Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Flying Squirrel: A fresh coffee experience




Most times, the only decision customers have to make at a café is whether it’s going to be latte, cappuccino or Americano. That’s changed. At the newly-opened Flying Squirrel Micro Roastery and Café in Koramangala in Bangalore customers have to choose their coffee. Is it to be Parama, their ultimate, Sattva, pure and organic, Aromatique, Clouds in my Coffee or Sun-Kissed? Is it to be a pour-over, espresso or Americano, cappuccino or latte? For summer, the Flying Squirrel is also serving some of these fine coffees as cold brews.

This warm, welcoming café, done up in shades of coffee, is the creation of third generation Coorg coffee planter Tej Thimmaiah and adman-turned-coffee entrepreneur Ashish D’Abreo. They have been growers and roasters since 2013 and have now opened the Flying Squirrel which, is a micro-roastery and café, where they can interact with customers, showcase their artisan coffees which also retail online (www.flyingsquirrel.in) and also conduct tasting sessions.

Yes, tasting coffee is an engaging art, not unlike tasting wine, and signals the arrival of a new and evolving coffee culture. When you taste the Flying Squirrel coffees, sourced largely from its own and a few select estates, you learn to tell whether a brew is full-bodied or light, whether the acidity is rounded or sharp, whether there’s a mild sweetness to it. Ashish D’Abreo says it’s a fascinating journey and can add to the enjoyment of your cup of coffee. Speaking of the pleasure to be derived from coffee, he baulks at talking about it only in terms of ‘caffeine kicks’ and ‘highs.’ “Anything that has caffeine will give you a kick, but that is not the aim here,” says this passionate coffee enthusiast. He wants customers to enjoy the nuances of coffee, going back to how it was grown, processed, roasted and served.

It all starts with the bean and how it’s treated on the journey to the cup. The Clouds in My Coffee variant, for instance, is processed naturally, travels to Mangalore to absorb sea-side moisture-saturated air that creates a distinctive bold, deep flavour. Sunk-Kissed, the single-estate coffee, is processed using the pulp sun-drying method, which allows the fruitiness of the pulp to be drawn into the coffee. Then, there’s the roasting. Ashish says the Flying Squirrel coffees are all light-roasted as opposed to the dark-roasting which most cafes and coffee chains resort to, destroying the nuances. Technology and experience enable the Flying Squirrel team to deliver fantastic, perfectly roasted coffees from their gleaming machine. It’s ground then, again to different degrees of fineness or coarseness, to suit different methods of brewing. The pour-over is an intricate art, with controlled amounts of water being poured through the coffee at regular intervals. The Flying Squirrel cappuccino aims for perfection with the milk being raised to just the right temperature, so the foam is light and creamy, not ‘cooked’. Another star coffee here is the Nitro Brew, a cold brew infused with nitrogen making it chilled, light and airy and perfect for hot weather.
Serving coffees that are this carefully made also requires a knowledgeable and skilled staff. Ashish invests a lot of time and effort in staff training to ensure they can explain the qualities of each coffee to customers and also prepare it flawlessly every time.  The effort has clearly paid off and the Flying Squirrel team infuses their passion for freshly ground coffee into every cup. And that makes it very special.

The Flying Squirrel is at:

136, 1st Cross Road,
5th Block, Koramangala,
Bangalore 560095
Phone: 080 40991044



Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New restaurant: Forage





Say what you will about the benefits of central kitchens and restaurants that are so process-driven they don’t even need a chef, I find it reassuring to know who’s cooking my food.  At Forage, just opened in Indiranagar, Bangalore – yes, apparently, there’s room for another in this area bursting with restaurants – it’s Himanshu Dimri of Grasshopper fame in the kitchen.

All those years ago, Himanshu had the pluckiness to cook and serve his fare of the day without a menu. Grasshopper fans came to love the style. At Forage, he’s been equally brave, going for a menu that’s described as California style, focusing on healthy, light, nutritious dishes. And, oh, eschewing that restaurant favourite, chicken, in any form.

