Sunday, September 27, 2009

Aaheli in Kolkata

Aaheli KolkataFor a taste of authentic Bengali food in Kolkata there is no better place than Aaheli. Located in the historic Esplanade area within Peerless Inn, this restaurant serves up elaborate local cuisine in a traditional setting. Local paintings adorn the wall and brass oil lamps on tables enhances its unique Bengali experience.

Traditional Bengali food consists of multiple courses with a clearly defined order in which these are eaten. As a person who spent most of his childhood outside Bengal, I remember being chided by my aunts when I offended their sensibilities by ignoring these 'rules'. While all courses are served together in bowls around the plate, one is expected to know which one to start with and which one comes next. This elaborate ritual is still the norm in many homes in this city steeped in history.

Aaheli KolkataA Bengali meal always demands leisurely attention. The secret to relishing it lies in lingering over every course and letting its layers of taste unfold. Steaming hot gobindobhog rice forms the center of every Bengali meal. Its richness springs from the variety: warm dal and fritters give way to the more complex notes of vegetables, finally culminating in the spicy magic of fish and meat.

I began with the Aam Pora Sharbat, a tangy drink made of raw mango and seasoned with mustard seeds.

Aam Pora Sharbat at Aaheli KolkataWhen they brought the large brass plate of rice and pooris and explained the contents of the many bowls surrounding it, I was reminded of my many elaborate meals during summer vacations in Bengal during school days. Those days, the journey from Mysore to Kolkata took an entire three days by train. I still remember the verdant green surroundings, lotus-decked ponds, tube-wells in the bathrooms, varieties of fish for lunch and dinner, and of course sweets of all shapes and sizes. Not much has changed!

Feasting at Aaheli KolkataThe bhaja-moogh'er dal is a distinctly Bengali twist to the popular Indian lentil dish. The lentils are lightly roasted before being cooked and tempered giving it an unique taste. You eat the dal with some rice and the fritters.

The chorchodi, a medley of leafy vegetables cooked with eggplant and whole spices in mustard oil is a favorite of mine. This simple dish was excellent and I polished it off in an instant.

The sorse dharosh, okra cooked in a paste of mustard was good too, but not terribly exciting.

Feasting at Aaheli KolkataThe bhetki paturi, fish wrapped in banana leaf and steamed with spices and mustard paste was tonight's stand-out dish. It was brought sizzling to my table, and the heady aroma of mustard and the freshness of the fish was nothing short of delicious.

Bhetki Paturi at Aaheli KolkataThe Ilish bhapa is fresh-water Hilsa fish - from the famed waters of the River Padma in Bangladesh - steamed with a coating of yogurt and spices. The fish was fresh, as tasty as ever and amazing. Of course, if you aren't Bengali you may have some trouble with the numerous thin bones that make eating this fish as troublesome - and as fulfilling - as eating crab.

The chingdi mach'er malaikari was next. Another common delicacy, this dish is made of jumbo prawns in a very delicately spiced gravy of coconut milk. The preparation here was good too, but not particularly outstanding; actually, I think I like the one at Oh! Calcutta better.

Ilish Bhapa at Aaheli KolkataThere was a portion of ghee bhat and pooris accompanying these dishes. Ghee bhat is the Bengali version of pulao, with rice tossed in home-made ghee, raisins and cashews before being steamed.

Finally, the desserts. A traditional Bengali sandesh followed by payesh. Payesh is the Bengali name for kheer or payasam. The best is made of notun gur or khejur gur, date palm jaggery that is harvested during the winter months.

Aam Khejur'er Chutney at AaheliAlong with everything else, I also enjoyed the aam khejur'er chutney, a thick sweet-sour chutney made of dried ripe mango and dates.

All in all, a very satisfying meal. There were many more items on the menu I would have loved to explore. Exotic items include those made of thod and mocha, the stem and flowers of the banana tree and probably unique to Bengali cooking.

Feasting at Aaheli KolkataAaheli is located within the Peerless Inn at 12 Jawahar Lal Nehru Road, Esplanade. Ph:2228-0301

For visiting foodies, other options for Bengali food in Kolkata include:

13 Parbon, 49C Purna Das Road in Golpark. Ph: 2463-2016. They serve age old Bengali cuisine in a refurbished way. Try their boneless Bhapa Ilish.

