December 31, 2007

A Milestone (of sorts)

Since moving here I wondered if I'd always stick out like an obvious foreigner, or if eventually at least some of the time people would treat me like a "local." There have been a few small instances, but yesterday something happened that made me feel like I'd truly arrived.

I got shooed away from a store by someone! It was one of the myriad of curio/handicraft/rug stores that are constantly inviting tourists to "come look." They are filled with carved wooden Ganeshas, tacky souvenirs, and overpriced rugs. Anyway, I was sitting on a railing in front of the store waiting for Debbie wearing a cheap cotton FabIndia kurta. After I'd been idling there for a while, a guy came out of the store and made the "tshh tshh" noise you make to get someone to move out of your way, and made shooing motions with his hands. I was being shooed away from his store!

I was shocked, I'm used to having to tell them that no, I'm not interested in looking at his rugs, or buying a nice pashmina, or a chess set even at a "very good price." So it was very amusing. I had arrived - I wasn't seen as a rich tourist to be cozened, but rather a local nuisance to be shooed away. At least for those few moments I was a local.

In another small milestone, we went to Chitra Santhe, the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat's annual art show/sale on Kumara Krupa Road. The entire road is closed to traffic and lined on both sides with artists showing and selling their art. (Most of the art was, as another attendee put it, "not breaking any boundaries" but we picked up a Madhubani Nagini that I'm quite happy with.) We took an auto to get there and our auto driver had no idea where it was. He got lost and we had to direct him but we finally made it. While paying for the ride, a woman came up and asked him if he knew where the Chitra Santhe was, on Kumara Krupa road. I laughed. "He has no idea where it is, but that's where we're going - it's just down at the end of this road," I said pointing down a nearby side street. She thanked me and got back in her car. So not only had we told the auto driver how to get where we wanted to go (not that unusual) we had also given a local directions! A small triumph, but it made us happy.

November 26, 2007

Dinner

Ok, I've decided to stop whining, shut up, and cook. Here's the dinner menu from night before last, we had our friends Anita and her sister Ranjita over for dinner. Ranjita's about to leave for a chef's job in the UK, so we wanted to have a nice dinner before they left. Here's the menu:

Spicy thai chicken [Ranjita]
Crostini with goat cheese [Debbie]

Cold seasonal vegetable salad [Anita]
Sauteed haricots with caramelized garlic [Charles]
Polenta and mascarpone [Debbie/Charles]

Prawns poached in lime and garlic buerre monte served with roasted pineapple green chili salsa fresco [Charles]

Fresh strawberries in chantilly cream [Debbie/Charles]

L'Origan Cava
Indage Sauvignon Blanc

Bread, Goat Cheese, Mascarpone from Herbs-n-Spice, Indiranagar
Pineapple, Fresh Green Beans, Garlic, Prawns, Strawberries, Limes from Russell Market
Fresh Cream, Butter from Nilgiri's Brigade Road
Fresh green chilis, onions from the vegetable guy a half block from my house

November 22, 2007

Bangalore Thanksgiving

This will be our first Thanksgiving in Bangalore. Mostly we're enjoying not have to deal with the consumer nightmare that you get in the USA from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but I do have some nostalgia for traditional Thanksgiving dinner. So imagine my excitement when I saw the following menu for Thanksgiving lunch at work (edited slightly for formatting and grammar):

Thanksgiving lunch from Erica's kitchen.

There will be:

Waldorf salad
Exotic salad
Leek & Mushroom soup
Cream of chicken soup
Bread Basket

The Highlights:

Stuffed Turkey
Mashed potato
Zucchini
Broccoli
Green beans with puff pastry
Cold cut platter

And to top it all

Fruit pies
Vanilla Ice cream


Our staff worked hard to put together as close to a traditional American Thanksgiving menu as possible, and I think they did the best they could to communicate that to the caterer. I think the problems are that 1) the caterer has no one who's ever experienced an actual Thanksgiving dinner, 2) they couldn't get a lot of the things that go into a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (like cranberries) and 3) there were the inevitable transcription errors.

I think I understand better why my Indian friends complain so much about the Indian food in Charlie's Cafe at Google. They say the names sound familiar, but the food bears no resemblance to the dishes with those names. This was like that. What was it actually like?

From the top:

Waldorf salad
This was chunks of apple swimming in runny mayo with a few bits of walnut thrown in. No raisins, no celery.

Exotic salad
Now I don't know about your family, but my family never had "exotic salad" for Thanksgiving. This was just shredded purple and green cabbage, carrots, and some lettuce leaves with no dressing. I guess if undressing a dancer makes them an exotic dancer, not dressing a salad makes it an exotic salad?

Leek & Mushroom soup
Cream of chicken soup
These weren't so scary, but they looked like standard steam-table catering cream soups.

Bread Basket
Some bread sticks and a bunch of soft white rolls, torn in half. It was in a basket.

The Highlights:

Stuffed Turkey
It was turkey, and it was stuffed, but it was like no stuffed turkey I've ever had before. As best I can tell they mostly boned a whole turkey, wrapped it around some kind of chicken forcemeat, then roasted it maybe over wood? It had an interesting smokey flavor, but the dense salty forcemeat dominated, and in order to cook it through, the outer layers were inedibly dry. A shame, because it looks like it once was a nice bird. In addition, the server was just hacking off big chunks, not slicing it. Carving a whole roast turkey is a learnable skill, carving a boneless turkey is something anyone can do, this was a farce. So to speak.

