Sunday, March 29, 2009

Manresa in Los Gatos

Manresa at Los GatosManresa earned its two Michelin stars a few years back. Chez TJ in nearby Mountain View lost a star this year, but chef David Kinch has had no such hiccup. Unlike many other celebrity chefs, David is known to personally conjure up his culinary art form at Manresa every night. The food - a combination of French and Catalan influenced cooking - is brought to you in the form of a three-course, four-course or a Chef's tasting menu that changes every day.

The exquisitely presented dishes are served in a large, simple dining room. Heavy silk curtains, rugs on the polished floors and stained wooden beams are the only adornments. Chef Kinch's pursuit for exceptional ingredients led to a partnership with a nearby biodynamic farm. All vegetables, fruits and eggs are sourced fresh every day from here.

Manresa at Los Gatos
Breads at ManresaWe decided to go with the four course dinner tonight. As we sipped on a Syrah, they brought in fresh bread and a slab of butter sprinkled with sea-salt. The amuse-bouches followed. The first one was interesting and tasted exactly like the pumpkin flower pakoras that were made at home during childhood days - a rarity now.

Arpege egg at Manresa
Amuse Bouche at ManresaNext came their signature Arpege egg, named after the L'Arpège restaurant in Paris and its owner Alain Passard, who apparently inspired the dish. The Arpege egg is served with the shell neatly cut off at the top so you can scoop out of it with a little silver spoon. It was topped with a sherry vinaigrette and maple syrup and was absolutely delicious. You first note the cool, refreshing, slightly sweet creaminess, that is then followed by a warm runniness of the egg yolk, finally followed by a sharp saltiness at the very end.

Sea Bream at ManresaOur first course arrived. I had chosen a sea bream, sashimi style seasoned with olive oil and chives. This dish was very good - the chives and olive oil really brought out the flavor of the fish. The root vegetable risotto made without rice - with mushrooms and parmigiano reggiano - was very interesting too.

Root vegetable Risotto without Rice at ManresaNext came the sea bass and brocolli with salsify chips and a 'norinade' of razor clams. This dish was good too and more substantive than the preceding ones. While I enjoyed the flavors of the greens and the fish, I didn't find it extraordinary. My friend enjoyed the Dungeness crab and mussels with avocade, blood orange and 'exotic' spices.

Sea Bass at Manresa
Dungeness Crab at ManresaThe next dish was the beef bavette roasted in its own fat served with brassicas in anchovy vinaigrette - a variety of mustard greens. Now this dish was quite exquisite! The texture and taste of the meat -done just right - along with the greens was truely delectable.

Beef Bavette at ManresaFinally, came the desserts. Mine was an exotic citrus dessert made from oro blanco and wikiwa tangelo and temple tangor - exotic citrus fruits I had never heard of until now - prepared with honey, spice and spearmint ice cream. The dessert was very tangy and refreshing!

The dark chocolate hazelnut feuillentine with olive oil ice cream and sea salt looked delightful too.

Exotic Citrus Dessert at Manresa
Dark chocolate hazelnut feuillentine at ManresaOverall, a darn good dining experience. However, to really do justice to this place, I have to be back for the Chef's tasting menu which has over 15 courses, and can take up to four hours to finish.

Manresa in Los GatosLos Gatos is among the most upscale residential suburbs in the Silicon Valley, located at the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. Manresa is named after the medieval town in the Catalonia region of northern Spain famous for its Gothic basilica and monastery. There is also a beautiful stretch of beach south of Santa Cruz, which the Jesuits of early California named Manresa. Manresa is located at 320 Village Lane in Los Gatos. Please note that finding parking here can be a little tricky.

Other reviews of Bay Area Michelin-starred restaurants: Chez TJ, Boulevard, One Market, Ame, Fleur De Lys.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Four Fountains

What can make you walk out with a spring your step with only distant memories of the long and busy week that just ended? Why, a relaxing massage at a spa of course!

