Category Archives: Cafe

Monsoon in Moira #nofilter

Our trips to Goa began in the early 80s. Summer holidays were spent driving from Hyderabad to Goa with Papa in his Maruti van. We went to the same hotel, stayed in the same rooms, and spent our weeks between the pool and the beach with several coconut waters to break up the day. Post-childhood trips didn’t stray much from this formula, until now.

My last trip to Goa, a few weeks ago, involved a cursory walk on the beach and only one dip in a pool. A Goa of monsoon and the Mandovi, and villages lush with lazy; it was a Goa I never imagined I would experience. And now, the only kind of Goa I want to visit.

IMG_3401

My generous host left no King’s bottle unopened to make sure we experienced the real susegad life. When we could bear to tear ourselves away from rain-watching on his verandah, there were Friday nights at Cavala, breakfast at Baba au Rhum, Saturday dancing at Cohiba, fish thalis at Anand Restaurant & Bar, and an explosive lunch at Gunpowder.

Located on a meandering street in the picturesque village of Assagao, Gunpowder’s kitchen serves coastal food from Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, in a stately Portuguese home saved from ugly redevelopment. A Delhi restauranteur gave up the city in favour of laid back living; and the result is most delicious. Sharing the home with an ethical and fair trade boutique (People Tree) and several dogs, Gunpowder’s food is often fiery, partial to coconut, and always excellent. Unlike most Goan restaurants the vegetarian options are plentiful and not restricted to mushroom and paneer.

We ate for hours, then sat around for a few more, intoxicated by the breeze blowing through the open courtyard, or perhaps it was just the Goan spirit…

The superhit dish of the day was surprisingly, potatoes and generous chef Jaan Gohain didn’t hesitate a moment before sharing the recipe with me!

IMG_3433


IMG_3426

Having just rid myself of a shell fish allergy, I enjoyed the juicy prawn masala immensely.

IMG_3413

When in Goa, eat choriz.

IMG_3417

I Instagrammed these photos a few weeks ago and as always was surprised at how easily smart phones and their never ending supply of apps have made a Henri Cartier-Bresson of the most undeserving of us. A moody choice between Amaro and Lo-Fi, depth of field inserted with a tap on the screen, and I can turn the most ordinary bowl of bhel into a 100-like worthy piece of envy. I’ve learnt to drench my world in filters to alter every mood, drowning out reality with the push of a button. Filters have become my friend and I wonder, are photographs all I use them on?

Then comes along a near-full moon to save me from myself. The night arrives unannounced, at the end of a spectacularly ordinary day, and burns away with the next morning’s sunrise. I rush to shoot the moon, only to have him look back at me, untouched.

These nights are reminders – of midnight kisses real and imagined, of promises never made. But mostly they are a reminder that its time to experience life without the filter of expectations. Its time to love life #nofilter.

-p

P.S. Shruti stayed on for a few more adventures on her own. Have a read through Shruti’s blog for fantastic off the beaten path ideas for Goa.

2 Comments

Filed under Beach, Cafe, Goa, India, Indian

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.

-p

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Cafe, Cupcake, India, Indian, Parsi

Dishoom Shoreditch. From Bombay to London

It is no secret that Dishoom and I are in crush with each other. The love affair began in August 2010 and I am thrilled to report that we are still on our honeymoon.

A few weeks ago Dishoom’s Shamil Founder-walla and Sara Chatter-walli invited me to write a guest blog for the opening of their new café in London’s Shoreditch.  They wanted me to share what Shoreditch meant to a Bombay-walli… if anything at all!

Before I moved to London I was often told how similar it is to Bombay. Locations made familiar in Bollywood films, Victoria carriages, a melting pot of communities… and for the days I felt homesick I had Wembley, Southall and Brick Lane. They said I would feel right at home. Of course I didn’t. I especially resisted Shoreditch for years. A lot of that had to do with constant invitations to test how authentic the “curry” is. And some had to do with the city’s coolerati constantly trying to put Shoreditch in a box (that it always triumphantly wriggled out of).

But then one day everything changed for me. From Thums Ups at Café Mocambo to Thums Up Flips at Dishoom Shoreditch, life seems to have started all over again. Read here about how this happened.

And if you haven’t already got yourselves to Dishoom Shoreditch for one of Carl Sharab-walla’s outstanding Thums Up Flips then here is a teaser to tempt you:

(Photo courtesy: Dishoom Shoreditch)

  • 40mls Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • 2 dash Jerry Thomas bitters
  • 10ml double cream
  • 1 egg
  • 26mls Thums Up reduction (Carl has resisted my fluttering eyelashes and not divulged how he came up with this!)

