Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lip-Smacking Nizami Delights

Taj Krishna HyderabadI was already planning my dinner as my flight took off for Hyderabad. I only had one night in this city of the erstwhile Nizams and wanted to make the most of it. Luckily, The Taj Krishna where I was staying, has an excellent restaurant to try out local delicacies in an regal setting.

Firdaus is designed to recreate the princely past of Hyderabad with soft lighting, silken drapes, cystal chandeliers, and live ghazals playing in the background. Firdaus, in Urdu, means heaven and the food did take me there that night!

Taj Krishna, Hyderabad
Taj Krishna, Hyderabad
I began with Haleem, a preparation unique to Hyderabad and popular during the month of Ramzan (or Ramadan). This is a dish made of whole wheat and mutton that is slow cooked with spices for hours until the meat becomes soft and mushy. It is then topped with mint leaves, saffron, pure ghee and golden fried onions. The Haleem was served with lemon slices and sheermal, a speciality Indian bread. I enjoyed this dish thoroughly, savoring the unusual texture and flavors slowly in my mouth.

Haleem at FirdausNext came the biryani, the imposing sounding Kacche Yakhni Dum Ki Gosht Biryani. A classic from the heritage menu of the Nizams, described the menu. Along with the biryani, I ordered Mirchi Ka Salan, another unique dish from this city made from green chillies in a spicy peanut sauce. Both the biryani and the salan were excellent. The tangy and spicy sauce of the Salan was a perfect compliment to the fragrant Biryani.

Biryani at Firdaus
Mirchi Ka Salan at FirdausI ended my dinner with a local favorite, Khubani Ka Meetha. This dessert is made of apricots in syrup and topped with cream. The dessert was very sweet, but very different from the usual stuff! As I waited to sign my cheque, they also offered me a sweet paan to chew on!

Khubani Ka Meetha at FirdausThe waitstaff were exceptional. My waiter was from Lucknow, the only other city in India that can claim to have mastered the perfect biryani. We chatted briefly about all the kabab and biryani maestros in that city (I lived in Lucknow for a number of years, a long time back).

Taj Krishna, HyderabadAfter my meetings on the next day, I had lunch at the Golden Dragon, the Chinese restaurant within the Taj Krishna. The Daikin Chicken and the Prawns in Butter-Garlic-Pepper were both delicious. The Princess Chicken and the Vegetable Noodles were equally impressive too. None of us had any space for dessert after that.

Encounters at Taj Krishna
Golden Dragon, Taj Krishna
Daiken Chicken at Golden Dragon
Prawns in Butter, Garlic, Pepper at Golden Dragon
Princess Chicken at Golden DragonSince my flight back to Pune was late in the night, I decided to take a detour to the Charminar. This monument, the most visible symbol of Hyderabad, was built by a sultan in late 16th century. Being only a week away from Id, the Old City was crowded with shoppers. The Charminar is surrounded by other buildings equally old: The Mecca Masjid, another palace that is now an hospital and the Nizam's abode on a hilltop a few miles away. The Mecca mosque is thus named because some of its bricks were brought here from holy Mecca.

Charminar Hyderabad
Mecca Mosque Hyderabad
Near Charminar HyderabadIt is amazing to stand here and imagine how many years these buildings have seen. During the time the Charminar was built, and even years later, Hyderabad used to be the only place diamonds could be found in the known world. The Nizams grew enormously wealthy and what's left of their accumulated treasures can now be seen in the Salar Jung Museum. The British looted much of it during their reign in India; the Koh-i-noor, which found a prominent place in the Crown Jewels, originated in the Golconda mines near Hyderabad.

Charminar Hyderabad
Charminar HyderabadMy Jet Airways flight back was uneventful. The smaller ATR aircraft actually got us into Pune 30 minutes early at about 10:30 PM. Miracles do happen!


Friday, September 26, 2008

Chennai Snapshots

The Park ChennaiFor nearly thirty years from 1940, the Gemini Studios of Madras (now Chennai) was one of the most influential film-producing studios of India. The Gemini emblem of two small boys with bugles adorned many a classic movie made between the 40s and the 60s. My hotel this time, The Park in Chennai, stands in the middle of where the studio once existed.

The Park brings back the magic of Indian Films in a rather interesting way: The corridors and rooms are decorated with original posters of movies made in these studios a long time back - in Tamil, Hindi and even Bengali.

The Park Chennai
The Park ChennaiI had landed late in the evening on a Kingfisher flight from Pune. By the time I checked-in it there was only time to have a quick dinner before retiring for the busy day ahead. 601, their all-day dining restaurant, serves buffets but I ordered some local dishes off their menu. The restaurant was quite busy but quiet - until a number of giggly-chatty Thai girls walked in, probably an airline crew letting their hair down.

Mutton Sukha and Appam at 601
Chocolate Brownie with Ice Cream at 601
The mutton sukha varuval made in Chettinad style with shallots was hot and spicy and was a delight to have with the freshly made appams. They also served a side of crisply (batter) fried okra which was pretty interesting too. Then the waiter insisted I end with their chocolate brownie topped with ice-cream - apparently very popular here.

