Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Mumbai Weekend

Juhu Beach in MumbaiWe drove down to Mumbai on a Friday evening and checked ourselves into the ITC Grand Central for the weekend. While the hotels have been marketing weekend getaways for a while, this was the first time we had tried such a thing. And you know what? We enjoyed it completely! It was good to just chill out, laze around and indulge in some good food.

On Friday night, we returned to Kababs & Kurries. Our last experience hadn't been particularly good but today was great. The Kakori Kababs served on Taftan breads were fantastic. The Murgh Piazza Begmati, spring chicken cooked in an onion and green coriander curry was different from the usual and an instant hit. The exotic Indian breads, Warqi Parathas and Naan-e-Bahkummach were a perfect accompaniment, and we loved the heaped juliennes of onion liberally sprinkled with chaat masala.

Kakori Kababs at Kababs and Kurries
Indian breads at Kababs and KurriesThe kulfi with falooda was good and I enjoyed the Shahi Tukra for desserts. That was one sumptuous meal!

Shahi Tukra at Kababs and KurriesThe lunch buffets at Hornby's Pavillion was quite good; we did this on one day. However what was more interesting was lunch at Gajalee, famous for its local seafood cuisine. The large Phoenix Mills mall is close to the hotel, and after some shopping, we waited to get a table at this busy little restaurant. The crisply batter-fried sea bass was heavenly. The fish was very fresh and tasted amazingly good with the special chutney.

Hornby's PavillionThe Prawns in Butter Garlic was good too as was the Fish Curry. However, it was the Fish Fry which was the memorable dish for the day. We went down one level to indulge in scoops of Natural Ice Cream - this time jackfruit.

Fried Sea Bass at GajaleeFinally, on the last day, we tried Shanghai Club, the Chinese restaurant within the Grand Central hotel. While the food was quite alright, I think it is not near as good as Chinese Room of the Grand Hyatt and Pan Asian at ITC's other Mumbai hotel, the Grand Maratha.

Shanghai Club
We enjoyed the glass noodle and lemon coriander soup. The noodles were good too - not oily. For my daughter, the highlight was clearly the Chocolate Mud Pie! Service was a little spotty here throughtout the night.

Soup at Shanghai Club

Noodles and Pork at Shanghai Club
Choco Mud Pie at Shanghai ClubWe ventured to Juhu Beach on one evening to see the sunset. This is probably the most crowded beach we have seen. Families, coconut vendors and monkeys on leashes - quite an experience!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pune Dining: Its Never Been Better!

With the sudden influx of several upscale hotels into Pune, there has never been as many choices of five star dining experiences in the city. Multi-cuisine buffets, authentic Italian restaurants an innovative speciality restaurants now abound for the well-heeled foodie. The last few months saw the openings of the Hyatt Regency, Marriott Convention Center and the Ista. Among them they are home to seven restaurants and there are more being opened even as I write this.

La Terrazza Hyatt Regency PuneThe Hyatt Regency is located in Viman Nagar, right on Nagar Road. I had an opportunity to visit their Italian restaurant, La Terrazza, recently and came away very satisfied with the experience. The restaurant - like the rest of the hotel - is trendy and contemporary with soaring ceilings, an open kitchen and a open terrace for who prefer dining al-fresco. But what I enjoyed most was the food and the company of our cordial host, Gadi Hassin, the expat General Manager of this hotel.

Hyatt Regency PuneWe sat for a while on the lounge outside sipping cocktails before stepping into the home-style trattoria. We enjoyed our wines with an excellent selection of Italian salumi, cold cuts that included salami, prosciutto and rigatino. They then served us slices of some of their crispy, wood-fired pizzas which were quite delightful.

La Terrazza Hyatt Regency PuneI had ordered a sea-food risotto while my wife went with the Prawn Ravioli. Both were excellent. Gadi was an excellent host; he regaled us with stories from his time in Israel, Australia, Nepal, and as a recent expat in Pune.