Day-spas are finally beginning to make an appearance in India. Unfortunately, in spite of our history of Ayurveda and maalish, it has taken us long to embrace something that ought to have commonplace here. Four Fountains Spa now brings the spa experience to Pune in an elegant and soothing ambiance that is attractively priced. Almost all full-body treatments are under Rs. 1000.

Picture of flowers courtesy: Badr Nassem.

Until now, even five-star hotels in Pune did not have good spas; in any case, they operate at a different price-point (almost thrice that of the Four Fountains). As for the low-end options, you can never quite figure out which ones are legal and not a front for other (illegal) kinds of pampering!

Four Fountains Spa PuneI chose the 60 minute Aromatherapy treatment with a blend of eucalyptus and aniseed oils, which promised to recharge the mind. Four Fountains, like most Indian spas, has a policy of same-gender therapists. My therapist today was a young man from Manipur who was friendly and well trained. He explained the process clearly and periodically checked to see if I was comfortable with the pressure and the temperature in the room. I asked him how he found Pune; he said he was very happy here because there is a severe shortage of jobs in Manipur. He also spoke about his concern on the insurgency in that region - his parents still live there.

Four Fountains Spa Pune
Four Fountains Spa PuneAs the masseur expertly kneaded my muscles, working on pressure points, and soon the aroma of the oil and the continued pampering sent me into a state of blissful langour. Before I knew it, an hour had passed and I relectantly got up. A quick shower, and I was ready to face the world - even one where we apparently have been falling off cliffs!

Four Fountains is the brainchild of three friends from IIM-A. They have three spa outlets right now in Pune: in Koregaon Park, Aundh and Magarpatta City. The one in Aundh also has a Salon run by Javed Habib. The spa offers a multitude of treatments: massages, facials, body polishing and body wraps. They have discounts during week days and even gift coupons that you can buy off their website.

As for the spa itself, I was quite impressed with the experience. The locker and shower are built into the therapy room, which speeds up the process considerably. While I have been to many excellent upscale spas, they have almost always been in spa resorts or five star hotels (link). The spa resorts are, of course, a different experience altogether - mostly in terms of ambiance, decor, music, fragrance and other small touches that spell luxury. However, they are far more expensive and not available within Pune. For now, if you are looking to pamper yourself and don't have the time to venture out of the city, Four Fountains is a great option!

Four Fountains provides a wonderful little booklet for Indian spa-virgins. If you are a newbie, are intrigued but don't know what to expect in a spa, you may want to check this one out. A spa - like wine - can be intimidating for a newcomer. Please note, this booklet is tailored for India. I can think of at least two things quite different if you visit a spa outside India: one, the therapist almost always is of the other sex (ie., female therapist for a male guest and vice versa) and two, you disrobe completely, even though some spas do provide (optional) disposable undergarments.
Note: This therapy session was offered complimentary to me because of my blog (that's how they located me). Let me know about your experiences in India spas, especially the Four Fountains, if you have one to share.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Breakfast at Leopold Cafe

Mumbai near the TajIt was eerie being at the places which have been burnt into our memories from the non-stop television coverage a few months back. We were in Mumbai for a visit to the Consulate of France for our visas (we expect to be in Paris for our next family vacation in April).

It took me less than three hours to reach the Taj Palace hotel. We had started early to avoid the office traffic in Mumbai; now we had a few hours to kill before our appointment. We strolled around the Taj Palace remembering the events of that fateful day. The sea was filled with small boats and the rising sun reflected off its grey waters.

The Taj MumbaiAs we hunted for a place to have breakfast, we chanced upon Leopold Cafe in the lane behind the Taj. The restaurant had already opened and there were a number of foreign tourists lazily eating breakfast. We seated ourselves close to the bar and ordered masala omelettes, buttered toast and cappuccino while our daughter decided to try the cheese and chicken sandwich. This cafe has existed since 1871 and it certainly looks its age. Among the more popular Irani cafes in Mumbai, the recent notoriety has brought in more visitors. From our table we couldn't see signs of the violence that had killed at least eight on that fateful evening, but when my eyes strayed below, I noticed we were sitting right at the table where a grenade had exploded making a fist-sized hole in the granite floor.