Mashed potato
These were actually croquettes, and spiced with masala. How hard is it to just make plain mashed potatoes?

Zucchini
Broccoli
Green beans with puff pastry
I came a little late, and never saw any of these.

Cold cut platte
"Cold cuts" in Bangalore are usually some kind of shaped and formed chicken forcemeat, or sliced pressed chicken. It's dense, bland, over salty, and thoroughly unappetizing. When we were moving here we thought that it might be hard to find beef, but pork should be widely available. Wrong.

And to top it all

Fruit pies
These "fruit pies" were actually little tarts, with bland flavorless fruit (I think it was apple), no binder (no custard, no whipped cream, not even a cornstarch glaze, just pieces of fruit) and soggy crust.

Vanilla Ice cream
A five gallon box of commercial ice cream, left out on the table with a spoon stuck into it. By the time I got there it was a puddle in the bottom of the box.

A laudable sentiment, a fine sounding plan, appalling execution.

October 23, 2007

San Francisco

We arrived in San Francisco later than expected due to airline delays, but got met at the airport by Sarah, and immediately whisked to the B&B we were staying at. This is the second time I've stayed at "The Parsonage" at Haight and Laguna, and it continues to delight. We had the garden room, which is tucked under the stairs and has a private entrance and a sofa bed - both very convenient for us and our friends.

After freshening up we caught a cab to Quince - one of our favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and in my opinion the best pasta in the Bay Area. I see that the latest Michelin guide has awarded it one star, so it's likely to be even harder to get in from now on. Ah well. It was too dark to take photos without a flash, and too nice to disturb everyone else so there are no photos. Rather than the tasting menu, since there were three of us we each ordered three courses from the menu and shared. I ordered a couple of half bottles of wine, and life was good.

The next morning I had an 8am meeting for work, but arranged to meet Debbie and Sarah for breakfast at Tartine Bakery. Our hope being that early morning during the week might be less crazed than the weekend madhouse. It was less crazed, but there was still a sizeable line and a small wait for a seat. I've already posted a million photos of Tartine, so this time concentrated on just enjoying the food. Debbie got the ham and cheese croissant, Sarah a chocolate pudding, and I had a morning bun. The same thing we always get. I joked to Debbie that she was in a rut, even though she hadn't been to Tartine in almost nine months. She in return said that since it had been so long, and since the croissant was so perfect that she wasn't going to share! Fortunately for me she relented. I may not forgive Mark Bittman for writing about Tartine, but I have to admit I agree - it's one of the best bakeries in the US - and it would be hard not to write about it.

For dinner that evening, we went to our friend Eric Gower's house and he cooked for us. Eric's an amazing cook and writer who lived with us for what seems like hardly any time but I think was actually 18 months. He's written a couple of great cookbooks, and I love shooting his food.

The next morning we walked by my favorite coffee place - Blue Bottle Coffee - for a couple of double ristretto cafe macchiatos. I do miss that level of fanatic devotion to the production of a perfect shot of espresso. I know for certain that it exists in other places, because I've found it in places like Seattle and New York, but it's hard to find! Anyway, after a bit of coffee heaven we wandered over to Polk to our friend Brenda's new place "Brenda's French Soul Food" a creole diner serving Brenda's personal mix of french and creole. When I met Brenda she was cooking at Cafe Claude in a postage stamp sized kitchen with almost no equipment. In that environment she turned out amazing french and now with a real kitchen she's amazing. We had beignets, french toast, an open face bacon and egg tartine sandwich, and a side of amazing grits - deep corn flavor with a touch of dairy richness that was irresistable - I was stuffed but we finished all of the grits. (Meredith Brody seems to like it too. I knew I liked her...)

I got some work done in our San Francisco office, then caught the shuttle down to Mountain View where I had more meetings - including lunch at Pinxto with Sarah, Sarah, and Patti. Pinxto is Google's "tapas" cafe, and it is consistently excellent (even if the tapas aren't always Basque, as would be implied by the name.) Then met Lori on Caltrain then off with Debbie to Sens, in the Embarcadero Center where Lori's friend Shuna is the pastry chef.

The next day I took off for Truckee to see my family, while Debbie hung out in San Francisco with her sister. Then it was off to Tokyo!

October 20, 2007

Claremont

From Cleveland we flew to Claremont to visit her sister and her family. We had two tight connections in Chicago and Denver, but the trip was uneventful. Debbie's sister met us at the airport and we drove to their place.

Claremont is a very pretty little college town. Broad quiet tree lined streets, few pedestrians, a pretty downtown with coffee shops and a Saturday farmer's market. We spent the time playing with her niece and nephew (great kids and very fun to be with. Robin is into drawing, especially fairies, and Arlo is a cute talkative four year old.)

We went out for Mexican food with her brother-in-law's parents (who are fascinating people, well travelled, well informed, great conversationalists) the kids got tired and bored so went home early and we had a nice walk home. The food was forgettable, but the company was memorable. I took a few pictures that I may post later.

The next morning was Saturday, and we walked downtown for coffee and the farmer's market. Fair trade coffee, fresh pastries, sitting around listening to typical liberal college town coffee house conversation, looking at the zen brush paintings on the wall, we were in our element.

Next - San Francisco!

