Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One step at a time...

There is this place that has found a way to have fun on Sundays from lunch to tea and believe me you can get wet and painted…right from palate to body, one step at a time.

Come twelve noon, when the sun rides high in the sky, only the dark clouds might distort your vision at this time of the year. Anyway it starts with a drink, complementary in the package, a full buffet Oriental style, a game or two, body painting, music to help you groove away the extra calories or failing which a dip in the pool, and a hi-tea…believe me I chose not to use the word ‘high’…the word does have different connotations…before you leave in the evening.

Ah yes….I forgot to mention the venue, my mind was totally on the menu. No rhyme intended. But the place that put us in the best of spirits that Sunday afternoon was the Aldeia Santa Rita in Candolim.

It’s fun to go in a big group, we had a table of twelve, Glaffy’s party who did get away with many prizes was also a big group...although there were smaller families like Sam and Judy, Mangurish and his daughter Riddhi determined to do justice to the day.

The pleasant overtones of the lemon colors added luster to the otherwise overcast afternoon, complementing the munchies crispies and khimchi) that was placed on the table. A word of caution though….this should just be a nibble or two…those wafers can pack a heavy punch by filling up your stomach and leave no room for more.

While Johnny’s music played foot tapping numbers, we trotted over to the blackboard where the fare was listed. Our first stop the soup station…Tom Kha Phak. Listen, I told you it was an Oriental menu, but to put it in simple language, it’s a coconut based Thai soup. How can I put the taste into words? Says Iona Venugopal…’The soup is awesome.’ Chandrashekar whose knowledge on Indian food kept us riveted for the better part of the afternoon says..’Did you taste the soup? It’s excellent. And the lemon grass is like a fairy touch. Does not overpower the taste at all.’ ‘Fairy touch!’ Now that was a nice way to put it. The soup was delicious, the group dug their spoons in till the very last drop was finished. And I thought that the only liquid to be treated this way was a strong spirit.

But now let’s get down to the buffet. Yam-yam salad, and Yam woon sen…cucumber salad and glass noodle salad in fish sauce, chef Raj kumar beamingly explains. The menu changes every Sunday, I am informed, so he apparently has a repertoire of items up his sleeve.

The main course sports three non vegetarian dishes…Kaeng phet Koong, prawn in red curry (Thai) sauce, Blackened fish (Chinese), and Chicken Sumai, a family of the dumplings. On the vegetarian…a paneer preparation Panaeng Tao hoo Kap het (Thai), Ching ling vegetables...similar to the Manchurian preparation, and exotic vegetables with Hunan sauce. As this event is focused on family fun days, I decided to ask Riddhi to name two of her favorite preparations on the buffet. After all the Gen Next know exactly what they like to eat. Pat came her reply…ching ling vegetables (Manchurian) and Baa mee Phad phak the Thai noodles. Yes one did have a choice of Fried Rice, noodles and steamed rice. The chef has got his combo right. For teens and children, Chinese is a hot favorite.

The desserts are served on the table…honey fried noodles with icecream, choice of ice cream or Sankay. Well honey fried noodles are a hot favourite with me. But my fondness for desserts must have shown on my face. Roy deSouza pushes his dish of Sankay across. A pudding…solid…with a hint of caramelized sugar. I take one bite, and before Roy could have second thoughts, polished off the full dish in seconds. I am normally not very fond of Thai desserts…the sticky rice preparations et all…but again, the chef has understood his guests….the meal packaged was worth every moment spent at the table.

If you want your Sunday to end in high spirits like ours, all you have to do is drive towards Candolim on a Sunday afternoon. You will cherish every moment spent there, at every step of the time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

High Spirits at Casa Sarita

The silver grey tassels of the beaded antique chandeliers moved to the whispers of the air- conditioned draft, the beautiful black and white mosaic on the floor shone in the subdued light, and the murmur of anticipated delights of the guests echoed against the walls.

Listen guys, this is not a descriptive piece for a publishing house or an essay competition I am talking about a restaurant at the Hyatt’s Resort and Spa…Casa Sarita. Now why were we here? It was a celebration dinner. Casa Sarita is featured on the Conde Nast Travellers Hot List Tables 2008 in the Indian category. Now this publication apparently has its team of roving epicures visit around 32 countries to track down the world's most exciting new restaurants…and only 105 make the cut…and Casa Sarita has done it.

We sit comfortably with the warm and affable General Manager Andrew Mensforth as the waiters get ready to display the chef’s culinary expertise. Would the food be similar to what we get in the restaurants in the city and along the beaches I wonder…the Xacutti, Vindaloo, Xec-Xec etc? Would anything be different after all?