Leopold Cafe MumbaiThe breakfast did us good, and I ordered a second cup of cappuccino before leaving. We then moved to Nariman Point, close to where the French Consulate is located. It felt wonderful - and unreal- to be sitting on the sea-side at Marine Drive on a Monday morning, lazily reading a newspaper and spending time with the family.

Leopold Cafe MumbaiThe sea sloshed against the strange-shaped concrete wave breakers sprinkled along the coastline. Nariman Point, among the world's most expensive business districts, was reclaimed from the sea in the late 60s. Those unusually shaped concrete wave-breakers turns out to be a South African innovation. When solid walls couldn't resist the fury of the seas, these breakers, being more porous, helped dissipate their energy quickly. They were initially called Dolosse, a name given to crude toys made of bone (and used by witch-doctors for rituals). These toys were made of knukle-bones of goats and sheep and shaped like the letter H but with one leg turned away 90 degrees.

Wavebreakers at Nariman Point MumbaiFinally the time arrived and we walked into Hoechst House for our visa appointment. The experience was very positive. They called us the minute of our appointment, and the formalities (which included fingerprints and photo) only took five minutes. Another ten minutes and we had our passports with visas on them. They even included detailed brochures with a CD and maps. I was very impressed!

For our vacation in Paris, I have booked us an apartment very close to the Louvre in the very heart of Paris (here's a link you want to peek). We want to let time move slowly there, so we haven't planned too many activities ahead of time. Right now, we expect to do a wine tour, maybe take a train journey to the South of France, and even a short trip to Barcelona. Watch this space!


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pune Dining: March Updates

Shammi style lamb pate at Stone Water GrillPune foodies, rejoice: Flags is back! They were apparently renovating and are now open again. They have redesigned the seating area with a longer bar. However, the menu continues to be exhaustive like before. A new cluster of restaurants and bars opened last week in the ICC complex. Sky Bar and Grill, FL Lounge, Sundowners, and Indus Kitchen are located on the top floor of the ICC complex on Senapati Bapat Road and promoted by Mumbai's Foodlink group.

I had earlier reviewed the lounge area of Stone Water Grill. This time I was back, but to the dining area. On a Saturday evening, this place is jam-packed with Pune's beautiful people who want to see and be seen here. The restaurant is doing its bit to make the lounge exclusive by keeping cover charges sky-high during the weekend. However, the dining area is a lot easier to book.

Lebenese Mezze Platter at Stone Water GrillFlowing water, intricate patterns of mirror-work and open spaces give it an upscale ambiance. Large windows look out into the lounge area. The menu combines Mediterranean staples with wood-fired pizzas and a variety of pastas.

We ordered a variety of starters (note: portions here are only good for one person and can be difficult to share). I liked the wood-fired quail: crisp on the outside and very flavorful. The Shammi style lamb pate was very interesting too. However, the Smoked Chicken and Goat-cheese tart was somewhat ordinary - regular chicken tikkas with a cheesy dip. The Lebanese Mezze Platter was good with small portions of hummus, moutabbel, labneh combined with wood-fired bread crisps.

Wood Fired Quail at Stone Water Grill
Smoked Chicken and Goat-cheese tart at Stone Water GrillI then ordered a Salami Napoli pizza which also had caramelized shallots making for a very interesting taste. My wife ordered the Chilli Coriander Crusted Pomfret which was served in a creamed pimento coulis and tossed veggies and was excellent too. Our friends ordered the Aglio Olio Peperoncino and found the spaghetti reasonably good too. We washed these down with a bottle of Sula Chenin Blanc. Interestingly, Chenin Blanc grapes are versatile white grapes that can be used to make dry, sparkling and even sweet dessert wines.

Salami Napoli pizza at Stone Water Grill
Spaghetti at Stone Water Grill
Chilli Coriander Crusted Pomfret at Stone Water GrillI insisted on trying the Warm Chocolate Fondant and it was an instant hit! Oozing chocolate, the dessert was excellent and a good ending to the evening. As we walked out, the crowd in the lounge was continuing to swell, with only standing space left. Next door, Hard Rock Cafe was getting crowded too, and there was another party on in the adjacent property.

