Category Archives: Communal tables

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.

-p

Koya Bar on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Communal tables, Japanese, London, Noodles, Open kitchen, Soho London

Bone Daddies. Food for thought

Except for a trip to the hospital and a short hobble across the street, a sprained ankle ensured I did not leave my apartment for over two weeks. This was the longest period of time I have spent in a small space, mostly on my own. And in this quiet, silent place I realised that there are many things I don’t say even to myself because I’m afraid of what they would say about me.

I am envious of her success.
I don’t have a single original idea.
I cheated on my first boyfriend.

The noise in my head was deafening and I had to leave for somewhere so loud that I would not be able to hear myself think. London’s Soho is exactly that. An area I would never venture into by choice on a Saturday night, today this tourist hell provided just the comfort I needed. After several hours wandering streets where frozen yoghurt parlours and cupcake shops fight for the same footfall as sex shops and The Pleasure Lounge, I finally got hungry.

Bones Daddies isn’t exactly new but London has been noodle-mad for over half a year and this ramen star by ex-Nobu & Zuma chef Ross Shonhan was still rammed. The best part about being a table for one is that even when a restaurant has queues around the block, they will always find a seat to squeeze me into.

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Thanks to almost every London restaurant reviewer and food blogger having already waxed eloquent about Bone Daddies, I knew exactly what I was goin to eat even before I was seated. I skipped the starters (soft shell crab and fried chicken have most votes) and went straight for the Tantanmen ramen (£11) and Pickles (£3) (It says homemade pickles on the menu, but that term looks ridiculous on restaurant menus. Urr… whose home exactly?)

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I started with the pickles (eight different kinds and all yum) and a Maiken-Me cocktail (£7.80) of shochu, umeshu and watermelon. It was more mandarin-y than watermelon-y and a bit too sweet for me. In anticipation of my ramen I reached for the bottle of rubber bands to pull my hair back (a genius idea apparently imported from Japanese izakayas). The table also has other cute extras like a garlic crusher and a sesame grinder.

You can choose from seven different broths and I recommend you begin with the chicken-stock based Tantanmen. When the bowl arrived, it looked too glorious to disturb with a spoon and chopsticks, A few seconds of that, and it was too glorious for me not to attack with a spoon and chopsticks. The broth is fragrant with sesame and so delicious that I could not slurp/chew fast enough. The pork was juicy and while it could have done with a little more chilli one wasn’t complaining. I really do prefer this to the more common Tonkotsu broth. The purists say the ramen is better elsewhere, but I’m no noodle expert and in this instance, taste trumped truth.

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My excellent waiter suggested a black sesame soft serve to end, and even though it was exactly what my heart needed… I had to listen to the tummy this once.

There is nothing subtle about Bone Daddies. But even the luscious meal and pounding rock and roll soundtrack couldn’t drown out my thoughts forever. So as I reluctantly leave, I wonder…

Am I curious enough?
Will I ever be good enough? (For what?)
Sometimes, can just love be enough?

-p

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Cocktails, Communal tables, Japanese, London, Noodles, Soho London

Darjeeling Express. Food that makes my heart sing

My friends know that all I really want to do is run my own restaurant. I’d love to say it was something I’ve wanted since the day I ate my first butter naan, or the first time I was taken to a restaurant as a child. It wasn’t. And to be honest, I cannot recall the first time I decided that one day I will spend the rest of my days working 24/7, having swapped my enviable shoe collection for… ugh, flats.

I’ve put forward every excuse – no money, no location, no help, no time; except the real one: no inspiration. I could not bring myself to commit to my dream because I had not yet tasted food that I would be proud to serve. There was fear that I would never find the food that would make my heart sing.

That is, until I was fed by Asma Khan. We share a hometown (Hyderabad), a love for Bollywood, and an unconditional passion for authentic flavours. Asma too has a desire to turn this passion into a life of working 24/7, swapping her brocade kurtas for kitchen whites.

But she wasn’t always the fantastic cook she is today. It is safe to say that when Asma moved to the UK in 1991, as the good wife of a Cambridge scholar, she could not even boil an egg. She spent her first two years in the country eating salad and her husband’s chicken curry. In her own words “life was not worth living.” In 1993 Asma travelled back to India to spend time in her ancestral kitchens, and over the course of a few months mastered recipes that have been in her family for four generations. She came back to being a wife and mum and along the way got a PhD in Law. It wasn’t until April of 2012 that Asma decided to turn food into a career.  Somewhere in these last two decades, a skill learnt out of desperation turned into an obsession. Asma became Darjeeling Express and made her debut at London’s Supper Club Summit.

