Yesterday we attended the Varli (Indian) Food Festival at the Metropolitan Pavilion , 125 18th Street in Manhattan. It was an interesting experience and I am glad we went but it could have been so much better.
For the last two months or so , we have been subjected to a barrage of ads on the Indian TV channels extolling the festival as the annual gathering of the finest Indian culinary talent worldwide.Attendees were promised a cornucopia of restaurant tasting booths , a chance to meet famous personalities from the world of Indian food such as Padma Laksmi and Sanjeev Kapoor , cooking demonstrations , a spice market giveaway , a cookbook , gift bags and other goodies. Foodies that we are , my wife and I felt this was a “must attend “function and so off we went.
The evening did not get off to a good start as the traffic was backed up at the Lincoln Tunnel and it took us 2-1/2 hours to get to the venue from Edison , N.J. The event was to take place between 5 and 10 PM but, by the time we got to the Metropolitan Pavilion, it was already 6:30. Guests were streaming in and by the time we were issued our wristbands and made our way through the doors the place was humming . The Metropolitan Pavilion is a special events venue , its two main halls accommodating a total of more than 1,500 guests. For the festival , the entire periphery of the cavernous space was lined with food stations serving small tastes of their signature dishes. Among the restaurants represented were heavy weights such as Junoon , Tamarind , Bombay Palace , Devi , Bukhara Grill , Mint and Benares and a host of others. Even before we entered the main hall , we stopped to try a coconut -cashew truffle at the Sweet Silk Confections booth . Shefali Patel, who started Sweet Silk and has been written about in the N.Y Times, is trying to fuse Indian flavors with traditional French confections . Her truffles arre delicious but pricey.
Inside the hall , we made our rounds of the booths, sampling the offerings . I would have liked to go around and look at all the stalls before sampling but the place was too crowded and we were too hungry. As a result we tried foods , savory and sweet , in no particular order. A corner of the large hall had been sectioned off for the VIP guests but admittance was only after 7 PM . By then, we had already partaken liberally of the fare in the main hall. Too bad, because in the VIP lounge the food was of a higher quality and many of the booths were manned by the celebrity chefs. Still , I can’t complain because we sampled many, many dishes including Chappli Kabab, a killer Chhole, Chicken Biryani ,Rainbow Parfait, Shrimp Bemisaal, Shrimp Angoori, Mediterranean Kurkure and Lotus Root Crisps topped with Kachumber. A notable fusion dish was Spicy Crab Morsels served in Poppadum Cones. There were many others too but I just can’t remember. The halls were a teeming mass of humanity and it was like Grand Central Station at rush hour.
The VIP section was a little less crowded but its chief advantage was that one got to meet the celebrity chefs as they dispensed their food . I wish though that the Chefs had been more clearly identified .While I was familiar with chefs like Maneet Chauhan , Vikram Vij and Jehangir Mehta from their TV appearances I couldn’t recognise several others like Aliya Leekong ( the chef at Junoon ;I was right next to her but the name was new to me ) Walter D’ Rozario, Shipra Khanna ( winner , MasterChef India 2) , Hari Nayak and Prasad Chirnomoula. Of the ones I did meet , I was happiest meeting the charming Maneet Chauhan, a contestant on ” The Next Iron Chef” and a frequent judge on ” Chopped”. On ” Chopped ” she is very fair with her judgements , not abrasive like some others ( are you listening , Alex Guarnaschelli ?); in person, too ,she proved to be well spoken and gracious . Another I liked was Vancouver based Vikram Vij , owner of the well-regarded restaurants , Vij’s and Rangoli. Friendly and affable , he offered me a slice of butter-soft kangaroo meat in a green sauce as we chatted . At about 7: 30, the star attractions Padma Lakshmi ( co-host of Top Chef, cookbook author ) and Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor made their entrance and were immediately swarmed by guests and photographers.The six foot tall Padma Lakshmi looked cool and glamorous as she made the rounds. Seeing how she interacted with guests and obligingly posed for photographs I thought that she seemed genuine and unpretentious ; one rejoices in the success of such people. I was surprised to see that Sanjeev Kapoor was almost as tall as her and slimmer than I thought. I was reminded that television distorts people ‘s images, making them seem ten pounds heavier. Maneet Chauhan too looked more svelte and taller than she appears on ” Chopped”. Other celebrity Chefs I saw were Chef Vikas Khanna ( Host, MasterChef India )looking debonair in whites, and Hemant Mathur ( Chef and Co-Owner, Tulsi) . Jehangir Mehta ( Runner-up, The Next Iron Chef) was also there but he was rushing about with his cell phone glued to his ear and did not seem very approachable.
At about 8: 45, there was a cooking demonstration hosted by Sanjeev Kapoor assisted by Chefs Harpal Singh and Saransh Goila. It wasn’t very interesting . As Sanjeev Kapoor remarked , you can’t do much cooking if one hand is holding a microphone (Note to Organizers :how much foresight does it require to provide a lapel microphone ?) and in any case , he appeared more interested in promoting FoodFood , his 24-hour cooking channel , already very popular in India and scheduled to début in North America this year. It sounds very interesting ( Harpal Singh is the host of ” Turban Tadka” and Saransh Goila hosts ” Roti, Rasta aur …, a food-travel show ) but I’m not ready to add another $10 or whatever to my cable bill.
Instead , I meandered over to the Varli Spice Market stall to pick up my bag of goodies , a shopping bag filled with spices and rice ) It was getting late and with so any guests watching Sanjeev Kapoor , the line was much shorter and it moved fast. Only about 30 people waiting where earlier there had been a couple of hundred.
The organizer of the festival , Varli Singh , is something of a mystery to me . Though I am fairly knowledgeable about food matters , I had never heard of her until I saw the adds about this festival . I know now that she founded Varli magazine (” Your ultimate guide to great Indian dining “) and that this is her second time organizing this festival . Last year’s festival attracted 800 guests , this year’s twice as much. I looked at one issue of the magazine and it is a slick but unimpressive glossy,heavy on ads and puff pieces on various chefs . She seems to be able to attract all the top Indian food personalities and is very good at self promotion but I still don’t know what her expertise is .She isn’t a chef and nor does she seem to do anything except put out this magazine and organize this festival. Anyway , more power to her. I do wish , however, that she would spend half as much time organizing this festival as she does publicizing it .
Next year’s festival wil be held in Dubai , but even if it were in N.Y.C I would not have planned on attending . yesterday was an interesting experience but once is enough.