Category Archives: Mediterranean

The White Owl. An addendum

I have so far never posted an addendum to a blog post. I have honestly never needed to. A recent revisit to The White Owl however was so underwhelming (for my guests) and embarrassing (for me) that I feel the need to share my second experience of their special menu.

We ordered six dishes, sent back three and barely touched what was left on our table. Given that it took them 45 minutes to bring out the appetisers we didn’t have the time (nor the energy) to request the kitchen to read up Nikhil’s recipes and fix the dishes. These were the low points of our meal:

Raw & Ripe Mango Salad – the version we got yesterday was bland, the dressing completely diluted with barely a hint of the soya and chilli. The salad was swamped with so much tasteless papaya that we had to hunt for the raw mango. I sent my half-eaten dish back. A few minutes later the chef was kind enough to send another – this had less papaya and a spruced up dressing. Much, much better – but still a far cry from what I tried at the tasting.

Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad – the leaves were soggy and warm; the shrimp were neither cold nor hot and my guests did not enjoy the temperature nor texture of this dish in their mouth. This dressing too was diluted with no distinctive flavour of anything.

Sweet Bell Pepper Roulade – I had rated this as a real stand out dish in my first blog post. What arrived instead was a gloopy mess (see the before and after photos below). The pesto was bitter with none of the creaminess of the nuts I tasted the first time. The peppers were soggy, as was the barley. The barley filling which was such a hit at the tasting didn’t have any of the original bite.

IMG_7621               photo 1 (2)

 

 

 

 

Plum-glazed Chicken – the menu describes this to be accompanied with a “sauce”, however what arrived was a watery curry with the same uncooked and tart flavours that one gets from ready sauce pastes. We couldn’t taste any of the sweetness of the plums and the chicken was so rubbery we couldn’t chew it at all. The accompanying rice was meant to have a lemongrass flavour. If it was there it was so hidden that none of our palates could find it. This dish was sent back.

Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth – again, this dish was not a patch on the version served at the tasting. I remember the broth being light, fragrant and bursting with umami. What we got was an over-salted curry with no trace of saffron. The clams were not cleaned properly – we could barely chew it for the pieces of shell that kept coming in our mouth.

photo 2 Brioche Mac & Cheese – I cannot begin to express my disappointment with this dish. The menu describes it with “grana padano, gruyere, aged-cheddar, pickled cucumber & fresh jalapenos”. I was expecting a moreish, gooey mound of pasta in its cheesy sauce, piled onto a brioche. What arrived was an ugly mess of over cooked pasta with a bland cheese sauce dumped on top of it. The cheese had already started to congeal by the time the dish arrived at my table. This dish needs a lot more love – and some salt. The brioche was a disappointment as well – dry and stodgy. This dish was also sent back.

I am not a restaurant chef, and some may argue that I don’t have the experience to make comments on flavours. The chef argued that she cooked the exact same recipes that I had loved barely a week ago. I don’t want to argue – but the fact is that what the chef sent out yesterday was a far cry from the tasting that was organised for us.

We explained all this to the chef who was kind enough to waive the food bill. We didn’t have the heart to try our luck with dessert.

I can only conclude that the kitchen has not stayed true to Nikhil’s recipes, and that’s a damn shame because Nikhil’s flavours are hard to beat.

-p

My first impressions of this menu are here.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

The White Owl. A friendly lunch

After seventeen years of jobs, I took back a year of my life – to sit still, to go places; to stop working, and to start working at living; to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. A year to put me first.

I travelled, made peace with change, accepted that I will never make peace with Bombay’s traffic, and a series of such-a-small-worlds later, found myself adopted by a most fun loving group of friends – a chef, a PR machine, a wine maker and photographer, a rockstar comedienne, a brand genius, a fair trade enabler… The fact that each one of us plans life around food also sort of guarantees that this is more than just a passing flirtation.

Nikhil Merchant is a food writer, flavour master, and all round sweetheart. It was love at first food-chat for Nikhil and me, and over the past few months he has become my go to guy for all flavour dilemmas. Nikhil’s cooking is instinctive, his food combinations imaginative and cocktails sublime. Under his foodie brand Nonchalant Gourmand, Nikhil recently collaborated with a Bombay bistro – The White Owl – to create a menu of his favourite flavours of the season. I was invited to his first chefs table where we previewed his culinary collaboration with the bistro’s chef Kshama Prabhu.

WallAs a recent vegetarian I have to admit that eating non-Indian food in Bombay’s restaurants has been uninspiring and often unpalatable. Unimaginative chefs either flood the menu with iterations of potatoes, or force paneer and tofu to play substitute to their original choice of non-vegetarian protein. Nikhil and Kshama’s menu is encouragingly different, with over 50% of the menu letting a vegetarian food take centre stage.

