Category Archives: Wine Bar

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

Circle of friends. A Birthday Month celebration

I turned thirty in London. It was a potentially horrid day – not only had I seen enough girlfriends turn thirty, depressed and surly, it was going to be the first birthday I would spend with absolutely no family or best friends with me. Until this year I never really gave birthdays much thought beyond presents, guest lists and a dress budget.

There wasn’t much I could do about turning thirty but I was determined not to get depressed or surly. So I came up with Birthday Month – why wait an entire year for just one day when I could celebrate an entire month filled with my favourite things? This year Birthday Month featured a day on London Underground’s Circle Line. The original version of this concept included youngsters getting out at every stop on this tube line for a pint. Instead, I picked favourite restaurants, cool bars and added a few boozers (as homage to the original concept). I also made up a few rules:

  • Eat or drink only one thing at each stop.
  • Everyone must have one alcoholic drink at least every third stop.
  • We won’t stop at every stop…
  • …and may walk for some of the journey.

Emails sent, announcements tweeted, phone calls made… this Table for One was looking forward to sharing her table with a new circle of friends.

Stop 1: Liverpool Street: Dishoom Shoreditch

I was seven minutes late for our 11.30am start, and boy was I glad not to be punctual. Arrive on time and I would have missed out on this debonair welcome party!

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Stop 1 had us eating Bacon Naan Rolls (Nayan, Martin, John and Thomas), Vada Pav (Naman), Nankhatai and Jeera Biscuits (Serena) and Akuri (me), There were also many cups of chai, a bloody mary and a few Kingfisher beers on the table.

I may have said this before but I’ll say it again. Dishoom’s Bacon Naan Roll is one of the most delicious pieces of genius I have ever tasted. A fluffy naan, crispy bacon, chilli jam and cream cheese. What’s not to love?!

Stop 2: Farringdon: Vinoteca

My original choice for this stop was Burger & Lobster but they didn’t open until 4pm and we had to improvise. Many thanks to our resident winemaker Nayan, for suggesting Vinoteca. It was only right that he chose our drink for this stop – a beautiful prosecco that went down (too) well.

A common Twitter acquaintance introduced me to Nayan Gowda and my first meeting with him was spent in a (different) wine bar. I have to admit, that if you had asked me then whether Nayan and I would become friends, my honest answer would have been no. He was charming beyond words and I spent the entire afternoon wondering if I may be a tad boring for him. Our worlds seemed so different… until I decided to take us both out of these tiny boxes I had trapped us in. Today I am thrilled to be able to call Nayan a friend. A great one.

Stop 3: King’s Cross St. Pancras: Wine Pantry

The Wine Pantry is the cutest new wine and spirit bar and serves purely British products. It is also where I came up with my version of the Circle Line day. We lost Serena to a working Saturday, and were now the Joy of Six who drank Sheep Dip Whisky (John), Old Salt Rum (Naman), Kernel IPA (Nayan), sparkling wine (Martin) and Rhubarb Chase Vodka (me). Thomas cheated and brought in a coffee from next door. Thomas Mielke is my most grown up young friend. From our first holiday together (Budapest in 2007) to our forthcoming trip to NYC (next week) he has been an unwavering pillar in my life. I have not felt so close to someone I am so dissimilar from. Six years later we sometimes resemble a crotchety old couple, and have agreed to disagree on many things (except perhaps my drawing skills).

Just as we were ready to leave we were joined by newlyweds Giulia and Sandy. We were now the Hard Eight!

2013-03-16 14.11.54Stop 4: Euston Square: Mestizo

We had every intention of walking to Euston Square. London rain had other plans for us and the Hard Eight took a rather long tube journey for a rather short distance. Mestizo, one of my favourite Mexican restaurants in town, was chaired by my favourite bartender John Leese. I first met John when he was making cocktails at the Match bar across from my office. Short version of our story: I flirted, he asked for my number, I gave it to him, he took two years to call me!

We may have never been on a date but (now that I have forgiven him for taking his time to call me) I know I can count on John. And I don’t just mean for good cocktails.

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John ordered the group (except Thomas who chose beer, and Martin who wussed it out with water) shots of Olmeca Altos tequila. But this beautiful tequila deserved sipping, and we all had strict instructions not to touch the salt or lime. John seemed to need a personal moment with this drink – as a result of which we got a mini master class (and iPhone-aided slideshow) on agave, mezcal and tequila. We ordered the customary guacamole (photo above by star photographer Giulia) and all agreed that today it was infinitely inferior to the free salsa and chips at the bar.

