Monday, June 8, 2009

For Zest in Life

We were at a dinner party, and the heat had sapped everyone’s energy quotient. Conversation was lethargic, till Joe with his usual tongue in cheek humor said, ‘what we need is some zest in life.’ From the other end of the room a voice piped in ’did you go there, the food is excellent.’ Now when you talk about food, Joe resembles a hound dog…sorry Elvis…sniffing for a new trail…. ‘Zest?’ he queries…’yes’ was the answer, ‘right in the heart of Panjim.’

So here we were climbing up a narrow flight of steps to the top storey of an old Goan house, Joe bounding up the steps with ‘zest’ in his step even on that hot sunny afternoon. Yours truly made a more sedate entry…well perhaps because my body is not used to ‘bounding’ these days. You see eating out does become an occupational hazard. I promised myself that I would only nibble at the dish to check its taste. Joe was already in conversation with two individuals in the plush well decorated lounge cum bar.

Meet Executive Chef Rahul Kulkarni and his counterpart Asst Manager Vaishnavni Nalawade the Asst Manager. Now despite his youth, Chef Rahul was with the Copper Chimney, of Mumbai fame. Seated in the rustic Portuguese ambienece of the restaurant…you see even the wall chandeliers resemble those old torch lanterns of the days gone by, Rahul stressed the concept of the promoters of this venture (with Rajdhani, Citrus, Revival too) fine dining, with 9 outlets all over India. And this was the first.

Now what was the cuisine? I wondered, soaking in the soft, relaxing ambience. It would be difficult to guess as there were no ‘traditional’ concepts around the place. ‘we serve North Indian and Oriental,’ Rahul says apparently reading my mind. I mentally groan. Can anyone stomach a heavy Indian meal on such a hot day? I mentally prepared myself to opt for the Oriental…but then Rahul mentioned ‘Dal Bukhara’…and that was like a red flag before the hound dog….I know I have my sayings crossed, but a bull does not twitch its nostrils at the mention of its favorite food. ‘Dal Bukhara,’ Joe breathes, ‘that is my specialty.’

And so the die was cast. I leafed through the menu desultorily, and then perked up….this seemed like Indian food with a difference. For one, Rahul has used many local products in his Mari nation…like fenny and karavandas, and two, the explanations read like something out of a Continental menu…’roulade of spinach and ripe tomato. Compote napped with a cheesy tomato curry’.

Have I ever seen this explanation in an Indian menu? I looked at Rahul for verification. ‘the methodology used in Indian cuisine at times is very similar to continental,’ he vouchsafed, ‘for example take the Palak ke dhol..’ he was referring to the very explanation I had found. And so we waited in anticipation for the starters. Rahul has worked on an interesting concept of ‘packaged flavors’…simply put, one can order the item and taste the variety of starters or Indian Breads on the menu.

The sizzling platters arrive. Their smoky flavor encompasses us. Did I mention that I was just going to ‘nibble’ at the dish . Forget it. The first dish ‘Paneerelay’ reached my plate…no not a plate, a designers concept…white on black.. Oh those creamy yellow thin slices of paneer stuffed with spinach and tomato…yes in continental food as well as Portuguese food…you call it a roulade. Well I was ready to ‘roll’ in ecstasy….soft, tender, melting…no not a Mills and Boon romance, but I am ready to romance this dish till kingdom come…. ‘we always serve our starters on a sizzler plate ’Vaishnavni comments..

But I am not listening cause the assortment of starters had arrived…sizzling through my nostrils. Karonda Kebabs…chicken winglets marinated in Karavanda berries and in a Tangy Tamarind dressing. I remember as a child climbing up those little hillocks to pick those berries…now I will climb mountains for this preparation. The chicken winglets were chewed right down to the bone. Later Joe remarks that the look of satisfaction that was apparent on my face was as though I had finished chewing off his brains. Men! How they love to make women seem carnivorous. But that feeling remained as we feasted on Murg ke Talli Tikka..tender morsels of chargrilled chicken with fenny, Champi Tikka-those crushed peppercorn played havoc with my taste buds. There was fish…oh so soft and fresh, Seekh kebabs…that platter is a must to order.

But he had more in store for us…and we were just on starters. Cheesy Prawns. If any photographer had come into the restaurant at that moment and said ‘say cheese’ he would not have to wait long…cause I was grinning away to glory like a ‘Cheshire cat.’ Rahul had used Mozarella cheese (and I thought that was only used for Italian food), and added spices like basil, oregano and Indian herbs to create this dish. What a blend…and I always had this myth of Indian spices with Indian food…..

We were in no mood for Shorbas but Vaishnavni says that the Yakhani Shorba a creamy lamb broth) and the Hara Shorba (pureed greens) are popular. She should know…she is the one in the front. So we left the main course to be ordered by her….pleading that it should not exceed two dishes…’and of course the Dal Bukhara’’ Joe pipes in. And they say women are the ones who never forget.

If I was talking about designer plates, the dishes were specifically designed too. Both the containers and what was within. First came the Gosht Nallui Nihari…’the only dish with bones on the menu’ Rahul says. And with the marrow spoon too. Let me share the feelings dish by dish. Soft succulent meat in a smooth brown gravy, and if you dip the Dahati (corn) roti with it, yes that was part of the Roti ki Tokri, mama mia, here I go again…Rahul what would food be without you, I groan thinking of the add on calories as I took on an extra helping. And the presentation…the Murg Laccha Methidaar, it looked like something out of the Axe Advert…99999. It was the strips of chicken rolled in the center with chicken mince, and pine nuts the end of the chicken strip resembling the tail of number 9….swimming in a pool of fenugreek curry. Now I am getting fanciful…but after a taste of that dish I was swimming in ecstasy…the rahadi roti (a rustic preparation with spinach) complementing the preparation.

‘Keep place for dessert,’ Vaishnavni cautions. I look surprised. What can be different about Indian desserts? Although Rahul had changed the traditional Patiala Pomfret to one stuffed with prawns. As were the other items mentioned.

‘You see the Sheermal Naan,’ Vaishnavni mentions, ‘although an Indian bread it can be served as a dessert.’ I look at the explanation…exotic nut encrusted bread, kneaded with milk and honey, drizzled with chilled Rabdi. I hd noticed that they had Rabdi served with seasonal fruit too. ‘I love Rabdi,’ I croak, ‘so can I just taste it?’ Joe gives me a stern look across the table. ‘As well as the Akroat Halwa, and the Shahi Jamun.’ What the heck…I will walk 5 km this evening. I promise myself. But perhaps I have to increase the mileage I thought as I devoured the Rabdi….never have I tasted this preparation in Goa, you normally get the watered down version, and the Walnut halwa sprinkled with dry fruit and topped with Vanilla icecream? To die for. I kept it out of Joe’s reach leaving him to sample the Shahi Jamun..although Rahul’s Gulkhand homemade ripple icecream is a steal.

Did I complain about heavy Indian food on a hot afternoon? All I can say is that if you want to add Zest to your life, take a trip to Executive Chef Rahul’s creative palour- you have a genuine treat in store for you.

Restaurant Zest (Indian and Chinese)
Next to Hotel Mandovi
Panjim, Goa

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