Category Archives: Outdoor dining

Turning pages at Pepper Trail

We are at the stunning Pepper Trail retreat, a 200 acre coffee, tea and spice plantation in northern Kerala. From the moment you drive through the retreat’s gates one is enveloped in a cacophonous hush. Days begin with the sounds of morning dew crashing into leaves, and end with songs of a thousand birds. Time stands still, even as the plantation breathes new life into each day.

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Anand Jayan is a third generation plantation owner and welcomes each visitor as if we were guests to his home. From personalising every single meal and guided tours of his gardens, to offers of coracle rides in their private reservoir – he spoilt us rotten. No request was too outrageous and we were especially looking forward to a cooking class arranged with the plantation’s cook. Mani has been with the family for over two decades and is now the keeper of their several culinary secrets.

I was chopping smoked kodampuli for Mani’s fish curry when WhatsApp pinged his message of rejection. Decades of being turned down doesn’t seem to be practice enough and my eyes pricked with an all too familiar emotion… or perhaps it was the red chilli tadka being prepared for our jackfruit thoran. I was grateful to be standing in a kitchen full of distractions – Mani’s Malayalam cooking class translated into English by Anand’s mother, the vague recollection that kodampuli is often mistaken for kokum, and the desperate need not to cry in front of my younger sister.

The irony of being rejected whilst at one of the most romantic hotels I’ve been to was not lost on me. And so, as I walked up to our treehouse, balancing myself on a ramp that meandered through the tops of enormous jackfruit trees, I swore not to succumb to the seduction of self-pity.

We spent languid days not turning a single page of the several books we thought we would need, only sitting up for the delicious meals that arrived at regular intervals. We feasted on heavenly breakfasts of idiappams and stew, puttu, kadala kari and fried bananas; lunches and dinners of kodampuli fish curry, olan, mezhukkupuratti, and appams and curry; and tea time always included banana fritters and surprisingly awful filter coffee. And needless to say, everything featured coconut. (See end of the post for descriptions of these meals.)

We only managed to drag ourselves away from the plantation’s serenity and steaming plates of food for a few hours. And only to buy some smoked kodampuli and mountains of banana chips. Anand drove us into Sultan Bathery, the erstwhile dumping ground for Tipu Sultan’s artillery. It’s a small town by any standards – we were told that stores began selling ice cream only a few years ago – but large-hearted enough to string new year decorations between temples and mosques. And tolerant enough for the morning azaan to give way to temple bells even as traffic quietened around the churches.

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It was only on the drive back to Calicut airport did I allow myself the luxury of self-reflection. About the kind of pain I was willing to accept in my life. None, you say? Then surely the only alternative is an even more painful ‘what if’. Like not turning the page of a book because I may not like how it ends? As always the Dalai Lama comes to my rescue – seek passionately, let go lightly he says. And let’s keep turning those pages.

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We ate very well…

Idiappam: also called string hoppers in Sri Lanka is a breakfast favourite and a snack. Noodles made from rice flour, and served with sweetened coconut milk or meat/chicken stew. The earliest mention of this food was in the 5th century Perumpanuru as a snack sold on the seashore.

Puttu and kadala kari: A traditional breakfast item for the original warrior class of Kerala, the Nairs. Bamboo-steamed rice and coconut served with a curry of black chickpeas.

Kodampuli: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/02/spice-hunting-kodampuli-gambodge-malabar-tamarind-kokum.html

Olan: A Nair dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk.

Mezhukkupuratti: a delicious vegetable stir fry, always cooked in coconut oil. Ours was a mix of plantains and green beans.

Appam: rice pancake traditionally eaten with meat stew by Syrians and the mixed vegetable dish, aviyal, by the Nairs and Nampoothiris.

(Source for all historical food facts: KT Achaya)

 

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Filed under Breakfast, Coffee, Cooking class, Foodie adventures, Home-style, Hotel, India, Indian, Kerala, Outdoor dining, South Indian, Vegetarian

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.

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Dock Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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

Culina. Just right.

You meet someone who lights up your life. You meet someone who darkens your day. You meet someone and take a leap of faith. You meet someone and wish someone else had stopped you from jumping.

What was I thinking?! And more importantly, how did I get to a place where I let someone else screw up the way I feel about myself? I’ve had a few what-was-I-thinking days in my life but this one honestly takes the cupcake. On a day when everything went wrong, as always, I turned to food… to find a place where everything promised to be right.

