Lights! Smoke! Applause!

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I love a bit of drama in my food, don’t you?

An elaborate feast, laid out with much fanfare in gleaming traditional brass or copper ware, like for the ‘Sajan Goth’ of Rajasthan or the ‘Jamai Shoshthi’ of Bengal. A whole giant aquarium of LIVE fish, crabs and lobsters to choose from in a seafood restaurant. A steady stream of molten chocolate, melting a hole through a chocolate disc as it is poured onto a layered Lava Cake. An eyebrow-singeing Flaming Jaeger Bomb cocktail. Or a BBQ Chicken served in a Cookie Jar, billowing with smoke!

The succulent and fun Cookie Jar Yakitori Chicken

This last dramatic scene came to life at the Robatayaki Festival at Joss a few days ago. Remember the Yellow Pages ad where they play ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ as the National Anthem for an athlete from ‘Robata’ about to receive his medal at the podium? Well, this has nothing to do with goof-ups, or athletes, or even countries ;)

Robatayaki or Robata is a kind of fireside cooking which originated on Japanese boats where fishermen would skewer their fresh catch of seafood, and slow-grill them on hot charcoals while huddling around for heat on cold wintry nights. Much like our very own Sigree! From fishing boats, to swish Roabata bars in Japan, to upmarket restaurants around the world, this style of cuisine has had a fascinatingly quick and successful journey to stardom. And Farrokh Khambata, a star in his own right as one of the most successful food entrepreneurs of Mumbai, realized the value of giving this trendy food experience to the city’s foodizens at Joss, now housed in a quiet, expansive corner of Santacruz West.

Theatrics were very much in evidence in the dishes that were part of the Robatayaki menu.

Delish Shiso Pork Belly morsels

Delish Shiso Pork Belly morsels

Bacon Wrapped Prawns - can't stop at one!

Bacon Wrapped Prawns – can’t stop at one!

A huge whole Shitake Mushroom with charred Asparagus - bold and beautiful!

A huge whole Shitake Mushroom with charred Asparagus – bold and beautiful!

Apart from the aforementioned Cookie Jar Yakitori Chicken, other delicious smoky offerings on the menu were a Turkey Bacon Wrapped Prawn, a Shiso Pork Belly, a Spicy Yuzu Shitake Mushroom & Asparagus, a Sesame Tofu and a Farm-2-Table Vegetable Grill with Chilly Parmesan. Alas, the intriguing Jingisukan Crushed Beef, inspired by the legendary Genghis Khan, was off limits due to the beef ban L But there were ample cocktails to drown our beefy sorrows in, the most quirky one being the Smoky Cosmopolitan, served in a specially made all-glass tobacco pipe, spouting smoke as you puff on the pink liquid within!

All smoked up on a Cosmo...

All smoked up on a Cosmo…

And then of course there’s the signature Big Bang Theory dessert – an elaborate ‘cosmos’ of sauces and berries and whipped cream and nuts, created as a centerpiece on your table by the Chef, with a quaint Meringue Cake as the centre of the universe, cracked open to release the luscious berry-filling inside for everyone to exclaim and pounce on! Who wouldn’t want THAT for a birthday celebration?

Korean Bibimbap - a melting pot of flavours and textures!

Korean Bibimbap – a melting pot of flavours and textures!

Generally speaking, test tubes and dry ice are not really my thing when it comes to food. More often than not, meals made with molecular gastronomy principles are abysmally portioned, leaving you hunting down the nearest Shawarma kiosk in the middle of the night! The portions here are thankfully fuller, and the profusion of flavours and textures, much like their hearty Korean dish Bibimbap, really hit the spot. So if a little smoke-and-mirror magic can evoke wide-eyed wonder in kids and adults alike, and make them whoop in delight, then I am all for the drama… and a rousing curtain call!

The Big Bang Theory Dessert that wows everyone, every time!

The Big Bang Theory Dessert that wows everyone, every time!

 

Meeting the Chefs – An Umami Experience!

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One of the most intriguing things about the plate of food in front of you is the story of its creator and how it came to be. Not just the mechanical measurements of each ingredient. Not just the precise cooking times as per the recipe. Not even the way each individual ingredient came together to make something more than the sum of its elements. It is the Chef, his myriad experiences at home, on the streets, in kitchens, at marketplaces in near and far countries, tasting hundreds of recipes, stirring hundreds of pots, and serving hundreds of perfectly-laid out dishes on the pass. That’s what comes together on your plate, adding that indefinable flavor – the ‘UMAMI’, if you will!

