The White Owl. An addendum

I have so far never posted an addendum to a blog post. I have honestly never needed to. A recent revisit to The White Owl however was so underwhelming (for my guests) and embarrassing (for me) that I feel the need to share my second experience of their special menu.

We ordered six dishes, sent back three and barely touched what was left on our table. Given that it took them 45 minutes to bring out the appetisers we didn’t have the time (nor the energy) to request the kitchen to read up Nikhil’s recipes and fix the dishes. These were the low points of our meal:

Raw & Ripe Mango Salad – the version we got yesterday was bland, the dressing completely diluted with barely a hint of the soya and chilli. The salad was swamped with so much tasteless papaya that we had to hunt for the raw mango. I sent my half-eaten dish back. A few minutes later the chef was kind enough to send another – this had less papaya and a spruced up dressing. Much, much better – but still a far cry from what I tried at the tasting.

Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad – the leaves were soggy and warm; the shrimp were neither cold nor hot and my guests did not enjoy the temperature nor texture of this dish in their mouth. This dressing too was diluted with no distinctive flavour of anything.

Sweet Bell Pepper Roulade – I had rated this as a real stand out dish in my first blog post. What arrived instead was a gloopy mess (see the before and after photos below). The pesto was bitter with none of the creaminess of the nuts I tasted the first time. The peppers were soggy, as was the barley. The barley filling which was such a hit at the tasting didn’t have any of the original bite.

IMG_7621               photo 1 (2)

 

 

 

 

Plum-glazed Chicken – the menu describes this to be accompanied with a “sauce”, however what arrived was a watery curry with the same uncooked and tart flavours that one gets from ready sauce pastes. We couldn’t taste any of the sweetness of the plums and the chicken was so rubbery we couldn’t chew it at all. The accompanying rice was meant to have a lemongrass flavour. If it was there it was so hidden that none of our palates could find it. This dish was sent back.

Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth – again, this dish was not a patch on the version served at the tasting. I remember the broth being light, fragrant and bursting with umami. What we got was an over-salted curry with no trace of saffron. The clams were not cleaned properly – we could barely chew it for the pieces of shell that kept coming in our mouth.

photo 2 Brioche Mac & Cheese – I cannot begin to express my disappointment with this dish. The menu describes it with “grana padano, gruyere, aged-cheddar, pickled cucumber & fresh jalapenos”. I was expecting a moreish, gooey mound of pasta in its cheesy sauce, piled onto a brioche. What arrived was an ugly mess of over cooked pasta with a bland cheese sauce dumped on top of it. The cheese had already started to congeal by the time the dish arrived at my table. This dish needs a lot more love – and some salt. The brioche was a disappointment as well – dry and stodgy. This dish was also sent back.

I am not a restaurant chef, and some may argue that I don’t have the experience to make comments on flavours. The chef argued that she cooked the exact same recipes that I had loved barely a week ago. I don’t want to argue – but the fact is that what the chef sent out yesterday was a far cry from the tasting that was organised for us.

We explained all this to the chef who was kind enough to waive the food bill. We didn’t have the heart to try our luck with dessert.

I can only conclude that the kitchen has not stayed true to Nikhil’s recipes, and that’s a damn shame because Nikhil’s flavours are hard to beat.

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My first impressions of this menu are here.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

The White Owl. A friendly lunch

After seventeen years of jobs, I took back a year of my life – to sit still, to go places; to stop working, and to start working at living; to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. A year to put me first.

I travelled, made peace with change, accepted that I will never make peace with Bombay’s traffic, and a series of such-a-small-worlds later, found myself adopted by a most fun loving group of friends – a chef, a PR machine, a wine maker and photographer, a rockstar comedienne, a brand genius, a fair trade enabler… The fact that each one of us plans life around food also sort of guarantees that this is more than just a passing flirtation.

Nikhil Merchant is a food writer, flavour master, and all round sweetheart. It was love at first food-chat for Nikhil and me, and over the past few months he has become my go to guy for all flavour dilemmas. Nikhil’s cooking is instinctive, his food combinations imaginative and cocktails sublime. Under his foodie brand Nonchalant Gourmand, Nikhil recently collaborated with a Bombay bistro – The White Owl – to create a menu of his favourite flavours of the season. I was invited to his first chefs table where we previewed his culinary collaboration with the bistro’s chef Kshama Prabhu.

