A warm and hearty pocket-of-Pita

Here’s a quick note to recommend the ‘Pita Pocket‘ sandwich (seen above) at Cafe Turtle as a must-try. I will roll the caveat here – for those who are unaware, Cafe Turtle serves vegetarian food. There, that’s the big ‘gastro-mental’ hurdle to overcome. I usually find myself proximate to a Cafe Turtle only when I’m at the excellent Full Circle bookshop (which as a bookshop, is as omnivorous as they come). The last time around, I was not only near Cafe Turtle in the aforesaid manner, I was also near starvation.

The ‘Pita Pocket’ appears near the bottom of the list of Mains at the cafe, and offers a pita bread filled with falafel, lettuce and tomato, with tzatziki dressing. The sandwich was indeed filled with the promised goodness – the bread warm, soft and crumbly crisp, with the lettuce and tomato inside still crunchy. The falafel (2 of them), made with cottage cheese and bulgur wheat (from the menu, not that I could tell while eating it) were warm, dense and melt-y. I would have loved some more of the delicious tzatziki – drizzled liberally as it was on the outside, there was none inside. While it helped preserve the integrity of the stuff inside the ‘pocket’, a bit of tzatziki on the side would only have helped. Maybe I should have asked? So once again, here’s the hero of the piece.

Pita Pocket
Pita Pocket – Cafe Turtle

Hungry as I was, as you can see, I was unable to take a shot of the full sandwich. And I had to quickly take this picture before my other hand reached out for a second bite.

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Mamagoto – go for the food, stay for the vibe

A few weeks back, when the summer in Delhi had still not bared its fangs, we were in Khan Market one weekend evening for a long planned visit to the excellent Full Circle bookshop, followed by dinner in the neighbourhood. And so it was that after the books were bought, we (self, the wife and the two girls) wandered desultorily in Khan Market’s middle arc – the one that most of the restaurants and cafes open their doors to. A few minutes of wandering among sated happy diners and others purposefully striding to their dinner reminded us to decide quickly, it being Saturday evening and nearly rush hour for the dinner crowd. Quickly scanning the lane for a place we had not been to before, Mamagoto (promising ‘fun Asian eating’) caught the eye.

We walked up the narrow flight of stairs wondering how the place was going to deliver the ‘fun’ along with Asian eating. As we reached the first floor (they have another above), the hubbub of a busy, happy cafe hit us. Bright and colourful, looking packed to the gills with chattering customers and waiters snaking to and fro, it looked promising – the only question was, would we find a table? Luckily there was one, and a nice location too – a table for 3 in one corner with a view (ok, of the lane outside and the car park). The place had a casual, cafe-like air, more buzz-y than relaxed, and with no overt Chinese or Oriental restaurant trappings. A waiter sauntered by soon enough, greeted and introduced himself, and handed us the menu.

The menu was interesting, riffing on flavours and techniques across the Orient. To begin with, we ordered a spicy fried calamari to go with a Mojito and a glass of white wine. It turned out to be a great choice of appetiser. The calamari was crisp on the outside, and chewy yet tender as you bit through and spicy enough without overwhelming the rest of the flavours.

Spicy fried calamari
Spicy fried calamari

As we munched through what soon started looking like a meagre serving (!) it was time to order the mains. It being our first visit to Mamagoto, we wanted to sample as wide a variety across the menu as was possible for two adults and a kid (our younger daughter is a little more a year old and so doesn’t count, yet. She spent most of the evening on the windowsill – they have only one high chair for kids and it was taken – or wandering about, looking at large noisy human beings at other tables). We decided to go for an Indonesian grilled chicken with coriander and peanut dip for our elder one, and a teriyaki meal in a bowl with chicken and Chiang Mai train station noodles for us. The name of the last dish was too much to resist, and it promised a khao-suey style preparation – so I guess we couldn’t go wrong.

The grilled chicken was excellent, with the smokey notes of ‘tikka-ed’ chicken mixing well with the slightly sweet and pungent sauce it was cooked with. The dip was nice too, and I used it later to add flavour to my teriyaki meal as well.

Indonesian grilled chicken
Indonesian grilled chicken

The teriyaki and Chiang Mai train station noodles took a while longer to arrive. While we waited, we sipped our drinks and longingly looked at the now empty fried calamari bowl, and wondered if it made sense to order another portion. And while the wine was great, the Mojito was served with ice cubes, instead of crushed ice – not sure that was an innovation that added much. Our friendly waiter was difficult to trace, and when he finally arrived to tell us that the rest of the food was almost ready, he introduced himself again. Blame it on a busy night I guess.