A small crescent of golden brown descends on my plate. Was this a rissoise? A gentle touch of the fork and the mixture oozed out…a creamy mixture of prawns with that subtle flavoring of spices.

After the first bite, I lunged out to look at the printed menu to check the name. Prawn Pastelihos. If it was fashioned to be a rissoise, then it far surpassed the preparations I have eaten on many occasions. Delectably delicious! I signaled to the waiter for another helping although the Grandma pan fried vegetable cutlets were making its round. But I must make mention of the pineapple salad. You see the name does not really titillate the palate. But wait till you taste it.

The pineapple cubes with roasted coriander, cumin powder and liberally sprinkled with grated coconut. I was told it was a local Goan specialty. If it is, then I am definitely going to invite myself to someone’s house, as I do not see this dish being listed in other Goan restaurants. The spices blended with the tangy pineapple and the sweetness of those slivers of coconut played havoc with my salivary glands. Sometimes sweet, sometimes sour….the dish teased the taste buds as my molars gently masticated on the appetizer. No wonder they are called appetizers…..Yuummm!

The main course was descending on to the table. Based on the printed menu it seemed like an avalanche but one to look forward to. Xacutti de Carneiro, Chicken Baffad, Rawa fry Modso, Beans foogath, Bhindi Sukhem, goan Rice, Sannas, Pao, Goan chappatis. With such a variety, one would wonder where to start. So I will list down my favorites. The chicken Baffad with the Goan chappati’s. Its been ages since I had those triangular thich crispy wheat flour preparations. And combined with the chicken Baffad. Now that dish was a very popular training recipe in the first year of catering colleges…but this preparation was awesome. Maybe it was the grinding of the spices, maybe the authentic toddy vinegar used…or maybe the catch was in the words mentioned in the menu…house dried. The dark gravy with the crispy chappati’s were to die for. Is that term right? I know that the term is used frequently in the foodie parties in Mumbai. Thank heaven I did not use it at that moment.…cause my wish could be granted and I might never have got a chance to taste the next dish…Lobster curry. Now Kavita Khiara had told me that this was her favorite dish in the restaurant. She is the Area marketing Communication Manager, All India. So I took a generous helping of the curry with the unpolished Goan rice. Halleluiah! Thank heaven I had heeded her advice. My own son being in Marketing and communications has this lament. ’You see mum,’ he says, ‘many people do not believe us. They feel we are bull….ters.’ He says bull fighters, I tend to disagree.

Communication people always believe that they are fighting for a cause, so they have to use this skill often. Anyway, coming back to that Lobster curry. Well as per the normal explanations given there is a mention of coconut. Well this coconut tree must have been watered profusely cause the coconut milk was ‘o so’ creamy. And to add to the taste the small chunks of lobster swimming in the rich orange red gravy was so soft and tender. This dish will definitely send you into raptures.
And as always…it is the sweet finale that leaves the lingering aftermath as you depart. Miniature dessert platters of every conceivable Goan and Portuguese preparations…just the right size too.

You could pop in a tart of Portuguese Tari, take in a sliver of Bibinca and still have room for the pinagre, Doce and almond cake. I was so enamored by the tasty tit bits that I insisted on filming Chef Asif, the Executive chef with Kavita whose words of wisdom helped me take on that generous helping through the platter. Now you know that it is not only the watery spirits that get you high…my spirit was satiated with those wonderful delicacies.

Now you will wonder why I have not made any mention of Joe. Although he was seated by my side it seemed that he was transported into his own realm of euphoria. Was it the two charming ladies who were seated by his side? Whatever it was…and he did tell me that he enjoyed the food…his spirits were definitely upbeat on the long drive home.

Monday, July 14, 2008

When-it’s tasty………….

Which restaurant does one patronize? It all depends on the food. Especially ‘When-it’s ’ tasty. Introducing Venite’s…no that would be the wrong word, Venite needs no introduction. The restaurant has been in the forefront right from the year 1955. In fact the words on the menu cards proclaim its intention loud and clear…Hospedaria Venite…. ‘ Hospitality is the name.’

Now here we were seated in the restaurant with Luis D’Souza whose family had started this venture. The wooden slatted floor with the suspended old mud pots and baskets as lanterns took me back to another era. The late 80’s or was it the early 90’s-where popular party areas like the Haystack created the ambience of rural Goa. Well it was refreshing to find this décor for a change, unlike the mirrors and chrome which is not really a part of Goa’s heritage.