When Asma asked me if I would take charge of her Front of House I squealed a massive “YES!” Having tasted Asma’s glorious food on more than one occasion I was honoured to be part of a team that would bring such joy to 55 lucky guests; and thrilled that I got to play restaurant for a day. This is what we served:

HYDERABADI HALEEM
*
CHICKEN TENGRI KABAB
KEEMA KA SAMOSA
**
CALCUTTA CHAAT SELECTION
***
BENGALI FISH MALAI CURRY
ACHAAR CHICKEN
KASHMIRI LAMB
CHETTINAD PANEER
BAIGAN KA BHARTA
HYDERABADI MIRCHI KA SALAAN
****
SERVED WITH
PEAS PALLAU, LEMON RICE & ROGNI ROTI
CHUTNEY: TOMATO, APRICOT, PRUNES AND DATE
*****
GAJJAR KA HALWA
BHAPPA DOI
FRUIT CHAAT

Every dish on the menu comes with a story. For instance, the haleem recipe belongs to Ali Miyaan who used to cook for Hyderabad’s Nizam family. The samosas were learnt by Asma out of pure desperation. (Shocked at what passed off for a samosa in the UK she would not drink another cup of chai without a proper samosa.) And she learnt that the secret of proper chaat is in its tamarind chutney. Asma went back to her school in Calcutta and and bullied chaatwalla Subodh into teaching her the tricks to a perfect tamarind sauce (he still serves students mouthwatering puchkas!).

Waitressing isn’t exactly new to me. But serving a few dishes to a bunch of tables is nothing compared to what it took five of us to synchronise the service of 15 dishes to 55 people. Having been a diner at other supper clubs I knew that the manner of a guest at a supper club is different from when they visit restaurants. They are more patient to start with, which was a relief because none of us anticipated the trauma of plating up 55 portions of chaat and dessert in under ten minutes! They also had a lot more questions about the food as some of these dishes they had never seen at any one of London’s hundreds of Indian restaurants.

The tiny kitchen was a hive of activity for the four hours that the meal lasted. We saw every drama from breaking dishes and moody waitresses, to running out of clean spoons and a grumpy potwasher. And just as we thought we had everything under control, along came the “last minute vegetarians”. Thankfully, the spirit in the dining room was completely the opposite. Old school friends chose the supper club as a venue for their reunion, and new lovers celebrated a birthday. Happy diners didn’t seem to notice the gap between courses as they licked their plates clean, waiting patiently for more.

The super hit dish of the night was the Bengali fish malai curry. Traditionally, this dish is made with prawns and only at celebrations. Tonight was a celebration of sorts and the chef was allowed to take a few liberties!

At about 11pm I realised that I had not had a sip of water or a bite to eat since lunch that day; that my feet had blisters and I had cuts on both my hands from heavens knows what; that I had washed more dishes than I ever intend to for the rest of my life. At about 11pm, I also realised that I had not been this happy in years; and couldn’t wait to do it again!

I have eaten and served food that makes my heart sing. And just like that, my dream isn’t scary anymore.

-p

All the photographs are courtesy dashing supper club guest Christopher Goh.

Take yourself to Asma’s next supper club here.

Read more about Aug 23: Darjeeling Express on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Communal tables, Foodie Events, Indian, London, Supper Club

Barcelona on a plate

I’ve been to Spain all of twice. Barcelona in 2001 and then Madrid, a few years later. To say I hated my time in both cities would be an understatement of some sort. I had shoe bite, then food poisoning; I had restaurants refuse me entry and shop keepers deny me service. My handbag got stolen at a wedding reception and the boyfriend of the time… well, less said the better.

That should serve as some context for where I am coming from.

Eckhart Tolle writes: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” Over the past 11 years I have been so committed to hating Spain that I left absolutely no space in my heart or travel schedule to change my mind. It’s been a few years since I forgot what it actually felt like to be in those unpleasant situations. But I didn’t let go – it became a party anecdote, an office joke… Allowing an old story to become the real story is exhausting! Time had come for me to repair my relationship with Barcelona and decide anew where we stand.

The only aim of this trip was to walk the city, eat good food and ensure plenty of cava at breakfast. And get a tan while I’m at it. The magic of Twitter and some well-travelled friends (thank you Sabrina, Saffron, Aki, Maggie, Adarsh) ensured I was armed with enough restaurant names to last me a month. A last-minute gorgeous travel companion in Gina ensured we could now order for two and try more food!