6 Ballygunje Place at that address in Ballygunje Phari, Ph: 2460-3922. Try their Daab Chingri.

Durga Puja Koregaon Park PuneOn my evening to Esplanade, the streets were crowded as only Kolkata can be: a teeming mass of people as far as the eye can see. The occasion: shopping for the coming Durga Pujas. Other than for this dinner in Aaheli, I didn't venture out into of the ITC Sonar much. As I write this post, Durga Puja is being celebrated by Bengali everywhere. Durga Puja is to Hindu Bengalis what Christmas is to Christians and Ganesh Chaturthi to Hindu Maharashtrians. It is as much a cultural expression as it religious, celebrated with much pomp and splendor. Wish all my Bengali readers a very happy festive season!


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dum Pukht in Sonar Kolkata

ITC Sonar KolkataAnother business trip. Usual. To Kolkata. Very unusual! The trip was held hostage until the last day due to the Jet Airways strike and other intrigue in the workplace, but I am glad I made it to Kolkata; the trip was well worth the time I spent.

The ITC Sonar Kolkata brings to life the mood of the colonial era with its sprawling homes and gardens along the Hooghly River. And to tantalize the food buds in a city known for its culinary sophistication, the Sonar Kolkata has some of ITC's best, including Dum Pukht, Pan Asian, Peshawari. Having loved the food of Dum Pukht at both New Delhi and Mumbai, I decided to try their Kolkata namesake as well.

Dum Pukht KolkataDum Pukht recreates the 200 year old legacy from the kitchens of the Nawabs of Awadh, show-casing the culinary tradition of dum cooking - a style of cooking food over slow fire in sealed deghs - that has regaled connoisseurs from the world over. Characterized by the subtle use of spices, this restaurant brings to life the culinary sophistication of the nawabs.

They offered me a 'bespoke menu', a tailor-made menu that allowed me to taste multiple dishes in smaller portions. The feast began with multiple exquisite kabab offerings.

The Jhinga Dum Nisha, jumbo prawns marinated in cheese and hung yogurt, is flash cooked in a tandoor before being finished on 'dum'. Excellent stuff, the crunchy fresh prawns combined with the heady but delicately fragrant spices making for a great beginning.

Kababs at Dum Pukht KolkataThe signature Dum Pukht Kakori, a delicate melt-in-your-mouth kabab of finely minced lamb flavored with cloves and cinnamon is wrapped around a skewer and char grilled. This exotic kabab's origin is the stuff of many stories. The kabab - served on a ulte tawa ka paratha -was excellent, even if it tasted different from that in The Great Kabab Factory.

They rounded this platter with a Hara Kabab, made of spinach, spices and cottage cheese. There was also some garlic achaar that I hadn't run into for a long time.

Dinner Spread at Dum Pukht KolkataNext came the Murg Rizala, a dish of boneless chicken stuffed with herbs and chillies and dum cooked in a gravy of yogurt with a hint of almonds and garnished with egg white, bell peppers and tomatoes. I enjoyed the sharp tang of fresh green chillies in this dish - very unique.

The Subz Miloni stood out too - a melange of seasonal vegetables cooked in a smooth green puree of spinach and fenugreek. The dish was simple, but expertly cooked!

The Dum Pukht Koh-e-Awadh was a chef's special qorma of elegantly exposed lamb shanks that were dum cooked in their own cardomom tinged juices and marrow and finished with saffron. Pretty good, but the richness of the gravy made it difficult to finish. Incidentally, qormas, qualiyas and salans were the three classification of Mughlai gravy dishes: while qormas were thick gravy preparations that frequently used pastes of dry fruits, qualiyas were lighter with haldi - turmeric paste - as a key ingredient. Everything else was classified as salans, even thoough the ones in Hyderabad are characterized by peanut paste.

Finally, I have to mention the Dal Dum Pukht, a yellow dal of arhar cooked with yellow chillies, yogurt, and tempered with caramelized garlic, that last ingredient enhancing the magic of this dal considerably!

Speciality breads at Dum Pukht KolkataThe Khaimiri Roti and Warqi Paratha - two exotic Indian breads - were excellent and prepared fresh. There is so much variety in Indian breads, but some - such as the ones I tasted tonight - are not easily found.

It was time to try their speciality, the Dum Pukht Biryani and I was already full. I had to try a few spoonfuls of the fragrant basmati rice that had been simmered with mace, itter and kewra before being finished in a sealed handi. The biryani, prepared in the Lucknow style, is distinct from its Hyderabadi cousin.