Warm Chocolate Fondant at Stone Water Grill
Warm Chocolate Fondant at Stone Water GrillIt took us almost 30 mintues to get our car out of the parking; there were Santros and Marutis jostling for space with a large, black Bentley. Men with gelled hair and women in little black dresses had to walk the last mile, some precariously wobbling on the uneven driveway in their high heels.

All in all, a great dining experience. However, if you hate crowds - even the fashionable ones - avoid the weekend evenings.


Friday, March 13, 2009

The Bukhara Revisited

Bukhara New DelhiDelhi always makes me nostalgic. As I passed through Connaught Place recently and saw Wimpy's and Nirula's, I was reminded of a time when it was über-cool to hang out here. A time when this was the closest thing to American-style fast-food and ice-cream parlours in the country. Of going back to Lucknow and talking about the 21 varieties of ice-creams available here. I remember my favorite was called Manhattan Mania, a rich creamy ice-cream cone with glazed fruits and nuts. During my early days in New Delhi, the five-star hotels were out of my reach. For me then, the epitome of fine dining was at Berco's in Connaught Place which served Chinese food and we would wait for as long as an hour for a seat.

Lobby of the Maurya Sheraton New DelhiOver the years, I could afford more upscale - and expensive - restaurants, and I remember my first visit to the famous Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton. Already a foodie, I had heard of this place - especially about how this was the favorite dining spot of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and many visiting heads of state. That dinner was a dream dinner for me, one that I carried in my memory for a long time.

Artwork at the Maurya Sheraton New DelhiTrying to figure out a place to have my lunch before checking out of the Taj, I was suddenly reminded of the Bukhara, right next door. I wondered if I would find the Bukhara as delightful as that first time. Let me tell you now, there is a reason this restaurant is rated the best in New Delhi by many. There menu remains the same with a few good kababs, exotic Indian breads and the world famous Dal Bukhara. But no one - no one! - makes them quite like the Bukhara does.

Lunch at the Bukhara New DelhiI ordered the Tandoori Pomfret, Bharvan Kulcha, and Dal Bukhara. The fish was simply amazing: large, with a moist, flaky interior covered with a crispier outside coating with the best tandoori masala ever. The Kulcha and the Dal were exceptional too; you can’t make them any better. Even the laccha onions they serve along with the food seemed perfect – sprinkled with a zesty chaat masala.

Tandoori Pomfret at Bukhara New DelhiI ended with a Phirnee dessert. The phirnee was good, flavored with saffron, but not as delightful as the rest of the meal was. They encourage you to eat with your bare hands at the Bukhara, and trust me, that’s the best way to enjoy a meal here.

Phirnee at Bukhara New DelhiBukhara’s décor of a North West Frontier tavern, chain iron curtains, seating made of logs tied with ropes, etc., have now been copied in many restaurants. What remains unique is the large and distinct red-checkered apron they tie around your neck before you begin attacking your meat with your bare hands!

Bukhara New DelhiBukhara was one of ITC Hotels’ first attempt at branded upscale restaurants and was an instant success. While their other branded restaurants such as the Dum Pukht, Dakshin and the Peshawari have been replicated in their other hotels in Indian metros, there is only one Bukhara – in the Maurya Sheraton at New Delhi. A restaurant Bill Clinton never misses visiting when he’s in town. Bukhara is named after the Uzbek city located on the ancient Silk Route and famous as a center of art, religion and culture during the Persian empire. The invading hordes that came to India from this region brought mayhem and destruction, but also gave us our kababas and biryanis. Like they say, every cloud has a silver lining!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gourmet Bullion

$1000 dessert at Serendipity New York CityThe festival of Holi nears, and sweet shops across the nation are resplendent with rows of colorful barfis, gujiyas and other yummy delights. You can't avoid noticing how many of these sweets are covered with a thin foil of silver. For centuries these edible, gossamer-thin sheets of pure silver (or even gold during our princely past) have been popular decorations for special-occasion desserts, confections, even nuts and pulao.

