Friday, January 30, 2009

La Bodeguita Del Medio

Cuba has been a melting pot of cultures, especially those of Spain and Africa. In addition to the natural beauty of this Caribbean country, many tourists come here to immerse themselves in an experience straight out of the 1940s and 50s. Old American cars, the crumbling houses and narrow lanes of Havana. And of course, its rich tradition of music, dancing, cigars, cocktails and cuisine!

Havana Market Note: Picture of Havana Market above courtesy Marian Reid in Go Travel.

Havana's La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by Ernst Hemingway, has long been known as a wonderful gathering place for cocktails, cigars, and the local cuisine.The Palo Alto namesake opened in 1997 bringing the unique tropical atmosphere, Cuban specialties, rum-based cocktails and cigars right here to the Silicon Valley.

Complementing the cuisine is a collection of original Cuban artwork which creates an environment that is very charming indeed. The location at 463 California Avenue in Palo Alto is halfway down the block (the English translation of the restaurant's name is 'the bar in the middle of the block'). The restaurant with its banana-yellow walls also boasts of a cozy cigar divan and a patio out back for that moonlight smoke.

La Bodeguita Del Medio in Palo AltoWe began with the highly recommended Ceviche and Empanadas. The Ceviche of house-cured shrimp, key lime juice, coconut milk, black beans, cilantro, peppers wonderful. The Empanadas of shredded picadillo pork, roasted chilis, pepper jack, cabbage salad, coconut-roasted jalapeƱo sauce was impossibly light, non-greasy and awesome too.

Ceviche at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Palo Alto
Empanadas at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Palo AltoWe shared from two entrees (the portions are quite large making sharing easy and probably the best way to sample the fare here):

The Masitas of spicy roasted pork, white rice, black beans, cilantro, Rioja carmelized red onions were perfect too. Well marinated and flavorful to the last morsel!

Delicious Masitas at La Bodeguita Del Medio Palo AltoThe eclectic Tierra y Mar is a combination of very tender, juicy skirt steak combined with three giant, coconut-crusted tiger prawns on the plate. The sofrito mashed potatoes and avocado-cilantro pesto completes this wonderful dish.

Tierra y Mar at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Palo AltoAfter all that delicious food, we didn't really have space for more. However, having heard about the great desserts here, I had to order one tonight. The Flan infused with Santa Teresa orange rum was a fitting end to this exceptional dinner. Tonight, everything on the table exceeded my expectations. No wonder this place is still very popular after all these years.

Flan at La Bodeguita Del Medio in Palo AltoI tried two different cocktails during the evening. Hemingway's favorite Mojito was very good: Bacardi limon rum, mint, sugar, fresh citrus juice and a splash of soda. The Hemingway Cocktail made of Bacardi limon rum, maraschino liquor, fresh citrus juice, and sugar served straight-up in a sugar rimmed martini glass was sweeter - I would recommend the Mojotos over this one.

Was the food authentic? The answer is no, and is not intended to be faithful to the island's hearty meat-based Criollo cooking. However, the use of exotic fruits and vegetables such as yucca, plantain, and papaya, with emphasis on seafood and the inclusion of one or two indisputably traditional dishes do reflect Cuban tastes. Above all, the chef's subtle way with citrus flavorings and spices is completely Cuban too; although one of the hottest chili peppers is named for Havana, island food explodes with flavor, not fire. Combined with the unpretentious ambiance and good service, La Bodeguita is an excellent dining option.

Ernst Hemingway's NoteThe Post Gazette points out that the Hemingway craze is now popping up in bars with Cuban themes from Mexico to Paris. Most of these La Bodeguita del Medio bistros display the replica of a handwritten note Mr. Hemingway wrote years ago, paying homage to two Havana bars where he battled writer's block with alcohol. "My mojito in La Bodeguita del Medio, my daiquiri in El Floridita," reads Mr. Hemingway's endorsement across a paper napkin.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hot Pots and More

Icy Seoul airportIt has been cold everywhere: in San Francisco, where I arrived yesterday on a cloudy day; in Seoul, which was icy when my flight stopped briefly; even in Mumbai, on the evening I caught my flight.

Before flying, I had ordered an Asian Hot Pot for dinner. Many Asian cultures have an interesting form of sharing a meal, where, in a cauldron of boiling stock unique to every region, sliced meats, seafood, noodles and vegetables are simmered together. The meal ends with a consumption of the flavorsome and aromatic cooking liquid.