WallAs a recent vegetarian I have to admit that eating non-Indian food in Bombay’s restaurants has been uninspiring and often unpalatable. Unimaginative chefs either flood the menu with iterations of potatoes, or force paneer and tofu to play substitute to their original choice of non-vegetarian protein. Nikhil and Kshama’s menu is encouragingly different, with over 50% of the menu letting a vegetarian food take centre stage.

I started with Purple Yam Batons, fried crisp and wrapped around a stick of sugarcane.

See what I mean? When is the last time you saw either yam or sugarcane as the star of a restaurant dish? The appetiser is let down by an overly eggy herb aioli, and I would have preferred a fresh, non-creamy dip to balance the buttery, sweet yams. Next on my plate is a French classic – Oeufs en Meurette. The eggs are perfectly poached, and served with moreish slices of garlic toast. I did not like the red wine they chose but was in the minority on this one.

As we soldiered through the menu I realised that my moans about the starters would be my only grouse that afternoon.

The salad of Raw and Ripe Mangoes is my absolute favourite mango dish of the season. Fresh Alphonso and slivers of green mangoes were dressed in a zesty combination of soy, red chillies and peanuts. The salad alone is reason enough to revisit the awkwardly located White Owl.

IMG_7619The main course veggie choices were Blue Cheese Quiche and Bell Pepper Roulade. My choice (of the quiche) was a no brainer; blue is my favourite cheese, and besides who wants to eat a roulade? How wrong was I!

IMG_7620The quiche was perfect – a herby, blue cheese topping lovingly baked on a flaky pastry. But the revelation of the meal was the roulade, served with a generous dollop of an inventive arugula pesto. The sweet bell peppers, unrolled a filling of cheesy barley, and crunchy greens. Never again will I judge a book by its old fashioned cover.

IMG_7621The non-vegetarians on our table were most impressed with the Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad and Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth.

Not for one moment did I wish I were eating meat, nor did I feel that the chefs had made grudging allowances for veggies on their menu. I want to come back for the Green Apple Galette, Brioche Mac and Cheese, and Pumpkin Gnochhi Casserole.

I don’t have a sweet tooth but the table was was mighty impressed with the offering. The Fig, Chocolate & Kaffir Lime Mille-Feuille is a perfect display of Nikhil’s love for playing with flavours and Kshama’s pastry skills. The Kaffir Lime cream is rich and lends a heady scent to the dessert; but I wonder if it would have worked better with a different fruit? One that was lighter than the dense combination of fig and cream. I preferred the Alphonso Crepes - totally scrummy.

photo 1Nikhil’s menu launches at The White Owl from June 2nd for two months.

I hope this is the beginning of many such adventures in India where we will see menus that let the ingredients shine; restaurants that don’t give in to gimmicks; and chefs that find the courage to cook with their heart. Here’s hoping I meet more chefs like Nikhil and Kshama, chefs that put food first.

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Disclosure: The meal was a preview and I was a guest of the restaurant. Neither their generosity nor my friendship with Nikhil has compromised my opinion on their food in any way.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

Matunga. A walk in the idli clouds

When you love someone more than they love you, it can drive you a little crazy. When you love someone who doesn’t care that you do… what do you do then? What do you do when you take a leap of faith and the ground below your feet crumbles away? What do you do when you look up from your sand castle and you’re the only kid in the playground?

I go back to a time of unconditional love: breakfast with my grandparents.

Having grown up a Punjabi in Hyderabad, idli-dosa may not have been the most obvious choice for breakfast. Yet, every weekend Dada & Dadi Ma would take us to Hotel Harsha for topi dosas or Sarovar for 70mm dosas and some post-meal swan feeding. More than anything else, I remember those mornings as pure joy. But sometimes I can barely recall their faces. And on these days people like Vipul aka Sporty Baba arrive like food angels. Not so long ago he organised a walk through Matunga’s cafés and I was allowed a quick glimpse at the joy of my childhood.

I stepped out of my cab and almost stepped on to a very tiny person. She was the smallest flower seller, with the brightest smile I had ever seen. Anxious to start eating, I bought an overpriced gajra and made my way to Arya Bhavan. We began with cylindrical Brahmin Idlis (Rs. 85) and “flying saucer” Paniyaram (Rs. 80). Our waiter didn’t have the patience to explain the difference or story behind the shapes to me but I was given one version of the story by a TamBrahm couple a few weeks later. There was a time when idlis used to be cooked in bamboos – we’ve moved on to steel steamers but the cylindrical shape seems to have stuck for the Brahmin Idlis.