Cleveland

From Krakow to Cleveland we flew LOT the national Polish airline. First we flew from Krakow to Warsaw. The domestic terminal in Krakow was an open empty concrete floored space kind of like a warehouse, but it has a spare modernistic feel that made it comfortable. Before living in Bangalore I would have thought it was kind of primitive and boring, but now it stands out in contrast to the international airport in Bangalore as a paragon of cleanliness and efficiency. Not adjectives historically applied to Polish facilities in my mind!

Anyway, the flight from Krakow to Warsaw was on a 64 seat turboprop. I love turboprops so it was a treat for me. Next we jumped from Warsaw to Toronto on an unexceptional two class jet flight. LOT business class is nothing to write home about, but it was comfortable and the alcohol was plentiful. We had a small adventure in Toronto. When flying from Europe to the US via Toronto you actually clear US immigration and customs in Canada. Our luggage was supposed to have been routed to the transit area, where we waited for almost and hour, but actually went to regular Canadian baggage claim. So we had to enter Canada to get it, then go through US customs and immigration. The Canadian customs people, perhaps because they were bored, asked us all kinds of nosy and intrusive questions:
How much money do you make? (Lots)
Do you own the company? "Do I own Google? I wish."
How much did your plane tickets cost? "About $10,000 each."
What is that, first class? "No, business class."
How long are you going to be in Canada? "About an hour..."
How long are you staying in Cleveland? "Two days."
How come so short a time?
Toronto to Cleveland was an even tinier turboprop so I was happy. There were nine people on the flight, with a back row of five seats - like a bus. We sat back there and spread out.

Cleveland was lovely. Debbie is from Cleveland, and we spent the time with her parents and visiting all her old favorite haunts. I have pictures of Tommy's, an iconic Cleveland restaurant and source of one of Debbie's old favorite T-shirts. The food was prototypical 70's hippy food. Lots of salads, baked sandwiches with cheese and sunflower seeds, giant frozen yogurt milkshakes, stuff like that. Her mom made us a nice home made dinner, and I got to see her childhood home and the neighborhood she grew up in. Very nice.

We gave a little talk at Debbie's dad's International Business class (he's a professor at Cleveland State) talking about business in India. She talked about what it's like day to day living in India, and I talked a little about infrastructure, property rights, and the rule of law.

Krakow

Krakow is great, very old European. Old buildings, old streets, old churches, lots of history, great food. We stayed in a B&B in an old apartment house. It's a small city, you can walk everywhere, but there is a great transit system. Trams and busses go everywhere and they're cheap!

The food is about as diametrically opposite of Indian food as it's possible to be. Every meal revolves around meat. Pork, beef, game, you name it. Spicing is very simple, and sauces are often heavy with fruit. As for vegetables, well cabbage is a vegetable, right? So are potatoes aren't they? The first morning we went to a cafe, the menu entirely in Polish. We had sandwiches - toasty multi-grain bread, fresh tomatoes, fresh cheese, preserved meats - it was heaven. Then we had espresso, dark thick Illy espresso with rich golden crema. Ahhh...

October 06, 2007

Around the world!

We're on our way around the world. Two weeks ago we were in Hyderabad, visiting the Google Hyderabad office while Sarah gave her talk at IAC. After that we went to Aurangabad to visit Ellora and Ajanta caves, then back to Mumbai for a day.

Next stop was Zurich, and the Google office there. Zurich is a beautiful city and the opposite of India in just about every way. The city is spotless, well organized, punctual, and quiet. If a pedestrian stands at the side of a crosswalk, cars stop to let them cross. The public transit system is ubiquitous, inexpensive and convenient. There are great restaurants, wine and especially CHEESE. Raclette and fondue are national dishes.

Now we're in Frankfurt, visiting Debbie's old friend Eric, and her ex girlfriends Diane and Debbie. Last night was a neighborhood restaurant with apple wine (cider), sausages, pork and lots of potatoes. We're about to leave for the flea market.

Pictures to come.

August 29, 2007

Coffee Flame

Most of you know that I'm a fanaticsnob about a lot of things, but especially about coffee. On a mailing list I'm on I've been participating in a small discussion about coffee in India, with particular emphasis on a comparison of the relative poorness of coffee chain baristas in the US versus India. Mostly low key harmless fun, until one of the list members forwarded part of the discussion to an off list friend of his who considers himself a coffee aficionado. He forwarded his friend's reply back to the list, and what follows is my response with comments added for this blog in italics.
A few thoughts, from an off-list friend, on the coffee discussion thus far.

He's quite sold on the coffee (and the pizza) in Napoli. Something to do with the water and the volcanos and some such.
____________________
Yes, a few.

1) I don't put a lot of emphasis on the beans. Of course you do need the right kind of bean and the right kind of roasting for the kind of coffee you're making, but I believe the point of diminishing returns to effort and refinement in this area is reached pretty quickly.
This says volumes to me. It tells me that your friend either doesn't have much experience with premium varietals or proper roasting. It's easy to lose varietal character by over roasting, and even whole beans once roasted will lose quality after a week, but to say you don't put emphasis on the beans is just ignorance.

The differences between typical south or central american beans, african, and island or pacific beans, or even the fincas within a state like tarrazu in costa rica are huge. The difference in processing between wet and dry processed can make an enormous difference in flavor of the coffee. Even variations from year to year mean that an estate producing exceptional coffee one year will produce ordinary beans the next.

