50 Fifty

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The 50 best restaurants in the world have been named again by Restaurant Magazine. I haven’t blogged about this list in a while (since 2005, in fact) but lists are like motichoor laddos – I can’t resist them. In what seems a significant irony the list this time is sponsored by the very antithesis of cooking – natural, untouched-by-hand mineral water from S. Pellegrino. In an even bigger twist of irony S. Pellegrino is owned by Nestle, purveyor of that other antithesis of cooking - Maggi.

As in other years, the list makes for an interesting read as much for who made it as for who did not. Noma in obscure Denmark has been the number one - again. Spain gets three spots in the top ten (even though El Bulli is off the list pending its impending closure) - no other country manages more than one mention. It does less spectacularly in the rest of the list - managing only two more mentions to France's seven and six for both Italy and USA. Italy with Osteria Francescana at four makes it ahead of England (Fat Duck at five), which in turn is well ahead of France (Le Chateaubriand at nine, my vote for the coolest entry on the list).

As cities go Paris, with six mentions, defends its reputation as gastronomic mecca. New York similarly maintains its reputation just below Paris, with five entries (and I’ve eaten at three of them). Restaurants are otherwise quite scattered – of the thirty nine remaining entries only London (three) Tokyo (two) manage multiple mentions.

Asia takes a while to appear; Japan lands at twelve with Les Creations de Narisawa, a restaurant known for, what else, French food. China takes even longer, showing up at thirty seven with Amber in Hong Kong holding the hand of a European chef serving – what else – modern French cuisine. Australia is represented by Sydney restaurant Quay at number twenty six. Africa similarly makes a lone entry at thirty six - Le Quartier Francais in an unpronounceable town in South Africa (notice the french influence right in the name).

India has dropped off the list entirely. The sole desi representative – Bukhara - appeared on the inaugural list in 2002 (at fourteen) but had its last gasp in 2007 at thirty seven (the list puzzlingly called it Bukhra for a few years). We still squeeze in a spot in the top hundred though with (of all things Indian) sushi – there’s Mumbai’s Wasabi, at ninety two. Surprisingly, Morimoto’s other restaurants do not appear on the list while New York competitor Masa (three michelin stars and the top spot at Forbes most expensive sushi list) appears three slots below at ninety five.

The obvious euro-centricity of the rankings is interesting, specially in the countries outside Europe; South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, Latin America and most surprisingly Tokyo. All the top restaurants on the list serve modern european food – most are heavily franco-centric. Even the few representatives from earlier years that focused on other cuisines (such as Bukhara or Hakkasan) have lost ground or fallen off entirely. I don’t think judging bias is an adequate explanation; I have two theories.

My first theory is our euro-centric view of luxury, shaped in no small part by centuries of European colonization. Its also reinforced by the billions that are poured into promoting wine, cheese, olive oil and the like – all of which go into shaping a particular kind of haute experience in our minds when it comes to dining. Food shows also go a long way towards promoting euro- and particularly franco-centric views of food as the ultimate haute cuisine. This is not a comment on reviewer biases – its a comment on the biases of the diners. Since diners demand franco-centric haute cuisine, those are the restaurants that present themselves. Think of Mumbai – its easy to find an expensive Italian or French meal; but think Malwani or Gujarati and the choices are in the hundreds but none will come anywhere close to luxury.

I must clarify here that by fine dining I don’t necessarily mean price – there seems little correlation even on the Top 50 list. Restaurants need to make diners go wow, and it’s not enough to make the classics well. Maa ki daal at a Punjabi dhaba, surmai gassi at the now-defunct Anant Ashram, kosha mangsho at Kolkata’s Shyambazaar are all these are hugely tasty and comfortingly consistent but they are craft rather than art – recipes reproduced perfectly rather than any broader interpretation of cuisine. In music terms, a great sound system rather than a great singer.

My second theory is going to be more controversial, and its more to do with why I think Indian restaurants don’t feature on the list. I’ve eaten at some five (that’s 10%) of the restaurants on the list and I can say that the food served at most restaurants on this will be very very good. You may not agree with the particular rankings, but there is little doubt that the kitchens turn out intricate, elaborate dishes that are always well crafted and occasionally ecstatic. Cooking is an odd mixture of art and craft – originality and creativity merged with the need to produce repeated copies – and the greatest of restaurants master both. Their dishes are original, creative, edgy and repeatedly perfect – day after day after day, sometimes for decades. A singer can sing his song a little differently every day (and usually does); not so for the chef. This requires, like all classical arts, a sound and comprehensive technical foundation coupled with generous doses of genius. And that’s what is lacking outside the franco-european world.

