Category Archives: Design

Soleil by La Plage. The making of a restaurant

I spent the last weekend of my year-long sabbatical at Sula’s vineyards in Nashik; exactly 13 years after my first weekend there, as their first head of sales. It wasn’t until I left them to pursue a career in hotels did I realise that for my entire time at Sula I was always the only woman in the room. The office team, the restaurants we visited, the distributors we negotiated with, and the wine shops we cajoled – all male, everywhere.

Over a decade later, I was thrilled to see a few more women at the helm of Sula’s operations – a winemaker, chief vegetable grower, the brand ambassador, a head chef and most recently, Florence Tarbouriech. Florence is one-third of the trio behind Goa’s La Plage, head designer and inspirer of all things genius at their new restaurant Soleil by La Plage at Sula’s vineyards.

Florence’s partnership with Serge Lozano and Morgan Rainforth goes back nearly two decades. Friends, lovers, parents and gastronomes, the trio clearly love their work, but they love life more. It is probably this that they have most in common with Sula’s Rajeev Samant. “We don’t want to create a fashion story,” said Serge. “If we had opened in Bombay, Delhi or Bangalore it would have been a fashion story.” In an industry where restaurateurs pursue private equity backed mindless expansion and chefs spend more time on television than in their kitchens it is heartening to meet a team that puts passion first.

IMG_8003I visited Soleil a few days before their soft launch and was allowed a peek into the making of the restaurant. Florence spent weeks walking around Chor Bazaar and scrap yards, in search of inspiration as well as scrap she could upcycle in the restaurant – so wine pallets and barrels turned into tables, and wine bottles dress the chandeliers. The restaurant has bold pops of colour, lush greenery, original artwork, and comfortable lounge areas. “I waited for the designs to choose me,” she said. This approach to design has been an eye opener for Sula as well. Rajeev shared, “My team are just loving this! After walking around the winery with Florence and Serge they have seen the potential of recycling. Also, instead of waiting around for the restaurant to open, Florence got the waiters to help with the interiors – they painted and scraped along with the workers and now the team have a sense of ownership for the place they will be working in.

IMG_7997Something else the four have in common is their desire for simple, sustainable living. Sula employs solar power and rainwater harvesting, vermiculture composting, and now with Soleil has ensured one of India’s first true farm to table experiences.

Chef Morgan, aka Guruji, is overjoyed, “I’ve been cooking awful chicken for 17 years and now I finally have the perfect free range gavthi chicken at my doorstep.” In addition to their own free range chicken farm, Sula also rears goats for milk and cheese, makes grapeseed oil and honey, grows its own fruit and vegetable, and fires the Soleil barbeques with wood from its grape cuttings. It’s hard to get more organic than this!

The trio are country kids at heart and it isn’t surprising to see some very hearty dishes at Soleil. Morgan’s menu features French classics as well as, for the first time, his take on Indian food. “I am trying to pare back, get to the heart of the spice in each dish. During my research I was also surprised to see some similarities between Indian food and some dishes from France. For example, you have ‘Gatte ki sabzi’; and I grew up with the French version of this – fried chickpea flour cakes! There is also the Indian version of French creamed spinach, or as we like to call it, palak paneer.

Soleil’s menu will change with the seasons and this monsoon they are serving dishes that include Mango and beetroot carpaccio, coriander and homemade feta cheese (Rs. 280); Crispy organic asparagus and grilled homemade paneer with creamy spinach sauce (Rs. 300); Barbecued Gangapur lake scampi, coral butter, saffron risotto with broccoli (Rs. 690); Free range chicken cooked in Sula Dindori Shiraz, potato puree with olive oil and caramelized baby onions (Rs. 540); and Soleil’s seasonal vegetarian thali (Rs. 310).

Two decades in India have sensitised the La Plage gang to working here – so they may not have beef on their menu, Morgan no longer asks why he cannot buy fish during shravan, and Florence isn’t surprised when the painting of the Pandav Caves is moved out of the loo ten seconds after she placed it there.

Even though Soleil gets the all-important big three right – great chef, great location, great concept – spend a day with Florence, Morgan, Serge and Rajeev and it’s clear that what they are committed to most is preserving their environment. As destination restaurants around the world are slowly making their way up most ‘Best Of’ lists, India can finally be proud to have one of her own.

-p

This article was first written for BURRP! where I am a resident Food Expert.

Leave a comment

Filed under Design, French, India, Indian, Nashik, Restaurant, Seafood, Wine, Wine Bar

Dock Kitchen. A find

A TV show I watched recently reminded me of something I studied at school. That no matter where we are in the Northern Hemisphere, if we face Polaris we face north. So we always know where we are.