Biryani at Dum Pukht KolkataThe Kulfi Lub-e-mashooq ended the elaborate meal. This creamy saffron and pistachio kulfi was served with falooda - wheat starch noodles - and a herbal syrup.

Kulfi at Dum Pukht KolkataThe Dum Pukht is open all the way up to 11:45 PM which allows you to have a leisurely meal - the way kababs and biryani are meant to be enjoyed. Among the three locations, I have found the ones at Delhi and Kolkata more vibrant and lively than their namesake in Mumbai.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Samudra and Cinnamon

Samudra, Trident ChennaiI was back at Samudra, the seafood restaurant in Trident, Chennai. For seafood which gives a contemporary spin to South Indian dishes, there is no better place in town. The cheerful pastels that enliven the walls and tables, the bright yellow zinnea in small glass bowls and the oceanic artifacts add to the unique atmosphere. But the centerpiece is clearly the splendid fish-tanks: their unique collection of colorful fish swimming in crystal clear water.

While the menu is clearly inspired by South Indian cuisine, the chef uses a light hand with spices. I began with the signature seafood platter consisting of very juicy crab-cakes made with Chettinad spices, crunchy fried prawns with the intense flavor of fresh pepper, and fish tikka. The platter came with mint and spiced raw mango chutney and the latter was particularly tasty.

Seafood platter at Samudra Chennai
Chutneys at Samudra ChennaiThey served a glass of hot and spicy rasam with papadums. Then came the Andhra Fish Curry. The rich red sauce liberally tempered with mustard seeds was delightful and the fish was tasty too. What I had thought was gravy made of tomato turned out to be a combination of red chillies and tamarind pulp, giving the curry its unique tangy taste. Delightful!

Glass of rasam at Samudra Chennai
Andhra fish curry and rice at Samudra ChennaiI ended with a local dessert, the Yelneer Payasam, made of tender coconut and milk. The young chef came out to talk with me and told me this recipe was passed on to him by his grandmother. The coolness from the crushed ice and the flavor of cardomom on the palate was quite refreshing.

Yelneer Payasam at Samudra ChennaiI have enjoyed staying at the Trident. Among the hotels close to the airport, I like this one best. Until last year, this place was called the Hilton Trident, but now the Oberois plan to run it on their own.

Cinnamon, the other restaurant in the hotel, is a great option for lunch and dinner buffets. The items on the lunch buffet were meticulously prepared - one of the few places where I liked the items on the salad counter too. The Mutton Qurma, the Murgh Biryani, Fried Eggplant, Dal Makhani, and Melon-Wrapped Bacon were all delicious. As were the Gulab Jamuns and the other desserts I sampled at the end.

Lunch buffet at Cinnamon, Trident Chennai
Lunch buffet at Cinnamon, Trident Chennai
Lunch buffet at Cinnamon, Trident Chennai
Lunch buffet at Cinnamon, Trident Chennai
Lunch buffet at Cinnamon, Trident ChennaiThe Kingfisher guest relations girl in Chennai and the staff in Samudra recognized me from my last visit here, which was nice. Chennai seemed to be business-as-usual with business travellers crowding the hotel and the airport. There was some distraction on one day when Rahul Gandhi decided to visit our hotel for a press conference. BTW, The Trident at Chennai is also home to an excellent spa with trained Indonesian and Thai masseuses.

PS: My previous experience at Samudra and the Trident is posted here.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kababs and More in Chennai

The Great Kabab Factory in Radisson ChennaiI was back at The Great Kabab Factory in Chennai, this time for a business lunch. For those who are unfamiliar, this concept restuarant was a trend setter that has been much copied since it was first introduced in the New Delhi Radisson Hotel. Designed to look like a factory - waiters in factory uniforms, heavy-duty cutlery, unlimited kababs flowing to the table, etc. - this restaurant offers four different kababs, two speciality Indian breads, biryani and a dessert selection during lunch. The kababs change every day but always includes their signature Galouti Kabab.

The Great Kabab Factory ChennaiThey started us off with a tropical salad of greens, fruits and strawberry dressing and a shot-glass of badam milk. The kababs began streaming in quickly after.

Salad and Badam Milk at TGKFThe Galouti Kabab is made of very fine mince of mutton marinated in 123 different spices - or so they claim. This delicate kabab was served with a Ulte Tawa Ka Paratha, a flaky Indian bread made with saffron milk. The waiter recommended spreading the kabab on the paratha, adding onion rings and mint chutney and rolling it all up like a kathi kabab. The kabab was mild, very flavorful and good as always.