IMG_4954The Paniyarams, traditionally only made at home, have a more Ayurvedic heritage. I was told that when buttermilk turned sour, which according to sattvic diets causes distress in our bodies, it would be added to the idli batter for a sweet/salty evening snack.

IMG_4955Our next stop was Ramashraya a few doors down. The dish to order here is Upma (Rs. 27). Even though we had three more stops ahead of us we couldn’t resist an Onion Mysore Rava Dosa (Rs. 52) and my staple order at all Udupis, a Sada Dosa (Rs. 32). Vipul insisted on also ordering their sheera (Rs. 35) – pineapple and blackcurrant. I did not care much for the weirdly flavoured sludge but an order of sheera seemed to be going to almost every table in the house.
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We strolled through leafy colonies and coffee-tinged streets sprinkled with flowers and fruit sellers. It didn’t feel like any Bombay I had ever been to.

IMG_4903 IMG_4958 IMG_4957 Around the corner from Matunga’s famous Asthika Samaj temple is Amba Bhavan. Best coffee (Rs. 22) I’ve ever had. Just the best. After a customary stop at Mysore Concerns to buy coffee, we joined the longest queue in Matunga.

In Bombay’s dining scene, I have seen no greater equaliser than an Udupi café. And Café Madras is a perfect example of this. Cool-hunters and proper diners alike stood in a queue that snaked around the block – no reservations, no do-you-know-who-I-am, no special treatment. While in the queue I eavesdropped on taste debates of Café Madras over Café Mysore, Kamat-style sambhar over real sambhar, butter over white butter – this was my kinda crowd.

IMG_4952We ordered more food than we should have and licked our plates clean. The standout dish for me was Idli Butter Podi (Rs. 55), with an extra order of Mulga Pudi (Rs. 15). No synonym for cloud, soft, airy can do these idlis justice. A strong contender for my Last Meal…

Our final stop was at a decidedly non-Udupi shop – Gupta Chaat Centre for Chocolate Sandwiches (Rs. 50) run by six brothers from Uttar Pradesh. Would I come back? Probably not. Was it the perfect end to our walk around Matunga? Absolutely.

IMG_4959As I hailed down a cab I saw the tiny flower seller again, and not for the first time think about life occurring in circles.

I started this blog four years ago to distract myself from heartbreak. Four years of distractions later I find not much has changed. Life occurs in circles for as long as you let it I suppose. For as long as you choose distraction over dealing with things. The time seems right to stop for a while – the distractions, and this blog – while I learn how to deal with things.
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Mayur. Dialling back

Sometimes, I have to give up on my version of things. I have to accept that I can’t feel enough feeling for the story to go on. That in this life, at this exact moment, the universe needs to arrange things differently. Sometimes I have to accept defeat.

And on days like this, when I feel sorry that the world is no longer revolving around my desires, I need to dial back to a simpler time; and if that becomes difficult, then at least to a simpler place that reminds me how uncomplicated life can be if I allow it.

Mayur, in Bombay’s suburbs, is a simple place. I was introduced to this rare, if not only, Udupi restaurant in the city that also has a permit room, by my London family Laxmi and Naman. It’s where a photograph of Lord Venkateswara shares shelf space with bottles of Red Label; where a former policeman plays his collection of Bismillah Khan cassettes over lunch; and where diamond store owners come to unwind (read: drink many drinks) at the end of the day before vegetarian dinners with their wives.

IMG_5733Mayur s also where a waiter was impressed that I only wanted ice with my whisky (Rs. 350 for a single shot of Black Dog), and served me the second best chilli cheese toast (Rs. 120) in town. This one was made with Amul cheese and lashings of garlic, and has magical powers to slow life down to just the one emotion you experience as you bite into a simple piece of toast.

IMG_4824Mayur is also where I am reminded that “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” That chap Winnie the Pooh knew how to dial back.

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Mayur Restaurant & Permit Room, Gautam Apartments, Juhu Road, Santacruz (W), Mumbai – 400054, +91 (22) 2649-0654.