La Terrazza Hyatt Regency Pune
La Terrazza Hyatt Regency PuneBy the time we got done with the main course it was pretty late. We were also too full to try a dessert. The friendly Italian Chef, Luca, came around to our table to see how we were doing. Gadi had us in splits when he said he was trying to get Luca to be a little more temperamental and loud for that 'authentic' experience for his customers!!

Spice Kitchen Marriott ICC PuneOn another day, I went over the spanking new Marriott Convention Center on Senapati Bapat Road. This huge hotel has three restaurants at this time: Spice Kitchen, all-day dining with multi-cuisine buffets; Shakahari, the only upscale vegetarian restaurant I have ever come across in India; and Alto Vino, their Italian fine-dining restaurant.

Spice Kitchen Marriott ICC PuneI was here for lunch with a colleague and we chose Spice Kitchen. Modern and airy, the restaurant had multiple buffet counters during lunch. There was one for salads, hand-tossed a la minute for you at the counter. There was an Indian Food counter with a good selection of kababs, curries and vegetable preparations. There were also Italian and East Asian counters which made for a variety of options.

The Indian Food was excellent. I tried a few things from the East Asian counter and they were very good too. The hotel seems to have moved some of its experienced staff from the Hingewadi Courtyard and that has helped.

Spice Kitchen Marriott ICC PuneThe Dessert and Cheese counters were stocked with a variety of goodies too. The Fruit Rabdi I used to love so much at the Hingewadi Marriott was here too and was every bit as lip-smacking. All in all, a great buffet experience. Now lets see if they can maintain the food and service quality over time. That's what separates the good ones from the bad in this business.

The new Ista Hotel is owned by the same group that runs Ananda in The Himalayas. This destination spa resort in the Tehri Gadhwal region has been popular with the cognoscenti around the world for a while. Ista in Pune has the Baan Tao which serves Chinese and Thai cuisine and Eighty Eight for all-day multi-cuisine dining. Ista is located in Kalyani Nagar, right on Nagar Road.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Vacation In Agra - Part II

Dessert at Bellevue in the AmarvilasMuch as I loved strolling through Mughal history at the Taj and Agra Fort, it was now time for some indulgence of the culinary kind. Agra was the capital of the Mughal emperors for over 120 years; in addition to their love of art, they also gave India its Mughlai cuisine - tandoori meats and naans, fragrant biryanis and richly spiced qormas. There is no better place here to dine like the royals than the exquisitely appointed Indian restaurant, Esphahan, at the Oberoi Amarvilas.

Esphahan, like the rest of Amarvilas is simply stunning. Intricate wood-carved screens, pillars of red sandstone and marble, a display kitchen and live santoor recitals makes for a memorable dining experience. The menu has many interesting options: the Esphahani raan is an entire leg of lamb marinated for over 24 hours in Indian spices and slow roasted on tandoor; the Balai ka Jheenga made of tiger prawns marinated in black pepper and homemade cream. The waiter also recommended the Bharwaan Gucchi Malai which is Kashmiri morel mushrooms stuffed with paneer and raisins and the Aab Gosht, a lamb dish in which the meat is braised in milk and flavored with ginger and fennel.

Live Santoor at EsphahanWe decided to go with the elaborate thali which was served in three courses. They sent across a ornate cup of rasam to begin with. Unlike the real thing, this was spiced mildly for foreign palates. Thoughtfully, they brought a kid-friendly melon soup instead of the rasam for my young daughter.

A cup of rasam at EsphahanThen came a platter of kababs: succulent tandoori tiger prawn, and two different sheek kababs, one made of minced lamb the other of chicken, each differently spiced and flavored. All kababs were expertly made and delicious.

Kabab platter at EsphahanAfter a palate cleanser of guava sorbet, we were presented with a large bronze thali filled with bowls of qurmas, kaalias, daal, raita, sabzi and basmati rice. Every dish was good and distinct in flavoring and taste - a lot of thought had gone into getting the combination right. Executive Chef Sandeep Pande came out to our table to check if we were doing alright; we had only compliments to give him for tonight's meal.

Guava Sorbet at Esphahan
The Esphahan Thali at AmarvilasThe santoor player was very good and we enjoyed working through our food slowly as we sipped our wine and listened to his music.