Hot Pot at Pan Asian MumbaiI was at the Pan Asian at The Grand Maratha in Mumbai. The fiery Sichuan hot pot looked appetizing! Chef Liang had made this hot pot with slices of pork, prawns, squid, chicken, fish, shitake mushrooms and greens in a pungent and hot broth spiced with Sichuan condiments. The dish was delicious and filling!

Pan Asian at The Grand Maratha Mumbai
Pan Asian at The Grand Maratha Mumbai
Sichuan Hot Pot at Pan Asian MumbaiWhile I was drinking the soup from the hot pot, I was reminded of the Texan version, the son-of-a-bitch stew. I used to be a voracious reader of Westerns during childhood; I remember this cowboy dish to this day because of the interesting name.

After that sumptuous hot pot, I only had place for a Thob Thim Crob, a Thai dessert of steamed water chestnuts, young coconut in a jasmine flavored cream.

Thob Thim Crob at Pan Asian Mumbai
The Grand Maratha MumbaiMy flights were uneventful and I reached San Francisco on time, but with a splitting headache. BTW, there is good news for Jet Airways, which had a very rough year in 2008. In the Best in Business Travel Awards, Jet Airways scored their first global award - the best airline for first class. Emirates grabbed the award for best overall airline - beating out Singapore Airlines for the first time, while Asiana got the award for the best flight attendants and in-flight services.

Icy Seoul AirportIsn't it interesting, how San Francisco and Seoul are almost at the same latitude and yet Seoul is so much more colder and icy?


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Authentic Indian Food?

Indian CuisineOn being offered a keema masala dosa at a lunch buffet in Pune recently, I thought,"Damn! I can't even order a dosa any longer and expect the authentic version on my plate". Having spent my childhood days in Mysore, where idlis and dosas were staple fare, I find myself in the role of a purist. I expect the dosa with a filling of mashed potatoes with the uniquely South Indian seasoning of mustard seeds and curry leaves, and nothing else.

At other times, I remember arguments over drinks with friends on 'authentic' biryani: both Hyderabad and Lucknow claim this popular Indian dish as theirs, each pooh-poohing the other's biryani as being a pale imitation. It is another matter that the biryani has evolved further into further different versions, each uniquely delicious.

Indian CuisineHowever, if you look at the history of India you will realize there is no such thing as authentic Indian cuisine. In its long history, India has never discarded a foreign cuisine that entered its shores; instead, it was made Indian and became part of its rich cuisine. Kababs and samosas came along with the Mughals from Persia. Over the years, they were made our own.

While the samosa is related to the sambousek, in India they are now filled with spiced potato instead of minced meat or dry fruits like the original. Kababs and biryanis were recreated in the alleys and royal kitchens of Lucknow, Delhi and Hyderabad. The famous Kakori Kababs and the Dum Pukht Biryani are Indian creations crafted from the 'authentic' Persian pilafs and kebabs the Mughals brought into this country.

Indian foods considerably differ from state to state. Madhur Jaffrey in A Taste of India is at her evocative best as she describes the variety of ingredients, cooking techniques, and dishes native to every region in Indian. South Indian cooking uses steaming and fermentation, while the North rarely uses steam. Chapatis are made on griddles in the North, while tandoors are a relatively recent import from the North-West. Even within States, some foods are cooked only by special communities: the Moplars of Kerala, the Parsis in Gujarat, and the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu come to mind. For a period of time, recipes were passed from one generation to the other without change. Then came Independence.

Indian CuisineAs these princely states came together to become India, foods began to slowly percolate across regions. They were adapted to suit local tastes, especially when served in restaurants in other States. Which probably explains the keema dosa for meat-loving patrons! In any case, the masala dosa can't have been in its current form for long. Remember the potato itself is a recent import and came into India only after the British. What did they fill inside the samosa and the dosa before that?

Indian CuisineI also wonder how mutton curry was made before tomatoes and chillies reached our shores from the Americas. Did the hot Kolhapuri fare start with the bags of hot chillies that reached the Konkan shores on trading ships? Did they all use black pepper instead?

Right now, Balti Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala are popular examples of Indian food in the UK; yet neither is native. While inspired from Indian cuisine, these dishes have been invented by South Asian chefs in Britain. We have returned the favor by Indianizing foriegn imports such as tea, coffee, and Chinese food. The ubiquitous 'Manchurian' on the menu of every street-side Chinese restaurant in India is an Indian invention. And, of course, no one boils tea with milk and sugar like we do to create chai!

