Friday, June 27, 2008

Two New Airports & More

Bangalore New AirportTwo quick business trips this month took me to the cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore & Chennai. Given how much news the new airports in Bangalore and Hyderabad have recently generated in India, I was looking forward to checking them out first-hand.

For the Hyderabad trip, I had to stay in Mumbai overnight so I could take an early morning flight from there. I drove into the Grand Hyatt late in the evening from Pune and headed straight for dinner.

Note: Bangalore Airport photo credit: Soumik Kar.

The M is the Grand Hyatt's principal Western restaurant, and offers a grill, martini bar and a wine library. You have to walk down a flight of stairs from the upper lobby to enter the main sitting area. Contemporary and airy with geometric patterns, this restaurant has an open kitchen and a large bar. I ordered a starter of grilled zucchini with goat cheese as I awaited my martini. Incidentally, M offers almost 40 different varieties - from the sinful mint-chocolate martini to a variety of fresh fruit-based martinis! My entree was a grilled sea bass with garlic butter. A baked apple pie with ice-cream to soothe my sweet-tooth and I was off to bed for my early morning flight to Hyderabad.

Dining at M, Grand Hyatt MumbaiDining at M, Grand Hyatt MumbaiDining at M, Grand Hyatt MumbaiThe Jet Airways flight to Hyderabad landed on time at the spanking new Rajiv Gandhi airport. I noticed an ample amount of space that will make further expansion in the future easy. There is enough space for newer extensions to the main airport building and lots of parking. The airport is a huge improvement our our older ones. While flying back, I also found I could check-in bags without needing to first scan them manually at an x-ray machine like is common at every other Indian airport. It was also good to see a bookshop, coffee shop and fast food restaurants after the security checks and within the departure area.

At Hyderabad, I spent the entire day in meetings with the press at the Coffee Shop of the Taj Krishna. I had been here ages ago and still carry memories of the aromatic biryanis I ate daily in downtown Hyderabad. No luck this time since I had to rush straight back to the airport to catch the evening flight back.

During the trip to Bangalore and Chennai a few days later, I got VIP treatment from Kingfisher Airlines. One of the Kingfisher girls escorted me to the lounge and then to the aircraft while an attendant took care of my hand-luggage all the way into the plane. On disembarking in Chennai, they even had a special bus to take me to the arrivals lounge directly without having to wait for the other passengers. I could easily get used to all this attention from the pretty Kingfisher girls! :)

At the Oberoi BangaloreBangalore airport too looked well-planned and seemed to have space for future expansion. While people say the airport building and infrastructure are just enough to sustain today's passenger volume, it didn't look too crowded to me. Again, here too, the Departure area has quite a few shops and restaurants after the security checks which is a relief. The airport looks and feels similar to the one in Hyderabad. Actually, if at all there is at all anything negative to these gleaming new airports, it is the fact that they lack character and look the same.

People have been complaining about the one-hour drive from the airport to the downtown areas. I can't see why that is such a big deal. Most cities abroad have their airports outside the city limits too; it is a good 40 minute drive from Houston International to downtown (and that on American roads which are much faster). The road from Bangalore airport was wide, multi-laned and traffic moved fast until we hit the downtown areas which were - as usual - crowded.

The Oberoi BangaloreI stayed at the Oberoi in the heart of downtown Bangalore. My work got done by lunch and I had the rest of the day to myself. The Oberoi is an oasis of tranquility with its large gardens, trees and balconies filled with violet flowers. I walked into the Rim Naam Thai restaurant set in the gardens and surrounded by a water body. The food they serve is excellent too!

Rim Naam at the Oberoi BangaloreRim Naam at the Oberoi BangaloreRim Naam at the Oberoi BangaloreThe recently renovated Oberoi Spa is run by Thailand's famed Banyan Tree. The 60 minute Oberoi Massage is a must for anyone who has the time to spare.

Spa Menu at the OberoiOn a colleague's recommendation I walked out of my hotel for dinner. The Karavalli restaurant in Taj's Gateway Hotel on Residency Road is a brisk 20-minute walk from the hotel. There was a cool wind blowing which made the walk pleasurable in spite of the traffic and the construction of Namma Metro (Our Metro in Kannada). Karavalli serves cuisine from the Malabar Coast that straddles Kerala, Mangalore and Goa. Since I was alone and yet wanted to sample their popular dishes, the waiter offered to bring me small portions of three starters and two curries.