That’s the reason I seek out the Chef whenever possible while dining out. And despite all the madness they have to wade through in the kitchen, constantly under the pump to deliver the best food in the fastest possible time, amazingly enough, they STILL have time to come and talk to you, and share a piece of themselves with you.

A Chianti toast to Chef Zucca... Salut!

A Chianti toast to Chef Zucca… Salut!

A few days ago, I had the privilege of meeting up with a whole glitterati of Chefs. It was the Culinary & Bar Art Festival at J W Marriott Pune, where all aspects of food and beverage were being celebrated as a form of art in all their exciting, colourful and flavouful diversity, in each of the 8 food outlets in the hotel, with Chefs flown in from across the country and around the world adding pizzazz to the proceedings.

The tenderest Pork Belly, almost as gooey as the Mash Potatoes it rests on...

The tenderest Pork Belly, almost as gooey as the Mash Potatoes it rests on…

A Lobster Tail nestles on top of Black Olive Gnocchi

A Lobster Tail nestles on top of Black Olive Gnocchi

At the plush Alto Vino, the fact that the handsome Italian Chef Samuel Zucca hails from a little island off the North Eastern coast of Italy would perhaps not be significant, were it not for the burst of flavours that he weaned out of the Lobster Tail and the hearty honesty of the Olive Gnocchi and the Pork Belly that reflected his fond memories of growing up in a farmhouse family of chefs. And the fact that, even after 3 decades of working at Michelin star restaurants and grooming countless amazing Chefs around the world, he too nurtures a food dream (of owning a worldwide chain of Gelaterias), is well, stuff that dreams are made of! Apparently, his name (Zucca is Pumpkin in Italian) had nothing to do with the fact that his best selling gelato flavor is Spiced Pumpkin ;)

Chef Pensiri crosses swords... and sometimes Radish too!

Chef Pensiri crosses swords… and sometimes Radish too!

Picking up some 'tehzeeb' and chef secrets from Chef Abdul Haleem

Picking up some ‘tehzeeb’ and chef secrets from Chef Abdul Haleem

It was a revelation of a different kind at Shakahari that evening. Petite but tough Chef Pensiri, a specialist of Thai, Korean and Chinese cuisines, served up a storm of Asian dishes, with the complex tang and spice intact, but amazingly no Fish Sauce or Shrimp Paste, as everything was completely vegetarian! ‘It’s difficult, but not impossible’, said the Chef with a mysterious smile, revealing a few chef-y tricks before introducing us to Chef Abdul Haleem – a quiet, weathered genius of Awadhi food from Lucknow.

An authentic Kashmiri fare, made by Kashmiri Pundits

An authentic Kashmiri fare, made by Kashmiri Pundits

Chef Haleem’s magic was on display at the ongoing Kashmiri Food Festival, where he and his team of Kashmiri Pundit chefs had put up a sumptuous, authentic vegetarian Kashmiri meal, the highlights of which were the mind-blowing Green Apple Curry, the spicy veg Shammi Kebabs and the lip-smacking Badam Shofta dessert. Thanks to Chef Haleem’s quiet words of wisdom, I now have the secret to making the creamiest and tastiest Nadru Yakhni, a Kashmiri specialty I have experimented and fallen in love with this winter.

The unstoppable Zibi at Pashaa

The unstoppable Zibi at Pashaa

The next Culinary experience was of the liquid kind, with a mad, glad bar tender Zbigniew Zapert, mixing, firing, flaring, tossing, scraping and sliding behind an open, roof-top bar, and coming up with cocktails as complex and intense as his name! A whiz at Johnny Walker, and a pro at mixology, Zibi, as he likes to be known to friends and fans, will make you love things you didn’t think were remotely likable! Dangerous? Yes! Fun? Hell, Yes! This selfie was taken BEFORE the drinks, so go figure… ;)

The Zibi-larious selfie!

The Zibi-larious selfie!