Stop 5: Great Portland Street: Queen’s Head & Artichoke

Grey clouds gave way to a burst of sunshine and we walked to Stop 5. Giulia and Sandy left us for furniture shopping and we were joined by a frozen Laxmi. It was a round of Timothy Taylor’s ale for everyone at Queen’s Head & Artichoke – a beautifully restored Victorian pub with the friendliest staff I have seen at any pub in the city, and a much needed fireplace.

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Stop 6: Bayswater: Mandarin Kitchen

We lost Thomas to a phone call and John to his job. What you have now, ladies and gentlemen, is the final group that will from hereon be known as the New Famous Five.

It was 4pm and I was craving MSG. The original plan for an Egyptian meal at Edgware Road was abandoned for greasy Chinese at Bayswater. Naman took care of the veggies (aubergine and tofu fried in garlic), Nayan ordered the minced pork with red chillies and Martin made an executive decision about an oyster omelette. All shockingly delicious, considering our location.

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What was shockingly un-delicious was Naman’s choice of rice wine. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and so….

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This momentary lapse in judgement aside, Naman Ramachandran’s expertise in food and drink cannot be faulted. I first met Naman nearly ten years ago when my mother published his first book Lights Camera Masala. I have only recently reconnected with him and his fantastic better half Laxmi Hariharan. Many weekends are now spent cooking in each other’s kitchens and I am especially looking forward to my birthday lunch of real Bengali food, personally guided by half-Bong, Naman.

Stop 7: Notting Hill: Kensington Wine Rooms

After the ghastliness our palates were subjected to at the last stop, we demanded proper wine. Good thing Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Wine Rooms’ extensive wine by the glass menu were only one tube stop away. Nayan took charge again and ordered us a delicious bottle of red. I wish I could remember which one it was… It’s the seventh stop and the rules have been well and truly abandoned. Nayan spotted a South African wine made by his friend and ordered a second drink!  We’re definitely not yet drunk but the New Famous Five were now reduced to giggles for pretty much the rest of the day.

Stop 8: South Kensington: Comptoir Libanais

We were hungry again – the Chinese meal had not made a dent in anyone’s appetite. Thankfully Laxmi’s hummus cravings began exactly when we were whizzing past South Kensington and its Comptoir Libanais branch. I have nothing against chains except that unfortunately most abandon any hint of taste or flavour in favour of mass-produced mediocrity. Comptoir Libanais is thankfully different. The hummus and falafel were excellent, Martin, Nayan and Naman were happy with their arak and I loved my Mona cocktail with rose and prosecco.

I announced a new rule at this stop – no phones. So we had no photos, tweets, or people disappearing from the table. For the first time all day I had the chance of a proper chat with Martin. I don’t know if my words can do justice to our relationship. In the six months I have known him, Martin has seen me experience great joy, hit rock bottom, reach out to him, and shun his help. All through this he has been a rock and the best mirror I could have asked for. What more can a girl want? (p.s. Martin Lumsden outblogged me with his artistic view on our Circle Line day; read here.)

Stop 9: Victoria: The Shakespeare

You don’t get more touristy than The Shakespeare at Victoria station. The pub was filled with St. Patrick’s Day revelers and we got our very own four leaf clover.

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Stop 10: Embankment: Wahaca Pop Up

I have a soft spot for Mexican food (it’s the only cuisine to have featured twice on this Circle Line day) and all month long have been looking forward to Wahaca’s pop up on South Bank, and more specifically its fried grasshoppers.

Wahaca is the only restaurant in London to serve this Mexican delicacy. The grasshoppers have an earthy taste flavoured with garlic, smoky chipotle chillies and lime, and served as a baby lasagne smothered with cheese. The insect eaters in the group were not too impressed. There was just not enough grasshopper (or maybe way too much cheese) to have a real notion of what grasshopper must really taste like. Even the other dishes we ordered – guacamole, mushroom quesadilla and pork pibil tacos were strictly average today. We are all Wahaca fans and can only write this off to limitations in their pop kitchen.
2013-03-16 21.42.25The tamarind margaritas on the other hand were ace as usual and Nayan and Martin approved of their mojitos.

One of my favourite views of London is on the walk between South Bank and the Embankment tube station on the Hungerford Bridge. I’m glad this Circle Line day ended here, with my circle of friends, exactly 12 hours since it began.

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I have now had six Birthday Months and wonder why I was so worried about not being with family and best friends. Life always does come to a full circle. It doesn’t happen the way you planned it. But, always better.
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You can view more photos from the day here.