But talking about refreshing….Joe already had a glass of Coco Fling in his hand. The ice tinkled against the side of the glass, the mint leaves swished with the movement of the liquid, and the look on Joe’s face was pure bliss. This could happen to anyone, when you are in touch with your very own homemade brew-cashew feni with lime.

A slatted wooden board proclaims the day’s specials. This is of course in addition to the regular menu on the table. ‘My cook upgrades the board every morning after a visit to the market,’ Luis states. I look at the items listed there….calamari, sea bass, perch, red snapper, crabs….a seafood bonanza.

‘So what is special on the menu,’ I ask, looking around the restaurant. Well it is lunchtime on a working day and a rainy one at that, one would not expect to see many diners in a specialty restaurant, but two of the tables were occupied by foreigners, one with a lady…she looked cosmopolitan, so perhaps from Bengaluru or Mumbai…I do hope I got the spelling right. You see with so much change in world today one must constantly update one’s knowledge…it keeps those grey cells working. Well coming back to the diners…a family from the South-one can make out from the accent, the father was telling Hedrich the person in charge that they had dined here last night and had really enjoyed the food, and last but not least two of our very own Goan ladies who decided to have a quick meal before leaving for Divar.

It looked like Venite’s had a little of everything for every palate. Luis was now answering my question. ‘Our focus is primarily on sea food, although we could serve you any meat,’ he says, ‘and our preparations are done in Goan, Portuguese or Continental.’

The Stuffed Crab is recommended. ‘We do not allow the sauce to overpower the meat,’ Luis states. ‘How is the stir fried shrimps in Goan salsa?’ I ask. Somehow the name caught my fancy. ‘Try it,’ was his advice.

The starters arrive...and with it the local bread with garlic butter. Let me tell you about those prawns…red and spicy-a complete contrast to our mood on this rainy day. The recipe was Luis’s mothers’. Goan chillies, Goan vinegar, Goan shallots…it is difficult to get them these days so he tries a close family resemblance. And the Goan red masala, it puts you in the mood to salsa……delicious and aptly named. Now while we were at this point of discussion with our mouth’s drooling with the fiery spice, Luis talks about another resemblance. He goes into the back area and comes out with the book…’Masci-The Man behind the legend.’ ‘Can you believe this,’ he tells Joe, ‘my father resembled your very own father in looks. Anyway I bought this book for reference.’ It seems that Luis is really interested in food, unlike most restaurateurs who look at it as purely a business venture.

But let me talk about the crab. Luis had warned us that the crab size was big, so we decided to split-one into two. The crab in the orange shells looked good enough to eat…the kitchen had decorated the plate with a salad comprising of olives, mushrooms, tomatoes and lettuce, with a dash of the vinaigrette dressing. I spooned a morsel into my mouth…yes the taste was definitely crabmeat with that slight hint of parsley, olive oil and a touch of béchamel and wine. The reason that I say ‘a touch’ of béchamel was that despite the fact that the crab was baked…the sauce did not kill the taste of the meat. Those slivers of crab meat sent shivers of appreciation down my spine. It would be a difficult task to state which of the two starters were better. They both vied for the number one position despite the fact that they were prepared in different styles.

And now for the main course... I look at the board that had tantalizingly listed all those seafood items. And settled for a red snapper. Was it possible that even on a rainy day the restaurant could boast of such a vast array of seafood? There was no harm in trying.

As we waited for the main course, I looked at the little balconies where a small table for two nestled. I use the word ‘nestled’ because if one is seated there, you could be playing toey-toey or as age catches you Kneey-kneey with your partner. I put this idea across to Joe. The look on his face was not very encouraging…and believe it or not once upon a time in his hey days, the toey-toey game was his motive when he took me out on a date. That time holding hands was taboo. I guess after twenty five odd years of marriage, that thought is long forgotten. I ask Hedrich if those little tables still had an appeal today. ‘Oh yes,’ was his answer, ‘in the evenings couples like to sit out there with a drink before they come in for a meal.’ I am glad that romance still lingers in the air, although with some it dwindles with age…I give Joe a sour look.

And then the main course arrives. The long oval platter was attractively decorated-I was transported back to the 90’s. Baked beans, Vegetables, French fries, green peas...those colors of red, orange, golden and green just added to the open fillet topped with a creamy cheese sauce cooked in wine. No Mcdonald type of French fries….the thick baton of crispy potatoes, just like Mama makes them.