Teriyaki Chicken in a Bowl
Teriyaki Chicken in a Bowl

The teriyaki meal in a bowl was nice enough, with a hearty taste albeit a little low on flavour. The serving was generous and so towards the second half of the bowl I found myself reaching for the peanut and coriander dip to add some spice.

Chiang Mai train station noodles

The Chiang Mai train station noodles were a little disappointing – not bad mind you, but did not quite hit the notes we were expecting it to. Overall, it seemed sweeter and more tangy than it should have been, and low on the rich flavour of coconut milk (Maybe the coconuts are expensive at Chiang Mai station?). The sauce in which the noodles were cooked was quite thick, a little too many fried onions, and heavy on turmeric. Maybe the sub-conscious comparison with khao-suey affected this unfairly, but the balance of the dish seemed a little off.

The buzz at the place was great throughout, with large happy groups of friends and families at most tables – the crowd starting to thin out only around the time we were leaving. Asian eating it was, with hearty portions and certainly a sense of fun. I would certainly go back for the calamari, the Indonesian grilled chicken, and to try some of the other interesting offerings on the menu.

Rating: 3.6/5

Ai nayi: Review of Ai

So as our weekly ritual, we went to spend the Sunday trying to figure out a nice place to eat. I had heard from Prateek that Ai’s Sunday brunch is supposed to be good.

So after I saw Sanctum since, reflexly hubby goes off to sleep after wearing the 3D glasses, we went to Ai. As usual the husband was given drinks menu and me the brunch menu (I wonder why?why can’t women order drinks for men?) Khair, so the menu looked impressive- there was beef, pork,chicken and fish. So started with salad which has 4 types of lettuce -iceberg, green and red, the got 3 sake size little cups of 3 types of soup- miso, miso with tofu and tomato infused with jasmine- this sucked big time! with cold starters of some sort of Sashimi – highly avoidable.

Now time for starters which surprisingly where hot and fresh but again didn’t have much imagination or variety so there were different types of skewers- Pork, Chicken, Mushroom,Fish they all tasted the same as they were dipped in barbecue sauce which is very off the shelf. What impressed me was there was this guy who served us freshly made sushi at our table, so i tried beef, salmon and asparagus. Its a no-go place for vegetarians for sure they have no choice if you don’t want to eat mushroom or asparagus.

Only 1 pre-made sushi was served which again had salmon in it hence, very little choice. Then the main course came so I ordered prawn curry with rice and hubby ordered veggies with noodles- the prawns were unimpressive but the veggies curry was good and the noodles were better than eating plain rice. The desserts had 3 really small portions of creme brulee, some sorta gooey brownie and ice cream hovering around average, with freshly glazed fruits and recommended Darjeeling tea ice cream.

I will give Ai numbers only for style and will recommend that you experience Yum Yum Tree at New Friends colony they are great – the service is good, the food imaginative, they’ll bring all the entrees and dimsums that you would ever want to eat. But let me warn you they don’t serve a main course. So it’s deserts and entrees, dimsums and lots of Jasmin Tea.So the last time when we went everyone wanted to eat noodles also so the cook specially prepared stir fried noodles for us which were so-so but I will give him marks for the effort he put. Also, the Maitre D here is more active and the service never subsides. Recommended food here are their glass dumplings with Prawns and their entree made of pork ribs.

 

Roll over…

You would all agree that for people like us, memories that have anything to do with food are often more vivid than any other. That probably explains the length of this post. It wasn’t meant to be this long but the memories just kept getting sharper and more detailed as I went along and I didn’t know what to omit. It is more of an experience than any review or such but hey, this is a food blog. So I was saying, food memories…being a Bengali, I consciously take an edge in these matters and since the experience I am about to narrate has a strong Bengali connection, even more so.

I was in Delhi last year for Durga Puja. And like all ‘probashi bangalis’, we too did not want to be left behind in our quest to wring out every last drop of the Kolkata pujo feel from our ‘awbangali’ milieu.