Galouti Kabab at TGKFThe Zaffrani Murgh, succulent chunks of chicken coated with red chilly powder, yogurt and saffron came next. This was was good, but not as juicy and tender as it could be.

Zaffrani Murgh at TGKFThe Pudina Macchi, fillets of fish coated with spices and mint before being shallow-fried in a pan was excellent. They recommended using a peanut dip along with it, and the experience was wonderful. We ordered another round of this kabab as we sipped from glasses of Chaach, soothing buttermilk tempered with mustard seeds.

Pudina Macchli at TGKFThe last one was the Lagan Ki Nalli, shank with meat on the bone, marinated with almond paste and other spices. The meat was delicious, rich with the taste of almond, and easily fell away from the bone.

Lagan Ki Nalli at TGKFToday's biryani was the Murgh biryani, cooked in the Awadhi fashion which is drier, less spicy but very flavorful. By now we were quite full.

Dessert Selection at TGKF
Among the desserts, the Pear Rabdi was excellent and a creative variation of the traditional one. Also in the sampler was vermicelli payasam, cham cham, beetroot halwa - another unique spin, this time on the more common gajar halwa. Finally, they served us small portions of kulfi in earthern pots.

The Great Kabab Factory continues to delight and is a wonderful destination for that occasional craving for kababs.

PS: My previous visit to TGKF is posted here.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

India Jones!

India Jones at Trident MumbaiIndia Jones. How could I resist a name like that? I was at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai - yes, one of the three hotels that were attacked on that fateful night. The story behind the name? Bharat (India) Joyent (Jones), born in August 1947 on Independence Day created this culinary experience. His extensive travel and gourmet experience from his journeys to the Far East has been distilled into the creative menu here. The menu, in the form of an old traveler's map and diary, is an eclectic selection of dishes from Burma, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and India.

The restaurant itself is very contemporary and decorated with artifacts that - I suppose - are from India Jones' adventures abroad. Many items on the menu can only be ordered for two, which limited my options. I started with the Trilogy of Prawns: steamed laksa prawns, wok-fried salt and pepper, and braised with lobster sauce. I liked the prawns; they were crunchy, fresh and the combination of sweet and sour, spicy and crunchy varieties made for a great starter..

India Jones at Trident Mumbai
India Jones at Trident MumbaiThe Kai Gaeng Phed, Thai red curry made with red chilli, lemongrass and coconut milk was not very spicy and pretty good with the steamed rice.

I ended with a Thai dessert of water chestnuts and coconut milk. Soothing and cool after the spicy red curry. The service was excellent throughout. They also have a bar called the Opium Den adjoining this restaurant that continues the India Jones theme.

Thai Red Curry at India Jones
Thai Dessert at India JonesWhile India Jones is a good place for a business lunch or dinner if you are staying at the Trident, I didn't find anything extraordinary about this place. In a city that is home to the excellent China House at the Grand Hyatt and Pan Asian at the Grand Maratha, India Jones doesn't seem to merit a special visit. However, I must point out again that I couldn't try some of the best items on the menu because I was dining by myself (and those dishes can only be ordered for two).

India Jones at Trident MumbaiTen years back when I last got my B1 visa, I couldn't have anticipated I would make over 40 trips to the US before my visa actually expired. After a decade, I was visiting the American consulate in Mumbai to renew my visa. Pune airport seemed dead: very few passengers, the airline girls chatting away or keeping yawns in bay as they killed time between flights.

The flight was only a third full too. Was it the economy or H1N1? Probably the recent helicopter crash and Air India 747 that caught fire that something to do with this too. Well, I wasn't complaining. It is a rare pleasure to be in an airport where you can choose a seat of your liking and have the flight attendant's complete attention when on-board. :)

I drove over the new Bandra-Worli Sealink on my way to the Trident, but due to the gloomy, rainy day, I could barely see the cityscape across the sea. However, the Trident in Nariman Point was an hive of activity with bus-loads of Japanese businessmen entering the hotel.

Sweet Endings at India JonesIncidentally, while browsing through the spa menu at the Trident, I discovered a rather interesting option called the Mumbai Masala which includes a 'fire massage' - a hot lava shell massage, whatever that means. If you try this and survive to tell the tale, please do share!