But there are other ways of getting lost. Lost in a job that takes you far away from your dreams. Lost in a relationship that changes you into a person you don’t recognise. Lost, because sometimes it is safer to hide; especially from yourself. Less and less now, but I still find myself lost sometimes.  This time I didn’t know where to look. So I put on my favourite shoes, grabbed my favourite dining companion, and asked him to choose a restaurant for us to go to.

It’s not like me to let TM decide where we eat. Don’t get me wrong, TM is absolutely one of my favourite people in this world, but he isn’t exactly a curious diner. A creature of habit I half expected TM to choose Pizza East. Again. Boy was I wrong!

Dock Kitchen was exactly where I needed to be to unhide from myself. Brand new to me, with no past dining drama, no taste memories, and plenty of sunshine, Dock Kitchen’s home in a converted Victorian Wharf building is a charming retreat in the heart of town. The sunshine that bathed the restaurant’s open kitchen helps a lot, but I think Dock Kitchen has enough personality to even make it special on a dreary day.

After some table tango we found ourselves on the terrace between a dog, someone I can bet is on TV, and a quiet baby. (Also fortunately far away from the ditsy waitress who clearly didn’t know how anything on the menu was prepared). None of that mattered though, once the food arrived.

Prosecco Frizzante (£6.50) and and courgette and aubergine fritters drizzled with honey and chilli (£7) for TM; and a gorgeous Lammershoek  (£7.50) and chicken livers cooked in pomegranate molasses with a lavash bread (£7.50) for me. I love the Persian zeal in this week’s menu, but you cannot put Stevie Parle’s food in a box; with a CV that lists River Café, Petersham Nurseries, and Moro that’s no surprise. But its more than that… I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet, but its more than that.

And then TM chose the lamb biryani (for two at £17.50 each). It looked beautiful. When we broke the dough seal, the saffron floated out of the earthen pot – beautiful. And once we were ready to dig into the prettiness, it tasted… beautiful.

There is so much to come back for. To feed the ducks in the canal, try the cocktails in the Kitchenette Bar, stare longingly at the beautiful things in Tom Dixon’s shop on the lower floor; and collect the piece of me I left behind that day.

-p
Dock Kitchen on Urbanspoon

6 Comments

Filed under Brunch, Design, Indian, London, Mediterranean, Open kitchen, Outdoor dining, 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

2 Comments

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

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

M. Wells. When you just know

There are cities, bigger cities, and then there is New York. I’m a Bombayite learning to be a Londoner but cannot deny how much in awe I am of this most cinematic of any city I have ever visited.

I just knew this was going to be a special trip.

For the first time a charming stranger flirted with me all the way from Heathrow to JFK. For the first time I have a plan. And for the first time ever I have a response for when someone asks me “what is the best thing you’ve ever tasted?

The boss said he was taking me to a diner in Queens. Once I got over the dread of another meal with the boss that day, curiosity took over.  A disastrous dinner at London’s Kopapa aside I have never had a bad meal with the boss. Plus I’d never been to Queens, so…

This is M. Wells; a diner that used to serve as a pit stop for truckers until French Canadian chef Hugue Dufour and his Queens-raised wife Sarah Obraitis took over. They started out serving only breakfast, then brunch, then dinner and still don’t serve every meal every day. The wait for our table was over an hour. We grabbed our free beers (on the house to make up for a busted AC) and sat down outside for some people watching.

One beer turned into a few, as did the diners on the waiting list. M. Wells is a diner, sure, but even a cursory glance at the menu will tell you that you are not going to be served any sloppy sliders here. I haven’t seen oysters and foie gras on too many diner menus, have you? The boss calls their food “kooky”. I’d say its eccentric. Both mean the same thing – it doesn’t belong to any school and you can’t put this chef in a box.

I’m glad I was dissuaded from ordering the ribs. We ordered cocktails and salad and maybe something else too but all that is a blur. All I can remember is the pure pleasure of a BiBiM Wells ($40). No description of mine will do this dish any justice so all I will do is list out the ingredients: oysters, scallops, gravalax, and foie gras on a bed of white rice, topped with a poached egg, avacados, julienne of green apples, carrots and zucchini, drizzled with yam chips and a stunning Korean chilli maple sauce.

This is the best dish I have ever tasted. Ever.

You take a job that changes you forever, walk into a diner and eat the best meal of your life, meet someone – and you just know. You don’t recognize the biggest day of your life until you’re right in the middle of it.