It was ashtami night, considered one of the busiest times to go pandal hopping. I’ve always wondered, with only three nights of pujo in the entire year, how can any be busier or busiest? People stepping out on saptami would think ‘ah it’s just the first day…others will go tomorrow or day after…there won’t be a crowd…and we’ll get the freshest food…’ On ashtami, people would think ‘oh tomorrow’s the last day… there will be a huge crowd, if we gotta visit, it has to be today…plus by now we’ll know which food stalls are hits…’ And on navami, people would think ‘since we have been busy (read lazy) yesterday and day before, we don’t have much of a choice…but there’ll be such a huge crowd…my god…hey hold hands while walking…there’ll be too much of shoving and pushing…and we’ll get bad food…oh they’ll fry those mughlai parathas in three day old oil…that too burnt…oh god.’ But I tell you what, it’s all in the head. The number of people belonging to categories ‘saptami’, ‘ashtami’ and ‘navami’ is equal. However what they say about the food is kinda right. The cribbing though lasts as long as the aromas of these fried delights don’t hit the nose. Not strangely, more people throng food stalls than the deity. ‘Arey god’s the same in all pandals… but I’ve heard the rolls here are better than last time…we must try.’

Anyway, without further description, I will proceed with our little food incident that happened on the ‘crowd-wise safe’ ashtami night. We left late – just ma, baba, grandma and me. Minto Road and New Delhi Kali Baadi were our only destinations. Dinner would obviously be had at one (or more) of the many stalls at both. When we reached New Delhi Kali Baadi, the first disappointment hit us. The road outside the temple that used to be packed with food stalls with the most ridiculous spellings of ‘birayni’ and ‘roles’ was starkly empty – (over-hyped) security reasons, they said. Surprising how a harmless mob merely busy satiating their souls and stomachs can cause any sort of nuisance save some scattered tissue papers and cheap plastic cups that will shamelessly be reused. But thankfully before it caused me any further pain, a whiff of something caught my nose. Couldn’t care less what it was, as the smell blared ‘FRIED FOOD’ in my ears. That was sufficient to add a spring to my step and the rest of the distance to the pandal was covered in a dream of digging my teeth into chunky mutton rolls and fish fry in a matter of minutes. Might be sacrilege to most, having non-vegetarian products being served within a temple’s premises, but it is a must-have for us during pujo. Pandals without this will be branded a failure. But such cases are not only rare, they are absent, because such pandals do NOT exist. So after less than 3 minutes inside the pandal, performing the perfunctory darshan, we were headed you know where. Second disappointment now – no mutton rolls or fish fries or biryani. Ok, we found one place that survived without the obvious. All we found were some shriveled vegetable chops that they were refrying. Leftovers from what – last year? My olfactory senses had misled me. Or probably my mind grew a nose of its own – dreaming up mutton rolls and the like out of THIS. With my heart sunk beneath my feet, ma tried to cheer me up by reminding me some foul ice cream memory of the previous year at the same pandal. They had taken the dessert a bit too literally and had probably mixed chunks of ice with sweetened flavoured cream of some sort. This place isn’t really that good for food, she said. You’ll be better off at Minto Road. The wounded soldier rose. And off we were.

I am ashamed to admit that when we reached Minto Road, my eyes, nose and ears searched first for the food stalls. The deity came later. You can imagine the relief when I spotted a limp greasy banner with the words I could have given anything to read – MUTTON ROLLS AND BIRYANI – beckoning to me like an oasis to a parched camel. With my heart back in place but laden with guilt, I prayed to the deity and asked for forgiveness for rating food over her. I was soon to find out whether she forgave me.

Elbowing our way through the crowd that I missed noticing in my search for the stalls, we found ourselves stuck less than halfway through. It would have been impossible to reach any of the stalls serving what I wanted in less than an hour. And I did NOT want the soggy papdi chaats that the bored owners were not even trying to sell at their stalls. What added to my agony were the people crossing us with their hands and mouths circled comfortably around those sumptuous rolls of fried dough, spiced meat, lemony onions and hot chutney – the sight and the smell competing with each other to flirt with me and both winning. My disappointment was almost child-like and the people who had brought me up and were there with me understood exactly what I felt. Waiting for our turn was out of question. The only other option was to snatch one of those rolls from whoever’s hands. But however much I wanted to, I could not bring myself to carry out this act of barbarism in the house of the goddess. I figured she had not forgiven me yet.

