Category Archives: Seafood

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

Sammy the Billingsgate seal, Geoffrey the pigeon & fish we didn’t call Wanda

Fish is my least favourite food (closely followed by okra and cauliflower). The only difference between fish and the two vegetables I was force fed as a child is that I want to like fish. You see, I do like some fish – shorshebata ilish, Hyderabadi pomfret tikka, Goan fish curry. But ask me to grill/fry/bake/steam/poach/curry my own and the meal has always ended in (my) tears (and pizza out of a box).

It’s my Birthday Month and I have decided to gift myself – among other things – the love of fish. It’s a bit ridiculous to ban fish just because I haven’t learnt how to cook it properly. Turns out that all I needed was to spend a fish day with someone who loved fish, cooked fish, ate fish, and was quite a dish himself.

A chance meeting last year with lawyer-turned-chef Edward Smith (aka Rocket & Squash),  somehow led to us spending a day together as teacher and student. In addition to writing a fantastic food journal, Ed also caters events and conducts private cooking tutorials in your own kitchen. Once I made him promise not to even try and make me like mackerel, the world was my oyster… urr, fish market. Careful consultations later we had the perfect Saturday planned. I had just given myself the first birthday present of the year – my first ever private cooking class.

Ed was going to pick me up at 6.20 am (he said he wasn’t a masochist and we didn’t have to get there for the usual 4 am start. I beg to differ.) He had warned me to wrap up, wear sensible shoes and be prepared for freezing smelliness of the Billingsgate Market, UK’s largest “inland” fish market. A few iPhone alarm mishaps, caffeine-deprived map reading, and road works related detours later – we were there!

2013-03-02 08.12.192013-03-02 08.18.11You definitely smell it before you see it! I saw octopus, squid, lobster, and more varieties of fish than I knew existed.

2013-03-02 09.30.502013-03-02 08.32.05

Ed walked me through the stalls explaining the various seafood, teaching me what to look for, and even regaled me with stories about the market’s pet seal – Sammy. Once done with our shopping we popped into their café (so local; so fab) and stopped for a quick chat with one of the fishmongers.
2013-03-02 08.34.34

We then drove to a less malodorous shop – the Chelsea Fishmongers. (I have a feeling I may visit Rex Goldsmith’s labour of love more often than the sprawling Billingsgate for my weekly fish supply.)

A few hours later we were in my kitchen. I even got my very own Rocket & Squash apron and a detailed fish prep manual and recipe booklet. The next two hours were not pretty – I learnt how to skin a fish, clean its guts out, fillet it and cut it in a few ways, always careful not to eat the eyes (they’re bitter you see). Ed was so patient with me – gently helping my knife skills along and filling the class with enough juicy cooking tips and tricks to keep me wide awake despite the ungodly start.

To add to the drama of our day my class was interrupted by pigeon coos. My heart nearly stopped as Ed suggested that the pigeon may be inside my spice cupboard. A hesitant search of my kitchen confirmed that the poor baby – now named Geoffrey by the chef – was stuck inside the chimney!

We had together cleaned and prepped salmon, lemon sole, sea bream and squid. We were finally at the part I was looking forward to most ! The next few hours were magical – Ed taught me how to create delicious meals from the simplest ingredients. He gave me a peek into his world of clever twists to standard recipes. We grilled, stewed, fried and poached our way through six mouth-watering dishes.

2013-03-02 13.25.38

Braised squid with chorizo and butter beans

2013-03-02 13.39.58

Grilled salmon with courgette and broad bean salad

2013-03-02 14.21.33Pan-fried sea bream with fennel and blood orange salad – my favourite!

He also taught me how to make the classic sole à la meunière with a brown butter and caper sauce; proper wilted spinach;  and the most moreish side –  creamed leeks, peas and pancetta.

The best thing about the man – he cleaned up after himself (and me)!

EdI loved this day so much! Ed let me take my time, answered every question, and gave me the confidence to go out the next day and buy more fish. I can now safely say, that fish is no longer my least favourite food.

-p

 

5 Comments

Filed under Cooking class, Fish, Foodie adventures, Seafood

In search of magic. Newman Street Tavern

Contentment kills curiosity that kills creativity. I was trying to draw parallels with the Indian school syllabus… but my friend Sam was talking about my writing. It’s not that I didn’t get what he was saying – of course I did. But I did not like the implications of the argument : I would either be happy, or be inspired to write. That day I was happy.

But I travel around life in circles and it wasn’t too long before scenes of London replaced the lover’s photo on my desktop and sad songs from Grease  ruled my iPod. And my diary is full of scribbles like: So much of Me is locked into You & I still love you unconditionally, but why is it that I cannot love myself?

And so on and so forth.

It’s like I had a nasty gremlin on my shoulder who would not shut up. I tried crying, meditating, chick flicks and reality TV, cooking, then running… When nothing worked I knew what I had to do.