The freshness and sparkle of ingredients that are Himanshu signatures are evident in every dish. There was the Zucchini Parpadelle, no more than zucchini sliced into pasta-like slivers, tossed with diced peppers, cherry tomatoes and topped off with delicious caramelised bacon. Every vegetable keeps its integrity and the sweet-salty bacon adds the slightest decadence. My companion loved the Aromatic Spiced Pork Ribs with the can’t-go-wrong accompaniment of pickled red cabbage.  The Sea Bass I had for main course was excellent; if the fish was left unadorned, the pea puree it rested on was zesty and lent a lovely creamy texture to the dish. Our other order was the Braised Lamb which came with sweet carrots and potatoes atop brown rice.

For dessert it was the Date and Cashew Creme Brulee. It wasn’t a crème brulee as we know it, but it was so scrumptious, I didn’t care what it was called. While restaurant desserts frequently leave me fretting about the artificial cream and sweeteners they are concocted from, this one was just date puree crowned with cashew butter, a pairing that worked beautifully. That’s one of the standout qualities of the Forage experience; simple cooking techniques combine with good ingredients allowing their quintessence to shines through, instead of being masked by nondescript sauces and condiments.

Much of the Forage menu is gluten-free – even the pasta is crafted from rice – and there are vegan offerings as well. While this could well have become a place that attracts only serious health nuts, Himanshu Dimri ensures it holds appeal even to those who don’t really care if their rice is white, brown or black. Vegetarians can eat happily here and I love the fact there’s no paneer or babycorn to be spotted.

The menu is small and compact and the setting echoes the style. Forage is designed to be an intimate, cosy space, almost like a home with the charming Mayura Kutappa playing hostess. There’s a living room, providing seating in niches with comfy chairs and colourful cushions. A well-stocked bookshelf invites you to grab a book, find a quiet corner and linger over a cup of coffee. There’s a pretty al fresco space that’s perfect for dinner. 


Forage is at:
318, 6th Main Rd, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar, Bangalore 38

Phone: 080 4852 5250

Friday, January 27, 2017

New restaurant: The Druid Garden


Having extolled the virtues of a small menu in the last post, this one’s all about a restaurant that is decidedly huge. Massive is evidently a virtue at The Druid Garden in Bangalore’s Sahakar Nagar, just off the airport highway. It can seat 500 people at a time, the in-house brewery (to launch soon) is one of the -- if not the – biggest in these parts, both in terms of space and volume of Czech beer it’ll be brewing, and the multi-cuisine kitchen is a sprawl, a luxury few restaurants can afford.
To be honest, I am biased towards small restaurants with compact menus that deliver intimate dining experiences. But the style and design of The Druid Garden had me pleasantly surprised. While it’s a vast space, it’s cleverly tiered, providing seating at various levels and in niches. The retracting glass roof is a marvel and there’s a high-end grill and pizza oven lending warmth to the place. The colours and lighting are subtle, the style understated. Such a huge restaurant could easily have gone over the top with the décor; that, thankfully, has been averted.
The long bar makes a speciality of its cocktails. Some, like the Moscow Berry Mule (vodka, fresh berries, ginger beer) and Breakfast Martini (orange marmalade, Cointreau, Bourbon) were superb, while others such as the Basil Sees Red (red pepper, basil, tequila, soda), were unremarkable.
The chefs deserve congratulations for the bar snacks menu which has on it Spiced Latino Chips of sweet potato, tapioca and plantain and Fried Okra Slivers. No nachos or potato wedges in sight and I was pleased. The Druid Garden Menu is a mix of Indian and global cuisine and covers a vast range; I can only imagine all the activity in that humongous kitchen. The Campagna Burrata (fresh cheese, heirloom tomatoes, blood orange dressing) from the salad list was one of the picks of the menu for me, as was the Asian Spiced Tofu Tacos with cripy quinoa and wasabi mayo. Reflecting the scope of the menu was the Scandinavian-inspired Smorrebrod with Anchovy Paste. These dishes feature in the ‘Small Plates’ menu. Then, there are Burgers, Sandwiches Wraps, Pizza, Grills and Large Plates which run the gamut from Karimeen Polichathu and Andhra Kodi Pulao to Crab Ravioli and Tamale with Chicken.
The beef from the grill, I was told, is locally sourced and it was of very good quality and came perfectly cooked. The Druid Garden has a Thai chef and he delivered super quality in the spicy Tom Yum and Pineapple Fried Rice. I find chocolate desserts in most places just too creamy or mousse-like. The Druid Garden’s Hazelnut Torte, was a work of art, with lush textures, intense flavours. I was recommended the Aztec Coffee – espresso martini, vodka-proofed coffee, chocolate, cardamom foam – for an after-dinner cocktail. It comes in a Champagne tulip coated in cocoa and cinnamon and there was just too much going on there.
Serving it all with a smile and a spring in their stride was the staff. Here is a team that appeared highly motivated and so very happy to be on the job. Well done!


