Check out K FY, a lounge in intimate settings based in Koregaon Park which provides a Goan touch with its authentic food and Feni. Retro music on weekends. Located at 235-5 Popular Heights Road, Koregaon Park. Ph: 40024425.

Finally, there are the bars at the 5 star hotels which are good too, though frequently only by businessmen. Entresol Bar at the Meridien with its live band, 262 Lounge at the Sun and Sand that serves some great kababs, and Casabella, the Anglo-Saxon pool-side bar at the Taj Blue Diamond are great choices in this category.

As you can see, there are now (finally!) enough options in Pune to liven up your evenings. Cheers!

Pics Courtesy: Kiva by ashbert, Martini by cgrossmeier, Mojito by samsmith.


Sunday, April 06, 2008

Steaks and More

Flat Iron Steak at Moonshine Grill in AustinI have to admit being a newcomer to the world of steaks and steakhouses. Conditioned by my upbringing in India, I began by ordering my steaks well-done - that is, until two years back. I was at the Moonshine Grill in Austin, Texas. The pained expression on the waiter's face when I said 'well done' made me change the order of my Flat Iron to 'medium rare', and I have never looked back since!

Steakhouses are a revered institution in America. Catering predominantly to the male customer, these places have rarely focused the ladies. Therefore, the traditional steakhouse lacks chic interiors, variety in the menu, sophisticated side-dishes and the like. What you do get are large cuts of meat, potato sides, and warm, dark interiors.

Kobe SteakSteaks can be pretty expensive now. It is possible to spend over $150 on your steak at dinner. To make you part with your money, upscale steakhouses have gone beyond advertising certified Black Angus or USDA Prime. Now, diners can expect customized beef: corn-fed or grass-fed; USDA Prime or the highly marbled Wagyu beef from boutique American producers or from Japan's Kobe region; and wet-aged or dry-aged.

For the newbie, here are some basics you need to know before heading to the new, modern steakhouses:

Dry-aged slab of steakDry-aged: Beef is hung in climate-controlled rooms (sometimes lined with salt) for three to six weeks, sometimes longer. As the moisture evaporates and enzymes break down tissue, the beef shrinks, the texture becomes gelatinous, and the flavor becomes concentrated.

Wet-aged: Beef is vaccum-packed in plactic and ages in its own juices, for seven to 28 days. The texture becomes tender, but the flavor does not become concentrated. This is the common aging method.

Corn-fed: Cattle that spends their final months in a feedlot eating a grain-rich diet. The meat has more marbling and a richer flavor than grass-fed beef.

Grass-fed: Cattle that spends their lives feeding on grasses in pastures. The meat is often lean, cooks quickly and has a nutty flavor, though critics claim it can be tough and gamey.

Prime: The highest grade of beef awarded by the Department of Agriculture in the USA and is given to less than 2% of the meat produced every year.

$200 Kobe SteakKobe: A region of Japan famous for its Wagyu cattle.

Wagyu (wa-gu): A breed whose meat is known for its rich flavor, exhorbitant price and exceptionally high fat content (marbling). When raised in Japan, the cattle are fed barley, wheat bran, grass and beer, their skin is massaged with sake, and their recieve little exercise.

American Wagyu: Cattle with Wagyu genes that are raised in the USA and aften crossbred with Black Angus.

The common brag on USDA Prime beef is that it's butter knife tender; Kobe beef can reach six grades higher. So tender and rich, Kobe is more like foie gras or something else of ethereal taste and texture - perhaps a truffle or some luscious nut. The key is the marbling of fat, but it's not the travertine stripes and veins we call 'marbling' in an expensive cut at the meat counter. In Kobe, the fat dots the beef thoroughly ; it looks like polished granite, not marble. When cooked, the fat melts slightly in every part of the beef.

Dry aged beefThe catch is that it must be cooked quickly; even medium rare is risky. Meat this expensive deserves care at the stove, hitting hot iron just long enough to get a crisp crust like seared tuna. The chef needs to take care that the grill is perfectly hot so the beef comes away with a crisp crust and a rare interior.

Even the most genetically blessed beef can turn tough if it is not treated properly. Chilling the meat immediately after slaughter triples its toughness. The ultimate steak has to be cooled gradually and then properly aged. Most importantly, it must be cooked to no more than 140ºF (60ºC), or medium rare.

This brings us to another paradox: moist raw meat means dry, tasteless steak. Fresh is certainly not best. Beef has to be hung to lose excess water, develop complex flavor, and break down tough fibers, but for how long? Experts disagree, sometimes violently!

Coming back to steakhouses in America, there are changes afoot. A new generation of celeb chefs are bucking trend with their new offerings that are architecturally stunning, female-friendly, and loaded with contemporary sides.

Great beefWolfgang Puck's Cut opened about two years back at Beverly Wishire Hotel in Los Angeles. With a light, airy decor, impossibly good-looking waiters in cool and casual outfits, this restaurant's popularity now rivals Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago, located just a few blocks away. Meats are grilled over wood and charcoal and finished under a 1200 degree broiler. Sexy sides includes bone-marrow flan with mushroom marmalade and parsley salad; roasted Chino Farm baby beets with French feta cheese, pistachio, citrus and micro cress.

Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Westin Chicago Northshore Hotel offers 10 cuts of USDA Prime beef, both wet- and dry-aged. While prime ribs are seared in a wood-burning oven, other cuts are seared on a 1200 degree high-speed broiler. Toppers for the steaks include sliced marrow, truffled poached eggs and seared foie gras. Sides include foie gras terrine with rhubarb, red wine and strawberries; sauteed sweetbread salad with chanterelle mushrooms, pears, chestnuts, French beans and black currant vinaigrette.

Stripsteak in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, opened only a year back. However, this has quickly become one of Michael Mina's most profitable restaurants. Creative highlights include a unique steak-cooking method that combines slow-poaching in oil with wood-grilling; a 'Shabu Shabu' appetizer that allows customers to cook strips of Kobe beef in a hotpot of matsutake mushroom broth; and foie gras prepard four different ways.

There are many others now who let you eat steak in style. Emeril Lagasse with his Delmonico Stealhouse in Vegas to Bobby Flay and his 11000 square foot Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City. The trend probably began with the celebrity chef run Prime which opened at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas featuring gourmet side-dishes and a view of the dancing water fountains.

Finally, a warning for some of my Indian friends: Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, in his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, says the worst meat is usually reserved for those who order well-done steaks. So there!

Note: In addition to my own experiences, I have sourced information from articles in Time and USA Today (dated July 27, 2007). Pictures sourced from Time have been linked back to the original photo-essay.