I started with Purple Yam Batons, fried crisp and wrapped around a stick of sugarcane.

See what I mean? When is the last time you saw either yam or sugarcane as the star of a restaurant dish? The appetiser is let down by an overly eggy herb aioli, and I would have preferred a fresh, non-creamy dip to balance the buttery, sweet yams. Next on my plate is a French classic – Oeufs en Meurette. The eggs are perfectly poached, and served with moreish slices of garlic toast. I did not like the red wine they chose but was in the minority on this one.

As we soldiered through the menu I realised that my moans about the starters would be my only grouse that afternoon.

The salad of Raw and Ripe Mangoes is my absolute favourite mango dish of the season. Fresh Alphonso and slivers of green mangoes were dressed in a zesty combination of soy, red chillies and peanuts. The salad alone is reason enough to revisit the awkwardly located White Owl.

IMG_7619The main course veggie choices were Blue Cheese Quiche and Bell Pepper Roulade. My choice (of the quiche) was a no brainer; blue is my favourite cheese, and besides who wants to eat a roulade? How wrong was I!

IMG_7620The quiche was perfect – a herby, blue cheese topping lovingly baked on a flaky pastry. But the revelation of the meal was the roulade, served with a generous dollop of an inventive arugula pesto. The sweet bell peppers, unrolled a filling of cheesy barley, and crunchy greens. Never again will I judge a book by its old fashioned cover.

IMG_7621The non-vegetarians on our table were most impressed with the Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad and Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth.

Not for one moment did I wish I were eating meat, nor did I feel that the chefs had made grudging allowances for veggies on their menu. I want to come back for the Green Apple Galette, Brioche Mac and Cheese, and Pumpkin Gnochhi Casserole.

I don’t have a sweet tooth but the table was was mighty impressed with the offering. The Fig, Chocolate & Kaffir Lime Mille-Feuille is a perfect display of Nikhil’s love for playing with flavours and Kshama’s pastry skills. The Kaffir Lime cream is rich and lends a heady scent to the dessert; but I wonder if it would have worked better with a different fruit? One that was lighter than the dense combination of fig and cream. I preferred the Alphonso Crepes – totally scrummy.

photo 1Nikhil’s menu launches at The White Owl from June 2nd for two months.

I hope this is the beginning of many such adventures in India where we will see menus that let the ingredients shine; restaurants that don’t give in to gimmicks; and chefs that find the courage to cook with their heart. Here’s hoping I meet more chefs like Nikhil and Kshama, chefs that put food first.

-p

Disclosure: The meal was a preview and I was a guest of the restaurant. Neither their generosity nor my friendship with Nikhil has compromised my opinion on their food in any way.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

Nico Bombay. Style over substance

Me:                        “What is that white cream?”

Waiter:                 “One moment ma’am, I will send the manager.”

Me:                        “What is that white cream?”

Manager:            “It’s part of the dish ma’am.”

Me:                        “Uh… OK, but what is that white cream?”

Manager:            “It’s the aubergine paste.”

Me:                        “I think that is the brown smear under the white cream.”

Manager:            “It’s a clam paste ma’am.”

Me:                        “That would be another item on the menu.”

Are you exhausted yet? Multiply this with 100 and you may come close to my exasperation during lunch at South Bombay’s newest restaurant.  Just back from London, a restaurant serving non-Indian food would not have been my first choice; but I was going to meet a real Bombay food blogger, Prachi Joshi of Deliciously Directionless, and didn’t let the small matter of cuisine get in the way.

I had to read other reviews to understand Nico Bombay’s style of food – Modern European apparently – because neither the staff, nor a studious review of the menu, with an odd mix of roast chicken, Kadaifi wrapped prawns, and pizza, revealed anything.  Nico Bombay will focus on fresh ingredients (!), locally sourced (!!). Even though there is nothing local about Italian burrata or Hungarian salami I hope they are serious about the other ingredients being fresh.

We were welcomed with complimentary glasses of Zampa Sparkling Wine (if you haven’t tasted this yet I would recommend you stay far, far, away), but the restaurant had no filtered water for its guests. We were asked to buy a bottle – costing Rs. 150 – if we were thirsty. Not the kind of start I was hoping for.

We ordered three mezze and one Neapolitan flatbread (not to be confused with pizza, even though it arrived looking like one). And this is what we subjected ourselves to:

Smoked sardines, aubergine compote on sourdough toast (Rs. 375) of white cream fame. The white cream turned out to be a sardine paste, and so this dish which had such promise turned out to be a sardine overload on a piece of toast that was definitely not sourdough.

