Friends, Flames and Farzi Cafe!

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Have you ever had the wonderful feeling of friends taking over your lives?

It’s like lying on your back in a cool sea, staring up into the bluest sky dotted with cotton tuft clouds. Or like crowd surfing over hands and heads, riding the surging human wave in a trippy rock concert. It’s a sense of falling and rising at the same time, and the feeling that someone’s got your back, no matter what!

I had this feeling recently in Delhi. Staying at my friends Pooja and Sandeep Sharma’s place, I was already completely spoilt. Somehow they had figured out the secret path to my heart – big breakfasts! So every morning there would be something special and elaborate ready for me to dig into and get my spirits soaring!

Then there was sweet Vikas Narula, whose journey from an ex-colleague, to a good friend, to the proud owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant Depot 29 in collaboration with one of the hottest chefs in the country, Ritu Dalmia, has been bizarrely beautiful!

And Vinay Mulchandani, my good ol’ house mate from Melbourne during my B-school days. A father of 2 lovely daughters he may be now, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting me over the last crumbly, Crispy Pakoda on the snack plate, or arguing over whether it was an apricot tree or almond tree in our backyard as he takes me on an emotional Google Maps Street View tour of our cottage where we lived, cooked, fought and studied hard for 2 years… Sniff!

And finally there was Sonali or ‘Priy’ as I love to call her, because she truly is ‘dear’ to the heart. She wanted to make my first visit to Farzi Café one of the most memorable evenings, and what Priy decides, she gets!

Cocktails galore... all specially crafted, each one delicious till the last drop!

Cocktails galore… all specially crafted, each one delicious till the last drop!

So it happened that our group of seven trooped into Cyber Hub in Gurgaon and, despite the buzzing rush of the weekend, were ushered into the best table at Farzi, bang in the middle of all the action.

The fabulous Dal-Chawal Arancini... with Papad for good measure!

The fabulous Dal-Chawal Arancini… with Papad for good measure!

The eye-popping Raj Kachori with a Spicy Chutney Foam

The eye-popping Raj Kachori dripping with a Spicy Chutney Foam

What action, you ask? Well, apart from the live Goan band striking up some old familiar classics with gusto on the stage right before us (pumped up a few notches by Teddy’s booming vocals on a few classic favourites!), all eyes were firmly riveted at our table where some of the best culinary theatre was unfolding, with flair and high drama. The palate-cleansing ‘Mishti Doi Spheres’ exploded into sweet nothingness in our mouths with a collective gasp, the Vindaloo Pulled Pork Buns created a mini-riot of hungry hands and excited chatter, and the red spicy ‘Chutney Foam’ spilled languidly over Raj Kachoris as we all watched in wonder. Whether it was the crispy Dal Chawal Arancini, the deliciously rich Spaghetti with Hyderbadi Tamatar ka Kut or the heart-warming Parle G Cheesecake, every dish that Chef Gaurav sent our way had a playful ‘Farzi’ take on a classic Indian or world cuisine dish, and the element of happy surprise. This was molecular gastronomy at its funnest, quirkiest best!

Who can resist a bite of the endearing Pale G Cheesecake?

Who can resist a bite of the endearing Pale G Cheesecake?

In-house mixologist and bar master Arjun struts his stuff...

In-house mixologist and bar master Arjun struts his stuff…

... the towering flaming cocktail 'Farzi Everest' enthralls the house!

… and the towering flaming cocktail ‘Farzi Everest’ is born, to enthrall the house!

And then it was time for the showstopper! The theatrics of food peaked with the towering Grey Goose cocktail called ‘Farzi Everest’. Assembled at our table by the dapper and chirpy in-house mixologist Arjun, the 3-foot Towering Inferno of a cocktail garnered the maximum ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s. Murmurs of wonder echoed around the room and then erupted into applause as Arjun set the delicately balanced tower on fire, and urged us to watch our eyebrows as we dipped into the flaming blue liquid with our straws!