This doesn't even begin to touch on my personal obsession, Yemeni varietals. Coffee from Yemen is like no other in the world. It's grown traditionally on small farms, and harvested by families by hand. It's all harvested at the same time so you get a mixture of ripe and unripe cherries, and it's all dry processed which enhances the character of the beans. Each region or village in Yemen's coffee producing area has a different character to it, and from year to year different regions are the "best" (though personal preference plays a huge part as well.)

I'm personally a fan of Yemen Hirazi, but it's nearly impossible to find anymore, as Saudi Arabia consumes almost all of it. The beans are very small and yellow, and produce a lot of smoke and chaff when roasted. I like it roasted a little past full city, deep into second crack, because Yemeni beans respond well to a darker roast. (For reference, starbucks and peets roasts are much darker than even that, and italian espresso roast is typically darker still. When you roast that dark you burn away almost all the varietal character, so for espresso it makes little difference if the bean was originally from brazil, columbia, or ethiopia. [Though the sainted Mr. Illy would disagree, and I have to bow to his superior expertise. The man is a fanatic.])

Yemenis should be rested a little longer than most coffee after roasting, typically 24-48 hours. (Where 8 hours is usual for most other beans.) The resulting brew is winey, chocolatey, with huge body and little acid. I drink it unblended with anything else, much less milk.
2) I'm a little surprised by the cult of connoisseurship around things like cappuccino and macchiato, which are basically kids' drinks,
This comment was in response to some of us complaining that coffee chain baristas in the US would add the coffee to the milk rather than correctly vice versa, while apparently Indian coffee chain baristas are better about doing it right.

When the beans are stale, acrid and acidic, and the pull over extracted I find that a little milk tends to buffer the nastiness. It's hardly "connoiseurship" to expect a barrista to know how to correctly make the basic repertoire, and it's pretty pointless to go on comparing the depth and color of the crema if the barrista can't even make basic drinks correctly.
and the limited attention given to the basic characteristics of coffee (by which I mean espresso). My own three-item checklist for a good cup of coffee: not burnt or bitter; syrupy consistency; layer of coffee foam at least 2mm thick. Achieving these three characteristics on a regular basis is part art and part science, and experience has taught me not to trust anyone outside of napoli (it's theoretically possible for others to achieve the same results, but the percentages don't work for me).
To be fair, what he really is trying to say is that he is unwilling to try random coffee places outside of Naples because the odds of getting good coffee are so low, while in Naples any random place is more likely to have good coffee. He's still full of it, but not as much as I imply in my next paragraph.

Oh please. That's magical thinking. I'm as chauvinistic as the next person, and I love my city of San Francisco. I think there are some great baristas in San Francisco, but the best coffee I've had has been in that cliche of a coffee mecca - Seattle. I've sought out the best coffee places in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, and New York City in the USA, and Paris, Barcelona, London, Milan, Florence, and Rome in Italy. (I have not been to Napoli, but while it's possible they have achieved some kind of transcendence there, I doubt it.)

My point being that I have found that coffee fanatics around the world produce a consistent and ambrosiacal product, that while it certainly differs from place to place, is an order of magnitude better than anything you will find in a place that is not staffed by total coffee fanatics, and that no one of that stratum would say anything as absurd as "I don't put a lot of emphasis on the beans." To them (and me) EVERYTHING matters. The beans, the roast, the grind, the dose, the tamp, and the multitudinous factors of the pull (the tank temperature, the head temperature, the head pressure, the volume of the pull, the timing of the pull).

To believe that somehow simply being in Napoli can trump someone who devotes their entire attention to each of those variables all the time is, well, magical thinking. It's possible that a detail obsessed OCD barista in Napoli produces infinitely better coffee than a similarly detail obsessed OCD barista in Seattle, but even then the appropriate comparison would be so-and-so barista in such-and-such cafe in Napoli is better than so-and-so in such-and-such cafe in Seattle. To generalize to all espresso in a single city is absurd.

For what it's worth, an Italian has never won or even placed in the World Barista Championships, but an Indian has. In 2001.
3) I'm only reciting my prejudices here, but the only marginally valid coffee tradition outside the neapolitan is the south indian.
How many coffee traditions do you know about? French? Portuguese? Spanish? Turkish? Vietnamese or for God's sake ARABIC? You do know the arabs discovered coffee, right? You are aware that there is an entire history and ritual around the preparation and service of cofee in Arab cultures? Yes, coffee came to India early, but it came to India from Arabia, and in particular from Yemen. To discount the Arabic coffee tradition as somehow "invalid" is ignorant and chauvinistic.
And I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to get good south indian coffee around here given the difficulty of finding fresh milk. (Airlines is two strikes away from falling off my list.)

4) Incidentally, the "napoletana" referred to in the thread was used in neapolitan homes until a few decades ago, but has almost died out. It produces a coffee similar to our decoction (minus the chicory)--high on caffeine, low on texture, making it good base for concoctions with milk but not so good for drinking on its own. Bar coffee in napoli ( i.e. the real thing) has always been made with plain old espresso machines.
5) I'm not sure what "gourmet" means in connection with coffee (or anything else for that matter). It's either good or it isn't,
Besides not-good, and good, there is better, and eventually best. To take this spectrum, draw a line across it and equate all the variety and color on one side as the same is to deliberately turn a blind eye to a rich feast. It was attitudes like that that caused the India coffee board to require all indian growers to mingle their beans and to sell a single kind of "indian" coffee, stunting the indian coffee industry for decades.
and it's important to understand what makes it good or not good, but I'm convinced that the secret lies in better judgement rather than in greater sophistication or refinement.
And what is better judgment except greater sophistication and refinement?