Barcelona’s food was a revelation; a mismatch to the city’s ugly landscape (it’s time to look past Gaudi and the Gothic Quarter) and (mostly) surly people. Gina and I stayed away from five star hotels and Michelin meals to dig into the real magic of the city’s culinary scene – La Boqueria and the city’s tapas bars. Three meals a day weren’t enough for the greedy girls and we had to sneak in an extra tapas or two over the weekend. In no particular order, these are the highlights of my trip (we only ever ordered from the tapas bar, staying away from main course dishes).

LOLITA TAPERIA

A walk through a pretty dodgy area brought us to an unassuming neighbourhood where Lolita Taperia has made her home amongst dog walkers and local residents. Owned by Albert Adrià (yes, related to the El Bulli Adrià), this restaurant is bright and sassy. Lolita is a red-lipsticked bull who watches over the chefs from her place on the main wall. Like almost every tapas bar we visited over the weekend, this one too is very quiet at 8pm. I loved:

  • La Burrata Lolita (creamy Burrata with with mustard sprouts, rocket, semi-dried tomato and black tapenade)
  • La Gilda ‘Verd Picant’ (Basque ‘piparras’ or long green pepper with a stuffed olive, wrapped by an anchovy)
  • El Llom de Tonyina en escabetx lleuger (tuna loin in ‘ponzu’ (marinade of soy, olive oil and natural lemon juice)
  • Les ‘Rabas’ de pollastre (crusted chicken nuggets with potato crisps and Kurkuma sauce)
  • And of course, Cava.

TAPAÇ24

The kitchen is directed by El Bulli trained Carles Abellan who prepares simple tapas with a unique twist. A rare all day diner-style café, Tapaç24 is all about casual and counters. The service bordered on rude… that is, until we were seated. Soon as we were settled in with our Cava we had attentive help from not one but three wait staff (including, telling me to be careful about leaving my phone around). I loved:

  • Bikini Comerç24 (grilled truffle ham and cheese – WOW)
  • Iberian ham croquette
  • Pa amb tomàquet (available in every restaurant in Barcelona; literally “bread with tomato” in Catalan. The toast is rubbed with tomatoes, garlic, and seasoned with olive oil and salt.)
  • A white fish ceviche that was so divine, Gina could not stop talking about it the entire weekend
  • And of course, Cava

BAR VELODROMO

Barcelona is dead quiet Sundays and Mondays, with more than half the (non-touristy) restaurants and shops closed on these days. Bar Velodromo was one of two restaurants near us that was open seven days of the week. Every review I read tagged it some version of a “Barcelona institution”. Re-opened after nearly a decade with the shutters down, the bistro is art deco stunning with a formica-plated steel bar, mahogany staircase, lime green banquettes, marble floors and a double height ceiling. Legend has it that for most of the 20th century this was a meeting place of the Catalan intelligentsia, underground political groups and the 1960s artistic group known as La Gauche Divine.

Everything on the menu was reasonably priced and it was all excellent. We sat at the bar and pointed at food on the counter. Still hungry, we were grateful for the English menu that was kindly sent our way. The highlight for us though, were two salads we ordered at the end of the meal. Catalan food is extremely meat/fish focused and by Sunday night we were craving something fresh and colourful. Anything fresh and colourful! Gina’s tomato salad and my spinach and orange salad were just the ticket. And of course, Cava. (Bar Velodromo is at Carrer de Muntaner, 213 Barcelona.)

PACO MERALGO

Paco Meralgo, the other restaurant open everyday, means “to eat something”; and eat we did. This is the only restaurant we went back to twice. Like most of our choices this weekend, this menu too has a long list of mostly tapas-style options, with a strong focus on the seafood items. It was also the only meal we had more wine than food and flirted with unsuspecting diners. I loved:

  • Zuchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella
  • La Bomba – an oozy potato croquette stuffed with a meat and cream sauce, served with a spicy Romesco sauce.
  • All the croquetas – meat and seafood
  • And of course, Cava

JAI-CA

Gina and I wanted to spend Sunday on the beach, and the plan was to begin with brunch at a hot recommendation. We spent the better part of an hour looking for this restaurant but to no avail (we later found out it was closed for August). Nick, a friend’s friend, was playing tour guide for the day and when he saw us in near tears at the news, he took us to Jai-Ca. Nick ordered for us and after the first few dishes I lost track of what I was eating. The highlight however was their “Tigre” – mussels crumb fried in their shells served with a sauce. Not only was this some of the best food I had in the city, it was also the cheapest.