Look Mama! I got Hajmola Candy antlers :)

The ‘Hajmola Lollipop’ antlers look…

Apple Fomentinis and Farzi Ritas flowed and ebbed. We giggled and guffawed through the night like kids in a magical land. Cheerful diners around us, strangers no more, joined heartily in the celebration of food, while Mumbai friends like Deepti Dadlani and Siddharth Jalan, who we bumped into amid noisy chatter, grooved along. The atmosphere was so electric even Gaggan Anand, world-renowned figure in molecular gastronomy, and chef of ‘Gaggan’, one of the top restaurants of the world, joined in the proceedings.

The gang that conquered Farzi, and were in turn completely won over by its people and vibe... Pradeep, Me, Gaurav, Arjun, Derek, Sandeep, Puja and Samta

The gang that conquered Farzi Cafe, and were in turn completely won over by its wonderful people and trippy vibe… Pradeep, Me, Gaurav, Derek, Sandeep, Puja and Samta… with Arjun

Perhaps it was the sweet, billowing clouds from the Phirni Oxide. Or maybe it was the happy, smiling faces of my friends, old and new, around me. Whatever the reason, that feeling of crowd-surfing came back to me again. There I was, drifting on a familiar wave of cushioning hands, bobbing heads and familiar faces that the city had created lovingly for me. Wow, what a ride, and what a motley crew to ride with! :)

My Most Wonderful Chennai Food Trail…

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For those who think the sun rises and sets on Dosas and Idlis in Chennai… well, you are mostly right! But then there is a whole day of chowing between that sunrise and sunset in Chennai ;)

The staple food of soft, white Idlis and large, crisp Dosas paired with hot Sambhar and spicy Chutney, has been as much a part of any Chennai-ite’s diet as… air? Visitors often dreaded meal times, because they did not want to have Dosa for the third time in the day, for the fourth day in a row, but were too overwhelmed by the warm hospitality of their ‘veshthi’-clad, earnest hosts to ask for a non-veg option. This despite the fact that the somewhat less populist, spicy and rich Chettinad delicacies of chicken, mutton and seafood would probably be available just around the corner!

On a recent short trip to Chennai, I was curious to see what had changed since my last visit, 5 long years ago. A drive around the city revealed many more high-rises in the city and farmhouses in the suburbs, a lot more traffic on the roads, and a swanky new Metro rail system. But my taste buds were in for a merry dance, thanks to my chirpy Chennai city guide, Sindhu Sreekanth, who unexpectedly opened up a whole new, vibrant culinary world for me!

Selfie time with Sindhu, my foodie co-conspirator, in the beautiful lawns of Amethyst :)

Selfie time with Sindhu, my foodie co-conspirator, in the beautiful lawns of Amethyst :)

Here’s what my Food Trail in Chennai looked, sounded n tasted like :)

DAY ONE OF TWO

Breakfast – Murugan Idli Shop at Besant Nagar

The Idlis here are soft, fresh, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth. Try it with their unique Podi Oil, and you will want to return every day! Then go for the papery Masala Dosas, followed by a plate of the crisp Medu Vadas, and finally finish off with a tall glass of the deliciously cool ‘Jigarthanda’. A cup of frothy filter coffee is a ‘done thing’ here, and after THAT breakfast you will WANT to do it!

Lunch – Amethyst, Royapettah

Set amidst verdant gardens, sweeping corridors and a plush lounge of a quiet and beautifully-appointed villa, bang in the middle of the bustling city, this place has as much great ambience as good food to offer. I tried the Oak Smoked Bacon and Tomato Galette, which was quirkily folded like a triangular Dosa, and tasted spectacular. The Grilled Vegetable with Smoked Scarmoza that Sindhu had was honest and refreshing for the hot summer afternoon. If you must finish with a dessert – of course you must! – the one to definitely go for is the Guava Apple Pie. Unless if you want to try one of their day specials, which are quite special!