Saravana Bhavan ChennaiDuring the two days at Chennai, I tried the lunch buffet at Trident Hotel (excellent) and a dinner buffet at the Radisson (very good). However, the highlight was clearly my lunch at Saravana Bhavan. A reader of this blog, Anu, first pointed me to this restaurant chain which now has outlets in Delhi, Dubai and even Silicon Valley. The eating area was crowded but they opened a new section for us. Pictures of Hindu Gods drawn in a South Indian style adorned the walls. The South Indian thali I selected was very good (and filling too!). Unlimited (vegetarian) food for only Rs:150 (approx USD 3=00) per person; I don't think you can get better value for money than this!

Special Thali at Saravana Bhavan
Special Thali at Saravana BhavanThe food was very hot and spicy and contained a multitude of veggie preparations along with chutneys and spice mixtures to dip into.

During this trip, I also discovered how expensive this city has become. Rents for apartments are almost double what they are in Pune; drivers, maids, and such help are more costly too. Water continues to be a problem even though the good rains in the recent past have helped. Every road is jam-packed with traffic - this I guess is happening everywhere (read Thomas Friedman's latest, Hot, Flat and Crowded; it makes some excellent points on where we are headed).

I left Chennai with large packets of Sambar powder, kai muruku and Mysore Pak - thank you Bala and Geetha! With this, flavors of Chennai will grace my dining room for some more time.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hotel Hopping in India

Threesixty, The Oberoi New DelhiI have been making quite a few short trips within India recently. Between congested airports and busy meetings through rains, bad roads, and traffic jams, the hotel seems welcome and tranquil. Indian business hotels are actually pretty good; with creative decor, multiple restaurants and great service, they are in many ways better than their counterparts in the US.

Last week, I found myself on yet another flight, this time to New Delhi. Jet Airways seems to have lost its glamour to Kingfisher lately; while their flight crew continues to be good, their ground staff is no match to Kingfisher. Delhi's airport looks dated and badly managed when compared to those in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and even Pune; however the roads here are as good as it can get in India. The trees lining the road in Delhi were lush green now, thanks to the recent rains. I made a detour to Haldiram's, that temple of all things sweet and savoury. A little while later I checked into my hotel, The Oberoi, armed with boxes of petha, gujiya, moong dal burfi, and variety of kalakand.

The Oberoi New Delhi
The Oberoi New Delhi
I ran into Wasim Akram at the check-in counter; he was here to coach a boy's team. To my annoyance, I couldn't locate my camera which was locked in my suitcase! It was quite late in the afternoon when I walked into Three-sixty, their all-day dining restaurant, for lunch. The Rogan Josh, a Kashmiri dish made of mutton in a fiery red sauce, was excellent. This was accompanied by home-style phulka roti - extremely rare in restaurants, moong dal and masala aloo.

The dessert sampler included a portion of chenna jalebi, rasmalai, and kheer kadam. The Oberoi blend tea provided a refreshing ending. The Oberois never cease to amaze me, and this lunch was another example of why they are considered India's premier hotel and resort chain.

The Oberoi New Delhi
The Oberoi New Delhi
The Oberoi New DelhiIn the evening, I headed towards Delhi's diplomatic district. I was here to attend a dinner at the British High Commissioner's residence. The majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, residence of the President of India, and the Parliament building looked imposing in the fading sunlight. My first close encounter with the diplomatic corps was interesting, but wearing a suit in the hot - and unusually humid - evening wasn't fun. There were a bunch of industry leaders and diplomats along with some media and university representatives. During the dinner buffet I remember Coronation Chicken, Rice Salad, tomato & basil, and baked calcutta bhetki with herbs.

Dinner Reception at the British High Commissioner's ResidenceI was up early to catch my flight back. From my hotel window I could see the dome of Safdarjung's tomb rising through the morning mist - a reminder of Delhi's long and rich history as the capital of many powerful kings and empires. At the airport I ran into Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi - he in his simple kurta and she in a pantsuit; they are quite a couple!

Safdarrjung's tomb from The Oberoi New DelhiJust a few days earlier I was in Bangalore. I flew Kingfisher this time and again noticed how good their ground staff and guest relations people were. The low visibility due to a foggy morning in Pune caused a 30 minute delay but the traffic in Bangalore was kinder to me. I was in the Oberoi within an hour from landing. It was a busy day, and I grabbed a quick working lunch at Le Jardin, their lobby-level coffee shop. BTW, the kathi rolls at Pune's Sun N Sand is way better than the one I had here (yes, yes, I agree Kapila Kathi Kababs on Dhole Patil Road are better than both!).

36 Chowringhee Lane in Bangalore
For dinner I tried to locate 36 Chowringhee Lane, which some people told me is the place of choice for good Bengali cuisine. While Google pointed me to a wrong address, I found the restaurant at its new location on BTM Layout, 100 ft road opp the Indian Oil petrol pump. The restaurant is little more than a hole-in-the-wall, but the food was good and very affordable.

