Sunday, February 27, 2011

Pune Dining: Baan Tao and More

Baan Tao at the Ista PuneWhen I first saw the cursive Ista signature against the dark Pune skyline I wasn't sure what it was. I discovered it was run by the people behind India's first five-star boutique destination spa, Ananda in the Himalayas. Combining ayurveda and vendantic lectures with the traquil surroundings of the Himalayas, Ananda has long been known as one of the best spa destinations of South Asia. And now they have entered the boutique hotel business with properties spread across Bangalore, Hyderabad, Amritsar and Pune.

Located at the edge of Kalyani Nagar, right on Nagar Road, Ista whisks you away from the busy cityscape outside into an expanse of tastefully done landscapes and elegant decor inspired by contemporary Eastern motifs. The hotel brings its famous spa treatments to Pune and also presents multiple dining options.

Ista Hotel PuneEighty Eight, their 24-hour coffee shop, serves multi-cuisine buffet and is equipped with a wood-burning pizza oven as well as a teppanyaki bar. They have seperate areas for private tables, which is rare in India but common everywhere else.

Eightyeight Ista Pune
Ista PuneFishbowl, their expansive lounge-bar has a good selection of wines, spirits and bar food; they are auditioning bands right now - soon you will have live music during the evenings here. The name itself comes from their signature cocktails served in a large goldfish bowl!

Fish Bowl at the Ista PuneToday I was trying their speciality Baan Tao restaurant, which clearly occupies prime spot in the hotel. You walk though a indoor tea lounge with waterfalls and art-forms that seemed right out of Cameron's Pandora. We took one of their outdoor seatings that were a contemporary version of the more traditional Thai salas that gave the feeling of floating over water. The evening was pleasant and the distant Pune skyline, the flickering lights reflecting off the water and the greenery made us feel like we were back in Bali or Maldives.

Baan Tao at Ista Pune
Baan Tao at Ista PuneWe went with Chef Anthony's recommendations and ordered a raw papaya salad and some chicken and prawn hargau for starters. They served cups of hot jasmine tea along with our drinks. As we sat back and relaxed with our drinks, we marvelled at how Ista had created an oasis in the middle of the chaotic Nagar Road.

Baan Tao at Ista PuneThe Papaya Salad was fantastic as were the dim-sums. They have a Thai chef and this shows in the authenticity of the food served.

Baan Tao at Ista PuneThe green curry was amazing, with chicken, coconut milk and string beans stirred into a very spicy curry that we enjoyed with steamed rice. The Thai Style Fish was my favorite: flaky morsels of fish lightly batter fried and slathered with a fantastic sweet-sour sauce with vegetables. This is quite clearly the best Thai food place in town. Period. Also, one of the most romantic places for dinner in Pune. Ista is located at 88 Nagar Road, near Aga Khan Palace. Ph: 4141888.

Baan Tao at Ista PuneWe visited Mozarella, the new avatar of what used to be Laguna earlier. While the name suggests Italian and so does their regular menu, they had a Chinese food festival on here! Yeah, wierd. However, the food turned out to be alright.

Mozarella PuneWe enjoyed the Tom Yum and the Spicy Crabmeat soup. The mains consisted of Lamb in Hot Garlic Sauce, Holy Basil Fish and the Hakka Noodles with Veggies all turned out good too - the Holy Basil Fish was a standout.

Finally, Trikaya. Having heard folks on the other side of town swear about this place, we decided to drive down all the way to Chandni Chowk on one winter evening. The interiors were nice, but we didn't heart the food as much.

Trikaya PuneThe soft wok fried chicken with green chillies and spring onions were alright, but the prawn sui mui was just average. The Tom Yum Soup had been heavily localized and didn't aspire to be the real thing.

Spicy crabmeat soup at Trikaya PuneThe Stir-fried Chicken with Chinese Greens and Pepper and the Noodles with Veggies were very ordinary too. Nothing really worth writing about.

Trikaya PuneOverall Triyaka seems to be just another Chinese restaurant targeting those who are located in this part of town. However, they are no competition to Mainland China or Malaka Spice - both of which operate at similar price points, but provide far better food.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

More Exotica From Tokyo

Some of the more exotic things I tasted during my recent trip to Tokyo were horsemeat, crispy fried tiny whole fish that initially looked like noodles, and roe of several local fish. Here are some pictures from my dinner at Oriori in Tokyo.

Horsemeat Sashimi
Tiny fish
Roe and CrabmeatAnd here's a slideshow of much more for those devices that support Flash.


Parcel 104

It is rare to find an award-winning restaurant within a business hotel in the US. One exception is the Santa Clara Marriott, home of Bradley Ogden's Silicon Valley restaurant, Parcel 104. Named after the original lot number on which it sits, this restaurant features a daily changing menu. The cuisine is contemporary Californian which usually means vegetables from small organic farms and artisan ingredients sourced locally.

The restaurant, like the rest of the hotel, is spread out over a large area. The use of dark wood furniture, bronze accents and indirect lighting gives the place a warm, comfortable character. The tables are large and well-spaced out which was good since the place was quite crowded when I walked in on a Friday evening.

Cauliflower Soup at Parcel 104The menu said Farmers Market Friday's. After contemplating the Foie Gras for a while, I decided to go for the Cauliflower Soup. The florets from the cauliflower had been shredded to create a 'cauliflower cous cous' and topped with smoked fish cakes. The waiter then added the tarragon-sherry 'perfume' at the table. The soup was interesting and felt good.

