Category Archives: French

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.

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

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

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).

-p

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

Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Butterflies, just in time for summer

This guy in my office would love everyone to believe he is a serial dater. Day after day he comes in with stories about X from Essex, Y the waitress and Z the hot one. I think he thinks we believe him. When this first started I had no reason not to believe him. I mean, I wouldn’t know how to make time to meet three different dates in the same week, let alone keep track of their lives, jokes and names. But then, that’s just me. This guy is bright, looks alright, can be charming when he chooses, knows a good restaurant, and… is a guy I guess. But as the weeks went on his stories about this supposed quest for love stopped ringing true. I guess what killed it for me was that he can never talk about the excitement jitters that usually precede the prospect of a new something-something.

You can fake a lot of stuff – you can’t fake the feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Everyone probably has their own version of butterflies. For me, I know I am excited about a date when I change outfits at least three times before I meet him. I know he likes me when he doesn’t notice that I have repeated myself – five times. I know I like him when I let him order for the two of us. I know the date is going well when my toes curl as the butterflies finally settle.

I had a toe curling experience recently. No, not on a date – but this came a very, very close second.

I strayed into London’s eclectic East end. Breakfast at the Albion Deli, haircut at Jones & Payne, and then for the highlight of my weekend: lunch at Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Finally!

I have been meaning to eat here since my boss couldn’t stop raving about it nearly 9 months ago. Things happen only when they are meant to, and this Saturday is exactly when this meal was meant to happen. I first visited the hotel that hosts this bistro a few days ago when the charming General Manager Jason Catifeoglou showed me around the Zetter Townhouse (which I have to come back to for many, many cocktails).

The restaurant was quiet. (Apparently, Saturdays are unpredictable.) If I wasn’t travelling on a happy cloud that day I may have reconsidered this option and walked over to the buzzing Modern Pantry next door. But it’s a lovely, bright room, and I got a table by the window that also looked into the kitchen – my favourite kind of table. This is what I ordered:

I started with the foie gras daily special (£9) – I broke my 3-year rule of no foie gras because I wanted to see what kind of magic this chef from the South of France could create. It was pitch perfect. Next came a second starter: beetroot ravioli, rocket salad, fried breadcrumbs and Parmesan (£7.50) – I hate beetroot, love ravioli; this dish is an absolute winner. I finally understand what the “sweetness of beetroot” means.

  

A quiet restaurant means that the chef has a few minutes to drink his apple juice at your table. It will come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for chefs – I would rather spend my day talking to a chef and how he created something than… than, well, anything else really. And Bruno Loubet is amongst the more disarming ones. His stories of regulars at the bistro, how recipes from his cookbooks have been blatantly plagiarised by several, how the new restaurant in Central London is coming along, and cycling to work everyday, made this meal even more memorable.

I then ordered another daily special for my main. My boss in New York never orders the specials. He doesn’t do it because he doesn’t think the chefs have enough time to perfect the recipe. I suppose that makes sense – but when I see a crab special (£18), I can’t not order it.

For my main I had a crab linguine with curry oil. This dish arrived looking like summer in a bowl, and biting this pasta off the fork may be one of the most sensuous things I have tasted in my life. This dish made my toes curl – every single bite made my toes curl.

That’s almost as good as being on a good date.

-p

p.s. Not even the disastrous buffalo milk pannacotta with watermelon and pineapple salad (£6) could ruin my memories of this meal.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bistro, French, London, Mediterranean, Wine

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

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

Date 1: the property guy

Nobody ever tells you how difficult Internet dating is.

At first glance it seems almost too good to be true: you register on a site, write a few bits about yourself and upload a sexy photo. Or if you’re lucky, like I was, good friends will do it for you. My friends Matt & Erica wrote lovely things about what a fantastic person I am and how lucky the man who “gets” me is going to be. Then all I had to do was punch in a few superficial requirements (age, location, photos yes/no) and I got back a veritable buffet of eligible, single men.

When I say buffet, I don’t mean the meagre breakfast spread one gets at a stingy B&B. This is a full on buffet at a Gujju wedding, or at the Bombay Gym New Year’s Eve party. I had a choice of men from every age and stage. Directors and musicians, bankers and consultants, IT guys and property guys… the list is endless, and each one is “tall, handsome, and an absolute catch”. I would be lucky if even one of these would agree to a date.

Too many days of writing to random strangers later I have finally struck up an email conversation with not one but four different bachelors. And I was about to find out what happens in real life.

Date 1 is with the Property Guy (pointless trying to remember their names). If you squint (a lot) he could almost, almost be Mr. Darcy. See for yourself! According to his profile he is:

– An independent soul
– Incredibly genuine, warm, and down to earth
– A country boy
– Likes chatty women
– Is 6’2” tall

In all his emails he has been witty, interesting and thoughtful; then, for our date, he picked a French wine bar I had never been to. I was more than ready to give him many points for originality and initiative. I asked my gay friend what to wear, my married friend what to talk about, and my anti-men friend how to get out in a hurry if I needed to. I was all set, and then the day began:

  • I had to rush to the dentist and have painful cavities drilled and filled
  • Just before the date, I washed my face only to realise that I had left my concealer at home
  • It started raining while I was waiting for him – outside the bar
  • He turned up late and looked like Mr. Darcy’s distant cousin, twice removed

I fought my impulse to run. Most women say “looks don’t matter” (bullshit), so here I was, trying desperately to not let looks matter.  He was also nowhere close to 6’2” tall and I began to wonder what else he was not. Turns out he has father issues, brother issues, sister-in-law issues, confidence issues, looks issues, and we spent more time talking about why I wasn’t constantly out on dates than about anything else.