There’s a darker side to this. China, India and Latin America – source of much of the world’s richest cuisine, finds most of their native traditions decimated by a colonial past (though colonizers were not always to blame). In China’s case Mao’s Cultural Revolution discouraged fine food as an unnecessary luxury. In India, caste and religion kept cooking techniques confined to communities and families and faded out with their fortunes – few can now replicate the incredibly elaborate dishes of the Mughal court, or the courts of Lucknow, Hyderabad or Kashmir in its heydays. The food of kings, usually the most formal and elaborate of cuisines, has in India been pushed into steep decline with the fortunes of the kings themselves. What remains is usually the food of the people – fantastically tasty when done well, but without the formal elaboration or high art of royal cuisine.

India (and I suspect all over Asia and Latin America) is moving from shortage to accumulation. Our parents used to think it was wasteful to eat out, we have just started looking for fine foods as a form of reward. Our first instinct is to look for easy, visible symbols of luxury (such as wine or cheese) even though we barely understand it or have any childhood association with (Amul cheese and Goan port does not count). History tells us that if we continue to grow more prosperous, we will look backwards to reviving and reinterpreting our own heritage – pop culture will eventually lead the way to high culture. Great Indian restaurants will come when eating traditional becomes more fashionable; its starting to happen, though I wish it would happen faster.

Sushi at the courts

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Vir Sanghvi feels that sushi is the new trend for the boredwithtikkamasala Indian. I’m quite fond of sushi, but evidence to that trend being broad based is still sparse in Mumbai. To mainstream, sushi must be available at places that don’t require a platinum Amex (or a scamworthy bag of money); this is sadly lacking. In America where sushi is now firmly street, decent nigiri and moderately awful miso soup is embedded into every strip mall and grocery store worth its name; not quite so in Mumbai. Its true that Thai and Mexican passed us by, but sushi is a food of expensive ingredients – the rice, the ultrafresh imported fish – so bring it to the streets isn’t going to be easy. Or so I thought.

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It turns out that Mumbai has its cheap sushi after all - If not to the street, at least a food court. Atria Mall in Worli proudly sports Taste of Tokyo – a sushi joint that shares space with eminent names such as Kailash Parbat and Swati Snacks. The place everything required of fastfood japanese from coke combos and sushi posters on the wall (note the Kikkoman poster below) to the moderately-awful miso soup that seems to be obligatory at such places.

 

But is the sushi any good?

That’s the amazing part – while it wont make it to “award-winning” class, the sushi is actually more than acceptable (or at least, some of it is). The salmon nigiri is my favourite - at less than Rs 200 for four generous pieces - the fish is fresh, moderately fatty and definitely a real salmon (not the cheap “Indian salmon” substitute – the common rawas – whose only salmon claim to fame is that it looks a little like one).

And for those that think the rice is what makes the sushi, this one actually has rather nice rice. Sushi rice should be firm and sticky but fall apart in your mouth; what you don’t want is a  lump of congealing, rice-flavoured chewing gum. This Taste of Tokyo does much better than some fancier places that also pretend at sushi (Global Fusion and Tian are two names that spring to mind). I have yet to try their rolls of which there are a few on the menu, but the place has definite promise.

A word of caution here. Don’t go there expecting Morimoto to produce gourmet wonders. This is for people who want acceptable sushi even when no expense account is in sight, and Taste of Tokyo does a good job of that. Food court, not the Imperial Court.

Teatime

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Tea is, after water, the most consumed drink in the world. The brown liquid has shaped world history; empires have been built and destroyed on the quest for the leaf and it was not entirely accidental that Boston decided to choose tea for their party in 1773. Again in America tea (of a new political kind) is grabbing headlines but as I write this, I’m sipping  the regular morning cup.

Of course, with my bong bhodrolok obsessions things aren’t that regular about my morning cup. This one is a white tip smoky earl grey from Chado Tea at Phoenix Mills, at roughly Rs 5,000 per kilo (I bought a mere hundred grams). Its a tea that brings together China, India and Imperial England into a single cup. Early Grey tea is a favourite of mine (and one of the few things that come reliably well from tea bags) but smoky earl grey was a first – the edginess of earl grey attached to a smoky aroma more characteristic of lapsang souchong.

