India on the Fly: On Book Tour

A book tour—promoting my debut novel, The Englishman’s Cameo, a detective story set in 17th century Delhi—may not be the best way to see India. But it certainly gives me a chance to check out hotels and places to eat in India’s biggest cities!


Stylish and Bursting with Facilities... but

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

The venue for my Kolkata book launch is the Oxford Bookstore. It’s a lovely, quiet bookstore, all dark wood and shelf upon shelf of books. There’s a tea room, called the Cha Bar, on the first floor, and there are large mural-size black and white photos of people, books, and tea. The Oxford Bookstore is nearly a hundred years old (it was set up in 1920), and it’s perfect for a book event.

And The Park is perfect to stay in when in Kolkata. The hotel is right next door—literally, since you get out one door, turn right and get in at the next door—to the Oxford Bookstore. We don’t get much chance to see the exterior of the hotel: the cab we’re in whisks us into the covered parking lot before we can even think of glancing up at the façade of the building. From the minuscule parking lot, we step into a grey-and-black lobby, small but stylish in a part subdued-part bling way. The floor is black (marble? I’m not sure), the upholstery on the sofas is a very dull purple, and the Henry Moore-ish sculpture looming behind one end of the reception counter looks as if it’s made of rhinestones dipped in silver. The effect is surprisingly pleasing—and this from someone whose tastes are pretty conservative.

We’ve booked two single rooms, and that too nearly a week in advance. Despite that, the receptionist says only one room is ready; the other will be clean after an hour. Very sorry, but that’s how it is. We decide to while away the time by having a cup of tea in the coffee shop. The coffee shop, which is upstairs, is beautifully airy, with lots of natural light which sets off the orange-and-red tones of the walls. We’ve been up since well before dawn, so sip gratefully at our tea. Even though we take our time over it, 45 minutes later, when we check back at reception, the room’s still not ready.

Miffed, we take ourselves off to the Oxford Bookstore for a meeting. When we finally return an hour later, the room’s ready. Hallelujah!

But there’s a but here. Though the room’s cleaned and ready, they don’t have a key for it. Huh?? Yes, says the receptionist a little sheepishly. The rooms have recently been renovated, and new doors with electronic locks have been fitted—but the key cards for them haven’t yet arrived. The only key that’ll open the door is the Housekeeper’s master key. A bell boy will accompany me to my room and let me in. Brilliant. This, by the way, will be the routine. Every time I want to enter my room, I’ll need to go to the reception and get a bell boy to get the master key and escort me upstairs. Thank heavens I’m only staying the night.

The room, fortunately, is a pleasure to be in. Like the lobby, it’s mainly black, but with touches of colour: here, deep brick red. It also has its bit of bling: the ‘door’ of the wardrobe consists of a bead curtain, the beads all silvery and shimmery. The comfy bed is almost a double, it’s so large. The room also has a coffee table, sofa chairs, a safe, a mini bar, a writing table and chair, a very large flat screen TV, and a massive lampshade, with a fringe all around: smart. On the wall is a reminder that this is Kolkata: a large traditional Bengali kantha embroidery, depicting a new bride being carried in her palanquin. Lovely!

The bathroom is nice, too: the walls are covered with tiny silver-grey tiles (though some have fallen out near the floor) and the mirror is an interesting backlit lopsided oval. I’m grateful for the abundant amenities—soap, moisturiser, shampoo, etc—and the fact that there’s a hairdryer, but what puts me off a bit is the profusion of full length mirrors inside the bathroom. The WC, for instance, is separated from the rest of the loo by a sliding door that’s mirrored on both sides. Not a pretty sight.

We don’t get the chance to eat any meals at The Park (though breakfast is included in the tariff of Rs 7,000 per night per room), but we discover that though it’s small, the hotel has more than its fair share of eateries. There’s an Indian restaurant called Saffron; an Oriental one called Zen; the coffee shop—officially known as the Atrium Café—a pub and restaurant called Someplace Else; a poolside bar and restaurant called Aqua (yes, kinda predictable), and a cocktail bar and wine club named Roxy. There’s also a nightclub named Tantra. I’m busy marvelling at how they’ve managed to fit all of this into this tiny hotel when I discover that The Park also has a day spa called Aura, as well as a gift shop. And yes, if you thought that was all: they also have laundry facilities, room service, and a Guest Services Desk which can organise everything from a doctor or a babysitter to a courier service or travel services.