Veal tenderloin, tuna tonato (Rs. 400). I think they meant tonnato. Just as I’m sure the chef meant to add salt to the veal, and anchovies, capers and lemon to the tonnato. This classic Piedmontese dish arrived on a piece of slate, looking great and tasting of nothing.

Pulled goat meat, red onion, micro greens (Rs. 275) –   such a wonderful choice of meat, maybe inspired by a current global trend for pulled pork buns. It was not the most tender of cuts, but this was the best thing we ate today. And they weren’t kidding about the greens being “micro”.

Ciro: Bocconcini, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Hungarian Pic (k) Salami (Rs. 600) – where do I start with this pizza, uh… sorry, Neapolitan flatbread? I can rarely resist a dish that promises oven roasted tomatoes. A simple oven can coax even the most stubborn tomato into a luscious sauce so I am not sure why the chefs at Nico Bombay chose to create a tart, sloppy mess. We’re not sure if the bread was tough or the knives blunt, but had to throw in the towel a few mouthfuls later.

We left without dessert and treated ourselves to the fantastic coffee and cakes at Kala Ghoda Cafe around the corner instead.

I am quite willing to look past average food at a new restaurant, but when that is coupled with shoddy service, I find no reason to be kind. The waiters didn’t know their burrata from their elbow. We did not finish a single one of the dishes ordered but not one of the three waiters, one bartender, one manager, or two owners present in the restaurant at the time cared to check if there was a problem. Considering we were one of only four tables occupied, it could not have been because they were busy.

I should probably say something about the décor, but a designer we bumped into on our way out said it best, “It’s wonderful that the city’s Art Deco elements are brought into the restaurant; but the space is clearly designed as a bar for the evening.

Uncomfortable as we were in the director’s chairs, the meal wasn’t a total fail. I met a new Bombay person! Prachi and I, probably brought closer by the trauma of the meal, bonded over a shared disbelief over “food critics” who cannot cook, hilarious stories of Internet dating, and a mutual love for Italian holidays and Shah Rukh Khan.

-p

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Filed under Bombay, India, Italian, Mediterranean, Open kitchen, Pizza, Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

Great expectations

I’ve often admonished my mother for putting people in boxes: He’s gay, must be artistic. She likes eating out, must be a foodie. He’s gujju, must be vegetarian.

I’m too harsh. I choose to ignore that maybe she needs these boxes to manage her expectations. Far too often we are told not to expect anything of anyone; apparently, we cause our own heartache by expecting the next person to behave a certain way.

I expect to be included in my childhood friend’s wedding. She expects the vows she made that day to stay true forever. My sister expects me to have answers to all her questions. I expect my new crush to notice me.

So what happens when this doesn’t happen? When a marriage ends in divorce; when siblings don’t stand up for each other just because they are related; when a star chef’s new menu doesn’t dazzle you. What then?

Nopi (for North of Piccadilly) has received only good reviews. Even those who hated it, loved it. I was SO excited about Sunday lunch at Ottolenghi’s new restaurant in Soho. Having spent many happy meals at his kitchen in Islington, I was glad for something closer to home. Gold lamps reflect brightly off the whitewashed and tiled walls, the furniture is simple and waiters, smiley… Nopi’s dining room is like summer.

I started with a North African breakfast dish – Shakshuka – poached eggs with red pepper and tomato (£8.50). The eggs were okay – the tomato was too tart and eggs not eggy enough for me. I moved on to a Kingfish carpaccio with a spice rub (£10). This is an oily fish and really did not need the generous drizzle of olive oil. I couldn’t finish this overpriced dish except for the salad and samphire decorating the plate. I was beginning to lose hope… and ordered a cocktail to help lift the spirits on my table. The grapefruit and lychee cooler with vodka, and mint was clearly the wrong choice. I paid £10 for what mostly tasted of grapefruit juice and lime.

This is not what I expected. I had all but lost hope and then saw burrata on the menu.  Burrata would have to be on my Top 3 cheese list, and Nopi serves it with blood orange and coriander (£12). This Israeli-born chef has single-handedly changed the way I eat vegetarian food – and this dish reminded me exactly why. Finally, a dish that is pitch perfect! Just as I started to smile at my plate again a surly manager asked me to put my camera away. I ordered dessert (sultana financiers with brandy cream (£6.50), but it was too late. Nopi had let me down.

Or did I let myself down by expecting so much from one meal? Should I want less? Concede more? I don’t know the answer yet. What I do know is that my sister’s expectations of me have made me a better sibling. Her expectations of what she wanted for herself have made her a stronger woman. My expectations from a friendship has given my friend the confidence to make demands of me. For now, I want to wait for those moments when not only does someone meet my expectations; they surpass them. I have great expectations.

-p

NOPI on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Breakfast, Brunch, London, Mediterranean, Restaurant, Soho London, Tapas