Shake everything together with ice cubes. Very hard. Strain and grate nutmeg over the top. And to borrow from the original… Taste the Thunder!

-p
Dishoom Shoreditch  on Urbanspoon

2 Comments

Filed under Bar, Bar food, Bombay, Cafe, Cocktails, Indian, London, Shoreditch

Cafe Zoe. Bombay changing?

There are some things I just don’t get. I don’t get the Indian man’s obsession with adjusting his balls in public. I don’t get the RJs on Bombay radio. And I just don’t get restaurants that hide average food and poor service behind free Wi-Fi and cool interiors.

The last time I was in Bombay, the city was going gaga over celebrity spotting at Hakkasan, and Table remained non-five star restaurant of choice. This time round there was a new name I ran into everywhere. Cafe Zoe. Bombay waxed eloquent about how cool it is. How NYC the vibe is. How much they loved hanging out there. A “really lovely girl”, some expat, and the former chef of one of Bombay’s hottest restaurants have come together and the city was in love with a new restaurant all over again.

Instead of hiding its mill ancestry, Café Zoe celebrates it. Even though slightly reminiscent of the look that The Bowling Co. created 13 years ago, Café Zoe’s design is definitely cool. The furniture is simple, there is a decent bar against one wall and sofas against another. What I liked a lot about this restaurant was the tons of natural light that streams in through the skylights. Oh, and the loo is pretty cool too.

I’m afraid that is all I really liked about Café Zoe.

As a single diner, I was seated at the bar. I usually prefer this, but their bar stools are not high enough and I spent my entire meal adjusting and readjusting myself to try and eat my meal comfortably. In between swatting flies that swarmed the bar. I started with a Fresh Black Grape Caipiroska (Rs. 450). Really well priced, but was sickly sweet and I couldn’t taste the alcohol. I waited twenty minutes for the first of my bar snacks to arrive – Roast Veg Arancini (Rs. 210) served with an unfortunate tomato sauce. I dare you to say it tastes of anything other than a tart gujju pizza sauce. The arancini on its own is nicely cheesy but under-salted; this is probably deliberate given the way the tomato sauce assaults your taste buds. Many minutes later my other snack, Pulled Pork Brioche (Rs. 285), arrives. I did away with the cucumber slice it came with, wiped away the excess mustard that killed all other flavours and then went on to semi-enjoy this dish.

The best dish I ordered was the Truffle Capellini (Rs. 550). Exactly what it says on the menu. No fuss and all flavour.

Just when I was getting ready to forgive the flies, poor flavours, haphazard service and multiple requests for the Wi-Fi code going unanswered, it all came crashing down with the dessert. First they misplaced my order, then the Panna Cotta (Rs. 150) arrives and tastes of smelly custard, and then the Americano (Rs. 75) arrives in a smelly cup.

Spend 10 minutes here and it is plain as day why people flock to Café Zoe. The pretty ones – film maker, ad guy turned hot actor turned activist turned actor, society food columnist, fashion store owner – feel like they have come to a members-only private club; and the wannabe pretty ones… well, they just wanna be part of this private club. Neither care about the average food, the abundant flies, or the appalling service. All they care about is the “vibe”.

I go to restaurants for one of two reasons: great food, great service. Ideally both, but definitely one. Everything else is gravy. Everyone I knew used to want this too. When did this change? Why have (supposedly) fewer options given way to an acceptance of mediocrity? Does the mediocrity stop at our resturants? When did Bombay go soft?

-p

13 Comments

Filed under Bar, Bar food, Bistro, Bombay, Cafe, Diner, India, Italian, Mediterranean

Dishoom. Nothing wrong with naughtiness

Its about that time of year when the city transforms itself into a ticker tape of Top 10s, Best Ofs and Resolutions. It’s just as easy to get lost in the whirlwind of festivities that December brings as it is to drown in its melancholy. Today was an awful day but I was determined not to let one bad day ruin my week. So I headed to the one restaurant that changed the way I eat Indian food in London. Dishoom’s new Winter Chai menu is exactly what I needed.

To say that I am smitten by the Dishoom-wallahs would be a slight understatement. So I asked my college friend Taimur (aka Prince of Palanpur) to act as my North Star for this tasting. Having just opened the latest entrant to London’s posh dining scene – chef Andy Varma’s Chakra in Notting Hill – he wasn’t exactly without vested interests; but Tai proved to be the most honest co-taster.