Warq or varak, can be easily found in Indian markets. These gold- and silver-leaf sheets usually come in packs of twenty-four, with each delicate foil sandwiched between two sheets of paper. Warq sheets are so fragile they dissolve easily with human touch and can be torn by the barest breath of air. It is best to remove the top piece of paper from a sheet of wark, invert the warq on top of the food to be decorated. The warq will stick to the food, and the paper can be peeled off. Warq will keep indefinitely if stored in an airtight container (to prevent tarnishing) in a cool, dry place.

Silver warq on kaju rollsWarq is about a millionth of a millimetre thick and is used sparingly, though thoughtfully, in North Indian cuisine and some alternative medicines in India. What most people are unlikely to know is that this decoration on the pure vegetarian sweet is made by pounding silver or gold pellets between two sheets of leather. Animal hide! For some reason, all warq produced in India is still made the traditional way manually.

Silver Warq topped kaju rolls"It is an aphrodisiac," gushes Imtiaz Qureshi, grand master chef at ITC Grand Maratha in an interview with Times of India. "Nawabs and their courtesans alike were served warq in generous mounds." In the courts of the Nawabs of Awadh, warq was used to bedeck elaborate dishes combined with saffron, pista and almonds, says Qureshi. He makes special mention of the Kundan Qualiyan, the famed royal Awadhi dish that today’s non-royalty can try, albeit in a five-star hotel.

Kundan Qualiyan is made with tender morsels of lamb cooked in a saffron tinged thick gravy and served topped with a partially cooked egg yolk which when broken into the gravy adds to its golden hues. Further topped with gold leaf and saffron dyed almond slivers, this dish is as royal as they come. Gold warq is pure 24 carat. If other lower metals were added, the warq would break.

In the USA, in your nearest gourmet supply store, you can probably find, boxes of gold leaf (sheets, flakes, or sprinkles) to you to impress your friends at your next dinner party. These thin pieces of gold add an impressive touch to chocolates, sushi, and just about anything else you can think of. Because the quantity of gold is so small, the price is not unreasonable; yet these gold highlights make a meal appear to be extravagant and give restaurants excuse to charge exorbitant prices. And yes: it’s safe to eat; metallic gold is biologically inert, which is why dentists use it for fillings, caps, and crowns.

Valrhona Chocolate Sphere at Burj Al Arab"It is a tonic," insists Jiggs Kalra, veteran food expert in the TOI article. He talks about the tale of Shah Jahaan who was jailed by son Aurangzeb and allowed only one meal a day. "His doctor created a dish, Shahjahaani Korma, which kept him going and also alleviated his health problems."

Apparently, the dish contained gold. Few Lucknowi kitchens make Shahjahaani Korma today. However, gourmet chefs in India still conjure up Sone Chandi Ke Moong, Kofti Pulao with khoya slabs and lamb, and chicken biryani - all topped with warq. The top-end paanwala will sell you gulkand paan laced with gold.

However, the use of gold and silver in food was not restricted to India. These noble metals have been consumed for centuries by Native Americans, some of whom believed that eating pure pulverized gold can allow humans to levitate.

The Sultan's Golden Cake in Ciragon Palace Kempinski IstanbulSilver has been used as a medicine and preservative by many cultures throughout history. The Greeks and others used silver vessels for water and other liquids to keep them fresh. Pioneers trekking across the wild west generations ago faced many hardships. Keeping safe drinking water was one of them. Bacteria, algae, etc. found a fertile breeding ground in the wooden water casks that were carried on the wagons. They placed silver and copper coins in the casks to retard the growth of these spoilage organisms. They also put silver dollars in their milk to keep it fresh.

Settlers in the Australian outback still suspend silverware in their water tanks to retard spoilage. Silver water purification filters and tablets are manufactured in Switzerland and used by many nations and international airlines. Preventing growth of algae and bacteria in swimming pools is a similar problem that people face today.