What more can I say, fish was fresh…oh so very fresh…no doubt about it. The recipe that has come down through the ages has stamped a niche in the traditional art of cooking which is slowly vanishing off the face of Goa. If you let your eyes run down the menu card including the dessert….Moira bananas in rum caramel, Seasonal Mango Melba etc, it does not take long to realize that Luis with the grandeur of the age old house is determined to keep the traditional remnants of Goa intact. But he need not worry…as I have said before with reference to food- When-it’s tasty, all roads lead to Venite’s.

Wines from Down Under

I take a look at the list of wines put in front of me. Wines from Australia, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, The U,S of A. What a variety. And what do I order? I look at the first country heading the list. Australia…one can visualize a cool coastal climate, vast stretches on beaches, bronze beauties and maybe a few kangaroos and koala bears thrown in for good measure…but wines? But yet this continent produces an award winning range of wines…especially from the Mclaren vale region and the Barossa’s vineyards.

Entering into enormous wine cave in one of the posh 5 star hotels, I was asked to take my pick, to complement my meal. I was determined to try an Australian wine…I heard that the wines were good, but what do I choose from the five wines placed before me from the House of Tapestry, RolfBinder and Fox Gordon. I was determined to do a study of the different wines of specific regions before making my choice. I look at the friendly barman…would he be able to help? He did.

In the heart of Australia’s premiere wine region of MalarenVale are made the Tapestry wines. The rich iron stone soil and the cool costal climate produce wines that truly express their regional characteristics. Two of the most famous red wines with a firm dry finish are the Tapestry, Shiraz, MclarenVale 2004, and the Tapestry Cabernet Sauvignon, MacLarenVale 2004.

The tapestry Shiraz has an earthy intense aroma of sweet berries and spicy liquorices. Take a sip and it leaves a warm and juicy texture in the mouth, and then a firm dry finish. Yes, this red wine, unlike popular myth is dry, not sweet. So what food would it complement.

‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ not Sherlock Holmes, but that was what I was thinking, after hearing the encyclopedia. the barman in action. ‘Grilled meats…your steaks and grilled chicken. Whenever one orders continental grilled food this wine is a winner.’

I nod sagely, as though that very thought was passing through my mind. One cannot show one’s ineptitude in situations like this. Especially today when wines are the ‘in thing’ and are flooding the market.

By now my mentor was in full steam. ‘The Tapestry Cabernet Sauvignon,’ he continues, ‘however, although dry, has a highly aromatic flavor of sweet plum jam, mint and coffee when you nose the wine.’ Nose the wine? Yes folk, before tasting gently swirl the glass near your nostrils to take in the rich aromatic flavor. ‘The wine has a rich mouth filling concentrated berry taste, structured from fruit and oak. Excellent combination with charcoal grilled meats like our kebabs.’ He gives a satisfied smile, I hope it was not at my open mouthed expression. Two red wines from the same region…different flavors…complementing different food.

‘Now look at this brand,’ he urges, ‘he takes a bottle which had the name RolfBinder. ‘Now this gentleman started making wines as early as 1955.’ I am impressed. Nothing like a good introduction to whet ones appetite. ‘He uses shaven oak to harmoinise the ripe flavour of the grape.’ I am given to understand that these wines are made in limted quality and are among the best in Australia.

‘The RolfBinder, Heinrich, Shiraz-Grenache-Matoro, 2005…from the Barossa valley,’ I am impressed. ‘Its all given on the label,’ he smiles at my look of awe, ‘anyway, this wine is a brilliant crimson colour..the aroma floral. It builds in your mouth, leaving behind a flavor of fruit and fine tannins. An excellent wine to complement our Indian gravies.’

He takes out another bottle, the RolfBinder, Halliwell, Shiraz-Grenache, 2004. ‘This red wine has a refreshing balance of cherry, rhubarb and blackberry, and just a hint of pepper. Complements the continental food preparations to the core.’

‘And while we are still on the subject of Australia…here is a wine which has got 91 points from the Wine Spectator in 2004. One of the wines which is drinking beautifully now but will continue to develop in the bottle for the next 6 years.’

This wine apparently from the Barossa’s vineyards, is the Fox Gordon single variety reds. Fox Gordon was started by a renowned winemaker Natsaha Mooney and her two friends Jane Gordon and Rachael Atkins nee Fox. Mooney selected grapes from some of the oldest vines in the world, their philosophy of low input yeileds to give maximum flavours and preserve the quality of the fruit.

‘This wine is a deep color, very fruity elegant wine. Aroma of cherry, strawberry, blackberry and spicy cashew…maybe some elements of cashew feni,’ he jokes.

Whatever the flavor, the finish or the mouth filling intensity; these winemakers of Australia have focused on innovation and passion to bring to our dining tables a wine that will complement every cuisine served in our restaurants.