At any rate, in the case of coffee, I think I will trust my own judgment.

August 24, 2007

Eating Bugs

First let me say that Bangkok is fabulous. I love the city, I love the people, I love the food. The only thing I don't really love is the heat. The street food scene is amazing. Fast, cheap, and so very tasty. You see all sorts of things. Pork leg that's been simmered so long the skin is meltingly soft, served with braised chard and a hard boiled egg, over rice. Pad Thai made individually for you in seconds as you watch. A line down the block waiting for the best yellow curry rice in Bangkok. A cart with half a dozen different kinds of fried bugs and truck drivers stopping in the street to pick up a bag of crispy fried whole frogs.

Yeah. That. We found this cart on the way to the big food market area, and had to try them. We got a bag, 10baht worth of fried bamboo worms (a kind of caterpillar/grub) and fried pupae of some kind (I think they're silkworms.) The flavor is sort of nutty, and the texture is just crunchy. The vendor puts the bugs in one of the ubiquitous plastic bags, then sprays soy sauce on them.

Tasty.

August 22, 2007

It's raining now...

This is the view from my office right now.

I've always wondered what a "monsoon" was. Living in the US and reading about it, they always sounded exotic and a little scary. Having grown up in Hawaii and experienced the rainy season there, I imagined the monsoon must be that much more intense, and last that much longer.

Well the monsoon here is more intense, and it does last longer, but most of the time it reminds me of the rainy season in Hawaii. It rains most days, and it's usually a gentle warm rain that stops after an hour or two. But every once in a while it really rains.

Rain so hard you can't see across the street. Rain so hard you're soaked before you can open your umbrella. Rain where two wheelers scurry under overpasses, and cars pull over. Rain where everything pauses for a few minutes and the entire world is rain.

July 20, 2007

It's Gonna Rain

Last night Debbie and I went to a movie. Going to a movie here is interesting. You have reserved seats, and you often have to buy tickets as much as a few days in advance. Movies are very big entertainment and you don't just go see a popular one on the spur of the moment. We wanted some mindless entertainment so went to see "Die Hard 4." For the record Die Hard 4 was quite satisfying. You go to Die Hard movies expecting non-stop over-the-top action that strains your suspension of disbelief past the breaking point, and to see Bruce Willis be the everyman tough-guy that saves the world. It was all that. We did burst out laughing when right after one of the nearly endless ridiculous fight/chase/explosion scenes they stopped for the intermission. Indian movie houses still have intermissions.

But none of that is what prompted me to post.

After the movie (around midnight) as we were leaving we noticed little knots and clusters of people just standing around. Some of them semed to be chatting, but mostly they just seemed to be hanging out. We thought it was a little odd, since it seemed to us that it was quite late and there was nothing open in the mall, but our life here is full of these little mysteries. As we decended four escalators to the ground floor and approached the front door, there seemed to be more and more of these little groups of people till we finally got to the front door and saw what seemed to be a farily large crowd just inside the door.

There was a bright flash from outside and I noticed the floor was quite wet. It was at this point we realized why people weren't leaving - it was pouring down rain outside. Ok, it's the monsoon, it's supposed to rain, but this was our first real experience with it.

As I approached the door and peered out to see just how bad it was, a short auto driver with a towel as a turban approached me and said "Auto sir?" I said "We want to go to Safina Plaza." He bobbed his head and gestured for us to go. Not so fast I thought. "How much?" I didn't want to bargain standing in water up to my ankles in the pouring rain. "Hundred rupees" he says and grins at me with gutka stained teeth. I laugh and consider bargaining with him. Normally the fare should be under 20 rupees, and late at night maybe 30 or 40. I look him in the eye "At this time of night, in this rain? Sure."

We set off through the downpour, across the marble terrace in front of the Garuda mall. Our driver slips once on the slick surface and I say "be careful!" We go down the steps, holding the handrail. He gestures to the autos parked in front, and when I look I realize the road is completely flooded. The water is up to the axles of the little autos. We step out into the flood, and weave between the autos. I wonder which is his, when he sets out across the street! Oh my god, his auto is on the other side of the street. Oh well, what to do? We gamely follow him, the water slowly getting deeper, up to my ankles. I resign myself to flooded shoes, when I notice that he's pointing behind him. "Watch out for the curb" I tell debbie. She looks worried so I go back to hold her hand. We step off and the water is now partwayup my calves. I notice this water doesn't smell so good. Lovely.

Crossing the street in front of Garuda Mall can be tricky even in daylight in dry weather. There's usually a ton of traffic, half of it is turning so you can't tell which way it's going to go, and none of it is going to stop for a pedestrian. At midnight, in the pouring rain, with the road flooded it's even scarier. The only good part is that there is very little traffic, and most of it is using their headlights. We make it across the street to the auto, and pile in. As we get in the auto tips towards us slightly and the pool of water that has collected on the canvas roof sluices off on our side. That's ok, we were already wet, at least this water is relatively clean. The driver takes us a circuitous route, maybe avoiding flooded roads, we worry briefly that he's taking us to some deserted alley to hold us up for more money, but nothing like that happens and we eventually make it home.