Karavalli BangaloreThe Prawns Sukha Karwari was deep-fried, crunchy prawns tossed with a fiery red masala. The Karimeen Pattichatthu, their signature dish, is made from fresh fish caught in Kerala. I also learnt some interesting details on how this fish is caught. Apparently women pile their hair on top of their heads and submerge themselves to sieze the fish by their tail. Men, on the other hand, hold a lamp and a butterfly net to snare the fish attracted to the light. The Karimeen Pattichatthu is a shallow-fried dish flavored with exotic Kerala spices.

Karavalli BangaloreThe other dish I remember is the Meen Polichatthu, a fresh black pomfret, marinated in Malabar masala, and wrapped in a banana leaf before being pan-fried to perfection.

Every dish seemed to be hotter than the previous one. I was quite sure I will soon have smoke coming out of my ears! The Kozhi Malliperlan, is a delicacy from Kerala made with succulent boneless pieces of chicken with vegetables, coconut milk and fresh spices. The Karavalli Mutton Curry, another signature dish, same in a dark red gravy done in South Canara style. In Mangalorean villages, the tradition of cooking over open firewood stoves in clay pots continues. They usually cook oily fish in a blend of spicy masala to enhance the taste, while regular, fresh-water fish is cooked in a coconut-based masala.

Karavalli BangaloreAfter all that hot, spicy food, it was nice and refreshing to nibble on Bebinca with Coconut Ice-cream at the end. Bebinca is made of many layers, each of which is partially cooked before the next layer is applied. This is probably the most popular dessert in Goa.

After a day in Bangalore, I was back at the Le Royal Meridien in Chennai. I had a busy day here; other than for a quick lunch at Kumarakom, I had very little time to myself during the day. It was late when I returned and I decided to try the Kayal, the sea-food restaurant before retiring.

Kayal Le Meridien ChennaiI ordered their signature Coriander Prawns and ended with a fruit-salad. While the ambiance in the restaurant was good, the food was just ok. Nothing to write about. However, do try the Karavalli if you are in Bangalore (and you can handle really hot food!).

Kayal Le Meridien ChennaiThe next day began early with a mess up with my credit card that led me to miss a couple of early morning conference calls. I had to then quickly rush to the airport for my flight back to Pune via Bangalore. While Jet Airways continues to be efficient, have they lost that little edge in service quality, especially when compared to Kingfisher? Maybe it is only the extra attention I got from the Kingfisher girls that made me feel so. :)

Other Bangalore Posts:

Other Chennai Posts:


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Wrapping Up Goa

Lotus Pond at the Leela GoaDuring the last few days of our week-long vacation in Goa, we ventured out for some sight-seeing and shopping. The capital city, Panjim (or Panaji) is almost an hour's drive from the hotel. Like always, I enjoyed the drive through green country-sides and fishing villages, along the sea and winding rivers. We watched brightly colored houses go past, many of which still have a distinct Mediterranean touch from Goa's Portuguese past.

Enroute to Panjim GoaIn the late 15th century, Vasco Da Gama became the first European to set foot in India. He first landed in Calicut followed by an arrival in Old Goa. The Portuguese arrived here with the intention of getting control of the lucrative spice trade and ended up setting up a permanent settlement. Goa became part of India well after India gained independence from the British in 1947. It was only after the Indian Army wrested the colony in 1961 from Portugal that Goa became part of our nation again.

Enroute to Panjim GoaEnroute to PanjimWe headed straight for the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. Built in the late 17th century, this cathedral houses the body of St. Francis Xavier which attracts thousands of Christians every year, especially during the public viewing of the body every 10 years.

Basilica of Bom JesusWe then drove down to nearby Panjim and luckily found a Government outlet for local handicrafts. Since Goa is a popular tourist destination for foreigners, especially Europeans and Israelis, there are vendors from every part of India selling their handicrafts here. However, we were interested only in Goan-made handicrafts and arts. We found interesting stuff made of sea-shells, coconut shells and jute. We also bought a bunch of paintings made on wall-tiles. Finally, we stopped to pick up the mandatory packets of famous Goan cashews from Zanty's for friends and family.

Basilica of Bom JesusSince it was past lunch time by the time we drove back to our resort, we took our driver's recommendation and had lunch at Fisherman's Wharf which is a restaurant located on the bank of the river within walking distance of the Leela. We ordered a variety of fish and chicken dishes and washed them down with chilled beer. Though the day was now humid and hot, we enjoyed our spicy lunch as we watched the fishing boats go about their daily routine on the far bank.

Food at Fisherman's WharfAmong the five-star resorts in Goa I have stayed in, I think the Park Hyatt had the most interesting rooms, while the Taj Aguada had the best food and the Radission White Sands the best swimming pool. The Casa de Goa has the best 'local' Portuguese feel while the best beach is at the Leela.

