Sunday, February 22, 2009

February Moments

Desserts at Hornby's Pavillion, MumbaiIt already seems like summer in Pune, but the evenings are cool and very pleasant. I remember how it used to be in Delhi. One day it is winter, and the next day it is summer - there just isn't anything in between. That city never cools down during the summer months, not even during the nights - and all that before we knew about global warming!

Lunch Buffet at Hornby's Pavillion
Lunch Buffet at Hornby's PavillionThis was one of those super busy weeks, and yet I had to find time for a day-trip to Mumbai. I drove down to Mumbai and was surprised how quickly I got to Parel. I couldn't resist sinking my teeth into a freshly made vada-pav with the fiery red dry chutney at one of the food courts on the Expressway.

In between meetings at the ITC Grand Central hotel, we got ourselves a quick lunch at Hornby's Pavillion. The buffet was an impressive spread that even included sushi, a live appam counter - rarities both - and a mix of South and North Indian curries along with a mix of Oriental and Continental food. My Spanish colleague was particularly delighted with the food. Annoyingly (for me), the desserts were mostly western ones with only a plate of mixed Indian barfis and jamuns.

Lunch Buffet at Hornby's Pavillion
Lunch Buffet at Hornby's PavillionNow that Hard Rock Cafe is finally open in Pune (after all the initial glitches and delays), early feedback on the food is good. The items on the menu may seem a little expensive, but the portions are HUGE by Indian standards. Also, they apparently have great fajitas. With no restaurant serving Mexican (or Tex-Mex) in the city yet, this the only place for decent fajitas. Incidentally, Taco Bell is entering India soon; I understand they are opening in Bangalore first.

I must reiterate how good Tareef is: try it if you are a kabab lover located the Aundh area. Do try their Sikandari Raan, Tandoori Chicken, and Garlic Naan. And if you have some space left, the Phirnee. Amazingly good! I also tried Kareem's in East Street for the first time. I had them pack some Sheek Kababs, Murg Kali Mirch and Naan for me; they were excellent.

The pictures here are from the lunch buffet at Hornby's Pavillion at the ITC Grand Central in Mumbai.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pune Dining: Kokum

Kokum PuneAnother welcome addition to Pune's growing dining options! Kokum, which opened in Viman Nagar recently, brings flavors of the Southern coastline of India to Pune in the form of a fine-dining experience. In fact, this is probably the first upscale South Indian dining place in town. And from my first experience, a must-visit for Pune foodies!

Entering the restaurant, I was impressed by the decor with its large wooden columns, lighting fixtures reminiscent of old havelis, the large brass lamp in the middle, and small bowls of water and flower petals everywhere.

Kokum PuneWe began by sampling their 'thirst-quenchers'. I selected the Khajoora Panaka, a date and tamarind cooler from Udupi, while my wife went with the Kokum Sherbet, a chilled and spicy cooler from the Konkan coast. Both were excellent. Incidentally, Kokum is the fruit of a tree that is unique to Western coastlin of India and is known for its cooling properties during the sweltering summer months. Tamarind is used for a similar reason in much of Tamil Nadu.

Thirst Quenchers at KokumA couple of women dressed in saris cooked us a complimentary bite-sized rava dosas and banana dosas. They also put a variety of banana chips for us to nibble on as we perused the menu.

We chose the Meen Tava Fry, seer fish smothered in a spicy red marinade. We also ordered a portion of the Sukke Maas, marinated kid lamb cubes tossed with roasted coconut and Mangalorean spices. We loved both dishes. Please note: Most of the fish dishes native to Kerala come with bones, but the Meen Tava Fry is relatively bone-less.

Meen Tava Fry at Kokum
Sukka Maas at KokumAfter that came the Neer Dosas, delicate rice pancakes native to Mangalore, and the Shrimp Balchao with rice. The Balchao is a particularly unique Goan dish with shrimp 'pickled' in fiery red spices and malt vinegar. The Balchao was really hot, a little sour, a little tangy; we enjoyed every bit of it!

Neer Dosa at Kokum
Shrimp Balchao at KokumWe picked their Dessert Sampler which has two different payasams, one made of rice flakes in thickened milk, another made with dal and jaggery, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Again, great stuff!