-p

M Wells on Urbanspoon

3 Comments

Filed under American, Bar, Design, Diner, French, New York, Oysters, Seafood

da Polpo. And another one?

da Polpo is like the old friend you can rock up to anytime and are guaranteed a great conversation. Like the other restaurants in Russell Norman’s stable, da Polpo is cosy, easy and approachable. I find nothing more uncomfortable than a restaurant on edge – week one, new staff, new menu, forgotten service sequences, the smell of paint, and table tops that shine a bit too much. What I love most about Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and now da Polpo is how they manage to look and feel lived in, even when brand new.

Most things about this place will remind you of Polpo. One has a Campari Bar, the other an Aperol one. Both bacaros use a lot of natural finishes, have distressed walls, tiled flooring and bar counters you can eat at – the single diner’s most favourite seat.

                     

I even got lucky with my waitress; Tajsa (am near certain I’ve got this spelling wrong) wasted no time in settling me in and starting me off with a glass of the Polpo Prosecco (£5) – OMG so delicious – and some complimentary sesame cream cheese and bread.  (I’m still not sold on the fashion of wine being served in non-wine glasses.)

The menu is also a lot like Polpo’s. I started with the arancini (£2.50) – the gooey cheese centre makes these crispy balls of rice divine, even if lacking a little something. Next was the asparagus, taleggio and parma ham pizzetta (£6.50). The cheese and ham may get too salty for some but I loved this baby pizza.

I finished with a fresh tomato salad (£5) and a glass of the Polpo Merlot (£2.75). Maybe the combination was wrong but I won’t rush to order this wine again.

    

I skipped dessert , promising the superb staff that I would return for some. Soon. Last week I wrote about Spuntino – THE ONE restaurant I knew I would have a long romance with. Today I walked into another ONE. Amongst too many other things, Bollywood is where I first learnt and loved the idea of THE ONE. (It was most likely Rishi Kapoor & Dimple Kapadia’s teenage romance Bobby.)

We’ve all grown up since then and while I may still look for the Bollywood moments in my life, I’ve changed what The One means to me – ever so slightly. I now have:

  • The One who got away – and Thai Green Curry
  • The One who was always going to hurt me – and Pytt I Panna
  • The One I still think about – and Vegemite sandwiches
  • The One I didn’t really care about – and strawberry cheesecake

And then there is THE 5months-14days-8hours- andafewminutes ONE.

-p

da Polpo on Urbanspoon

1 Comment

Filed under Bar, Bar food, Design, Dessert, Italian, London, Pizza, Restaurant, Tapas, Wine

Spuntino. The one?

I knew Spuntino was the one restaurant I will have a long romance with the second I walked in. I first went there last night with friends and even before we began our meal I couldn’t wait to come back for more.

And so I did.

Spuntino has no telephone and you cannot make reservations, and walking in can be slightly intimidating – I felt like I was crashing someone’s dinner party. But then the tattooed waitress smiled, beckoned and made me feel at home.

Ronnie Self, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles and Django Reinhart gently lull me into the Spuntino spirit and I started with a Negroni (£6) and olives stuffed with parmesan, anchovies and thyme (£4). I literally left the city behind me and wanted nothing else but to be in this place for many hours. You’ll see why so many reviews liken it to a diner in NYC’s Lower East side. Its tiny, cosy, welcoming, yet lets you be all at the same time.

  

Almost every diner at the restaurant ordered the truffled egg toast (£5.50). It is a plate full of decadence and home-cooking all in one mouthful. As is the mac and cheese (£8) that arrives in its own sizzling skillet. Last night we also tried the pulled pork slider (£4.50) – succulent; panzanella (£5.50) – fresh and delicious; softshell crab (£9.50) – dry and avoidable; calamari in squid ink (£8) – delish; and duck ham and pecorino salad (£6) – not so delish. I also highly recommend the eggplant chips with fennel yoghurt (£4) – gorgeous aubergine soldiers with an inspired yoghurt dip.

I don’t usually order dessert, let alone two! The brown sugar cheesecake with grappa prunes (£6) may just well be the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. They also have a cheeky peanut butter and jelly sandwich dessert (£6.50). Look!

  

At Spuntino I feel time stand still. I feel the same way when I think about THE ONE – the one I have been madly in something with for 5 months, 10 days, 2 hours and a few minutes. Now this is a completely one-sided romance, mostly blossoming in my overactive imagination; but I’m not ready to give up just yet. I don’t want to look back and learn from past mistakes, nor move on with life.

Sometimes its not about looking back, or moving forward. Sometimes its just about staying right where you are.

-p

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

6 Comments

Filed under American, Bar, Bar food, Cocktails, Design, Dessert, Diner, Italian, London, Restaurant, Whisky