An easy 35 minute walk from my flat is a gastro pub that someone mentioned a few weeks ago. As I stepped into The Newman Street Tavern I felt its plush yellow curtains brush my gremlin away. I immediately loved the dark wood floors and banquette seating (my Achilles’ heel).

The wait staff is beautifully pleasant but not much help with the wine selection. The Mâcon-Loché, Domaine Clos des Rocs (a Burgundy white at £6.50 a glass) that I guessed at was thankfully perfect.

I also imagine that the two looking after me that day had not served too many single diners. They fumbled between too much attention and ages without anyone coming near me.  But that day, I didn’t mind. Depending on whom you want to be on the day, there is enough to distract and entertain you in The Newman Street Tavern. A wall of beautiful photographs that is an appetizer to what you will see on the menu. A gay couple talking love and Kenzo trousers (or was it a love for Kenzo trousers?). A small bar, well stocked. A gossipy family out to Sunday lunch. It’s cosy, approachable, old and new all in one breath.

Their Raw Bar menu looked fantastic: West Mersea oysters, mussels and clams by the pint, and Russian caviar. But I didn’t want to linger too long on my own today and so ordered a main immediately. Red mullet and shellfish bisque (£19) or Woodcock and fried bread (£24). I was hungry enough to eat both, but I didn’t want to linger. Sorry, did I already say that?

I ordered a jig caught squid with seafood broth (£18) and a side of carrot and fennel (£4). The squid arrived looking like a beautiful pearl from the ocean. It was so delicate… I think I mmmed out loud. The vegetables were butterly delicious and I wanted to lick my plate clean.

2013-01-27 16.26.02

Newman Street Tavern may not be the most affordable pub in the neighbourhood, but it has magic powers against nasty gremlins. And their Blood Orange and Campari granita (£5) is especially perfect for a day when you let someone break your heart.
-p

2 Comments

Filed under Bar, Bar food, Gastro Pub, London, Oysters, Seafood

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

5 Comments

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

Cây Tre. Slice of life

My (future) restaurant is still mostly a puzzle. I make up my own fantasies and dine at other people’s dreams, searching for help with my puzzle. A week ago I found a piece.

Never before (not even at my perma fave Dishoom) have I looked at a menu and wanted to order nearly every single thing. I have never been to Vietnam but if the real deal smells even half as delicious as bustling Cây Tre on Soho’s Dean Street, then I want to book that trip very, very soon.

Cây Tre is definitely loud, so depending on your mood you will either find this cosy, candlelit restaurant noisy or lively. Fortunately for me, every single one of the three times (in the same week) I visited the restaurant I was in a good mood. The room is bright, the staff is cheerful and I couldn’t wait to dig into the menu. I am no expert, least of all on Vietnamese food, but I have eaten at enough restaurants to know when someone is compromising authentic flavours to suit the foreign country they are serving their food in. Cây Tre thankfully makes no such concessions. Everything tastes fresh, delicious and when they say spicy, then mean spicy (yes!).

• Grilled aubergine with ground pork (£6) – sublime; the delicate aubergine glistens in a delicious sweet and savoury broth and I ate this dish in one go. I ordered it again; and again.

• Grilled calamari and okra (£8) – luscious calamari; I still don’t like okra.

• Crispy salt and pepper soft shell crab (£7) is better than the crispy salt and pepper frog’s legs (£7.50) contrary to what the tips on FourSquare say.

• Mahi mahi coconut curry (£9.50) is toe-curlingly fabulous; and evoked memories of malvani fish curry from India. It is served with rice and delicate steamed rice pancakes… almost like a neer dosa!

• Roast pork belly stuffed with sweet curry leaves (£10) is succulent with proper crispy skin.

• Com Saigon – a lemongrass marinated pork chop with fried egg & rice (£9) – which I ordered at the waitress’s recommendation was the only disappointing dish. The pork was dry and flavours very common.

Each dish arrives with its own nước chấm (Vietnamese dipping sauce) – the kitchen doesn’t cut corners by bulk producing one type of sauce and forcing it to match every dish on the menu. The Kim Chi (£4.50) is very good and bursting with ginger.

I found the wine list average and the desserts didn’t impress either. I had the coconut ice-cream (£3) the first time but stayed with the Vietnamese Iced Coffee (£2.90) every other time. The coffee is lovely and strong but could do with still more condensed milk.

The more I think about it the more I want my restaurant to feel like the perfect first date. A date when you can’t recall specific details but walk away knowing that everything was just right. The menu will give you butterflies of anticipation, the music will romance the design, the service will be flirty, and when you take that first bite it will be love. For that moment at least.

-p
Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

2 Comments

Filed under London, Restaurant, Seafood, Vietnamese

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

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

2 Comments

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