Culina, if hotel insiders are to be believed, is Four Seasons first foray into cool dining. These hoteliers are not exactly known for food innovation; but with this LA hotspot they definitely know what they are doing. Beverly Hills isn’t exactly the kind of neighbourhood you would think of as having a ‘local’. But if they had to have one, I vote for Chef Victor Casanova’s Culina. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at less than five star prices, and you are almost always assured of pretty diners in the room. (This is LA after all.) The restaurant is as fancy, or not, as you’d like it to be. An open crudo bar where you can see the chefs at work, servers that look like movie stars, a waterfall and a fireplace (for the two days of the year it gets cold in LA) – this restaurant definitely has the look.

I was seated at a table outside surrounded by beautiful foliage, hypnotised by the warble from the waterfall jumbled with gentle sounds of piped music. The menu was longer than I wanted to deal with and so let my perfectly capable server Caroline make most of my dining decisions, while I enjoyed their softest rosemary bread.

It is almost rude not to start with their crudo. First there was Tonno ($12), ahi tuna tartare delicately laced with ginger and lemon, and then Cappesante ($14), scallops with black truffle. Both arrived looking like jewels on a plate and disappeared before I realised. I resisted ordering the burrata and went with Granchio ($16) a dungeness crab salad with endives and grapefruit. I was tubing down the slopes in Vail not two days ago, and here I was eating a salad that was like summer on a plate. The glass of Erbaluce ($13) Caroline recommended couldn’t have been a more perfect accompaniment.

The menu also has a decent vegetarian section, pizzas, main courses (Kobe meatballs looked especially good), and of course dessert. But today was a day that deserved pasta. I ordered the Spaghetti alla Chittara ($17) – pasta, that was definitely not shop bought, with the most wholesome, delicious, perfect san marzano tomato and basil sauce.

It isn’t like I haven’t eaten better Italian food before. Nor is this the coolest/prettiest restaurant I have been to. A great meal, like a wonderful life, is rarely about one or the other. To quote a cliché, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. And so, at Culina, its universe – of food, décor, service, and spirit – comes together to create an experience where everything worked beautifully. Culina definitely got it right.

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Culina at Four Seasons Beverly Hills on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Crudo, Italian, Los Angeles, Open kitchen, Outdoor dining, Pasta

Perfect

They call Buenos Aires the ‘Paris of the South’. Just like Kerala is the ‘Venice of the East’. Why can’t Buenos Aires just be Buenos Aires? A few weeks ago I wrote about expectations. When something is called the Paris of the South – I expect Paris! Is it then uncool to admit that I didn’t think the city was all that? Probably. Reality did not live up to expectations; did I miss out? Definitely.

I’ve had several Tables for ONE during my visit to Argentina. I could have written from an asado, but steak didn’t inspire any words. I could have also written from the tango cafés of Caminito, but honestly, I did not want words to ruin that experience for me. But when I wander into the stunning Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau I feel the familiarity seep in. The terrace of Los Salones del Piano Nobile is crowded with strangers; the sun begs me to order a sparkling rosé; and I choose my first non-Argentine meal on my last day in the country.

Starbucks represents everything I hate (and grudgingly love) about globalisation. When I sit in a café in Palermo (the Soho of South America, I guess) I want a local brew with dulce de leche.  I do not want to order a vente Mocha with one shot, iced, caramel sauce on the top and bottom, no whip, light on the ice, and 7 pumps of peppermint syrup and have them know how to make it! That said, I also find great comfort in global brands when I find myself in dodgy neighbourhoods in foreign cities. If Starbucks is here then someone knows about this place. This is familiar. I am safe.

There are some things you can rely on no matter where you go.

  • Women will stop at their reflection. Even in the middle of a jungle in torrential rain.
  • A Latino will compliment a woman, no matter what size she comes in.
  • Tourist attractions will serve bad junk food.
  • A Park Hyatt knows how to poach an egg.

My appetiser of lettuce hearts and poached eggs with mustard vinaigrette (ARG $55) was inspirational. The butternut squash soup (ARG $46) that followed, even better. I sat on the terrace for many hours thinking about how perfect this day turned out. I was meant to join a tour but instead started with breakfast at a real, local café; spent the morning watching tango dancers weave their way around the streets of Caminito; and then wandered through plush Recoleta until I found myself on this terrace.

We wait so long for perfection. The perfect rainbow. The perfect man. The perfect city. How often have you missed out on something as you wait for perfection? Or someone?

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Filed under Bistro, Buenos Aires, Outdoor dining, Restaurant