Jaggery, a type of unrefined sugar, is a product of cane juice where the molasses and crystals are not seperated. A version of jaggery, produced from date palms, is particularly special in Bengal during the winter months. It used to be an essential ingredient in the kitchen during my childhood days but seems to have disappeared now.

Desserts at KokumWe were particularly thrilled with the complimentary glass of Sulaimani tea at the end as they processed the check. This was similar to the Kashmiri kahva, but with unique spices and fresh lime juice; very different and refreshing! This variation of black tea (like the Kashmiri one) came in with the Arab traders many centuries ago, and continues to be popular in coastal Kerala - at one time the gateway to this land of spice.

Sulaimani Chai at KokumKokum is located at Lunkad Sky Cruise near Symbiosis International School in Viman Nagar. Ph: 4015 9555. It is co-located with Zara and The French Loaf in the same complex (they also share the same owners).

Please check the side-bar under Pune Posts for more reviews of Pune restaurants.


Monday, February 09, 2009

More Bay Area Eating

Park Place Cypress HotelOne of the things I really enjoy in the US is a hearty breakfast before beginning my work-day. You can never go wrong with Hobees when in the Silicon Valley; just make sure you order something that comes with their famous Blueberry Coffee-cake. It was in the USA I first discovered the difference between poached and fried eggs; in India, when people order poached eggs, they usually means fried eggs!

Speaking of poached eggs, if you are ever in the vicinity of Union Square in San Francisco, drop into Pinecrest Diner - especially if is late in the night when everything else is closed. The best eggs, bacon and hash can be had here any hour of the day!

Pinecrest is (in)famous for being the scene of a terrible murder. One day, in July 1997, a pretty girl came into Pinecrest and ordered poached eggs, which were not on the menu. The chef, a Jordanian immigrant called Hashem Zayed, agreed to cook this for her. Probably resenting the attention paid to the girl, waitress Helen Menicou publicly berated Zayed and told him not to cook the dish. Next morning, Hashem brought a semi-automatic handgun to work and shot Menicou – a Pinecrest veteran of 20 years – dead. Five hundred people attended her funeral; Zayed died in prison and no motive was ever uncovered for her murder, except the business with the poached eggs – which remain off the menu to date!

Sushi chefs at work at Fuki Sushi
Sushi platter at Fuki Sushi
Prawn Tempura at Fuki SushiDuring this trip I also discovered a new sushi place in Palo Alto. Fuki Sushi has been here for a long time, but I got a chance to try it only now. Shoji-screened windows, native Japanese waitresses and a large sushi bar gives this place an authentic Japanese ambiance. More importantly, the fish is fresh and the sushi pretty good.

Sashimi Sampler at Fuki Sushi
Miso Soup at Fuki SushiWe stuck to basic stuff with platters of sashimi, sushi, miso soup and prawn tempura washed down with sake. The most interesting sushi on my plate tonight was probably the Tobiko - roe of flying fish. The Mochi Ice-creams for dessert were delightful. These are ice-creams wrapped in a soft, rice-cake; both Kona coffee and creamy strawberry flavors were pretty good.

Mochi Ice Creams at Fuki SushiOn another day, I was back at Arya to end a tiring day on a good note with some Persian food. The Dolmeh was very good; this dish is made of cooked grape leaves, filled with ground beef, rice, tarragon, split peas, green onions, basil, parsley and other fresh herb.

Dolmeh at Arya CupertinoI followed with the Chelo Kabab, two skewers of juicy charbroiled strips of seasoned ground beef, served with Basmati rice and charbroiled tomato. On top of that heap of rice, you are expected to add dollops of butter too! As you can imagine, a lovely meal when you don't have to think about the calories. :)

Chelo Kababs at AryaIt was the dessert that was really interesting. The Bastani ice-cream is a Persian creation made of French vanilla ice cream blended with saffron and rosewater, with frozen bits of cream, pistachios and cardomom.

Bastani Ice Creams at AryaPark Place at my hotel, The Cypress, is good for an occasional dinner. The Cedar planked Steelhead salmon with pumpkin risotto, brussels sprouts and smoked maple jus was every bit as exciting to eat as it sounds. The Warm Molten Chocolate Cake with a molten center and creme fraiche ice cream ended the dinner just fine.