The desserts included a traditional kulfi, rasmalai and moong daal halwa - all traditional North Indian specialities. The entire dinner took us over two hours. Esphahan opens for two dinner seatings: at 7:30 PM and 10:30 PM. Reservations are necessary and they recommend not bringing kids below the age of eight.

Dessert platter at EsphahanBellevue, the other all-day dining restaurant also served us some wonderful meals during this visit. They even brought us the Esphahani raan from their kitchen (not on the Bellevue's menu) on another day - the dish was excellent and I highly recommend trying it if you enjoy lamb.

Esphahan at AmarvilasOn our final day, we drove down to the fort city of Fatehpur Sikhri, constructed by Akbar in honor of Saint Salim Chisti who foretold the birth of his son, Salim, who later succeeded him to the throne as Emperor Jahangir. This city, which took 15 years to build, was only occupied for 15 years; water problems made it difficult to sustain the growing population. Now that sounds familiar!

Deewan-e-Khas at Fatehpur Sikhri
Fatehpur SikhriFatehpur Sikhri has some wonderful examples of Mughal architecture such as the elaborately carved Deewan-e-Khas, the Meena Bazaar courtyard where queens and princesses showcased their talents to attract attention of the king, and the royal pool of the emperor with seats for his queens all around the edges to attend to him while he bathed!

Jodha Bai's palace at Fatehpur SikhriHowever, a warning to all new visitors: the touts, guides and salesmen here are a nuisance and can completely spoil your vacation experience. They will keep harassing you and it will take a great deal of patience. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them and not engage them in conversation. This is something that needs to be managed better by the Agra authorities; I could see many tourists harassed and virtually forced to buy souvenirs.

Entrance to Salim Chisti's dargahThe drive to Fatehpur Sikhri takes over an hour by car, and by the time we got back all we wanted was a quick dip in the pool and some more of those great cocktails as we swam around in the deep blue waters. But there was more pleasurable moments coming up. We had made appointments at the Oberoi Spa. Our masseuse from Nagaland was extremely proficient. The spa suite was on the top level of the hotel with a clear view of the Taj in the distance. The heated bed, the expert hands, the soft music and the fragrant incense sticks made for a magical time.

The Taj MahalFinally, it was time to get back to the real world. With a last glance at the timeless Taj, we checked out and headed back to the airport. We carried back some of Agra's specialities: pethas and dalmoth from Panchi Sweets and marble inlay work from Kalakriti.

Please note that Kingfisher Red has one flight every day from New Delhi to Agra during the peak season (non-summer months). The airport itself is very quaint and shared with the Air Force so you can see some gaint transport aircraft taking off if you are lucky.


Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Vacation In Agra - Part I

The Taj Mahal at sunriseThe Taj Mahal. Many books have been written about it and photo-essays compiled into pretty adornments for coffee-tables of the well-heeled. What more can I add to that? I lived in North India for over two decades, yet never visited this monument of love. Having read and heard so much about it, I wondered if all that hype would reduce the impact when we saw it live.But happily for me, the ethereal image of the Taj as the sun rose in the winter morning was mesmerising. And the feeling of awe deepens as you remember when it was built.

The Taj MahalWhat an impressive sight it must have been, when this poetry in marble was finally completed after 22 years of intense labor and craftsmanship! On the banks of a much wider Yamuna river (in those times) and in a landscape filled with red sandstone forts and havelis, this vision in white much have looked completely out-worldly. Even after 300 years with periods of looting, neglect and industrial pollution, it takes little imagination to see why the Taj has attracted so many tourists through these years.

The Taj from Oberoi AmarvilasI had booked us at the Oberoi Amarvilas. While I have stayed at Oberoi's city hotels, I hadn't until now been a guest at their famed resort hotels. The Amarvilas is not a very large property, but dazzles with the opulence of Mughal palaces at the peak of their splendor. We entered through a colonnaded courtyard filled with fountains. The staff in turbans and ethnic saris fit right into this regal setting!

They took us into the richly appointed lobby lounge with its elaborate chandelier and richly furnished chairs and sofas. Out through the ornate windows was our first sight of the monument of love. We sipped on welcome drinks and stood on the balcony gazing at the view of the Taj over a sea of green tree-tops.