The cocktails at Paasha would not have stopped sliding down the frozen bar if it was not for Lebanese Chef Chadi Terro and his fare of smoky, exotic, succulent kebabs that made you feel like you were in a palace in Abu Dhabi. Little wonder that his flavours have wowed many a Sheikh in the Middle East and is a staple at most royal ‘daawats’.

Finally it was time for a wrap with the Sunday Brunch, fondly called Brunner since the massive open-air Farm to Table spread covers every aspect of your food needs and cravings, and spills indulgently beyond.

Seafood Cioppino in all its brothy, tangy, flavourful glory at the Sunday Brunner

Seafood Cioppino in all its brothy, tangy, flavourful glory at the Sunday Brunner

But this was no ordinary brunch! Any brunch that has a luscious and dark Char Grilled Pork, a robust and flavourful Seafood Cioppino, and creamy home-made ice-cream plonked precariously high on crunchy fresh waffles as dessert, is anything but ordinary. And that’s exactly what Director of F & B, Ajmal Salim, was aiming to achieve, he shared, as he pulled up a chair to our table and told us the many stories, mostly happy, a few painful, and some downright funny, that went into the making of this ambitious, one-of-a-kind festival that joyously celebrated not just the art of food, but also the artists who fill our senses with the colours, textures and flavours of food.

A sweet end... or crunchy beginning?

A sweet end… or crunchy beginning?

Next year promises to be even bigger and better, with many more life stories, anecdotes and experiences adding that ethereal, elevating Umami experience to your plate… and palate! See you there?

My Beef With You!

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First of all, the ban on selling and consumption of beef in Maharashtra is nothing new. For the last few years, your order of Beef Bolognese, or Kerala Beef Curry, or Beef Chilli Fry at most restaurants and cafes here, barring a few bigger restaurants that use imported beef, would have almost definitely been made of Buffalo meat, also called ‘Carabeef’. That’s because there has been a ban on the killing and selling of cow meat in this state for several years, as it is in a handful of other states in the country.

Carabeef tastes a lot like beef, only tougher, a bit grainier and somewhat ‘gamier’ in flavour. The right cut, in the hands of a good Chef, can actually wipe out the difference, even in a slab of medium-done Pepper Steak. So how would you really know? The price is usually an indicator, and the famous imported name varieties like Wagyu, Kobe and Angus add more premium. But if you ask your maître-d or server, they will tell you. As much as they love their customers, they love their business more, and will not run the risk of being shut down.

So why this sudden outcry against the beef ban? Partly due to the fact that many were unaware of the Carabeef distinction. Partly because a blanket ban and raised penalty means the government is taking this beef business seriously and wants people in the business of beef to take it seriously too, thereby putting tremendous pressure on the consumption of Carabeef which will now be the official/default choice. But for a very large part, for people both non-vegetarian AND vegetarian, it is about personal choice.

If it is wrong to eat beef because it is an animal, I agree. But if it is wrong to eat beef because of sentiments, or someone in power telling me so, I don’t agree. The battle here is not between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, or between religions, or between old and new generations, or even between the open-minded and the conservative. It is very simply and at a very basic level, the right to choose. If I choose NOT to have beef in front of my parents who are devout Hindus, it is out of respect for them and their wishes, not out of fear. If I choose NOT to have any non-veg food in front of my in-laws who are strict vegetarians, it is my wish to be sensitive to their feelings. But if I do CHOOSE to have a thick, juicy Medium-Rare Beef Steak at Nido or Salt Water Cafe in Mumbai, or dear ol’ Olypub in Kolkata, or work up a storm in my own kitchen with a Chateaubriand Steak dinner, it is because I LIKE the taste and the flavour, the same way that I LIKE ‘Aloo Gobi’, or ‘Shukto’, or Mashed Potatoes, or the simple yet ultimately fulfilling ‘Baygoon Bhaja’.

Do I tell my close Jain friends to eat onion? Do I encourage my BFFs to eat during Ramadan or Shradh or Lent? Do I force my buddies who are on a weight-loss diet to drink and binge on snacks? It is THEIR CHOICE to follow a diet code, their free will to eat or not eat certain things based on their beliefs, their principles, their doctor’s advice or even their dietician’s chart.

Which brings me to MY free will. If I am able, willing and inclined to, why can’t I have my Beef Steak, when I want to, when I need to? And in so doing, why am I a criminal, punishable by law? That’s my beef!

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