 

The hot, over-crowded tapas bar was possibly the most authentic Barcelona experience I had the entire trip. Neon signs, food display – shrimps, navajas, calamares, pimientos del pardon, pictures of Barça players on the walls, inordinately long queues, shocking service, and outstanding food – Jai-Ca is easily one of my current top 10 restaurants in Europe.  (Jai-Ca is at C/ Ginebra, 13 08003 Barcelona.)

I didn’t get to try a xuxos in the Boqueria. The famous Cal Pep was closed for the Summer and I forgot to look up the address for Dos Palillos. Tickets is booked out for years to come and I don’t know what a Catalan yemas tastes like. But I can live with that. As Tolle said: “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on”. The only reason yesterday’s story seemed so real today is because I insisted on bringing my past into my present. I did that with Barcelona and wonder how many other stories need to be laid to rest?

-p

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Barcelona, Communal tables, Seafood, Spanish, Tapas, Travelogue, Wine

Pitt Cue. A whole lot of love

I wander about life starring in my own movie (yes, usually Bollywood and almost always a romance). When I am crushing on someone or in a one-sided love affair, my imagination kicks into overdrive and turns every conversation into a 70mm moment. Sometimes it gets to the point that even I find myself ridiculous. And on a day like this, I need to get myself to a place with zero possibility of romantic thought. I needed some Pitt Cue action. Nothing like beautiful chunks of meat to make you not turn your life into a movie.

Pitt Cue is the only food truck-turned-proper restaurant I can recall than has single handedly joined all of London’s food lovers into one big fan club. The only exceptions are either vegetarian or one of Time Out’s new food writers.

Every review of the restaurant will tell you how small it is. It’s even smaller in real life. When I first squeezed into the door, past the crowds that were leaving and into more crowds that were waiting, I couldn’t see any furniture for the number of people in there.  I have never been happier to be a single diner as Lovely Blonde found me a bar stool in a corner. The restaurant also has a dining room downstairs. It’s dark, squashed between the kitchen, a staircase and the loo, and I hope I never have to sit down there.

Pitt Cue is so good I couldn’t believe I got through life so far without tasting such food.  I may have been trying to escape romance this afternoon, but there is no denying the love that has gone into everything they do, say, and feed you.

I ordered a Hair of the Pig (their yummier version of a bloody mary with scratchings, £6.50) and decided I love how easy the menu is to order from. You choose…

–          one meat (I chose the St. Louis Ribs (£9.50); other options are pulled pork, brisket, beef ribs and a daily special that keeps changing)

–          one side (I chose the awesome burnt end mash; there is also baked beans, braised sprout tops, hock and beet salad and vinegar slaw)

… and the good boys of Pitt Cue will put it all on one delicious tray.

There are naughty extras too. I couldn’t resist the hot wings (£4) or the crispy shiitake (£3.50). This is wayyyy too much food for one person but I couldn’t stop.

Lovely Blonde came back and recited the dessert menu and I had to go with a Snickers Mess (£4.50). It’s exactly what it says on the tin.

And if I hadn’t eaten enough reasons to return then there was always their perfectly reasonable bourbon and rye list to lure me back. Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Rittenhouse Blonde, Eagle Rare, Sazerac…  this is a lot more than a fleeting crush.

And so I come to terms with the thought that even on a day bereft of romance, one can still find love.

-p

Pitt Cue Co on Urbanspoon

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Filed under American, Bar, Bar food, Cocktails, Communal tables, Design, Dessert, Diner, London, Whisky

Oysters ahoy

I have just broken the first rule of an eat-right-and-look-hot food plan my friend Foram wrote for me. I started my day with a glass of champagne.

The Wright Brothers started with an oyster farm in Cornwall and now supply fish to restaurants across the UK. I first heard of them when I found myself slurping delicious oysters at their Oyster & Porter House in Borough market one sultry Saturday a few years ago.

Their new Wright Brothers Soho evokes the atmosphere of a Dickensian bar. Planned over three floors the restaurant has a cosy combination of banquettes and high tables. I asked to sit at the bar around their open kitchen in the lower-ground floor. This is a basement like none I’ve seen. Massive windows allow ample light to stream onto the two open kitchens, and also offer passers-by cheeky views into the restaurant. High tables are lit with candles on old fashioned candle sticks and the white walls are decorated with black and white photographs and blackboards with daily specials.

I love being the single diner at a bar counter. Its like being a fly on the kitchen wall – close enough to hear the chefs talk. And I do exactly that as I order my glass of Billecarte-Salmon (£9). The quiet Russian, loud Indian and flirty Frenchman spent a good part of lunch service deciphering accents for each other. They also did lovely things like walk ten feet across the kitchen to slice a lemon right in front of me.