Bar-wallah Carl Brown, more dashing than usual, sporting a Movember tache took charge of our drinks and left us with very strict instructions on the order in which to drink them. Here goes (all drinks £5.50)!


The Baileys Chai is a 50/50 Chai-Baileys-Irish-Coffee-inspired explosive start to our tasting. Dishoom describes it best: warm, luxurious and unbelievably good.

Suggestive name aside, the Naughty Chocolate Chai is definitely the sexiest drink on the menu. Its dark, syrupy chocolate lusciously wraps itself around harsh Wild Turkey Bourbon until the drink takes your breath away.

Next is Chai Egg Nog. I hate egg nog. Correction, I hateD egg nog. Carl’s take on the traditional recipe is served up as a glass of cosy cuddles. Treacle-like Goslings Rum will lull you into a sigh just as the cinnamon and nutmeg urge you to reach for more. This sensational Chai Egg Nog was the clear favourite of the night. (I can’t wait to go back and try it ice cold!)

Cognac Chai and all its Hennessy makes a comeback. While it kicked serious butt last year, today it paled in comparison to the rest of the list.

The menu also has two Winter Warmers – the Winter Pimm’s with cloudy apple juice; and a Desi Mulled Wine, easy (too easy!) to drink but not particularly desi. They’re good but not as good as the chais. Not satisfied with the quantities of alcohol we were consuming, the Bar-wallah treated  us to a Cherry Chocolate Velvet (£9.90). At the risk of sounding like a teenager – OMG! A truly decadent champagne and black cherry cocktail.

There had to be food of course! These are Tai’s uncensored ratings on some of my favourite Dishoom dishes:

  • Paneer Tikka (£6.90) – A
  • Sheekh Kabab (£7.20) – A
  • Black Daal (£4.70) – B
  • Rotis & Naans – B
  • Chicken Tikka (£6.70) – C 
  • Lamb Chops (£10.50) – D (sadly, I had to agree with this one. Today the chops were burnt. No, not caramelised as our server Nuno tried to convince us, definitely blistered. They kindly took this off the bill but we weren’t happy about missing out on the chops!)

Tai couldn’t help but comment on Dishoom’s soul – I don’t think he’ll complain about coming back! We agreed to disagree on the rest of his ratings. We talked about college life in Bombay and London life in 2012. About not allowing one burnt dish to ruin our meal. And not letting one heartbreak break us forever.

-p

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

3 Comments

Filed under Bar, Bombay, Cafe, Cocktails, Design, Indian, London, Whisky

Roti Chai. Do you have soul?

A few weeks ago my boss and I were preparing for an interview. One of my questions to him was what he feared the most; he replied “failure”. I’m not sure what I would have said just then if he had asked me the same question. My fear is that once I admit my fear I will also be accepting my dream. So here goes everything…

My greatest fear is that I may never gather the courage to run my own restaurant. Now that I have admitted this, it brings up a spell of related fears. Topping that list is the fear that when someone walks into my restaurant they won’t find its soul.

A lot like how I felt when I walked into London’s latest entrant to the Indian food scene. Roti Chai calls itself an Indian Street Kitchen. How exciting! Even if you have never been to an Indian street, or its kitchens, I bet the words conjure up an assortment of vibrant and delicious scenes. My high expectations were not unwarranted.

I walked past Roti Chai the first time. And even when I turned around I was hesitant to walk in. A half-dressed table with bags of token Indian brand names, an empty reception desk and a wall sparsely decorated with more Indian stuff greeted me… am later told that they are trying to figure out how to sell Indian favourites like Frooti, Lays and Parle G. But until then these are for “display only”. Why a restaurant would want to display a constipation remedy (Isabgol) is anybody’s guess!

Nothing about the restaurant says Indian, Street or Kitchen. Its deathly quiet and if it wasn’t for two other tables of people I would have walked out and come back another day. It’s a squareish dining room with nondescript tables, the odd splash of colourful backrests and an ugly ceiling (I’m sorry but exposed ducts and wires were done and gone in the 90s). Far too much shelf space has been given to a service bar and a monster coffee machine. The kitchen is hidden behind a black wall and three uncoordinated posters. Change the three Indian posters with pictures of sombreros and this could easily turn into an ordinary Tex-Mex canteen.

The chai (£2.20) I ordered arrived just as they remembered to turn on the music (Bollywood). It is brewed for a few minutes one cup at a time, and as long as they do this it will never have the ferociousness of flavour and gentle warmth of proper Indian chai. Theirs tastes very similar to the Twinings Chai in my larder. If you call yourself Roti Chai you better have bloody good roti & chai – don’t you think?

