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

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The Return of the Icons

So, here I am – with the second instalment of iconic food joints across the country.

There was a mild frisson of controversy over the first instalment (read it here) as the venerable JAP pointed out Mocambo had much better food than Peter Cat and a senior colleague was quite distressed that Gajalee hadn’t featured. Well, of course these two (and many others) serve out-of-the-world food but the point about icons is that they are not (necessarily) about food.

It is about the legend.

In an untraceable blend of history, society and serendipity, these places have become part of the folklore of the city they are located in. So, even a person who’s never been to Calcutta will say “I have heard that Shiraz ka biriyani is too good. My co-brother was saying…”

Which brings us to the first name in this list.

Calcutta – Shiraz

A not-so-glitzy shop at the edge of the glitzy Park Street is known as The Golden Restaurant. The adjective probably refers to the golden hue of the rice and potato (Yes! Calcutta biriyanis have potatoes) that arrives in perfect heap on a gleaming white porcelain dish. The chicken biriyani would have one end of the chicken bone sticking out of the rice (to distinguish it from the mutton version, which is a plain heap of rice). I have never seen the biriyani remain on that dish for more than 9 minutes. Be it the democratic open area in the ground floor or the AC section on the mezzanine, people just jump the biriyani the moment it arrives.

Of course, the rest of their fare is magical too. They have a sort-of-multi-layer-sweetish paratha (which is not really a lachha paratha) that – when served with their Chicken Chnaap – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. While writing this post, I realised that I have never had kababs from Shiraz. I have gone through three-and-half decades of my life having tasted only 4 or 5 items of their menu!

Bangalore – MTR

This is one place I was totally unimpressed by. When I was in Bangalore, I could not voice my opinion in the fear of being lynched (or being mistaken for a donkey and sacrificed!). But I am completely convinced about its status as a Bangalore icon.

Its unobtrusive facade. The stern guy at the billing desk. The (waiting) coupon which always seems to have a number in excess of 400. And the queue seems to go on till the end of the universe. Even before you get a glimpse of their overloaded stainless steel thalis, MTR imposes its legend upon you.

Their serving style is old-style Bangalore – suffused with a confident lethargy. They know you’ll wait. They also know the wait will be worth it. So, they stop to sniff the flowers before they let you sniff the sambhar! For people like me – used to inhale full plates of biriyani in 7 minutes – this art is lost but that is clearly my loss.

Bombay – Bade Miyan

This is clearly the one Bombay institution which divides the city right down the middle. Some people think it is over-hyped rubbish while others swear it is manna, dropped straight off carnivorous heaven. Without taking sides, I can safely say that any food that ignites such debate is an icon.

All my brushes with Bade Miyan came immediately after a longish booze session at Gokul (which could well be an icon itself) next door. After finishing the liquor that is served rapidly and cheaply, the steps are a little unsteady when you come out but the hunger is beating a steady rhythm. It is in this state that everybody approaches Bade Miyan. Be it the cheap rum at Gokul or the swish wine at Indigo, this small nondescript shop is an island of protein in a sea of alcohol. And thanks to the inflammable nature of the liquid, Bade Miyan is never short of flying fists around it.

A food joint where fights happen regularly. If that is not an icon, what is?

While on the subject of violence and carnivores, read this post (and the comments with it).

Hyderabad – Chutneys

This is where Chiranjeevi comes for breakfast.

What? You are not convinced it is an icon. You Rajini fans, I tell you…

Located at the triveni sangam of Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills and Punjagutta, Chutney’s is just another restaurant serving dosas, idlis, uttapams and pesarattus to hungry souls. But their Baba Hotel Idli – oh god! Or their MLA Pesarattu… don’t ask me why it is so named. I just thought its because it is as thick-skinned and oily as a MLA!

Like Swagath in Delhi tries to do a Chinese gig to increase menu pages, Chutney’s also thulps in some North Indian delicacies. But I don’t think they ever get any orders of those as people just jump on to the 70 mm Dosa and all will be well with the world.

Delhi – The Big Chill

The wait. The massive menu. The four pages of desserts. The walls jam-packed with Hollywood posters.And the blueberry cheese cake.