The power is out, no surprise, but we strip out of our wet clothes by flashlight and light some candles. Suddenly there's a giant bright white flash and KA-BOOM! Lightning has hit something very close by but we don't care, we're safe at home.

June 27, 2007

Prawns Poached in Butter

We had a lovely dinner locally organized by someone who has read my whining about food in Bangalore and proceeded to put together a huge chinese banquet at a local restaurant for me, some other foodies, and various friends and family.

It was a lovely evening, and we met a bunch of interesting people, but the best part was that he and his wife offered to show us around Russell Market! Now we knew that Russell Market was where all the serious food people went to shop, but it's intimidating. There are lots of vendors for each kind of food, it's crowded and noisy, and it's hard to tell who to ask for what.

Debbie got a guided tour at 8am (I had to work!) and as a result she got introduced to purveyors of chickens, seafood, and veggies. She brought back a veritable cournocopia, including some HUGE whole fresh prawns.

If I can't find good "french" food here, then by god I'll make it myself. So the menu for last night was whole fresh prawns poached in lemon-garlic buerre monter served with chicken rice. I bought a pound of butter, squeezed out about 50ml of strained lemon juice, coarsely chopped some garlic, and cracked some black pepper. Brought it all to a simmer in the bottom of one of my pots and proceeded to make a buerre monter. Added the prawns and poached until just firm.

In the mean time I just cooked some long grain rice in the defatted chicken stock I had left over from the potatoes, onions and chicken we had last night.

Delicious.

Now I just have to figure out what the hell to do with a bitter gourd, some beans, filleted fresh fish, and some chicken breast. I'm sure I will cope.

May 31, 2007

Ninth Street Espresso

After satisfying my beer craving, the next thing I went in search of was a good espresso. I was surprised to discover that despite the large Italian population in NYC, that finding a hard core modern espresso was a bit of a challenge. Names that I found were "Casa" on 9th Ave at 40th, Ninth Street Espresso (at Avenue C), Via Quadronno 73rd St near 5th, and few others. Casa was close to the hotel so I tried it first. Apparently it's now a muffin shop. Sigh. Strike one.

Next I tried Ninth Street Espresso, took the A to 14th, then the L to 1st. Walked about a half mile to 9th and Ave C. This place had wooden benches out front with bikes chained to the rail and kids with messenger bags smoking out front. Looked good. Insidethe "house rules" said things like "no half-regular half-decaf" and the menu was reassuringly brief, with the magical words "all coffee drinks are made triple ristretto." This looked very promising.

First, a single espresso. The crema was maybe a little dark, but the coffee had a nice aroma. It was thick slightly sweet and maybe a touch bitter (which may sound odd to 99.9% of the population for whom all espresso is bitter and ristretto is ridiculously bitter) maybe slightly over extracted or over roasted? But that was a quibble - this was espresso that invited critical scrutiny.

Next a double, with a croissant. Served in a slightly larger cup, the flavor was just as good as the last, and the thick crema lasted all the way to the bottom of the cup. Ahhh. The croissant was unremarkable, but I had come here for the coffee and coffee I had found.

May 30, 2007

Hop Devil Grill

I landed at JFK, took the subway to my hotel, showered, changed and went in search of the thing I miss the most - a good hoppy ale. As I walked out of the hotel a dykey bicycle courier checked me out looked me in the eye and said "Nice hair, guy." Right then I knew - I was with my people.

I'd done a little homework, and it seemed from what people were saying that "The Hop Devil Grill" in the East Village was likely to have what I wanted. I walked in to a place that a couple dozen taps along the wall and twice that many bottles ranked above them. Lots of familiar names - Stone Pale Ale, Stone Arrogant Bastard, Mendocino Brewing Red Tail, Sam Adams, Rogue. I mentioned I was in search of an intensely hoppy IPA and the barman smiled and pointed at the one hand pulled tap.

"Have you tried Hop Angel? Intensely hopped, cask conditioned, hand pulled IPA - and it's local. Brewed in New York." He was speaking my language. If I had specified my dream beer that's what I would have asked for. I asked for a pint.

The first sip confirmed all my hopes. First came citrus from dry hopping, intense grapefruit, followed by crisp maltiness, hardly sweet at all, just enough to balance the finishing bitterness. I smiled and nodded and said "This is a good beer." The barman smiled back and nodded.

If you're looking for real ale in Manhattan, I suggest looking at Hop Devil Grill.

May 27, 2007

T'Chi

Lots of people have been saying "Oh you have to try T'chi!" whenever I mention I like chinese, or that I liked some other place. So last weekend I tried it. We were... disappointed.

Many people, people whose taste in food I trust, have told us that T'Chi is one of the best, most authentic, chinese restaurants in Bangalore. After our experience at Nanking, some of them have explicitly told us to suspend judgement till we tried T'Chi. So it was with a sense of heightened expectations that we finally went to try it.

First we had to find it. The location is described as "Edwards Road at Queens Road." No problem, we hop in an auto and tell the driver to take us to Queens Road. He obliges, treating us to a mini-tour of Shivajinagar on the way. He has no idea where Edwards Road is, of course, and apparently neither do any of the people we ask walking down Queens Road. We continue slowly cruising down the road looking for a sign. What non-Bangaloreans may not realize is that Queens Road is one-way, and like many one-way roads in Bangalore, the one-way direction is not constant over time. One day it's one-way one direction then suddenly with no warning the next day you may find that it's changed to one-way the other way. Queens Road has changed direction in the recent past, and the signs have not adjusted (not that it would have helped.) Eventually as we were getting close to the end of Queens Road Debbie said "there's something red down that side street, maybe that's it." We got out, and amazingly enough it was!