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Game changer. La Folie

When a young chef is promoted at a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the leading hotels of the world, the last thing one expects them do is resign. That is exactly what happened when Sanjana Patel was asked to take charge of the chocolaterie at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She says, “If I could get promoted there, then why couldn’t I start my own?” And so began the inspiration for pâtisserie La Folie which will open its doors in Bombay’s Kala Ghoda art precinct next week.

A highly skilled chocolatière, Sanjana’s resume lists the who’s who of the French pastry world – Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi, Pierre Hermé, Emmanuel Ryon and Jean-Charles Rochoux to name a few. Determined not to let trend come in the way of tradition, La Folie hopes the strength of its savoir-faire will snap Bombay out of its dessert cloud darkened by the likes of hotel pastry shops, red velvet cupcakes and endless macaron shops. In advance of its launch, Sanjana and her team of all-but-one female chefs took me on a tour of their kitchen, with plenty of stops for dessert.

IMG_5354First up is ‘Tart Folie Passion’ (Rs. 165), light-as-air, the dessert surprised me with the avalanche of flavours in each mouthful. The tartness in this seemingly simple passion fruit cream tart is beautifully balanced with the sweeter flavours of apricot. For added texture, the dessert is decorated with orange crumble-topped profiteroles. I reluctantly moved on to a Mille Feuille. La Folie’s ‘1000 Leaves’ (Rs. 245) served with figs is an honest tribute to the classic French dessert.

Sanjana rues how chocolate-mad Bombay is. I predict that her ‘100% Chocolat’ (Rs. 235), which I tasted next, will go a long way in deepening this craze. It is a decadent tower of chocolate custard, dark Venezuelan chocolate mousse and crispy praline feuilletine (thin flakes) blanketed in a dense chocolate fondant.

While working with Pierre Hermé she learnt how French pastry could survive in tropical climates. This training has come in good use as she begins operations in muggy Bombay. Not one to adapt traditional recipes for the sake of trend, Sanjana has made one innovation that will have the city’s vegetarians jumping for joy. Borrowing from the principles of molecular gastronomy, Sanjana has created several eggless desserts without compromising on taste or texture. The 100% vegetarian ‘Infinite Caramel’ (Rs. 215) is a layered wonder of milk chocolate mousse, caramel sea salt cream & a hazelnut praline crumble base.

The La Folie macaron flavours are a welcome change from the usual fare of coffee and passion fruit crowding pastry counters. The tastemaker in Sanjana comes to the fore with a macaron list ranging from blackcurrant and violet ganache, lemon grass and basil, to paan and gulkand. At Rs. 75 each, are they more expensive than any other in the city? Yes. Are they better? Most definitely. I first tasted a yuzu (Japanese lemon) macaron, followed by the caramel sea salt flavour and was left overwhelmed with their burst of pure flavours. Next up was a pop rock candy macaron oozing with childhood nostalgia, bubblegum marshmallow cream, and a strawberry jelly centre.

For smaller bites of enchantment, La Folie offers an assortment of caramel, ganache and praline chocolates (Rs. 175 for four) made from single origin Criollo beans from the same growers in Venezuela and Ecuador who sends Alain Ducasse his cocoa beans. The truffles and pralines are made by Sanjana each night, once all her chefs have gone home. “There are some secrets that I am not ready to share with anyone,” she smiles.

In addition to the desserts, petit fours, macarons and artisan chocolates, La Folie will also offer a selection of drinks that will include teas, traditional whipped hot chocolate, single-origin coffees and fruit juices.

The experience of a La Folie dessert begins from the moment you set your eyes on one. And with the exception of a cream too dense for the delicate Mille Feuille, the La Folie desserts I tasted were faultless. With not a cronut in sight La Folie makes its stand on desserts very clear. Still, as it starts finding its groove, I wonder if those prices won’t come down a bit. Then again, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise—because otherwise, I would be too tempted to start every mornings with a freshly baked croissant (Rs. 110-125) and spend my weekends devouring their Tarte Tatin (Rs. 325 and served with hand-churned Tahiti vanilla ice cream).

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IMG_5401This review was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 25th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Coffee, Dessert, French, Patisserie

B. Merwan’s mawa cake. How the Bombay cupcake survived

The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai blockbuster Naseeb. While most may remember it for Amitabh Bachchan’s cage fighting, Kim’s lip reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five star hotel kitchen, and hand delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.

Mawa cakes, the soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Poona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hundred years later, Bombay’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala, OBE. “The B. Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” shares Todiwala.