The world's most expensive dessertWhile anyone India can get some sweets with silver warq on them in the neighboorhood sweet shop, gold warq is mostly found in upscale, gourmet restaurants. The world's most expensive dessert at the Serendipity restaurant in New York City is topped with gold leaf and costs $1000. If you are in Dubai, try the Valrhona Chocolate Sphere ($75 each) at Al Mahara, Burj Al Arab. Another extravagent gold-topped treat is the $1000 Sultan's Golden Cake at the Ciragon Palace Kempinski in Istanbul.

Eating gold and silver certainly beats eating out of them! :)


Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Spice Route And More

Satish Gujral's Nandi at the Lalit New DelhiDuring my two days in New Delhi, I spent most of the time shuttling between hotels, from one meeting to another. While The Imperial in Connaught Place has existed for ever, I remember the Lalit too, but by a different name. Until recently, this hotel was the Intercontinental, and before that, I think it was the Sun-N-Sand. What do you think of a hotel that changes identity that often? Rather shady, methinks! However, I liked the new coffee shop at the lobby level and the stunning scultpure by Satish Gujral of Nandi, Lord Shiva's mythical bull.

During the ten years I lived in New Delhi, I hadn't ever ventured into The Imperial. The hotel with its lavish, regal interials first opened its doors in 1936, in the years after King George V declared New Delhi the new capital of India. Those days, the Janpath - on which this hotel is located - was called the Queensway, the place to see and be seen. The Imperial has hosted many leaders including Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten. In more recent times, heads of state and Hollywood celebrities have made a beeline here during their visits to India. After a recent renovation, this place has been restored to its original glory and is among the best hotels in this city of djinns.

The Imperial in New DelhiThe Imperial is also home to one of the finest Southeast Asian restaurants in the city, The Spice Route. This restaurant was heralded as one of the top ten restaurants by Conde Nast Traveller some time back. The menu traces the journey of spices from the Malabar Coast of Kerala through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. However, what strikes you most when you enter this restaurant is the overwhelming decor - I felt I was entering an ancient temple. There are elaborate ornate carvings and artwork on the roofs, walls, everywhere! They also have an open-air courtyard designed in the tradition of the Chiang Mai region of North Thailand.

The Spice Route New Delhi
The Spice Route New DelhiThe chef made us a special charcoal-grilled tiger prawns with a hot and sweet Thai sauce (not on their menu). We followed with the Thenkay Kozhi Curry from Kerala, boneless chicken legs in a thick red curry with whole spices. Both of them were excellent! The prawns were crunchy, smokey and went rather well with the sauce. The curry was very hot - the way I like it - and fantastic with the very flaky Malabar Parathas.

Charcoal Grilled Prawns at The Spice Route New Delhi
Thenkay Kozhi Curry at The Spice Route
Malabar Parathas at The Spice RouteOther interesting items on the menu were the Kukulmas Temperadu, a Sri Lankan curry of chicken and bell peppers, and Irachi Stew, a Kerala style stew of boneless lamb cooked with potato and coconut milk.

We ended by sharing a dessert of Thai Mango, with coconut sorbet and tangy tropical fruit salsa. As yummy as it looks (and sounds)! This restaurant also has an excellent wine list for those special dinners; btw, their wine glasses are almost a foot tall!

Thai Mango Dessert at The Spice RouteAnd finally, back at the Taj Palace - where I was staying - a quiet dinner at the end of another busy day. As a musician belted out pop hits from the 70s and 80s, I nibbled on an platter of mustard-marinated fish tandoori tikkas followed by a tri-chocolate mousse that was rather uninteresting on the palate. The lunch buffet in this restaurant is actually a lot more interesting with excellent desserts to boot. Note: Like always, hover over the pictures to get a description.

Mustard Marinated Fish Tikkas at Cafe Fontana

Tri-chocolate Mousse at Cafe Fontana
Lunch Buffet at Cafe Fontana
Desserts at Cafe Fontana New DelhiI had a flight to catch the next day. The departure terminal was still the old one but not too busy on this day; they are opening the spanking new one in early April which should improve the travel experience to New Delhi considerably.