Saturday, January 14, 2017

New Restaurant: Grill 99 at the Ritz Carlton


My first restaurant visit of the year was, I’m happy to report, a refreshingly different experience. Grill 99 at the Ritz Carlton has a gorgeous poolside setting on the hotel’s fifth floor, though the approach, passing the hair salon, spa and gym doesn’t quite give you the idea of what to expect.
Open only for dinner, Grill 99 has stylish gazebos for intimate dining and spaces for large groups as well. It’s the perfect spot then, for a pleasant, if pricey, al fresco evening. I wanted to stand up and applaud when I saw the menu, a compact list of appetizers and soups and just ten items on the ‘grills’ menu, plus a small round-up of sweets.
Small menus announce that the dishes are of the best quality, created from the freshest ingredients and cooked with care. There is certainly a difference between the way the kitchen approaches ten dishes and two hundred. There is no pre-cooking here, nothing to be pulled out of cold storage and reheated for the diner in order to speed up service.
Ritz Carlton Executive Chef Anupam Banerjee is, obviously, in his element here. His style is classic, from his training at some great hotels across the world, even as he blends it judiciously with the modern.  In a market where ‘Not enough choice’ is a frequent – not to mention poorly articulated – complaint, it takes confidence, even audacity, to put out a menu this small. In fact, the Grill 99 wine list is much longer than the food menu.
We began with a rich and creamy mushroom soup in demitasse cups and a superb salad of scallops with apple salsa and caramelised cauliflower and then came the piece de resistance. Giant prawns on restaurant menus can so often be all style and no substance. At Grill 99, these were juicy and oozing flavour, benefiting, no doubt, from a good basting of herb butter. The meats, plump lamb chops and tenderloin with delicious grill marks were perfect. The grills are served in heavy copper pans, nestling amidst sprigs of thyme and rosemary, with cherry tomatoes on the vine, whole heads of roasted garlic and lime. It’s a picture, possibly Provencal, and quite lovely. The accompaniments are comfort classics: truffle mash, creamed spinach, buttered vegetables and pepper sauce which, was, quite frankly, redundant.

Chef Anupam said they were aiming for ‘rustic, yet elegant’ with the serving style and they’ve hit the mark. Dinner at Grill 99, right down to the caramel choux buns, was splendid, the sort of meal that leaves you with the satisfaction of having dined very well, never mind the price. My only niggle is that the core ingredients – Norwegian salmon, New Zealand lamb – must leave such a heavy carbon footprint on their journey to Bangalore. If local produce could somehow replace these, that would be perfect, right?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A diner’s wish-list for 2017