I don’t get a chance to use any of these facilities, but Anurima does: the day I leave for Mumbai, she trips on the pavement and falls on her ankle, wrenching it badly. As she later puts it, "I sat outside and howled for 10 minutes before they carried me in." Well, Anurima may be exaggerating about the 10 minutes, but the fact that they actually slapped on a hefty service charge for calling a doctor reeked to me of pure inhumanity. The doctor’s fees are all very well; but a service charge? And that too in an emergency? (It later turns out Anurima’s pulled a ligament)

The Park’s clean and smart, very well located and with most facilities you’d want from a city hotel. I’d have been very happy with it if it hadn’t been for the missing key for my room and the somewhat cavalier treatment they seem to have meted out to Anurima. On the other hand, I found the bell desk staff very solicitous and courteous when I ended up waiting for my cab for over 15 minutes. Just about everyone there exuded a protective sweetness that made me feel comfortable even though, at 4 AM, there were some seedy characters drifting about outside the nightclub. A hotel that can make a lone woman feel safe is worth being given a second chance, I think.

The Park Hotel Kolkata
17 Park Street
Kolkata, India
+91 33 2249-3121

The Best Bengali Food in Town

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

There are many things I love about Kolkata, and the fact that you can get to eat some really delectable food is one of them. Granted, the city may not offer the wide range of cuisines Delhi or Mumbai do, but what’s available is often topnotch and affordable.

This time I was lucky enough to be in the company of a Bengali—Anurima, though brought up in north India, is in some ways, a typical Bengali (the sort for whom one could well say, "you can take a Bengali out of Bengal, but you can’t take Bengal out of the Bengali"). You get the idea. She knows exactly where to go for Kolkata’s best Bengali food, and when she discovers I’m a sucker for the cuisine too, she quickly makes plans to take me to Bhojohori Manna for lunch.

Bhojohori Manna has eight outlets across Kolkata, and is run by a group of friends. The size of the eateries differs: the first one our driver takes us to is a small hole-in-the-wall where the waiters are busy packing takeaway orders. We’re told we’ll have to share a table with some other people. Neither of us is keen on the idea, so Anurima makes some enquiries, and gets the driver to take us to nearby Hindustan Road, where there’s a larger Bhojohori Manna.

This one’s a larger, two-level restaurant, tastefully decorated on the inside: the far wall is daubed with terracotta red, with traditional wall paintings of stick figures, birds, fish and trees on it in white. Small replicas of traditional musical instruments hang on the wall, and all along the large street-facing windows are tiny terracotta lanterns. Very cute! The floor is tiled with a dark terracotta-like finish, and soft Bengali music from old films plays in the background.

A waiter quickly guides us to a table for two, and we’re just settling down, opening the menus and sipping water, when an indignant man turns up, saying this is the table he’s been waiting for. It turns out the man is right; the waiter’s messed up and we need to vacate the table. From somewhere in the lower half of the restaurant, a strikingly beautiful young woman emerges to apologise to us. There are no tables available right now, she says (yes, we can see that too), but if we’ll wait, they’ll accommodate us as soon as one gets free.

We have very little choice (we’ve set our hearts on eating here), so we stand about near the cashier’s desk, watching families, businessmen, and groups of gossipy housewives tuck into what smells like heaven. By the time we finally get a table, over 15 minutes have gone by, and we’re ravenous. Fortunately, both Anurima and I are pretty clear about what we want to eat, so we set about ordering: moong-masoor dal; steamed rice; shukto; chingri malai curry; mochar paturi; and jumbo ilish. It takes a further 10 minutes or so for the food to arrive; meanwhile, we sit and stare at the dinner plates, each with a large circle of clean, still-wet banana leaf on it—something like a doily. In Bengal, food was traditionally served on a banana leaf: it’s still a common practice at feasts.

The food, when it comes, is nothing short of superb. The rice is fluffy and light. The moong-masoor dal—a dish of lentils—is so delicately flavoured, it needs to be eaten just with rice in order for it to be fully savoured. The same goes for the shukto, usually described as a combination of ‘mixed bitter vegetables’. Although bitterness is considered an important part of Bengali food (it’s supposed to cleanse the palate), I’m not part of the bitter brigade, and approach the shukto with trepidation. This is a melange of everything from bitter gourd and ridge gourd to potatoes and aubergines—and it’s very, very good, with only the mildest hint of bitterness, so elusive that I can barely discern it.