Lotus Pond at the Leela On the day we were checking out, we woke up to the pitter, patter of rain outside. The monsoons had finally come to Goa; and, what perfect timing!

Related Posts:


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two More Days at Leela Goa

Vacation at The Leela GoaDay Two began late as we lazily woke up without the usual urgency of a routine day at home. No doorbells, no phones and no maids clanging pots and pans in the kitchen. Just the chirp, chirp of birds on the lagoon outside and the hum of the AC indoors. Paradise! After our morning tea at the bedside, we got dressed for breakfast.

The buffet breakfast at The Cafe wasn’t as elaborate as I have seen in other 5-star resorts of Goa. Food items included Indian and Western staple. There was a live station making uttapams and dosas, while another one made eggs to order. They had wadas with sambhar, parathas, waffles, baked potatoes and few other sides along with fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, juices and cheese.

The Cafe Leela GoaThe Cafe Leela GoaAn hour later we at the beach once more. It was still early in the day, the breeze was cool, and we were enjoying the tranquil morning filled with the roar of the ocean punctuated only by the excited squeals from our little girl whenever a wave washed over her feet. She and her mom went hunting for sea-shells and by the time they had their hands (and pockets) full, the sun was getting warm and we headed back to our room.

The Beach at Leela GoaThe Beach at Leela GoaThe buffet lunch wasn’t anything to write about. A variety of Indian, Italian and Chinese items that tasted good, but mostly simple fare. Thankfully, I had chosen to take meal credits rather than a package that limited me to only the buffet meal. I made a note to try other restaurants during the rest of our stay here.

Vacation at Leela GoaWe spent the afternoon in the swimming pool and sipping tropical cocktails from the Poolside Bar. The swimming pool is good but unremarkable (when compared to the Park Hyatt or the Radisson White Sands in Goa). In any case, we spent the greater part of the day splashing around until it got close to sunset. Then we returned to the beach to see the breath-taking picture of the evening sun setting over the red-orange Arabian Sea as flocks of birds on the horizon headed home.

Swimming Pool Leela GoaWe stayed back until dark and then returned to Susegado for some more seafood and wine. Our daughter was well asleep by the time we decided to head back; the wait-staff had already called one of those electric golf-carts to drive us back to the room.

Vacation at Leela GoaDay Three was the day of the Spa. After my experience at the Leela, Bangalore, I was hooked on the Shirodhara+Abhyanga package which I repeated here. The masseur was well trained and the 90 minute massage lived up to my expectation. The little one wanted to watch a movie on DVD, so we spent the afternoon within our room. We were glad we had packed more clothes than we usually do. Due to the humid weather, wet clothes took forever to dry here, even within the air-conditioned room.

Jamavar Leela GoaIn the evening, we decided to eat at Leela’s signature Jamavar restaurant. They had a special Kerala fixed menu on this day. The starters of Lamb Stew with appam bread was the best part of the menu! That was followed by Tiger Prawns Korma, South Indian Spiced Potatoes and Ghee Rice. Dessert was Vermicelli Payasam and Fresh Fruits. All through our dinner, we were regaled by a live jugalbandi of santoor and tabla.

Jamavar Leela GoaJamavar Leela GoaIn my opinion, the Jamavar, and Leela in general, doesn't score very high on food. And I make this comment having tried both their Bangalore and (now) Goa hotels. There was a time when I loved the buffet dinners at the Leela in Mumbai, but they certainly are no longer in the same category as the Taj or the Sheraton any longer.

Related Posts:


Friday, June 13, 2008

Bringing in the Monsoon at Goa

The Beach, Leela GoaWith the long periods away from home during April and most of May, I needed a quick break to recharge and spend a little quality time with my family. When there isn't too much time to plan, the default choice is always Goa. So off we went for a week during the last week of May. This time I decided to stay at The Leela, which is located in the southern part of Goa. I chose this resort for two reasons: one, they have a good beach which is not very crowded, and two, because I had heard good reviews from friends.

We drove down from Pune to Mumbai and then took a Jet Airways flight to Goa. The sunlight shimmered on the Arabian Sea as the aircraft began it's descent. The beach stretched out below us and I was already feeling relaxed as I gazed at the distant waves crashing into the beaches and the greenery of the countryside. A perfect landing, jostling at the baggage claim, getting into the waiting car, and we were off to our resort!

Welcome Drinks, Leela GoaThe rains had not yet begun, but the day was humid and hot. The cold towels and the bottles of water in the car came to good use! After about an hour's drive through the Goan countryside we reached the resort. Designed to look like the old Hindu palaces of Vijayanagara, the Leela is spread over 75 acres of land between the Sal river and the Arabian Sea. On arrival, we were welcomed with marigold garlands and tender-coconuts to drink from. Check-in was fast, as a host personally escorted us to our room.