It’s still early enough in the year, isn’t it, to dwell on our hopes for the new year? Food websites and bloggers have been in overdrive these past few weeks predicting the eating trends of 2017. Korean is the new Vietnamese/Japanese/Peruvian, depending on what you think is currently trendy, say some. Others say purple is going to be a hot colour on plates, black seemingly having had its day, and bar-watchers are predicting that mocktails will shake off their dowdiness.
Much of this emanates from dining capitals across the world and some of these trends will, no doubt, trickle down to restaurants in India. While I’m looking forward to more Korean and won’t really care for mocktails, no matter how dressed up they are, here’s what I’d like 2017 to be serving up:
Authentic-ethnic: The food forecasters are definitely betting on this. In India, we don’t even have to try. It’s only a matter of taking out all the excess restaurants have been putting into dishes, hoping they’ll appeal more to customers.  So, stop adding ‘tastemaker’ to sambar – yes, South Indian restaurants are guilty of it – and don’t pass off green food colour as hara masala. We have the ‘ethnic’, the trick is to keep it ‘authentic’ and we’re on to a winner. I’d love to see the delightful street foods from across the country get their due, too.
More vegetables: Western tables, they say, will see the arrival of lots more vegetables. Here, too, I want vegetarians – and even non-vegetarians -- to be able to eat more than paneer, button mushrooms and babycorn. Bring on the gourds and the indigenous beans. The once celebrated kale is bowing out and other greens are taking its place. Why don’t we showcase our wealth of greens? Recently, in Sri Lanka, I saw sweet potato leaves on menus and tapioca leaves on supermarket shelves. These are super foods restaurants should learn to work with.
Care for the produce and the producer: There’s no doubt that chefs who are concerned with the provenance of their ingredients create better food. The chef who seeks out the in-season brinjal or bitter gourd grown without pesticides will certainly present it with greater care. Concern for where produce comes from and how it is grown also indirectly benefits the growers of this produce. We cannot hope to eat better without giving farmers their due.
Better bar food: Microbreweries are mushrooming, particularly in Bangalore, and bars are popping up everywhere. Which is all very well, but for the usually pedestrian, unimaginative food that passes off as pub grub here. No more nachos, please! The Socials and Monkey Bars have figured out what one food writer describes as ‘hasty tasty’. Their style of familiar foods with funky twists hits the spot. That’s a trend worth copying.
Forget plating: Pretty plates are passé, right? All those dots, dusts and drizzles are looking just a bit too arty these days; which is why bowls – think poke and ramen – are very in vogue. Unpretentious small plates are perfect for that dinner a deux and sharing platters for a meal with the gang. So fussing over plated presentations should be left strictly for that special occasion.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Going local: Chefs can show the way


I am at the idyllic Vedic Village, an hour’s drive from Kolkata. This weekend, this otherwise quiet, close-to-nature spa resort is alive with the buzz of The Market Place, a gathering of farmers, celebrity chefs, Ayurvedic healers, yogacharyas, dedicated to natural living. Curated by writer and food lover Salmoli Mukerji, it’s designed to be an event that creates awareness, educates and enables interactions that will all eventually lead to a sustainable, holistic way of life with food at its axis.
I’m aware that ‘organic’ has increasingly come to mean elitist, expensive or plain wacko. But when I interact with the women from Nayagram, which lies in the red corridor, who are reviving rice varieties in danger of becoming extinct and turning them into the most delicious muri, or puffed rice, and taste the fantastic kiwi from Mirik – you will never eat the imported version in supermarkets once you do this – and chat with  the simple farmers who’ve grown them, it seems local and natural is so within reach. It’s a direction that can enrich our food, our lives and the planet.
One of the highlights of this unique venture – and it went way beyond the staged farmers’ markets we see pop up in cities from time to time – was the presence of celebrity chefs and their interpretation of the Market Place theme. I sat down to an al fresco locavore lunch created by Chef Sujan Sarkar, the avant garde chef known for his edgy, but purist style. There was soup, a silken Pumpkin Veloute enriched with local Bandel cheese, which also featured in the accompanying cauliflower croquette; a perfect salad of beetroot, radish and local greens, some of them bitter (in picture); and the most delicious and unusual risotto I’ve tasted, made of five ancient grains and tomato. For dessert, Chef Sujan took inspiration from a French classic, but owned it and made it local, serving up a Banana and Jaggery TarteTatin. The jaggery was nolen gur, now in season. It was a simple, sophisticated, spectacular meal.
At a quick demo Chef Abhijit Saha, of Caperberry, Fava and his signature restaurant Saha in Singapore, infused Bandel cheese with smoke, added the kiwis I mentioned earlier and stirred in popped black rice to create a superb salad, elegant enough for any gourmet table.
Dinner with ‘Revival Food’ as its theme was created by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Saby to his many fans and friends. Memories and stories unfolded as he served Sil Batta Yam, a Bengali classic, with Baked Sattu Kachori, Kasundi and Yogurt Fish, Black Chicken, marinated in black sesame paste and cooked over charcoal, Long Bean & Local Asparagus Jhaal and Chinatown Beggar Pouches with fantastic Portobello mushrooms, again from Mirik. He carried the local ingredients into dessert with a Crème Brulee of Govindabhog riced that had everyone raving, Caramelized Farm Orange Upside Down Cake and Mango and Red Rice Payesh.
As a diner, I had met the farmer, seen the produce and watched it transform into utter deliciousness in the hands of talented chefs. You do not have to buy into ‘organic’ concepts; you will taste the difference in food grown the natural way. But there’s a connection there that satisfies not just the taste-buds, it fills the soul. Good food can only come from good ingredients. And you cannot get better than local, natural, seasonal.