Rewind some more. During my trip to the US, I stayed at the Grand Maratha in Mumbai and dined at the Peshawar - one of its many wonderful in-house speciality restaurants. Here are pictures of the excellent kabab platter with their signature dal and phirni for dessert. If you are on your way to the airport, this hotel has some of the best restaurants this side of town.

Kabab Platter at Peshawar, Grand Maratha Mumbai
Phirni at Peshawar, Grand Maratha Mumbai
The Grand Hyatt, another large Mumbai hotel, has an interesting garden built on top of their large lobby and atrium. Here's a picture I took on a rainy morning from my hotel room before checking out to catch my flight back to Pune.

Terrace Garden, Grand Hyatt MumbaiI just realized this blog completed two years. 200+ posts in these two years and over 6000 of you visit here every month. Thank you, especially my regular readers, who have been a great source of inspiration!


Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Foodie in Vienna - Part II

Heurigan in BenediktinerhofFor years, taverns called Heurigans have existed in Austria's wine country. During the early days, people carried their own food to these places; now they all offer a mix of food and entertainment along with the wine. I visited Benediktinerhof - one of the oldest wine estates in Vienna Woods, just outside the city. The undulating hilly countryside, the vineyards in the distance, the old church tower and the village made for a lovely sight in the fading sunlight.

The wine tradition of Vienna began during Roman rule; at that time wine was made only for consumption by the nobles. The common man could not grow grapes for money. That changed only after a Austrian emperor enacted a law much later. About 80% of wine produced here is white. Sweet grapes grow on the slopes that face the South.

Heurigan in Benediktinerhof
Heurigan in Benediktinerhof
We were welcomed by girls in traditional costumes, with shot-glasses of schnapps, as a band played folk music. After a while, we trooped into huge underground wine cellars of the tavern to sit around rough-hewn tables that were loaded with food and wine. Candles flickered throwing shadows on the walls. The Heurigan was much larger than I had initially imagined; they have enough space in their underground taverns to seat 800 people!

Heurigan in Benediktinerhof
Heurigan in BenediktinerhofBottles of wine, breads, herbed cheese spreads, beef Carpaccio, and other starters kept us going for a while. Conversation flowed freely as did the wine and beer. Entrée was simple meat and potatoes: fried chicken, pork, and other meats. For dessert we had the omnipresent Apple Strudel.

Heurigan in Benediktinerhof
I had three Israeli colleagues at my table and one from the USA, and the hours went by fast. All this while, a few elderly musicians entertained us with local folk music. Heurigans have never been sophisticated dining or drinking spots; neither the wine of the food were top-notch. However, the place did have a lot of atmosphere and we had a very enjoyable evening.

The other must-visit place in Vienna is one of their famous coffee-houses. Interestingly coffee came to Vienna when retreating Turkish invaders left behind sacks of coffee beans. Since then, Vienna has developed a sophisticated coffee culture where it is blasphemy to order 'ordinary coffee'; instead you order from one of many choices on every menu here. Even my Austrian Air flight had a coffee menu.

Cafe Central Vienna
Cafe Central Vienna
Cafe Central Vienna
Among the many coffee-houses I walked into, one deserves a special mention. Café Central is one of the many historical cafes that still abound. The interior is quite amazing with arches, vaulted ceilings, and old-fashioning lighting fixtures. We sat under large portraits of Austrian royalty; yes the regal-looking lady in the painting behind me is Sisi, the tragic queen of Austria I wrote about earlier. The cafe also serves up delicious local favourites and desserts. Here is an interesting salad I had, called the Rocket-Lamb's Lettuce Salad with Tomatoes, Olive Pesto and Parmesian Cheese Shavings. The dessert in the picture is a Cream Strudel with Vanilla Sauce. The coffee with apricot liqueur was particularly good.

Cafe Central Vienna
Cafe Central Vienna
Coffee in Cafe Central Vienna
After that dinner, we walked through the Hofburg Palace, which was lit up now and looked very nice against the night sky. We passed by the Museum Quarters, the Opera House - the best in Europe, or so claimed my companions, and Gothe’s statue.

During one of my early jobs, all new employees used to be given a Commitment plaque that left a lasting impression on me. I still have it in my study and it quoted Goethe: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

Hofsberg Palace at Night
Me and Goethe
The Sacher Hotel Vienna
We took a detour to the elegant Sacher Hotel, home of the world-famous Sachertorte. Made of two layers of dense chocolate cake, this torte has a layer of apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate frosting on all sides. I picked up one for my family; the torte came packed in a wooden box engraved with a picture of the Sachar Hotel. Here are some pictures of the torte after it was opened at home in Pune.

Sachertorte Reaches its Destination
And finally, the Wiener Schnitzel! It was huge, tasty, but too filling to eat often. Also, as you can see, it's not very photogenic.

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