The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi AmarvilasOur room had exquisite furniture and furnishings that recreated the art of the Mughals. Oberoi had commissioned about 600 artisans who worked for over an year to recreate Mughal indulgence in modern settings. Artisans probably used the same tools their fore-fathers had when creating the Taj several hundreds of years back.

Traditional marble inlay work at Amarvilas
Traditional Kashmiri furnishing at Amarvilas
Turquoise and silver decor in the Amarvilas bathroomsAs the sun set over the Taj, the palatial ambiance was further enhanced as lights came on in the terraced lawns and flaming torches were lit at both ends of the pool pavilion. Sounds of classical Indian music filled the air as Kathak dancers began gracefully performing on the terrace of the pool pavilion.

The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi Amarvilas
The Oberoi AmarvilasWe started early next morning to see the Taj as the sun rose. The Amarvilas provides complimentary golf carts to shuttle its guests to the entrance of the monument. The line at the security checkpoint was long. We entered through the Eastern Gate and found the women's queue longer than the men's'. BTW, they allow you to bring in cameras and cellphone, but other electronic gadgets and/or food are not allowed, so be forewarned.

Also, to get into the inner structure of the Taj, you have to take off your shoes or use a shoe-cover. Our hotel concierge had gotten us tickets and a guide for the trip. Rizwan turned out to be articulate, knowledgeable and a very polished guide who I can recommend to both Indians and visiting foreigners alike. (You can contact him directly at:

The entrance to the Taj Mahal
Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Taj MahalThe elaborate gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran frames the Taj as you enter inside. A vast garden surrounds the Taj on three sides with the river at its back. The garden is designed in geometric patterns and has several reflecting pools and fountains.

The pink hue of the marble in the morning light turns into bright white as the morning progresses.

The Taj Mahal
The Taj MahalWe learnt about white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan. How this is marble is far harder and less porous than Italian marble. The Taj is the best testament to its durability! Eight hundred kilos of gold used to adorn doors and the metal spires, but were subsequently melted down by looters. The British added an Egyptian lamp inside and closed the gaps in the marble screens with acrylic. Apparently, the gardens originally contained fruit trees, but the British re-fashioned it with flower beds, trees and lawns.

Back in the hotel, we went straight to breakfast at the Bellevue restaurant. The restaurant serves a combination of Indian and Western breakfast items. While the cold buffet is amply stocked, all hot items are prepared a-la-minute and served at the table.

Breakfast at BellevueAfter freshening up, we again got ready for our next trip. Agra Fort. This was where five great Mughal emperors once ruled India from. Humayun, Akbar, Shahjahan, Jehangir and Aurangzeb all lived here. This is also where their great treasury was housed which included the Koh-i-noor diamond.

Entrance to Agra FortWe toured the vast courtyards, the halls of audience where the emperor met with his subjects and princely visitors, and the harems and the private mosques. While only the walls with their intricate carvings and workmanship have survived, one needs little imagination to visualize how resplendent these quarters must have been when these walls were adorned with jewels, Persian rugs and other royal furnishings and embellishments.

Deewan-i-Aam at Agra Fort
The Emperor's Pavilion at Agra Fort
Intricate jaali work in stone at Agra Fort
Shahjahan's Prison at Agra Fort
Princess Jahanara's Chamber at Agra FortWe arrived back tired from the trip and made our way to the pool. The swimming pool too was like something out of Arabian nights. Partly indoor, the pool was heated to a comfortable degree and its dark lapis blue color contrasted with the sandstone buildings. Ornate umbrellas covered the pool lounge chairs. All of this made for an atmosphere we soaked in as we sipped on fruity cocktails without getting out of water.

The Pool at Oberoi Amarvilas
The Pool at Oberoi Amarvilas
The Pool at Oberoi AmarvilasFinally, we dragged ourselves out and got back to our room. We were looking forward to the evening. We had made reservations at Esphahan, the Indian speciality restuarant at the hotel and were looking forward to it.

Coming Up: Part II of Agra