The Big Chill serves a mixed menu that draws laughter from critics when it wins prizes for Best Italian at food awards but that’s because that’s the best category they fit in. Otherwise, what prize can you give them. Best Place To Take Girlfriend On First Date award? Or Desserts That Blow Your Mind, Diet and Wallet Award?

In a strange inversion of the demand-supply laws, Big Chill seems to increase demand in Delhi as it increases supply. Every outlet they have opened in Delhi have got jam-packed within 17 minutes of opening the shutters. There are many places in Delhi that serve better Italian food and are quite reasonable too. But nobody packs it in like BC. And that’s one hell of an iconic queue!

BTW, have you ever been to Big Chill and got to sit straight away? Yes? Hi Rahul. Hi Priyanka.

Picture courtesy: Delhi Photo Diary

Crystal, just around the corner no more

Some restaurants are more than that. They are a part of your being, in the sense that they have played a large role in your life at some stage. You have hung out there, waiting for someone special, or with someone special. Or gone back there again and again, to have one particular dish. You associate some extremely important occasion with them, if not many.

This week, I learnt about the fall of not one but two such places. 

The first one is Crystal. To anybody who lives in Mumbai, it is difficult not to have heard of it. For business school grads who are not from the city, their first encounter is in the summers when they are put up in Wilson College and the evening meal is at this hole in a wall establishment. If you have seen it, you would know but for those who haven’t it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t register its existence as you drove past Girgaon Chawpatty on Marine Drive. It is difficult to describe the place from inside. It is as if someone had pressed the Pause button sometime in 1953, and the place froze. There were (yes were!) around  5 tables on the ground floor, and may be another 6 on the mezzanine level. The two were connected through a wooden staircase, which could test any back. The waiters looked as if and probably were there since the beginning – they all were in their late 40s/ early 50s and old world in all ways. The music on any given day would take you back to the Black and White era of Madan Mohan and O P Nayyar. My memory of the music is frozen to one night when I had come after watching a play called The Blue Mug, about some psychologically disturbed people and the song Zindagi pyar ki do chaar ghadi hoti hai was nostalgic to one of the characters . That evening, when I was returning from NCPA, I ate at Crystal and the same song was playing. It seemed as if it had been playing for years.

 The food was drop dead awesome, especially to anyone who has grown up in North India and misses the home cooking. It is difficult to describe how brilliant the dishes were at taking you back to that cooking – and I am afraid it might remain a secret how the cooks managed to get that taste repeatedly. I am sure the secrets included home made ghee, masalas ground on a stone slab and possibly transported from Himachal where the restaurant staff and owner hail from. The owner, to spend a minute on him, was an almost static figure – it seems his job was only to count the money, and return the change – but I am sure he was aware of every single happening in the restaurant. He would sit, without displaying an emotion – except if you turned up just after lunch or dinner hour and he would sternly turn you away signaling there was no room for negotiation.

I have been visiting this place for almost a decade, of course with much lesser frequency lately. As a bachelor, it was almost a haunt, where I would take a taxi from my pad in Churchgate, and queue up for the mouthwatering Rajma, daal, alu gobhi or sukhe aloo. As life got busier and I got married and moved away to the suburbs, the visits became infrequent – though both the wife and I share the love for the place. We would drag every visiting friend to the place, who after their initial shock (at how the place looked) would settle down to enjoy the meal, and the stunning kheer that would follow. We used to have a challenge – to eat for more than Rs. 200 between two people – and I can assure you it wasn’t easy – even for gluttons like me.

Last week, coming back from the Kala Ghoda festival, we stopped their to satisfy a late evening urge for Crystal food. We were sitting in the car and got the friendly waiter to deliver the parcel to the car. He mentioned, to disbelieving ears, that the place might shut down anytime – as the building is being razed down. Today, I discovered a shutter on the place with the chairs lying awkwardly on top of the decades old tables.

There is a small ray of hope –  apparently the cooks have moved to a new version of Crystal at Lower Parel, which is being run by the owners’ daughter. It would not be the same, it never could – but hopefully the food will be. I hear they have got an air-conditioned section. Wonder what the waiters at the old Crystal would have to say about that.

The other bachelor institution that has fallen is Just around the corner at Bandra. I would save that story for another day.

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…