‘Tiffin’ – Ratna Café, Triplicane

This is an establishment that has seen much better days in terms of ambience, but definitely not in terms of its loyal customers. For thousands of old-timers, this is ‘that corner place’ for breakfast, anytime snack, or a late evening tiffin, serving traditional, biggish spongy idlis that will get drowned in a river of thick, hot Sambhar poured out of a large tin mug, right in front of your eyes! Chow down quickly and then sit back and sip on one of the best filter coffees I have EVER had!

A huge tin mug of Sambhar descends…

… and creates a piping-hot aromatic river around the islands of Idlis on your plate!

(Apologies to my dear neighbor Aunty, Tara-amma, whose filter coffees were legendary, and our greedy get-togethers around them some of my fondest memories from college days!)

The 'South Indian' filter coffee... unbeatable!

The ‘South Indian’ filter coffee… unbeatable!

Dinner – Karaikudi Chettinadu Restaurant, Mylapore

Clean, stark interiors, old school ambience, polite servers and some excellent hot n spicy Chettinad food maybe their hallmark. But the dramatic Egg Appam and the sharp, honest flavours of the Nalli Kuzhambu has made this place a must-do for all my Chennai visits henceforth.

The dramatic looking Egg Appam with the spicy Nalli

The dramatic looking Egg Appam with the spicy Nalli

If it’s before midnight and you still have a corner of your tummy reserved for dessert (I always do!), Amadora’s truly delicious hand-made gourmet ice-creams are the thing to go for. Even if you are bursting at the seams, you can’t pass up the fresh fruit Paletas that are the perfect cooler for a sultry night.

Day Two of Two

Breakfast – Sangeetha at Velachery

If you were a little overwhelmed by the huge beach-going crowds thronging Murugan Idlis the day before, you will find Sangeetha a bit saner, but as delish. The Idlis are fresh and hot, the chutneys super, especially the red Tomato one, and one bite off the large Rava Onion Dosa and you will know why thousands of people visit around two dozen outlets of this restaurant spread all over the city! Oh, did I tell you I polished off 3 bowls of the Tomato Chutney here?

Lunch – Chamiers, Nandanam

A plush drawing room feel and a quiet, laid back ambience makes this charming cafe ideal for a lazy lunch in the middle of a busy day. The short menu offers mostly light bites like gourmet sandwiches, rich quiches and tall smoothies. But if you are a bit more famished, try the Mushroom Risotto with Ratatouille, or the Chicken Quesadilla, and taper off with a house-brew coffee!

Dessert and Coffee – Jonah’s, Besant Nagar

The humble-looking power-packed little dessert, Tigre!

The humble-looking power-packed little dessert, Tigre!

You NEED to go here for the rich and flaky Coffee Cream Mille Feuille, and the unassuming but bursting with flavours Tigre – a muffin-like cake made with Almond Flour, dotted with Dark Chocolate Chips.

Dinner- Ponnuswamy, Royapettah

This place is all about timing. Come too soon after your evening snack and you will not be able to do justice to the huge variety of amazing Chettinad dishes here. Come too late, and you will not get any of their specials, or my favourites like Rabbit Biryani, Country Chicken Fry, Shark Puttu, or the MUST-HAVE Chicken Kotthu Parotha. The food is spicy, sharp and homely, and the price will probably make you go for Round Two!

The delicious Kothu Parotha that you can't stop eating!

The delicious Kothu Parotha that you can’t stop eating!

If you have an extra afternoon or night, try Peshawri at ITC Grand Chola. It is fine dining no doubt, and quite the experience for expats, because there’s no cutlery so you eat with your hand! But it does have some of the best kebabs… possibly in the country!

Yes, this food trail was an eye-opener and a palate pleaser, in every way. Little wonder that Chennai features as National Geographic’s ‘TOP 10 FOOD CITIES OF THE WORLD’! As a corporate hub, the city’s appetite for different cuisines and taste profiles is growing rapidly, and you will have more to discover in every visit. So this easy food trail is a great way to start discovering Chennai’s evolving culinary platter. Just ‘Whistle Podu’ and Follow this Eaten Path :)

Mumbai Rains and Chai… The Eternal Romance!

