Saturday, November 21, 2009

Southern Spice

Southern Spice, Taj Coromandel ChennaiOpulent South Indian decor envelops you as you step into this restaurant in the Taj Coromandel, Chennai. The floral patterns on the backlit dome in the ceiling grabs your attention immediately, as does the pretty Kanjeevaram saree-clad hostess and the shiny brass and silver tableware. I am shown to my table, as a trio of musicians settle down to entertain us with South Indian classical music on a jugalbandi of violin and ghatam. A loud squawk momentarily unsettles us. We turn around and see the astrologer - tarot cards and bored parrot in tow - for the Western tourist who craves for Indian exotica. It is 8 PM on a Friday evening and the place is still filling up.

Before the Europeans discovered the Malacca Straits with their spice islands, much of these spices arrived at the Coromandel coast (India's east coast). They were then transported across land to the Malabar coast (India's west coast) before making their way to the Arabian kingdoms and the princely states of Europe.

Chutneys at Southern SpiceRomans valued spice so highly that pepper was used to pay off ramsons. And yet, even in 1 BC, the Roman knowledge of the spice route extended little beyond India's west coast. Ports in and around what is now the city of Chennai were a vital link in giving the Western world a taste of the spices of the Far East, but few outside India knew about the world beyond India's Malabar coast.

So here I was, sampling the cuisine of region that had spices in their culinary creations much earlier than the rest of the world. Where locals lavishly spiced up curries of fish and pork when the Italians hadn't yet discovered the pleasure of freshly grated pepper on their pasta!

The waiter was willing to combine half portions of two starters so I could taste as many of their delicacies. The Uslampatti Kari Sukka is a dry lamb preparation from the rural south of Tamil Nadu. Hot, spicy and exactly how I had hoped it would be. The Kori Chimbli are chicken nuggets in a spice mix which are fried and tossed with onions, curry leaves and green chilli. This dish was milder than the lamb but interesting and different.

Kari Sukka at Southern Spice
Kori Chimbli at Southern SpiceThey served me some basundi in a little silver bowl which almost tasted like North Indian rabdi. There was the usual variety of papads and chutneys too as I waited for the main course. Meanwhile, the musicians had made may for a Bharatnatyam dancer.

The Karaikudi Kozhi Seeragam, a cumin flavored chicken curry from the house of Karaikudi Chettiars, was excellent. Again a very different tasting curry that I liked very much. The Alleppey Fish Curry was good too, but not a new discovery. The Idiappam and Appam -which I used to soak up the spicy curry - were as good as they get.

Idiappams and curries at Southern SpiceI finally ended with a rich dessert of Khubani Ka Meetha with a dollop of ice-cream, a nawabi dish from Hyderabad made of apricots.

Khubani ka Meetha at Southern SpiceWithin a couple of hours I had sampled delights from rural Tamil Nadu, coastal Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Quite a delightful journey that!

Southern Spice, Taj Coromandel
Southern Spice, Taj CoromandelThis restaurant has remained unchanged for 15 years as has been the menu. But that may soon change. The manager told me the restaurant was scheduled for renovation later this year and may re-emerge in a different avatar.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Discovering Mahabalipuram

Shore Temple MahabalipuramMahabalipuram is an ancient town on the outskirts of Chennai that was a flourishing sea-port for hundreds of years (1-100 AD). This town was a vital part of the trade-link between the Coramandel coast of India and the Far East - a link hidden to Arabia and Europe, who thought of India as the single source for all exotic spices. In reality, mace and nutmeg - once among the most treasured of spices - actually came from islands of Indonesia and Malaysia via Mahabalipuram and other nearby ports. This fact was cleverly hidden by Indian merchants who traded these spices to Arabs for large profits on the Malabar coast .

Is that Ganges coming down to Earth? Arjuna's Penance, MahabalipuramMahabalipuram is also home to some of the most extraordinary stone sculptures from the ancient world, the time when the Pallavas ruled the South. India has many rock-cut architectures from even older times and in larger scale, such as those in the Ellora and Ajanta caves. However, what makes Mahabalipuram special are the free-standing monolithic temples carved out of single granite rocks and the exquisite hill-side stone reliefs - some of which sport the oldest known Devnagari scripts along with scenes from the Mahabharata.

Near Arjuna's Penance MahabalipuramIt seems like every rocky hillside and stone formation became the canvas for these artists of old. Their ebalorate reliefs and life-like statues tell stories that have lasted thousands of years. They have lasted in spite of the assault by salty ocean sprays, the tides and the infrequent tsunamis and hurricanes.

I was attending a business event very close to this old seaside town and my host offered to be my guide to these ancient wonders. Thank you, Mani! This was a well-spent two hours that made a far greater impact than my history books at school ever did.

Rock cut hall with pillars at MahabalipuramThe large, detailed relief popularly called Arjuna's Penance shows Arjuna praying for divine support before entering the big war. One can see the Gods and demons looking on in awe. Another interpretation of this relief has Bhagirath praying to bring the goddess Ganges to the earth. On one corner, you can even see a pious cat praying to fool the mice into coming closer - some of our folk stories are that old apparently! The large elephant in the middle of this (and other reliefs) lead some to believe a Buddhist influence exists in these art-forms.

