No, I did not embark on an eating tour of India. That would have taken months, if not years. We were on a three week trip to India primarily to attend my nephew’s marriage in Mumbai and to visit our daughter who is just finishing up a posting in Delhi. In the course of our stay we visited Mumbai, Mahableshwar, Pune and Delhi and this is an account of our gastronomic adventures there.
What with all the pre-wedding get togethers, wedding feasts and post wedding celebrations we did not eat out too many times in Mumbai. One restaurant that we visited and enjoyed was Gajalee , a Vile Parle eatery that specialises in the cooking of Goa and the Konkan Coast, espescially fish dishes. Having been there last year, we knew exactly what to order. We started out with the Bombay Duck, that improbably named fish: melt-in-your-mouth fillets coated in a light egg batter, deep fried but almost greaseless and impossibly light. We followed that up with a killer shrimp pulao , curried kingfish ( isvan), an excellent mutton curry , amboli ( fluffy multi-grain pancakes) and tandoori chicken. A vegetarian member of our party ordered a tofu dish and pronounced it very good; I ‘ll have to take her word for it since I was bingeing on the fish and the mutton. The tandoori chicken I thought was overly spicy and nothing special. We all opted for sol kadi, that delicious, slightly sour concoction of kokum extract and coconut which is the only proper accompaniment for such a meal. I am told that Gajalee also serves an excellent mutton thali but you cannot order it in the A/C room where we were seated. Perhaps next time. Desserts ( chocolate cake, blackberry flavored mousse cake etc) were good if a little incongruous since they did not complement the coastal food that is the standard fare at Gajalee.
In Mahableshwar, we stayed at the Fountain Hotel, an all inclusive resort with breathtaking views .The food was mainly vegetarian and Gujarathi style in deference to the mostly Gujarathi clientele. I must say it was excellent and , of course plentiful. Most meals were served buffet style except for one meal which was a sit down dinner. Breakfast consisted of idlis and vada sambhar /chutney, upma ( sometimes), puri bhaji , toast and jam, fruit etc. Other meals had the full complement of Gujarathi cuisine with dhokla, patra,oondhiu, batatu-nu shak, flower-vatannu shak,kobi nu shak, chapati, thepla, khichdi, pulao,meethi daal, kadhi and ,of course, a variety of desserts. All dishes were of a high quality but it was too much of a good thing. We soon felt bloated and craved a change. Off we went to The Grape Vine , a Parsi eatery in fromt of the State Bank offices in the center of town. It was a funky place and we were seated in the mezzanine which offered a bird’s eye view of the rest of the small restaurant.We ordered beer and flavored fruit drinks as we waited for our food to be prepared and served. Parsi food , at it’s best, can be very good; moderately spicy with distinctive flavors. It can also be blah, bland and mushy pap. The food at the Grape Vine , a mixture of Parsi and “Thai”, was somewhere in-between. The fault may have been partly in our choice of dishes. We started out with an appetizer of grilled chilli prawns, which was definitely a mistake. The prawns were not the freshest, they were not fully cooked at the center and were barely warm when they got tothe table. We had to send them back and ask for them to be cooked some more. For the main courses we ordered patrani machhi,prawn biryani and chicken dhansak. Our son , craving something different from the Indian fare of the past few days, ordered Thai red curry of chicken .The patrani machhi ( pomfret steamed in banana leaves) and the prawn biryani were very good but the chicken dhansak, gloppy and tasteless I could have lived without. The Thai red curry was not bad , though a Thai might not have recognised it as such.The desserts , as at Gajalee, were Western style and purchased elsewhere. Sorry sir,no lagan-nu-custard.
At Pune, we stayed at an executive suite in Chandani Chowk and ate all our meals out so there is rather more to write about, food-wise. The best meal we ate was at Nisarg, which specialises in fish dishes just as Gajalee does. We were there on Dec 28 th , the last day of their crab festival when they serve up a variety of crab dishes. Nisarg I believe has two locations. We went to the one which is just down the street from Purepur Kohlapur, an old favorite. Going into the restaurant, we saw the live crabs penned outside in an enclosure; big blue-black bruisers ,about the size of Dungeness crabs ,which we learnt are flown in from Chennai.