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Birthday Month, Brunch, Chinese, Cocktails, Foodie adventures, Lebanese, London, Mexican, Oysters, Small Plates, Street food, Wine, Wine Bar

Planet of the Grapes

The first wine dinner I ever went to was at Bombay’s Indigo restaurant. Chef Rahul Akerkar’s food was sublime, but what I mostly took away from that experience was: “snob fest”. There is only one word that describes the ponciness that surrounds most wine events in India – contrived (and poncy, I suppose). My lovely friend Rajeev Samant and Sula are doing a lot to change that but…

Now in London, I’ve experienced less ceremony around wine. It’s easy and accessible and one is allowed lecture-free dislike of something they have tasted. One of the first fun wine events was when my friends Matt & Erica invited me to their annual blind tasting party. As the only Indian guest I offered to bring an Indian wine. And so began my search for Sula in London. I looked far and wide and many unhelpful wine stores later experienced the relief (and subsequent joy) of meeting Matt and Marc at Planet of the Grapes.

Our relationship began five years ago and they have remained my most generous educators in all things wine… reminding me to always, always have fun above everything else. And to not always choose a wine by its price.

I recently visited their Bow Lane bar for an Etienne Guigal tasting, and Stef the Chef had food to match. For all the vintages of wine I have ever drunk, I cannot speak to you in “wine notes”. I cannot speak of barrels, oak, nose, nor ear. And so, what I have here is the scene each sip evoked:

On Arrival : Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2011 (canapés)
Utter dread. I was the only person who had come to this shindig on my own. This usually isn’t a problem, except on this occasion it turned out that every one of the 20+ diners knew each other. There is only so much bag-adjusting, floor-staring, pretend-phone-talking one can do. Consequently I hated the bready canapés and the wine.

First Course: St. Joseph, Blanc, 2009 (filo wrapped Pollock, courgette, piquillo peppers)
I was seated with a smaller group of strangers to deal with. Fortunately they turned out to be fun and funny. With the first sip of this wine I felt myself relax into this meal. It tasted of honey, and summer afternoons on a hammock. The starter was a burst of flavours at first bite. Wow – those juicy peppers!

Second Course: Crozes-Hermitage Rouge, 2007 (potted Welsh-black oxtail)
The oxtail is among the most flavoursome cuts of beef (and inexpensive too). Stef’s potted oxtail was nearly half a day in the making and caused major oohing and aahing at my table. I wasn’t a fan and the wine reminded me of eating mud as a child (not the fun memories but the after effects of having been found out). Both the food and the wine left me wishing for a second starter. I did love the tarragon and fennel salad it came with, but the next course could not come soon enough.

Third Course: Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, 2005 (char-grilled onglet steak, potato gratin, braised Swiss chard)
NOW we’re talking! Stef originally wanted this course to be some kind of game. Unfortunately it was too early in the year for that and so he prepared a classic onglet steak as, in his words, “a savage feast”. This cut of beef sits quite close to the liver and kidneys, and so has a musky offal tang to it. Drinking the wine was like flirting at the Candlelight Club. Or in Paris. This entire course was rich, flavourful, and very sexy.

Cheese Course: Chateau D’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie, 2001
I was in heaven. No… better. I was kissing my favourite boyfriend in front of a fireplace in Le Portetta in Courchevel. I couldn’t tell you what cheese was served, and frankly, I didn’t care. The absolute joy that came in this glass was all consuming.

2012-09-18 21.26.14Back on Earth, the gentleman from Guigal guided the entire evening with anecdotes and tasting notes. While I didn’t quite enjoy that part of the evening I realised soon enough that I didn’t have to. Even though the Planet of the Grapes has an extremely serious selection of wines, it also has a wonderful sense of humour about itself. Enough to put even the reluctant novice at ease.

As the evening wound itself down I found myself not wanting to leave this crowd. Funny how that happened. I guess all it took was for me to allow myself to have some fun. To choose not to feel intimidated. To trust that my good friends at Planet of the Grapes would have never asked me to something they didn’t think I would enjoy.

I didn’t really want the biscotti from the tasting menu, and so I charmed two other Planetarians, Beans and Fabio, into bringing me dessert instead. I ended the evening with Stef’s handmade peach sorbet and white chocolate ice cream. I ended the evening feeling like a five-year old girl doing jumping jacks in her pyjamas.

Joy.
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Filed under Bistro, Foodie adventures, London, Wine, Wine Bar