Our room at Leela GoaThe Conservatory Premiere room we had booked was fairly large and split into a bedroom and a sitting area. Both areas boast of LCD TVs and the room is equipped with a DVD player, which came in handy for my little angel who could get her daily dose of Dora and Diego during the few hours we stayed indoors. The sitting area looked out into the lagoon and the greenery surrounding it. The bathroom was spacious with a tub, two basins and separate rooms for the WC and the shower stall. All in all, the room was excellent!

Our Little AngelThe Leela GoaAlmost immediately we dressed for the beach and went out to quickly explore the property. First, we ventured towards the riverside. Here, Leela has it's shopping area and Casino (I think this is the only resort-hotel in Goa with a casino; the only others are on ships that are anchored offshore). The Riverside Italian restaurant is located on the banks of the Sal river. We could see many fishing boats anchored on the distant bank of the river, where fishermen seemed to be selling their day's catch. We walked back towards the beach, which is on the other side of the resort. The garden in the Leela has a section devoted to Indian spices and fruits: mango, jackfruit, black pepper, cloves, etc.

The Beach at Leela GoaThe Beach at Leela GoaThe Beach at Leela GoaPast the swimming pool, we went, along the resort's golf course, and we we finally found ourselves at the beach. The beach here was quite perfect. White, clean sand and mostly deserted as far as the eye could see! While my wife and I lay back under the swaying palms drinking in the scene, our little angel gleefully went to work with the sand. A couple of beers later, I was already marveling at how much fun this was. No cellphones, laptops and Blackberries after such a long time! After splashing around for a while, we dragged our reluctant little girl back to our room.

Sea Bass at Susegado, Leela GoaWe went back to the beachside Seafood Grill, Susegado, for an early dinner. This restaurant not only served us the best seafood we had eaten in a while, they also had the most friendly and helpful waitstaff. We chose a sea-bass from the day's catch on display. They cooked it in two different ways for us: a spicy Goan masala-covered fillet, and the other with garlic-butter, both grilled to perfection. We were so delighted, we ordered another sea bass and requested an encore. As you can expect, with so much fish under our belt we were quite stuffed.

Grilled Sea Bass Goa StyleGrilled Sea Bass in Garlic ButterSusegado is located right on the beach, and as the cool, briny breeze blew in from the Sea, we could hear rumblings of thunder announcing the onset of monsoon. In the distance, we could see flickering lights from anchored ships on the distant horizon, even as the sound of crashing waves rose to a crescendo. The thatched roof, flickering lanterns and the candle on the table added to the lovely ambiance. We had to reluctantly drag ourselves away from here and back to the room since our daughter was already quite sleepy and had to be put to bed - ah, the joys of parenthood! :-)

To Be Continued...

Earlier Posts on Goa:


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Gastronomic Beijing

Peking Roast DuckI had an opportunity to sample a variety of food during this trip. My host took me out for lunch at a restaurant that specialized in Duck. For those who haven’t tasted the famous Peking Duck, this dish is mostly prized for the crispy thin skin of the duck which is glazed with a layer of syrup before cooking. The skin, the meat and the soup made from the bones and remaining meat form a complete meal. For large groups, the chefs usually carve the duck at the table - like they did at ours during a team lunch.

Carving Duck at the table in BeijingThe eating protocol consists of smearing hoisin or noodle-sauce on the thin pancakes that accompany this dish. You then place thin strips of cucumber and spring onions, sugar/ginger, and the meat. The pancake is then wrapped into a roll and eaten. The slivers of skin and fat melt in the mouth.

My hosts were extremely hospitable. They had taken it upon themselves to make sure I was attended to every minute of my stay. This reminded me of the times when my (India) team was much smaller and we would do the same for every visitor who visited us from overseas. Near Tienanmen Square, a heritage Train Station is being restored to it's former glory, as is a street nearby which is being re-modelled to look like it was hundreds of years back. Toy-vendors on the subway were selling toys and memorabilia with the five mascots of the coming Olympics.

During my last time in this city, I had spent all my spare time visiting the many historical monuments. This time I let my hosts take me to dining spots with a lot of local flavor.

On one day, we got ourselves a table outdoors at a lake-side restaurant on Houhai Lake. This street is lined with restaurants along the lake, each one prettier than the other with intricate paper and wood lanterns, gold-red-green patterned design adorning furniture, etc.