Not being able to eat anything at a puja pandal was the worst nightmare ever and tonight it had come true. With feet, knees, legs made of lead, I made my way out with comforting words from my family. Oh, and it was almost 11:30, so the option of eating at a restaurant was pretty much out. But since that was our only chance at getting dinner that night so we had to give it a shot. We went to Gol Market in Connaught Place, which was the closest to Minto Road. As we reached the place, we saw Nathu Sweets, the last to shut there, pulling their shutters in front of our eyes. We didn’t even have to stop the car. Ma baba got bouncing off and striking out options. Don’t even remember the names of the roads but there was this particular one we took where a restaurant served good food that baba had heard about. We slowed down, rather, we had to, because of the crazy number of cars that seemed to suddenly spring out from the road, all headed towards the very same restaurant. There still are hungry people to be found in Delhi at that hour. Good to know. Anyway, a small board caught my eye and I read Gujrati / Rajasthani thalis. I told my folks what I read and we exchanged glances. Beggars can’t be choosers but we begged to differ. If we’ve thought of eating meats, hell, that’s what we’ll do. And this place certainly would take generations to convert. In all probability, it never will. Then suddenly, like a brainwave, ma suggested Colonel’s Kebabs in Defence Colony, about 20 minutes from where we were. I’ve never seen my father driving at that speed. Hah! The things your stomach makes you do. But none of us complained… obviously. On the way, we also crossed Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium that had witnessed the closing ceremony of the CWG the previous day. We expected to see some lights still on but guess they probably thought enough had been wasted already. Baba slowed down a bit for me to try and see some structure or something through a crack in the boards lined along the Jawahar Lal Nehru flyover. He almost started explaining and realized who was he kidding and hit the accelerator and within no time we pulled up outside Colonel’s Kebabs.

My sleeping stomach woke up like a dragon at the first whiff of smoking kebabs and spicy curries. It was dark and I wondered if it was the residual fragrance of a long evening of delectable roasting. For those of you who have not been to Colonel’s Kebabs in Def Col, it is not really a restaurant. It’s a take away joint and there is no entry door. It’s along an inside road of the famous Def Col market. So the only proof that it’s still open is if you spot glowing pieces of charcoal in the grill and meats of all sorts roasting on spits and skewers, which was hard to see sitting in the car. I could only see a few people clearing up a bit. Baba dashed out of the car and was out of sight within moments. But after a painful two minutes, during which a parking attendant tore us a ticket (earning money for his dinner…no, he mustn’t have waited that long to have his dinner like us…maybe breakfast), baba came back in sight. As soon as he realized he had caught our attention, he walked towards us beaming, with both his hands in a gesture of victory, with a flimsy yellow piece of paper fluttering in one of them. It was the menu. We were going to get dinner…

Before I could read the dishes listed, baba ma suggested we go for the chicken reshmi tikkas that they had tried earlier and had loved. And roomali rotis and some spicy chicken curry – forgot the name but it sounded superlatively Mughlai. 30 seconds after he came, he left to place the order. Now was the time to read the menu at peace, imagining and savouring each printed word preparing my stomach for what was to come. The food came in decent time and I was entrusted with the job of holding the piping hot foil packets of tikkas, rotis and curry sitting snugly in a paper bag. Hah! You think that was good enough to stop the fragrance from oozing out? Even if it was, the state we were in, we were capable of smelling out food buried 10 feet under the ground. And so we headed back home, the fragrance from those packets overpowering all the Guccis, Bosses and Ambipures that the car was smelling of earlier. Baba challenged his speed on our way back home. Ma felt sorry for me and said why don’t you start eating in the car itself? I challenged my will power and gulping down copious amounts of drool, said no, I’ll wait.

With the not so distant dream sitting at the dinner table with mouthfuls of steaming chunks of juicy chicken reshmi tikkas and small packets of roomali rotis wrapped around spicy pieces of chicken dripping with golden yellow gravy I closed my eyes with a smile. The goddess had forgiven me…

ZEST (Now Setz)

It was a last minute decision to head to ZEST to celebrate my mum’s birthday last night. We had all along planned to go to the adjoining DLF Mall, Vasant Kunj for a simpler meal, but I remembered at the last moment this super fancy place that had opened up to great acclaim and hype, and I wanted to show my mum a good time.

We arrived at the restaurant (I was wearing flip flops) fully expecting to be turned back (I wouldn’t allow myself in a fine dining restaurant in chappals). I knew ZEST to be super fancy, the new hotspot for Delhi’s elite. Up we went and were met by an army of bouncers/concierges/hostesses. “Do you have a reservation?”, “No”, I said “We weren’t expecting a crowd on a Tuesday evening”. “Can you wait for 25 mins”, he said. “No, we’ll rather go elsewhere. I am not dressed for the place anyhow”, I replied.

But what do you know; five minutes later we had a table. I wonder how the lady wearing a beautiful evening dress and sitting at the sushi bar felt when I walked in with my flip flops (I would be mad as hell, if that happened to me). Heh!