Entering, the decor seemed Chinese enough, and we as we looked over the menu, it looked promising with many familiar dishes. I called the waiter over and said "we'd like some recommendations. We're familiar with chinese food, and we are looking for something authentic. Authentic chinese food, not what you serve tourists." "Yes sir, very good sir." "So we'd like you to recommend your best most authentic dishes." "Yes sir." The first dish he recommended was a crispy fried spring roll. Now I thought this was an inauspicious start, as this is a Vietamese dish, but I had resolved to go with his recommendations. The second dish he recommended was a Guilin Prawn which, from the menu description didn't seem so interesting, but again we would try what he suggested.

The spring rolls arrived on on lettuce leaves, garnished with mint - a good sign. They also came with chili flakes, a sweet/sour chili sauce, and chopped peanuts. I decorated my spring roll and took a bite. To my surprise the entire thing was filled with one solid lump of chinese dumpling (jiao tze) filling! Vietnamese spring rolls should have some bean sprouts, some julienned vegetables in them to add color and texture contrast. This was just wrong. I was starting to worry a little.

Next the "Guilian Prawns." Guilin cuisine combines some of the elements of Hunan and Canton. It's often delicately sweet and spicy, and can include strongly flavored ingredients. These were whole prawns on skewers, covered in a sweet sauce but to my surprise they came on a hot cast iron platter, and arrived at the table in a cloud of smoke and steam. He'd recommended a prawn sizzler to us! When I questioned him about it he said "Oh when I saw you I knew you'd like this dish, all the expats like it." Excuse me? When I said "authentic" and "not tourist food" was that somehow unclear?

The prawns themselves were quite fresh and tasty, the heads were flavorful and the prawn bodies were meaty and flavorful. The sauce was sweet and had no spiciness at all, just a heavy hand with with ginger and garlic. It was at this point that I decided that I'd order the rest of the meal myself.

We decided to go with Szechuan Chicken, Lamb Hot Pot, and plain white rice. These are two classic dishes, and would show off two very different cooking styles. The Szechuan Chicken is a classic stir fried dish, of small cubes of chicken in a tangy, fragrant, spicy sauce. Properly done it should have a good aroma of the wok, and the sauce should just coat the other ingredients. It's a deceptively simple looking dish, but shows off the ability of the chef with the wok. Lamb hot pot is a dish that requires a long simmering to get the deep flavor in the broth, and shows off the kitchen's ability with slow cooked simmered foods.

This Szechuan Chicken was assorted sized chunks of chicken with green bell pepper and carrots. There were no red chilis in the dish at all, and the entire dish was swimming in a glutinous brown sauce that seemed to be not much more than soy sauce thickened with cornstarch. It was boring, graceless, and nothing like any Szechuan Chicken I've ever had.

At this point I was past disappointed and well in to annoyed. When the rice arrived we asked for bowls and chopsticks, and I asked for them in my bad Chinese just because I was frustrated with our waiter. Of course he had no idea what I was asking, and I don't think it was my bad pronunciation. It was petty, but I wanted to show my frustration.

The "Hot Pot" was worse. It was served over some kind of warming flame which I found odd, and when opened it was clear that this was just another stir-fry served in another puddle of cornstarch thickened brown sauce. At least this one had some ginger flavor.

Enough people have recommended this place that we will give it another try, but next time I'm either going with a regular, someone who knows the chef, or armed with a list of dishes to order.

May 16, 2007

Saigon Restaurant

I just posted about Saigon Restaurant on Bangalore Metroblog. You can read the review there, but I wanted to add a few details here, one invidious comparison, and a description of my trip to the kitchen.

First the comparison. Normally I wouldn't go out of my way to compare restaurants in Bangalore and San Francisco because, well, in most cases there is no comparison. With the obvious exception of all the many and varied forms of indian cuisines (especially south indian - karnatakan, keralan, chettinad, andhra, etc.) with very few exceptions (Shiok, Grasshopper, and recently Nanking) the restaurants we've been to in Bangalore don't really compare to similar style restaurants in San Francisco.

Now I know this isn't really fair. San Francisco is known as one of the restaurant capitals of the world, being compared in the same breath with New York City, London, and Paris. But locals like to tout Bangalore as one of India's "foodie" cities and so we had (and have) high expectations for the dining scene here.

That said, Saigon has provided a bright spot in that landscape. The Thai is high quality, as authentic as I can tell having not actually been to Thailand. I'm not really an expert just opinionated and experienced. In any case, this is a restaurant I'd go to in San Francisco. Sure there were a couple of misses - the soup (thom kha) had broken, and the pork was overcooked. But the dishes were interesting, the spicing and preparation was to high standards, and the presentation was well done.

I'm sure some of it has to do with the fact that there is a visiting chef from Bangkok. We'll see if they can keep the standards up after she leaves, but in the mean time I'm happy.

So, being the nosy guy I am, when the chef came to chat, I asked if I could see the kitchen. In no time I was whisked down the back stair (the restaurant is on 3, the kitchen is on 2) into a spacious, immaculately clean, nicely appointed restaurant kitchen. Looked like one cold station, one hot (wok, griddle, frier), and someone plating. I've posted pix on flickr but I was surprised by the size of the mise!