Dinner at Houhai LakeAs we sipped on our drinks and enjoyed the cool breeze, I perused the menu. Aha! I finally find the really ‘exotic’ stuff on my menu. J Does Fried Bamboo-shoot Worms, barbecued duck tongue, and fritters of chicken soft bones sound exotic enough to you? A colleague who was out with friends the last night even found dog meat – and said it tasted like pork. Sorry to disappoint you, but I didn’t order any of the above! Instead, I let my hosts take me on a culinary journey of Chinese small plates that included shredded eel, shredded mushroom with dry red pepper, pork with hot chillies, greens in garlic sauce, chicken soup (with skin and bones included, but rather tasty!).

Dinner at Houhai Lake
Dinner at Houhai Lake
Dinner at Houhai Lake
Dinner at Houhai LakeAnother day, my lunch included Fried Gingko with Lily & Fresh Asparagus. Gingko is a very unusual tasting vegetable and is known to have (ahem) aphrodisiac qualities. Another dish on my table was the scalded geoduck Clam. The scalding is supposed to perfectly preserve the taste of the clam, which did taste very good.

Fried Gingko with Lily and Fresh AsparagusScalded Geoduck Clam
On one evening, my gracious hosts took me to the Laoshe Tea House for a night-time show. The Tea House is richly decorated with costumed ushers. Tables are laid out in a large hall with a stage in the front. We had seats in the front row. Over cups of hot green tea, dried berries, nuts and local desserts, the show unfolded in front of us.

Beijing Tea House Show
Beijing Tea House Show
Beijing Tea House Show
Beijing Tea House Show
Beijing Tea House Show
First came the musicians, followed by dancers, singers, mimics and acrobats. Chinese acrobats are among the best in the world and the show here was spell-binding too. Then came the turn of the Magician, who went through his repertoire of the usual stuff. Usual that is, other than the fact that I was in one of his items (see picture above!). But the highlight of the show was clearly the Masked Girl with a dozen faces (from Sichuan?). Apparently, the trick is a family-guarded secret handed down generations. A girl with a painted face-mask dances to music and from time-to-time, her mask magically changes to a different one. She initially always turned around, and by the time she turned back towards us her mask would be changed. But towards the end, she would snap her fingers while right in front of our faces (at our tables!) and the mask would change to another one. It had to be seen to be believed!

On the final night, I was taken to an Imperial property that has been converted into a Imperial dining experience. I was royalty for one night! Escorted by brightly costumed hostesses, we got to our dining room through winding paths in a garden. The room itself was decorated with scrolls, paintings and pottery - the only reminder that we hadn't gone back in time was the sight wireless headsets discreetly attached to the ear of the hostess. The menu was printed on silk scrolls that came in a velvet box. There was much to each. I remember Deer, Fresh Fish, Chicken – beak, head, and all, Pork, Squid, and many many more.

Dining Imperial China style
Dining Imperial China style
Dining Imperial China style
Dining Imperial China style
Dining Imperial China style
After dinner, we strolled around the splendidly adorned garden that seemed to be from another age, with elaborately costumed waitresses, intricate lanterns and ancient paintings all over the place. Water gurgled from a stream as the path wound through different low-lying buildings that housed eating rooms that were richly appointed and curtained off with beaded curtains.

When Indians think of Chinese food, we always think of noodles and fried rice. This time in Beijing, I don’t remember having noodles at all in any of these elaborate dining experiences. Actually neither did we have too much rice. The duck was wrapped in thin pancakes; otherwise food mostly consisted of meats and greens! Hospitality extends to the dining table. My local hosts would quickly fill my glass with wine without waiting for the waitress to do so.

My friends here told me about how they selected English first names to make it easy for outsiders. Some chose their names when they took up jobs with the American companies, while others were given their names by their teachers at school. Their Chinese names continue to be their legal names and the ones they use at home. Sort of like the BPO guys and gals in India who turn into Mary, Sam and Angela during nights.

I had to wake up at an unearthly time again so I could be at the Beijing airport by 5 AM for my return flight. Again, I noticed what seems to be a standard ritual here at the airport. Before the staff begins their work, they gather together and line up to listen to their leader reading out something! Not sure what.

Interestingly, you do not need to tip in Chinese restaurants and neither is there any tax applied to food. :-)

Related Posts:

Update, July 2008: Some of you have asked me about the Imperial dining experience I mentioned above. The name of this place is Baijia Dayuan, No. 15 Suzhou Street, Haidian District, Beijing. Phone: 62654186. Other details: This restaurant was once the residence of Prince Li of the Qing dynasty. The restaurant serves imperial court cuisine and unique Baifu dishes.