B. Merwan & Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes; and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.

Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, researched three old texts for any references to the cake: 17th-century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrūbāt (The Essence of Edibles and Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividhvani published in 1903. He says of Vividhvani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very anglicized. The book, which is around 1500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Baqirkhani, etc., but still no mawa cake.

Irani cafes opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s “respectable” members still preferred to dine in private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kayani, Ideal and B. Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.

Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims bragging rights for its invention. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B. Merwan.

Cyrus Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B. Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s our milk was not pasteurised, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant tea time cakes Bombay has ever known.

It’s a believable story. But there are others too…

The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Mumbai along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal is convinced that the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrians tea cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients – khoya and cardamom – to make the mawa cake,” he says.

There are still other stories that inform us of mawa cakes being just a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,  whispers Irani.

Irrespective of how and who created the mawa cake, by the early 1920s, more locals than ever before were enjoying this treat from Irani bakeries. Up until now bakeries were restricted to British cantonments, but the Iranis began to serve no fuss food in a no fuss setting, bringing hitherto considered extravagances within easy reach of the public.

Even as Irani café’s and bakeries fight for survival in a culinary landscape that doesn’t have the patience for, nor an interest in languid brun-maska-chais, the mawa cake manages to hold its own on counters crowded with cronut-esque creations. Modern bakery Theobroma’s Kamal Messman spent her childhood eating B. Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” Messman shares. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”

Unconfirmed reports even suggest that the trains would stop longer at the Grand Road station so that passengers could get their daily fix of mawa cake.

As Bombay became Mumbai and macaroons replace mawa cakes, the city must brace itself for the death of yet another institution. When it downs its shutters on March 31st, B. Merwan & Co. will also declare the end of an era. It isn’t often that just a whiff of something has the power to evoke a generation of memories; that a humble cake has the power to command queues for a hundred years. It isn’t often that the closure of one café would end so much living – of its owners, its bakers, its city.

It is possible that Mumbai will once again see an invention with the ability to summon such nostalgia; but until then, we must learn to live without its most famous buttery mawa cakes, loaded with cardamom and charisma of a disappearing time.

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Mawa Cake in Mint Lounge

This story was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 18th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Koya Bar. Living in is-ness

I left London three months ago; in as much as I could leave a city that had become part of me over the seven years I lived there. As I began to map my two weeks back, around meals and friends I would eat them with, I realised that I have spent a lot of my life going back. Back to the same cities, back to favourite restaurants, back to old lovers. It’s never the same though.

The city doesn’t change, a favourite meal still tastes good, and old lovers are just as happy to see me – but it’s never the same. I remember London as picture perfect, sans the years of lonely meals and freezing walks in the rain. I am excited about dinner with a lover, having clearly forgotten his refusal to commit any feelings. I order cocktails in my favourite bar, and then…. reality kicks in.

The truth is that today rarely matches up to my airbrushed memory of its yesterday. And yet, I spend so much time trying to recreate perfect experiences; seldom focusing instead, on what is.

On a day when London was especially bleak, I abandoned the temptation of puncturing the memory of a comfortable old favourite with its reality. Not convinced I could revisit a place without “going back”, I chose somewhere new. I walked into Koya Bar – a cosy collection of 24 low stools arranged around an open kitchen. The noodle bar almost forces you to eat in the moment, urging you to leave your baggage at the door.

I started with Otsukemono (homemade pickles), £2.90 and a delicious Kakuni (cider braised pork belly), £6.90 washed down with a chilled Kirin, £4.60. Then I waited patiently as the chef decided on the right moment to serve me Kinoko Atsu-Atsu (mushroom with walnut miso in hot broth), £11.60. The beautiful bowl arrived with hot udon noodles that are made in the traditional manner, dough kneaded by foot. “This is such a leisurely dish,” I said to myself several times as I mixed the large lump of walnut miso into the broth. After my first slurp I was lost in the dish, coming up for air only when the last mushroom had disappeared.

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Each dish is layered with complexity, but presented with such an effortless style, that you can’t help but pay attention to what is. This spirit of is-ness comes from the kitchen and its attention to detail. The dashi would not be as fresh and their umami-rich stock would not have the power to cleanse away your worries if the chefs were somewhere else in spirit.

I left inspired. Determined to not let would-ness and was-ness from taking over the is-ness of my life.

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Koya Bar on Urbanspoon

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