I began with what I came for – a platter of Duchy natives, Colchester, Maldon and Spéciale de claire oysters (£15). This is very much a restaurant that lets you be. I wasn’t rushed through my oysters; the chefs didn’t mind my staring as they sent out one fish after another; and fashionable Soho diners smiled back from their tables laden with Cornish crab, crispy squid and Monocle bags.

The rest of my meal included a fantastic white bait with tartare sauce (£8.50) paired with a glass of Sancerre (£9.50), and a disappointing hazelnut chocolate pot (£5.50). I am glad I stopped by the washroom on my way out… love this brand of TP!

I first tasted oysters at a stunning restaurant on Hong Kong’s Peak. I was with someone very special and trusted him with my heart and palate. Things started to go wrong a little after that trip and never got right again. Now, many years later from that night, I can finally eat an oyster without being transported to that night. I still haven’t been able to go back to Hong Kong though.

Call someone you trust and try something new today. It is always, eventually, worth it.

-p

Wright Brothers (Soho) on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bar, Communal tables, London, Open kitchen, Oysters, Restaurant, Seafood, Soho London

Date 2: the technology guy

If I were in a bar and liked the look of someone I could do one of four things:

  • Very brave: Walk over and buy him a drink
  • Less brave: Make sure he sees me, smile and play with my hair
  • Coward: Hope that he sees me and wait until he comes over for a chat
  • Loser: Absolutely nothing

When you are dating online, your choices are slightly different:

  • Very brave: Send him a sparkly email inviting him to get to know me better
  • Less brave: Add him to my ‘favourites’ so he knows I’ve noticed him
  • Coward: Hope that he finds me
  • Loser: Absolutely nothing

Date 2 is with the only person I have met online who sent me an email first. He also sent me his phone number and a request to meet, all within 2 days of first noticing me. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet the Technology Guy:

– Charming, genuine, intelligent, kind, warm, loyal, interesting, sensitive and quirky

– Impeccable taste in clothes

– Loves comedy and thought provoking movies

– Would love to find someone who has her own teeth

Having learnt from my date with the Property Guy, I was not expecting him to look like his picture, or be any of the above. He wanted me to pick a place and I chose an All Bar One. This is one bar chain that I actually like. I frequent the one on Regent Street for lunch and drinks after work. The large, airy room with lots of mirrors and a library of wine bottles is safe and bright even on the most dreary day.

It has been a dreary week. The adrenalin rush from my sky dive and the joyous high of my promotion have finally died out and instead of seeing miles of opportunity all I seem to be facing is a lonely road ahead. I now find myself heading a department that didn’t exist until a few weeks ago. I don’t have a team and instead a dotted reporting line to eight Partners who believe that tough love is the only way to encourage someone. I’m not panicking at the challenge, nor do I want to sound ungrateful, but I am beginning to question what I get out of a life, out of a job, that is only taking me farther away from everything that is familiar, and everyone who loves me. I am seriously beginning to question if I will find any reference points so far away from India.

The Technology Guy in real life looks exactly like he does in his online life. Promising! And then we begin the tedious process of getting to know each other from scratch. How are you, how was your week, siblings, favourites…

Him, “Do you play a sport?”

Me, “I used to enjoy squash. Unfortunately a knee injury 10 years ago doesn’t allow me hard surface sports anymore.”

Him, “That’s a shame. I could have whisked you off to my squash court one weekend for a game. I love squash. Just the other day, I watched this documentary on Pakistani squash champion Jahangir Khan who….”

Me, “Do you go to the cinema often?”

Him, “I went the last time I had a girlfriend. Maybe two years ago?”

Me, “Oh, you don’t like watching movies then?”

Him, “I like movies that make me think. Movies that are deep and moving. I also enjoy comedies like Borat. Just the other day, I watched this documentary on Sacha Cohen…”

Him, “Do you live on your own? Renting?”

Me, “Yes, and on my own. I used to share but I didn’t enjoy sharing the TV remote control and oven after a while.”

Him (not even a smile), “I bought my house in 1997 and am now saving for a loft conversion, so I share. I have a lovely garden – its so important to have a garden, to be able to nurture nature. (I am trying very, very hard not to roll my eyes at this point.) Just the other day, I watched this documentary that said a house without a garden is like a relationship without children…

Me (not even pretending anymore), “So I’m guessing you want children then?”

Him, “Oh yes. At least three. It is so important to have siblings you know. Just the other day, I watched this documentary …

The thought of my children being forced to pluck weeds and watch documentaries was more than enough for me to politely decline a second drink and run home. At least I didn’t waste my good shoes on this one.

-p

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Communal tables, Date, London