But every cloud has a silver lining and my silver lining this evening was Le Beaujolais, a tiny, cosy wine bar that is run by two Frogs with Brit accents. And I had a more enjoyable time discussing the wine list with them than my dating opportunities with the Property Guy. Le Beaujolais is also the friendliest bar I have ever been to; everyone spoke to everyone, especially if they were strangers. This made our disaster date a lot easier to tolerate.

The interiors are a mishmash of furniture from the 70s, wine bottles from French wineries and football scarves from… uh, I don’t really care about football. For a wine bar they don’t have a tremendous list of wines by the glass but the owners speak about each one with such fervour that you don’t quite notice that the menu is so limited. I ordered a cheese plate that they didn’t charge me for so I had zero complaints about the service. I only wished that I had zero complaints about the date.

Ok, fine I went in with high expectations… obviously nobody other than Colin Firth will ever be the perfect Mr. Darcy. But that aside, if I had to be honest with myself and with you, I really wasn’t asking for much. I would have liked him to have not lied about his height, and to have remembered conversations from our emails. I would have preferred it if he had not told me, at least five times, how he finds it “difficult to show my feelings and emotions”. And I would have really, really been impressed if he had asked me a single question about me.

I was sparkly, smiley and dressed sexy (ish) – all it seemed to have done was intimidate him and he went running.  But I have to believe that men with balls exist, that I won’t have to subdue my spirit to attract a spirited man, that my gay friends were wrong and a straight man may actually fall in love with me some day! And to help me along, I have the IT guy, the PR guy and the Finance guy to look forward to…

I only wish I had not wasted these gorgeous shoes on someone who did not even walk me to my bus stop.

-p

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Filed under Bar, Date, French, London

A symphony of (Michelin) stars

Yo-Yo Ma is playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (Prélude). I walk into a room that radiates style and substance. It was only when I sat down did I realise that there was no music in the background. The goose bumps on my arms – the room did that all by itself. I am at Daniel, one of New York’s most revered restaurants and my first ever three star Michelin adventure.

An ordinary danger of a “party for one” (as they say in the US) is that ‘the one’ is more often than not settled into a corner. Not tonight. I spent the most electric evening in the company of great food, excellent service, and had the best seat in the house.

I am in New York; the city that demands single women order a Cosmopolitan. But the latest Sex And The City movie has left me disgusted and I could not bring myself to pay tribute to the TV series. The White Cosmopolitan (Vodka, Elderflower Liquor, Lime Juice, White Cranberries) at $19 is a delicious compromise. Its served in a martini glass with a giant ice cube decorated with frozen orchids. The show has definitely begun.

I opted for the 3-course Prix Fixe menu ($105). The sommelier helped me choose two reds that would be perfect with the scallops and beef I ordered. I started with the Louis Jadot Beaune, 1er Cru, 1999 ($25) and went on to the Californian Ridge Santa Cruz Mountain Estate ($25). Both wines were completely luscious.

I am not sure if it was cleavage or charisma but something worked and what followed (instead of standard 3 courses) was a symphony of “with compliments of the chef”. I am no food critic and I would much rather eat the meal than describe the ingredients but I have to make an exception this time. Here is what I was served:

–          Amuse Bouche 1: A trio of beet including roasted yellow beet and beet cured octopus

–          Amuse Bouche 2: Clams with horseradish and pineapple

–          Amuse Bouche 3: Crab salad with Persian cucumbers and sesame coulis

–          First Course: Hazelnut crusted scallops with morels, Swiss chard & pink peppercorns

–          Amuse Bouche 4:  Sesame crusted cod with asparagus tempura

–          Second Course: Duo of Beef: Black Angus Short Ribs and Wagyu Tenderloin

–          Third Course: A selection of 5 cheeses included my favourite  Époisses de Bourgogne

–          Surprise Dessert 1: a strawberry soup with strawberry sorbet and strawberries

–          Surprise Dessert 2: freshly baked madeleines

–          Surprise Dessert 3: a selection of 6 gorgeous petit fours including a pistachio macaron

And as a bonus, my request to meet the chef was rewarded with a tour of the kitchen. Oh the joy!!! Even though patron Chef Daniel Boulud was in the house, the five minutes I spent with Executive Chef Jean Francois Bruel were far more inspiring than the several minutes Chef Daniel spent at all the important tables.

For several reasons, starting with holiday remorse, I had to force myself to go out this evening. There is much to be said about working from the inside out. Tonight, I had to work from the outside in and discovered that it works just as well. So go on, be your best sexy and watch the world smile for you.

-p

Daniel on Urbanspoon

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Filed under French, Michelin meal, New York, Restaurant, Tasting menu