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Rains in Mumbai is not just a season. It’s like an actual person, swishing and swaying and soaking and splattering everyone in its path. But the Mumbaikar is not an easy one to subdue. Treading all kinds of water-bodies, from puddles to potholes to ditches to even ponds, he arrives at a roadside ‘tapri’ or tea stall and reaches out for a rain-soaked version of that hot, thick, sweet and milky ‘cutting chai’, served in a small ribbed glass.

A typical tea stall or ‘tapri’ in MumbaiEvery Mumbaikar worth his Vada Pav will have his or her own favourite roadside tea-stall, close to work, or home, or located on the daily route between the two. And every Mumbaikar worth his Pav Bhaji will swear by that tea stall, fiercely defending it in heated debates on ‘Mumbai’s best tapris’. Truth be told, some of the best teas are those that emerge magically from little cut-away tin windows at construction sites, that entice passers-by next to key railway stations like Dadar and Chembur, that mollify men in khakis at police stations and chowkies, and that get the seaside walkers flocking towards the casks clanging on the side of bicycles for the iconic ‘cycle chai’. But not everyone can stomach the drenching, much less the hygiene standards of these places. Does that mean you will be deprived of this all-important monsoon initiation ritual? No!

Thankfully there are a few special tea places away from the torrential rain that I can nudge you towards, and the reason why you should visit them is as varied as the monsoon itself :)

My first pick is Irani Chai served at the Iranian cafes and bakeries that dot a large part of South Mumbai. There’s Yazdani in Fort, Kyani and Sassanian in Marine Lines and Koolar & Co in Matunga. All these places offer milky tea with the inimitable combination of ‘brun-maska’ – liberally buttered, crusty bread rolls. But at Koolar, you will find the even more decadent Honey-Cheese served with your brun-maska, to bite luxuriously into along with little sips from your hot tea. Pick a marble-topped table close to the doorway, lean back into one of the curved antique wooden chairs of Polish design, and stare out into the rain, and life, as it scurries by.

The aromatic Kashmiri Kahwah Tea

Poush in Thane West or Phoenix Market City gives you a taste of pure Kashmiri tradition. Drink in the heady aromas of the Kahwah tea, fused with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and honey, served with slivers of almond. The herb-brewed tea is a great way to toast your bones, making you feel warm and fuzzy inside when the rain refuses to let up.

At Prithvi Café in Juhu, soaking up the culture is as important as sipping from a glass of the Suleimani Chai, a black tea with lemon and mint. Slip into one of the tables close to ‘Guruji’, flautist Suhas Joshi, and soak up the soulful notes of the flute drowning out the chatter of thespians and fledgling actors alike, rising above the drumming of the rain on the temporary roof.

Tea Centre in Churchgate is an old darling. The feel is completely and undeniably colonial with silver bells to call waiters, a selection of ‘Tea Fancies’ like scones and crumbles, and, of course, a long, long list of teas from all over the country. But the one to definitely try here is the Hot Buttered Apple Tea. The delicious taste of the cloudy concoction lingers on, and long outlives the slow ‘tea room’ style service. Perfect when you are in no hurry to jump into the deluge outside!

A small place called Tapri Tea Lounge in Sion has recently joined the city’s tea bandwagon, offering a surprisingly good selection of specialty and exotic teas, including one that’s for glowing skin! If you pride yourself as a seasoned tea drinker, take up the challenge of the Truck Driver’s tea. It’s a strong and robust brew, guaranteed to keep you going through a few soaking showers!

The ‘umbrella clause’ at Mumbai’s corporate hub, Bandra Kurla Complex :)

And finally for a taste of distant lands, head to the tiny Tea Trails in BKC for international teas like Japanese Sencha and Taiwanese Bubble Tea. Pick a table facing out through the large glass windows, wrap your palms around the hot cup, and stare out at the skyline of the business district. The rain-washed glass facades of the towering buildings will stare right back at you enviously, collectively craving a ‘chai break’!

[This story was originally published on the popular and unique dining out concierge website Eazy Diner. Link here.]

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