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.
As 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.
The 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!
The 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.
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.
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.
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.