Flat Iron Steak at Parcel 104Next came my entree, the 'all natural' Flat Iron Steak. Served with marble potatoes, brocolli and with a 5-year cheddar fondue. This dish was very good and I savoured every bite.

Finally, I settled for the Spanish Custard. The dessert consisted of caramel flan, cheese beignets and a creamsicle milkshake. A nice, sweet ending to the meal.

Spanish Custard in Parcel 104Overall, this is definitely among the better places in the South Bay area for a business dinner or even a special evening.

I also found a Afghan restaurant called Kabul in Burlingame this time when I was near San Francisco airport. Unsurprisingly, the food had familiar flavors of Indian and Persian cuisine, but there were some interesting differences. Mantoo, small dumplings filled with minced lamb and served on whipped yoghurt, onion, tomatoes and other vegetables was a twist on the Indian chaat.

Kabul restaurant San FranciscoI also ordered a kabob platter that came with two skewers, one of lamb and the other of chicken. The kabobs were served with fragrant basmati rice and a loaf of Afghan bread.

Kabul in San Francisco
Kabul in San FranciscoThe kabobs were very succulent and filling. I ended with a thick syrup-filled baklava. Last time I had Burmese food in this city and this time Afghan. Even though both countries are in the neighbourhood of India, it is only in the USA that I can sample their cuisines.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Across the USA

Emirates Lounge in the SkyMy last visit to the USA probably set new personal records in travel: 30,000 miles, 8 cities and 9 hotels, all in the course of two weeks. With the weather acting up in most of the Midwest, I spent several hours in airports as a result of delayed and cancelled flights. In the midst of the icy winds, airport security and endless waits there were some bright spots: Emirates upgraded me to First during my flight from Dubai to Houston and I got to try some interesting food in new places.

On the map, the city of Atlanta is on the eastern side of the USA. But for Americans this is called the South. The South includes the lands to the south of the River Potomac and all the way up to Texas. I have a special fondness for this part of the USA, having spent a few exciting years of my life in Durham, North Carolina. The Southern states have a variety of cuisine that was influenced by the French, Spanish and African Americans during the early years when they came to his land to rule or work in plantations and farms as slaves. Some techniques like deep-pit barbeques were inherited from the indigenous native American population from even before.

AtlantaOn one Sunday, I walked into a restaurant named Joey D's Oak Room. This restaurant celebrates the food and atmosphere of a popular eating place in the 1920s of the same name. Run by an immigrant from Florence in Italy, the original restuarant was highly acclaimed and visited by patrons of a nearby casino. The food was a combination of high quality steaks and chops along with flavors of Italy, Cajun-Creole and an occasional ethnic speciality from New York. Joey D's tries to bring back some of that food and ambiance and does a good job of it.

The apple martini was perfect and the jazz music livened up the atmosphere. Lots of wood, dark leather and old fashioned lights added coziness and warmth to the restaurant on this cold winter day.

Joey D's Oak RoomI ordered a She Crab soup, a Gulfstream cafe favorite that was hot, thick and very good. They splash the soup with sherry on request.

The house salad with its crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, bacon bits and eggs was out of the world! Really loved the perfect medley of tastes that was enhanced by the excellent house dressing. The freshly baked croissant drizzled with honey was very good too.

Joey D's Oak RoomThe steaks here are special since they chargrilled the meat. My filet mignon was good but a little burnt on one side. However, overall I enjoyed having lunch here. The friendly waitstaff were prompt and helpful throughout.

Joey D's Oak RoomBy the time I arrived in Charlotte, the weather had deteriorated in this side of the country. There was a cold wind and rains making the outdoors very unpleasant. I had the chance to watch my first hockey game. Of coure, hockey here is quite different from the one we are familiar with in India.

Hockey in Charlotte
Hockey in CharlotteThe game wasn't particularly exciting, but the experience was. Bar-food, beer, players padded up like gladiators who broke into fights as often as they played, cheergirls and lot of commercial breaks with sponsors showcased their stuff. :)

Hockey in Charlotte
Hockey in CharlotteIn spite of some flight disruptions I managed to get to JFK to catch my return flight home. I had to fly into Newark airport and drive down to JFK which took a good two hours. Snow and ice were piled high on sidewalks and gardens had been turned into slick icy surfaces.

It was good to get into the warmth of the Emirates lounge. Emirates provides one of the best overall experiences on business class. The free limo pickup and dropoff is very useful and their lounges are among the best. Since I was flying back on an A380 (my first time), they boarded us directly from the lounge!

The first class suites are a class apart. My flight from Dubai to Houston was easily my best in-flight experience ever. Wide-screen LCD, a writing desk, mini-bar, snack basket, high-end amenity kit, complementary pajamas and even a table lamp on the desk area. But what really takes the cake is the seat which converts into a fully-flat 6'6" bed. There are four attendants for about a dozen first class passengers which makes for a very personalized service experience.

The dining menu was a la carte and included caviar and Don Perignon. In other words, I had fun! :)

Emirates First Class SuitesOn the A380, I flew business class which was also pretty good and had a small mini-bar too. What was cool was how silent this mammoth aircraft was. The engine noise was considerably lesser than what I am used to, which made for a very comfortable flight. Another nice touch was the fairly large bar and lounge area at the rear of the upper level.

I have begun choosing Emirates more often instead of Singapore Airlines now. Changi Airport is still my favorite transit airport, but these two airlines are very close now in providing the best business class experience from India to the USA at this time.