Anyway, all in all it was an enjoyable experience to warm the cockles of my foodie heart. It gives me hope that we'll find more little treasures like this to comfort me while I try to learn the ins and outs of indian food - I won't feel quite so much like a stranger in a strange land.

May 14, 2007

aire helado de parmesano con muesli


parmesan frozen-air with muesli

This dish was a tour-de-force. A styrofoam box was carefully placed in front of each of us. We were directed to unwrap it, and sprinkle the "muesli" on it. When opened, the box contained - air, sort of. It was a very light frozen foam, almost a snow. I suspect the use of liquid nitrogen, but I can't prove it.

The foam tasted intensely of parmesan, while the "muesli" looked and tasted like muesli, it was clearly not like any other muesli you'd ever had. Each of the elements had been distilled to its essence. The dried fruit having an intense fruitiness, and the crispy brown flakes having a delicate nutty sweetness. Both worked well with the parmesan.

As a nice touch we got to keep the wrapper and the muesli bag. The entire presentation was slightly reminiscent of the snacks you got served on an airplane. The styrofoam container, the little zip-loc baggie of unidentifiable bits. The pun being enhanced by the "elbulliaire" logo on the wrappings.


El Bulli

brioche frito shangai


Fried Shanghai Brioche

These were tasty little fried puffs, just about what you'd expect from the name. Brioche-like dough filled with crab, cilantro, green onion, and sesame oil. Very yummy but if there was something astonishing about it I missed it.

People who couldn't have seafood got a "mozarella puff" that looked entirely more interesting. A base of what looked like a steamed mozarella flavored dumpling, split and topped with some kind of foam. For all I know it was actually the foam that had the mozarella flavor, and the dumpling was a puff of something else.


El Bulli

May 11, 2007

won-ton campestre


rustic won-ton

When I first arrived and toured the kitchen, I noticed bright green foam being spooned into bowls. I was mildly curious but hey, it was just green foam. Well, it was a whole lot more (and less) than "just green foam." The green foam is an intensely flavored basil foam, but the real star in my opinion was the won-tons. They appear to be nothing more than small dumplings floating in broth in a small cast iron pot.

The won-tons are an unlikely star. Basically they're small pillows of parmesan flavored dough, poached in a good strong chicken stock, and filled with... nothing. They weren't so much "filled" as inflated. You pick them out of the stock with a special slotted spoon, dress them with a little foam and pop the whole airy confection into your mouth. The flavors of chicken, basil, and parmesan are simultaneously ethereal and comfortably rustic.

We ate every bite, and sipped the stock as well.


El Bulli

horchata/trufa


"horchata" - truffle

The "horchata" I'm familiar with from Mexico is a sweet rice drink flavored with cinnamon. Apparently in Catalonia, horchata is made from the milk of the "tiger nut." This dish came as a yin-yang of Catalonian horchata, and a clear truffle consomme. We were instructed to alternate spoonfuls of each side. The slightly rough sweet pale creaminess of the horchata contrasted with and nicely complemented the thick smooth dark savoriness of the truffle. The nut itself was fibrous and crunchy but otherwise not to my taste.


El Bulli

croqueta líquida 2006


liquid croquette 2006

Croquettes are possibly the most overdone menu item on your typical trying-too-hard pretentious menu. El Bulli may be pretentious, and they certainly try hard but their croquette could hardly be described as "overdone." Reminiscent of the spherical olive, this was a thin gelatinous shell around a rich warm meaty liquid. Garnished with just enough crusty bits to justify the "croquette" label, this was tasty and fun. Very satisfying if not transcendent.


El Bulli

Indian Wedding


Bride and Groom
Originally uploaded by Charles Haynes.
Debbie and I recently attended our first Indian wedding. My friend Girish (who worked for me in the US) was getting married here. We took the night bus up from Bangalore to Shimoga, spent three days there including two full days of wedding stuff, then took a regular day bus back. It was an incredible experience. I loved watching how they prepared food for 2000 guests...

April 16, 2007

fondant de frambuesas con wasabi y vinagre de frambu


raspberry fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar

This arrived as a small whitish raspberry with green wasabi at the top like a stem or small leaf, and a teaspoon of red liquid. We were told to eat the raspberry, then drink the liquid. The raspberry had a firm shell on the outside, leading you to think that maybe it was another freeze dried confection, but no! Once you put it in your mouth you realize that it's a fresh raspberry, but it's HOT! You then drink the liquid which is a raspberry vinegar which nicely complements the sugar shell of the raspberry. "Fondant" in French means "melting" so I think of these as "melting raspberries." Another dish that made me laugh with delight.


El Bulli

bombones de mandarina, cacahuete y curry


Bonbons - mandarin orange, and curry peanut.

These were... bonbons as advertised, but not like any bonbons I'd ever had. One was a flat round golden brown disk, the other a yellowish cube decorated with gold leaf. We were told to eat the flat disk in two bites, but the cube all at once. The flat round one was like curry flavored peanut butter in a thin buttery shell - maybe cocoa butter? The cube made all of laugh. You pop it into your mouth, bite down, and your mouth is filled with liquid! It's tangerine juice and the bonbon shell practically evaporates. What fun!


El Bulli