My food prayer for the New Year is to see more chefs make conscious, mindful choices when sourcing ingredients and let nature gently guide their creativity.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The 1000-Rupee question: Is there a perfect price point?


Hear a fact repeated often enough by people who know their business and it acquires a definite validity. We’ve been meeting restaurateurs across the country during the course of research for our next book (watch this space for more) and I could not miss noticing how many of them were convinced that being perceived as ‘affordable’ was the key to success in the current scenario.
Think back to a time when ‘fine dining’ was the buzzword amongst entrepreneurs with big plans. Their restaurants may not have quite fulfilled the criteria for this style of dining – from top class cuisine to refined service – but interiors were swank, menus extravagant and prices high. We kept hearing that vast sections of the population had huge disposable incomes and luxury dining was ‘aspirational’.
Somewhere along the way, the dynamics of this market seems to have altered quite remarkably. So, restaurateurs are now talking of being approachable and attractive to a clientele that wants food and drink in a casual setting and NOT pay too much for the experience. How much is too much? From our interactions with restaurateurs we’ve learned that most of them believe an APC of Rs 1000-1500 keeps the customers coming and, more importantly, making return visits.
Look at the restaurants that are now considered trendy or ‘happening’ in the Metros. The Socials across the country are packed with youngsters and even older professionals evidently enjoying the easy vibe, the cocktails that spell fun, the desi food with funky twists and, most off all, the perception of the whole experience being inexpensive. Most people spend around Rs 1000 during an outing to a Social anywhere in the country.
Zorawar Kalra made his mark as a restaurateur with the upscale Masala Library, but his focus is now on expanding the Farzi Café and Pa Pa Ya brands, all of which make the proposition of affordability and great value for money. Seasoned restaurateur A D Singh of the Olive Bar & Kitchen also told us his expansion plans included taking the affordable Olive Bistro brand to more locations. In Bangalore, celebrity chef Manu Chandra has introduced an edgy style at Toast & Tonic with its focus on local, seasonal ingredients, but has taken care to peg prices in the super value-for-money range. Mainland China is also growing its less pricey Asia Kitchen brand.
Clearly, even the most adventurous restaurateurs have come to terms with the fact that this is an increasingly price-sensitive market and that the volumes game is the one to play. The ITC’s restaurant specialist and veteran Gautam Anand put it nicely when he said ‘the dining experience must end without any post-prandial distress.’ Most restaurants seem now to have figured out that Rs 1000 or thereabouts per head is the average spend to aim for if customers are to be spared the distress of having overspent on a meal or a round of drinks. Best of all, it encourages them to come back and relive the experience.