Being a party of 12, we had the upstairs A/C room almost to ourselves but had to rein in our appetites because we had another function / dinner to attend that evening. We started off with Bombay Duck, the rolled up fillets, dusted in rice flour , thicker and quite different from those at Gajalee but just as delicious in their almost greaseless splendor. A platter of fish ,lobster and live crab was then brought out for our inspection and we chose a large kingfish( isvan) which , at the suggestion of the maitre d’ was filleted and prepared in three different ways; hara masala ,tandoori style and plain fried. All were good but the hara masala was the best. This was followed by a Crab Handi, crab meat in a delicious coconut-garlic – ginger gravy. My son, a crab fanatic , pronounced it the best crab dish he had ever eaten. High praise indeed and well deserved. By this time , we were almost sated and were slowing down . We could not do justice to the isvan curry and rice which followed and that was unfortunate because it was very , very good. The sol kadi that washed down the meal was also just the right blend of kokum and coconut and tasted even better than the beer that we had started the meal with.
Last year, we had been to Coconut Grove which also serves seafood , though Manglorean style. It , Nisarg and Gajalee are all very good but I think if I had to chose one, I would chose Nisarg in a photo finish.
That evening we went to Sigree, a Bengali owned eatery started by an IIM graduate who also owns the hugely successful Mainland China chain. In fact, there was a Mainland China outpost right next to Sigree. The food at Sigree could best be described as Afghan/ Moghlai food as interpreted by a Bengali.We formed a large party of almost 20 people and had the restaurant almost to ourselves. There was a large outdoor buffet section which seemed to be very popular as it was almost full. Appetizers consisted of a number of different kebabs , perfectly serviceable but not exceptional ,and two starter dishes which were standouts. One was a tandoori cauliflower, large florets of cauliflower flavored with mustard, served piping hot and al dente. (This dish was by special request, since it had been removed from the menu).The other was very thin slivers of okra fried until crisp.Scrumptious. Of the main courses , the standout was the Roghan Josh, the fork tender mutton falling of the bone and napped with a delectable, unctuous red gravy. I tasted the chicken curry and had a bit of the pulao but I had a second helping of the Roghan Josh. I was pretty full by then but I couldn’t resist the Kulfi, perhaps my favorite among Indian desserts. We enjoyed the meal at Sigree, very much , but I couldn’t help casting a covetuous eye at the outdoor buffet. Oh, well, perhaps next time.
When we went shopping at Pyramid, we had lunch at the nearby Mainland China, a different outpost than the one previously mentioned. As is standard with this chain, the decor was attractive, the tables spaced widely apart, the china and cutlery superior and the wait staff polished and attentive. We had a one fish dish, one turkey dish and a vegetarian entree. I don’t remember the exact names of the dishes but will say that they were all very good. The sauces were slightly Indianised and tasty.The one criticism would be that the turkey was very tough. Serves us right for ordering it but we were so taken with the idea of having turkey in India that we had to have it. Wish we had stuck to the chicken. Eating there , we were reminded of Silk Road, a Chinese eatery in Koregaon Park that we had been to last year. It’s a single restaurant rather than a chain but the food they serve was as good if not better that at Mainland China. In particular, I remember that their coriander soup and chicken-corn soup as the best I’d ever tasted.
The next day , on our way to the airport, we lunched at The Bowl House, part of a chain that offers quick, inexpensive Chinese/ Thai/ Moghlai food . The entree of your choice is served over either rice or noodles in a bowl, which explains the name.I had a Chicken chilli, my wife had paneer tikka and our son had the Thai curry chicken, all over rice. Not bad, not bad at all.
Those of my readers who have read my previous posts may remember that I profess not to like Indian-Chinese food. I’m going to have to modify my stand.Most of the time Indian-Chinese tends to be too heavily spiced, combining the worst aspects of Indian and Chinese cuisines. However, when it is well-prepared it can be very good , as we found on our Indian trip. My son went out with his cousins on a trip through Mumbai and they wound up at Henry Tham’s restaurant. For him, it was a rare experiance of Indian – Chinese cuisine and he said that it was superb. As for me, I’ll admit that it can be good, even very good, but given a choice I’ll take Chinese food over Indian -Chinese every time.
Next Week- –Part II ( Delhi)