The man behind Roti Chai used to manage the Cinnamon Club restaurants. I wanted to believe that there was more to this restaurant than disappointing chai, a “Bread Selection” (hidden under Sides), and half-hearted attempts at cuteness (all sorry cousins to Dishoom, especially the staff Chaiwallah tee-shirts). The menu is small – I like small menus. I ordered:

  • Bhel Puri (£3.90) – light but slightly low on tang. This version has tomatoes… a giveaway that the chef is North Indian.
  • Papri Chaat (£4.50) – nice! And miles better than the version served at Mooli’s. I wish though that it didn’t look so sterile on the plate.
  • Chicken Lollipops (£4.80) – succulent and moreish. Just as the menu promises.
  • Bun Kebab (£7.50) – the lamb is the best thing I tasted that afternoon. Moist and bursting with flavour (served with an unfortunate side salad).
  • Green chillies & chopped onion – at £1 this is not expensive but if the vendor on the streets of Delhi has the heart to offer me onions on the house maybe Roti Chai could too?
  • The Italian manager brought me some red chilli sauce (too spicy to put on the menu apparently) – now that I would quite happily pay for.
  • Mango Frooti (£1.50) – classic! This brought back memories of pocket money spent in school canteens.

The food presentation is Western, bland and does no justice to the flavourful dishes. Everything I ordered tasted good and I’m sure as the kitchens spend more time cooking the menu the food is going to taste great. The service is excellent. Unfortunately Roti Chai’s under construction website has more character than the restaurant itself. Soft opening or not, you have only one chance to make a first impression…

To quote from a Simon Sinek book I am reading: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” When I begin work on my restaurant I hope I won’t be too scared to surround myself with people who will always challenge my why. I would rather have my feelings hurt than create something that has no soul.

-p

Roti Chai on Urbanspoon

16 Comments

Filed under Cafe, Indian, London, Street food

Mirror, mirror

The mornings before winter decided to ice London’s sidewalks I would walk to work. The highlight of my brisk 30-minute commute was pounding the sidewalk, drenched in the aroma of fresh coffee, outside Caffe l’Angolo Bianco. In the 18 months that I have sometimes walked down Crawford Street I never stopped for a cup. Until today.

The deli is no bigger than a largeish bedroom. Two counters and four round tables squeeze into one half of the room; a deli counter in the other half. The walls are lined with boxes of Panettone Verdi, Panettone Venezia, Il Panettone Bauli, Cantuccini alla Mandorla… in honour of Christmas. I ordered a cappuccino and a tomato-avocado-mozzarella sandwich and settled in for the morning.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was the only stranger in the room. The Italian owner knew everyone else. She asked after the gay couple’s sick dog; the soccer kid’s mum (out shopping while dad played dad); she asked the old man how he was coping after his wife’s death. For the first time that I can remember, a restaurant was more like a family’s living room and I, the gatecrasher to this party.

I order another cappuccino; I didn’t really want another but I also didn’t want to leave this family just yet. A gentle energy connected everyone in the deli and the temptation to be included was too sweet to ignore. A few more unwanted cappuccinos and several more interesting stories make me think of another party I’ve gatecrashed: London. I do a bloody good job of pretending to have settled in but no matter how well I know the streets, how much I love the X Factor, or how used to the weather I get, London will always be someone else’s city. Things changed a few months ago. The miracle of Facebook reconnected me with myself.

I found Shakha, Sailaja and Sree Lakshmi in London. Deepa, Sharmeen and Chanveen in the US. Shairi and Anuja in Bombay. They are mirrors I lost a long time ago. Today, when I stand before these mirrors they show me my reflection before life changed it, for better and for worse. I don’t just get to see what I want to see, but I see all that I am too scared, proud or hesitant to look for; the good, the bad, but especially the good.

London will never be home but through these friends from school a little bit of home is now with me in London. Being able to unhesitatingly ask a friend if she wants to meet “this evening” as opposed to “three weeks from Friday (if nothing else comes up)” is a joyous relief. And when I ask for an opinion, I know I will get nothing but kind honesty.

Its finally time to leave Caffe l’Angolo Bianco. Just as I reached for the door the lady of the house walked up to me and reached for my hand. She placed a cookie in my palm and said, “You will like it. Now come again, okay?”

-p

6 Comments

Filed under Breakfast, Cafe, Coffee, Deli, Italian, London