I’ve blogged quite a few times about tea earlier – New York, San Francisco and a brief one on Hypercity’s rather unfortunate gourmet store (which has now, luckily, closed). By and large, though, Mumbai has been left out of my tea map – which is not entirely fair since a fair amount of fairly good tea is available here now. Quite a change from my first visit to Mumbai, where a loose tea seller asked me to choose between “Hotel Tea Grade I” and “Hotel Tea Grade II”.

Chado Tea is itself an interesting phenomenon. This chain is owned by a Los Angeles family of Indian origin, one of whose members briefly worked at IIFL (though I did not know him then). That Mumbai connection is pretty much the reason for their schizophrenic spread – three outlets in greater Los Angeles and two in Mumbai (the other in the Bombay Store at Fort). The open-air stall outside PVR in Phoenix holds at least two hundred teas of all kinds, from the somewhat pedestrian masala mixes to ultra-rare Chinese. Yerba mate, rooibos and other oddities are also present; indeed it offers a range that would warm the belly of any tea lover anywhere in the world. It’s a choice that beats many shops - even in tea meccas such as Kolkata, London or Hong Kong. The best part is – all their teas area also available by the freshly-brewed cup.

Chado has (by far) the best choice of teas in Mumbai, but it is not the only place for fine cuppas. The (really) old favourite - The Sea Lounge at the grand old Taj - is back to combining fine teas with great sunsets . There’s a separate tea (and coffee) menu that you need to ask for, but it has a wealth of teas there. Avongrove, Gopaldhara, Wiry Clonal are all noteworthy names I can recall, but there are many other worthy teas.  The mezzanine Atrium Lounge at the Taj Lands End has a similar arrangement, but with less of a view. For some reason, the special tea menu is not available at the regular coffee shops of these or any of the other Taj properties.

Another small if worthy tea room is Cafe Prato at the Four Seasons at Worli. The selection is much smaller – a mere four - but the teas are nice (though pricier than either Taj). An alternate worthy at the same hotel is Aer, perched dizzyingly on top and opening at 5:30 just in time for a glorious sunset if nothing else. Its not very easy to persuade them to get you a tea up there, but its worth the effort (though you can always stick to the Long Island variety). The Oberoi at Nariman Point has recently started a fancy tea service at the Champagne Lounge in their atrium, promising spectacular sunsets and teas. Tea Centre secreted in Resham Bhavan at Churchgate offers a small selection of nice teas with old world charm – there’s a kahwa on the menu that’s particularly nice. Not too far away, Oxford Book Store hides a Cha Bar with a nice (if occassionally gimmicky) range of tea.

When buying teas for home, I must warn you that most ‘Darjeeling’ teas sold in the stores are not much good. The solitary Mumbai outlet of Lopchu has been holding fort below the New Bengal Hotel in Fort. Chamong and Chaitime have some nice teas (and good tea bags) that you can find on supermarket shelves. The Bombay Store also sells the outstanding Aap Ki Pasand teas – this used to be my favourite. However, Chado is the best tea buying experience in Mumbai by some margin; they will sell you at least a hundred kinds of tea, properly preserved in airtight jars that you can select by smelling or tasting.

Tea is one of the great benefits of civilisation. An additional bonus is that Mumbai’s sea faces the setting sun, which conveniently puts on a colourful show right at tea time. Enjoy!

Gobi Again

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A couple of years ago, I blogged about finding in dense heart of Versova an unusual cabbage pakora. Mumbai doesn’t make pakodas out of cabbage; I hadn’t really seen them before, and didn’t see them since - till today. Wandering the equally narrow and dense lanes of Worli village, the fisherman’s colony that leads up to Worli fort, I came across not one, not two but three places selling cabbage pakoras. This time they were accompanied by deep crimson schezwan sauce – “homemade, ours is the best” the ladies manning the cart told me (it was a salty, garlicky and recognizably non-chinese). 

cabbage pakoda

Its always interesting to stumble upon these small local food phenomena. Two different fishing communities manage to dodge the rest of Mumbai and adopt bright red cabbage pakoras; what are the odds ?

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