Salmon Entree at Park Place Cupertino
Molten Chocolate Cake at Park Place CupertinoFinally, another quick pizza lunch on the day I was flying back home. At my favorite Pizza My Heart outlet across the road from the hotel. With no more meetings in the day, I could indulge in the garlicky Big Sur, named after a picturesque part of the California coast. This pizza, voted the best in a 2007 West Coast competition, is made of large cloves of roasted garlic, organic tomato pizza sauce, pepperoni, sausage, Portebello Mushrooms & green onions. Doesn't get much better than this!

A Slice at Pizza My HeartThe airports in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore seemed emptier than usual. Which is always a good thing. Then I read United Airlines is going to start charging for the blankets and pillows very soon, and Singapore Airlines is reducing 100+ flights...


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dining At Cascal

Cascal Mountain ViewEven more Spanish influenced cuisine during this trip! Cascal is a concept restaurant in Mountain View with bold colors, period chandeliers, and d├ęcor that is both vibrant and elegant. Their menu boasts a variety of Spanish tapas items, paellas, and includes such South American delicacies as empanadas and ceviche.

With its maritime history, seafood has always played a central role in Spanish cuisine. After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, Spain took control of much of the Caribbean and South America, enriching the cuisines in that region. Creole, Cuban, Peruvian and other Latin American food is heavily influenced by this past.

Cascal Mountain View
Cascal Mountain ViewThe Spaniards didn’t ever control territory in India; however, they were closely allied with Portugal which did. Goa and parts of the Konkan coast of India serve delicacies with a distinct Mediterranean heritage such as Sorpotel and Xacuti.

Cascal Mountain ViewComing back to Cascal: Having loved the ceviche at La Bodeguita, I decided to try one here too. They have three varieties on the menu, and I selected the Peruvian Ceviche. Ceviche (pronounced SAY-BEE-CHEY) is a popular Latin American dish made of raw seafood ‘cooked’ by marinating it overnight in lemon juice (or some other citrus juice). My Ceviche was made of fresh halibut marinated in lime juice and served with red onion, fresh ginger, chili arbol and sea salt. Amazingly good stuff!

Ceviche and Empanadas at CascalThe Empanadas we ordered today were stuffed with wild mushrooms, manchego cheese and truffle oil. While these were very good too, the I liked the ones in La Bodeguida better, probably because of the excellent pork stuffing.

The Paella (pronounced PA-YAY-AH, the double L in the word serves no purpose other than to confuse the newbie) is probably the only popular rice-based dish I have seen in Europe. Paellas are like the Persian pilaf and the Indian biryani, but unique in presentation and taste.

Seafood Paella at CascalRice, now a genuine part of Spanish kitchens, originated from the Moors, as did saffron, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Gazpacho, a popular Spanish soup too owes its origins to the Moors. Remember, Spain is separated only by a small strip of ocean from Morocco.

Incidentally, tomatoes, beans and vanilla came to Spain early from their New World territories while the use of olive oil was borrowed from Greek and Roman neighbors. Many a typically Spanish dish would either not exist without the intervention of so many cultures in the history of Spanish food.

Bread plate at CascalThe Paella Cascal I had ordered contained Saffron rice, chicken, pork, chorizo sausage, shrimp, mussels, clams, smoked paprika sofrito, peas, Piquillo peppers. The dish was large, appealing and tasted just perfect!

BTW, you can find an interesting version of the paella in Barcelona made with squid ink giving the dish a unique shade of deep indigo.

Finally, we ended with the Tres Leches Cake and the Flan. I have to say the Flan here was even better than the one that I raved about just the other day. Foodie Trivia: Flan is called Caramel Custard in Pune. The Tres Leches Cake, which gets its name from the three types of milk used, was just ok; I have had better - I remember the one at Americas in Houston.

Tres Leches at Cascal
Flan at CascalIf in Spain, note that Spanish ham and sausage products are renowned, particularly those derived from a breed of free-range hog. The chorizo (hard pork sausage) and morcilla (blood sausage) are other specialties you may want to try. For those in Pune, your best best for Spanish food is Zara which opened only recently in Viman Nagar (next to Symbiosis).