The restaurant allows children, but wasn’t really child friendly. No scratch pad or doodling paper for the restless kids waiting to mess up the food. No smiles by the hostesses acknowledging kids who don’t really understand that they can’t sit at a bar stool and order drinks. The expat bartender however, was wonderful and gracious, who offered my 6 yr old niece the apple juice she ordered.

The air-conditioning here is turned to “frozen”. I suppose this is so that the supercilious staff can carry off two button suits and stare down at the clientele. Aren’t the guests (sorry, paying customers) supposed to feel that way? Charming.

The staff are really silly. Very well dressed and all that, no doubt. The trainees wear white overalls and are the bottom rung of the hospitality food chain (I think they are not allowed to interact with humans). You have the servers (shirt, pants & weird pointed shoes) and then some sort of special people (wearing suits, I don’t know what they are meant to do). And of course the pretty hostesses wearing dresses and makeup and scarves and all that. Very posh, you may say. And I thought so too… except our special suited gentleman had his name tag wrongly tagged (so vineet becomes teeniv). He proceeded to shove the menu at my face, killing whatever is left of chivalry in India- there were two women sitting at the table, who apparently didn’t deserve his attention. I suppose in Delhi, the guy who pays the bills and look at staff in the eye gets all the attention. Ridiculous!

Another “Indian” thing I noticed… the size of the chair (roomy, I suspect, to accommodate for our large posteriors). I also found it strange, and this is typical of all Indian restaurants, that most of the table were built family style; in 4-6-8 configuration. The couple tables were apologetically placed at the far end of the room. So sad, really. I should imagine that restaurants would encourage romantic couples and such (I think, young couples out on dates and anniversary tend to order expensive cocktails and what not).

So anyhow, in due course another brisk lady appeared and shot off a question to my mum “would you like still or sparkling water?” (I burst out laughing, I am sorry, I couldn’t help it). I asked her to get us regular water. But no, it wasn’t going to be that easy. This is a fancy place, remember. Another guy came up with a bottle (I think it was Evian). “Would you like…” No, I cut him off; we have already given our preference for plain old drinking water, thank you. Mind you, by now, I have spoken to/been spoken to by 5-6 different people. Whatever happened to personalised service?

Onto the next disaster… We poured over the menu, and I decided my mum should try the tajine (you know, the Moroccan stew sort of thing). But what do you know, they don’t have it. “Why is it on the menu”, I asked. A shrug was all I got. No worries, could the chef at the Arabic live kitchen please show my mum how a tajine is cooked. “No, we don’t have the tajine at all”, the waiter/trainee/hostess/steward type guy responded. I was beginning to feel angry. Don’t have it on the frigging menu if you don’t have the bloody thing. Or let me know before hand that X & Y are not currently available. And for god sake, take the live kitchen and shove it somewhere. What’s the point of showcasing all the stuff, if people can’t experience it?

Moving on to the next disaster… I asked for chopsticks (I was having a Chinese wok), and they got me a – hold your breath – off the street cheap as hell pair. You know the one that is glued at one end that you have to break open? Remember this is a fancy restaurant with wines priced at Rs117,000 (plus taxes). I mean what the hell? I have better chopsticks at home (someone special sent me a nice collection from Chinatown in NYC, but I digress). I was really shocked. This place pretends to be at the upper end of the dining experience – what were they doing handing out take-out style chopsticks?

Oh, By the way- we weren’t shown a drink menu; I had to beg for one, literally. I am not sure why, maybe they thought we weren’t drinking… but my brother had already stopped at the bar for a beer (and the apple juice for his daughter). Very strange. Earlier, we had waited at the bar for the table to be ready, and shockingly the bar guys made us settle the bill at the bar itself, while we were walking in for food. Inexplicable, don’t you think? And then the final straw, the fancy drinks menu didn’t list any Indian/IMFL booze, yet people all around me were chugging kingfisher (including, eventually myself). Apparently the menu and its owners were too ashamed to actually write Kingfisher and Smirnoff alongside “Maison de pommes bla bla bla” (or maybe there was another Indian drinks menu, which is even worse”


Look, the food was great. The ambience was chic. And so ZEST had a lot of things going for it. But I didn’t like the fact that it wanted to come across as pompous, supercilious and fake. Be real. We are real people. Be nice. Make us smile. I am not impressed by white skin waiters and French wine lists. I am not cowered down by hostesses wearing dresses and ear pieces with wireless headsets walking efficiently around the floor.

Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Zest wouldn’t get a Zagat or a Michelin star, but would certainly win as a superb observatory of the quite revolution that is sweeping our elite.

I wonder what Vir Sahgvi would make of this place….