The British in India enjoyed their Devilled Eggs, helped create the Masala Omlette, and started their day with an ample serving of Kedgeree. While the devilled eggs disappeared from our menus when the British left, the masala omlette continues on. The Kedgeree was an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Indian khichri made of boiled rice, chopped boiled eggs, minced fish, and a lump of butter, all mashed together with salt, pepper, fresh coriander. This dish is rarely found outside history books now (Jennifer Brennan's Curries and Bugles provides a wonderful culinary tour through those days).

Indian CuisineThis evolution continues today, even in the Italian, French and Mexican restaurants that have begun showing up in increasing numbers in our cities and towns. My advice? Enjoy each dish for what it brings to your palate. Like almost everything else, our food has been undergoing constant change. What we think as 'authentic' is only defined by our childhood memories or what mom cooked. Don't frown upon the chicken tikka burger or the pasta with a distinct Indian taste! Your grand-children will probably grow up thinking of these as local food, no less Indian than pani-puri.

As for me, I am headed out to the new restaurant in town: Zara promises to serve 'authentic' Spanish food. Who can resist that? :-)

PS: Zara recently opened in Viman Nagar, right next to Symbiosis College, and boasts a terrific tapas menu (Ph: 4015911). Viman Nagar is turning out to be the new destination in Pune for foodies!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pune Dining Scene: Updates

Chocolate Teardrop with Pear MousseThe economic slowdown is beginning to have an effect on the dining scene in town. Machan, a jungle-themed restaurant, was expected to open in the mall next to ESquare; this has now been put on hold.

However, the spate of new openings last year has forced older restaurants to improve and rejig their offerings. Coconut Grove, an already excellent restaurant for Konkan coastal cuisine, now has a new menu of seafood delicacies for its patrons.

Laguna PuneOh Calcutta! too is introducing a lunch buffet in a week's time. Those who had difficulty ordering from the menu, replete with exotic Bengali items, can now sample a larger variety of items during lunch. Oh Calcutta! is also launching the Ganges Grill this weekend in their lawns. Every evening, you can enjoy lobsters, hilsa, carp, king fish and other seafood grilled in a style that brings together traditional Bengali with the British Raj. All of this in an outdoor ambiance that transports you to the banks of the Hooghly.

After Karim's, another legendary kabab place opened recently in Pune. Tunday Kebabee, a branch of its famous namesake, has opened in Wanawadi. I have yet to see if the Galouti Kababs and Dum Biryanis are as good as their Lucknawi versions. The original, located in the alleys of the old city of Lucknow, is a legend with it's 100-year old history and stories of its one-armed chef.

Bounty's Pune
Sizzler at Bounty's PuneSizzlers continue to be popular with the young in this town. You eat directly out of hot iron griddles filled with veggies and meat cooked in your choice of sauce. The sizzle and smoke as you are served gives these places a completely different ambiance. Bounty's in Kalyani Nagar continues to dish out the best sizzlers in town. Zamu's and Yoko aren't as popular any longer and the quality of their sizzlers have suffered in recent months. Yana, in the Kalyani Nagar multiplex is popular with the movie-goers while Kobe in Aundh seems to have fans too. Here are some pictures from my recent trip to Bounty's. The Sizzling Chicken with Pepper was perfect as was the excellent Caramel Custard!

Like I had promised during my first review, I made another trip to Laguna during the holidays, this time with the family. The cocktails we ordered were just ok (I had ordered a Sangria and the wife a Cosmo); the non-alcoholic cucumber 'mocktail' my daughter ordered turned out more interesting!

Non-veg Mezze at Laguna Pune
Dining at Laguna PuneThe Mezze contained Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Tabouleh, Kibbeh, Sambousek, etc., with pita bread. This non-veg platter of starters was a mixed bag; while I liked most, the Sambousek, little keema samosas, were too oily.

Pita Bread at Laguna PuneThe Spaghetti con Tomato Meatballs was very good but had a high level of spice. The spinach soup turned out to be creative and very exciting on the palate!

Spaghetti at Laguna Pune
Laguna Pune
Display kitchen of Laguna PuneThe dessert menu looked mouth-watering, but we were quite full at this point. We decided to share the Chocolate Teardrops with Pear Mousse, which was a good-sized portion of pear-stuffed mousse with a rim of dark chocolate and a little Irish Creme. Thankfully, the mousse turned out every bit as good as it sounded!

Finally, there is a new Konkan fine-dining restaurant in town now: Kokum in Viman Nagar. Any one try it yet?

Bon Appetit! May the New Year have many fun-filled moments and mouth-watering treats for everyone. :)