Divine beings watch from the heavens, Arjuna's Penance, Mahabalipuram
Elephant in the center and the pious on the bottom left round off Arjuna's Penance at MahabalipuramAnother relief, this time within the confines of a hall with pillars - all carved out of a rocky hillside - shows Krishna holding up a hillock to protect his fellow villagers from heavy thunderstorms unleashed by Indra. In each of these detailed artwork in stone, the detailing of these popular scenes from Indian mythology is quite amazing.

Krishna's brother Balaram comforts a villager, relief in Mahabalipuram
Cattle and villagers huddle under a hillock held aloft by Krishna (out of the fram) at Mahabalipuram
A temple in MahabalipuramWe drove past a gaint granite stone balanced precariously on a hillside and got down again to stroll around the Panch Rathas i.e., the Five Chariots. These are five monolithic temples in the shape of chariots each made in a different style and named after a character from the Mahabharata.

Krishna's Butter Ball at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch Rathas at MahabalipuramFinally, I visited the Shore Temple which has been the landmark most associated with Chennai. Early European travellers refered to this location as the Seven Pagodas, setting off a legend about a city under the sea. Interestingly, the tsunami of 2004 uncovered more ancient underwater ruins that has given recent impetus to archeological expeditions. Who know, maybe the other six 'pagodas' are indeed waiting to be discovered under the sea after all!

Excellent Pepper Squid at The Trident Chennai
In-room Dining at The Trident ChennaiBy the time I returned to my hotel, it was dark. The pepper-fried squid on the in-room dining menu was particularly delicious! Try it, if you are ever at The Trident in Chennai.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Dinner at Stax

Stax at Hyatt Regency MumbaiStax is the Italian restaurant in Hyatt Regency, Mumbai. Located very close to the international airport, this hotel is a popular choice with business travellers flying in and out of Mumbai. Stax is a feast for the senses. With exciting contemporary decor and ambiance, this restaurant is never too crowded and always an excellent location if you are looking for a quiet evening over Italian food.

Stax at Hyatt Regency MumbaiThe degustation menu looked tempting but I was looking for something simpler tonight. I started off with the tomato soup with roasted Canadian scallop, fresh thyme and crispy Parma ham. The soup was excellent and revived me instantly; the only gripe I had was with the fact that there was one single piece of ham and one scallop in this large bowl of soup.

Tomato Soup with scallop and Parma ham at StaxThe bread was good as was the tomato-pesto-olive oil dip. I chomped away happily as I waited for my entree to arrive.

The home-made tagliatelle was sauteed with artichokes, scampi, carmelized capers and tomato with extra virgin olive oil. This signature dish was pretty good.

Tagliatelle with scampi at StaxWhile the food doesn't touch the stratospheric level, overall this restaurant has promise. The service cannot be faulted and the overall ambiance is wonderful. The dinner didn't leave me feeling heavy and I breezed through the check-in process at the airport feeling rather energetic at midnight.

The flight to San Francisco was eventless. I watched Angels and Demons on the flight and a few episodes of Mad Men. BTW, Bose has finally upgraded their noice-cancelling headphones with the new QC15. It improves on a product that was already very good!


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Trendy Tamarine

Brown rice at TamarineLike I read somewhere, Tamarine can be best described as a book you can judge by its cover! Stylish and sophisticated with an entralling bar area of bamboo and glass this restaurant makes an impression the moment you enter. Waiters in Prada black and dining rooms seperated by heavy black curtains add to its trendy elegance.

This restaurant run by Anne Le and executive chef Tammy Huynh, is contemporary reinvention of modern Vietnam cuisine. I have already reviewed their other classy restuarant in San Francisco, Bong Su. I was already looking forward to another great experience.

Starters at Tamarine
Bahn Mi Roti at TamarineWe ordered some starters including the Tamarine Spiced Wings and the Spring Rolls. The spiced wings were served with a pineapple-jicama slaw and a gingery sauce. Wasn't particularly great. The spring rolls - we had ordered a vegetarian version - were filled with beansprouts and mint with a hoisin chilli sauce. It was ok-ok, nothing to rave about.

Dining at Tamarine
More Goodies at TamarineThe Clay Pot Cod was thankfully much better. The Alaskan black cod was carmelized in onion, black pepper, garlic and molasses and was extremely tasty.

Lamb Chops at Tamarine
Claypot Cod at Tamarine
The Hoisin Lamb Chops were very good too. The dish was made in hoisin, garlic and rosemary grilled chops served with baby bok choy and sweet potato fries. Nicely done and the sweet potato fries were an interesting touch.

I have to also mention the Empress Fried Rice which you have to order every time! Sticky rice, garlic, leeks, ginger and eggs go into making this fabulous dish. It is served with a sweet soy drizzle.

Empress Rice at TamarineThere were a few other dishes on the table, some of which I didn't sample. Others not particularly remarkable. The Chili-Lime Aubergine is grilled Japanese eggplant finished with onion oil, scallions and a chili-lime fish sauce. The Curried Long Beans is beans sautéed in red chili, kaffir lime leaves and onions. The Sake Mushrooms have Shiitake mushrooms, garlic & sugar snap peas wok fired in an oyster-sake sauce.

Beans at Tamarine
Tofu dish at TamarineOverall, I would say the food is good if you select carefully. The decor, ambiance and service cannot be flawed. What I enjoyed most was the company tonight: my friends, Mythili and Shekar - thank you for a wonderful evening!

PS: I just now realized Bong Su in San Francisco closed earlier this year. Sad.