The other vegetarian dish we’ve ordered is mochar paturi. Mocha, for the uninitiated, is banana flower: the purplish-maroon giant bud-like appendage that houses dozens of tiny creamy-yellow buds that eventually become bananas. It is these tiny buds—painstakingly broken, cleaned and chopped—that go into making any mocha dish. The mochar paturi consists of mocha cooked with a sharp paste of coarsely ground mustard seeds. One spoonful of it, and I’m hooked. I’ve had mocha before, but never so good.

The chingri malai curry is a prawn curry: a very large prawn, shell and head and all, cooked in a rich red gravy made primarily of coconut milk. One huge prawn between the two of us is a bit of a problem, but we finally manage to divide it in two.

And then there’s the pièce de resistance, the dish about which just most Bengalis will wax lyrical: the ilish. ilish is the Bengali word for hilsa, very highly prized in Bengal and considered the ultimate in flavour when it comes to fish. The ilish at Bhojohori Manna—tender and succulent—has been cooked in a gravy of coconut milk and mustard seeds. I don’t remember having had hilsa before, but this is heavenly.

To come to a Bengali restaurant and not order dessert amounts to sacrilege, so we order a sweet each—Anurima an aam doi (sweetened yoghurt blended with mango pulp) and I, a notun gurer ice cream. Notun gur is, literally, ‘new jaggery’, a delicious brown palm sugar that is available only through autumn and winter, and is used to impart a distinctive sweetness to Bengali sweets. The ice cream is a bit of a disappointment: it’s not frozen, just a cold, creamy custard that’s lightly sweetened with notun gur, and with a dollop of liquid notun gur on top. Not bad, but not as sublime as the rest of our meal.

I’ve had plenty of Bengali food in my life—both in restaurants as well as home-cooked. None has been as absolutely perfect as that at Bhojohori Manna. The food here is delicious, the freshness and the simplicity of each dish very apparent: most dishes are light and flavoursome, low on spices and oil. The menu offers a wide range of popular Bengali dishes (including set meals). Note that portion sizes are generally quite small: we ordered four main dishes, plus rice and lentils, but weren’t full to the brim by the end of it.

Other than the fact that you might need to wait a bit (they’re very popular) and that the service can lag a bit at times, this is a great place. The owner-manager (the young woman we met earlier) is friendly and helpful—she later tells us that Bhojohori Manna have opened an outlet in Bangalore, with another planned either in Mumbai or Delhi in the near future. And the food’s very affordable: our meal costs us Rs 600, inclusive of a substantial tip.

I’m already hoping they open a Bhojohori Manna in Delhi soon!

Bhojohori Manna
18/1A, Hindustan Road
Calcutta, India
+91 033 24663941

Very Popular—but Not with Me

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

My publisher’s sales rep in Kolkata is a friendly young man named Amit, and after my book launch event is over, he asks us where we’d like to eat. Much as we would love to go back to Bhojohori Manna, Anurima and I realise we should give other eateries a chance too, so we decide we’d like to try the other important cuisine in Kolkata: Chinese.

The Chinese first arrived in West Bengal in the 18th century. By the mid 1900’s—when my mother was growing up in Kolkata (then Calcutta), Chinatown was a hip and happening place, just around the corner from my grandfather’s house in the Tangra neighbourhood. Chinatown was the home of some of Calcutta’s best shoemakers; and the most delicious sausages I have ever eaten—dried meat and fat, steeped in red wine—were available only in Chinatown.

Today, over 50 years later, Calcutta is officially known as Kolkata. Many of the current generation of Kolkata Chinese have migrated to the US, Australia, Hong Kong or Taiwan. According to some estimates, the number of Chinese in Chinatown has dwindled to about 5,000, perhaps less. Those who remain, says Amit, work mainly in the tanneries or as shoemakers; are dry cleaners; or—and this is where we came in—have opened Chinese restaurants.

Guided by Amit, our driver pulls the car into a very busy street in Chinatown. This is Christopher Road, a stretch so crowded with restaurants that when we alight at 77/1, a restaurant called Beijing, we can see the neon-lit signs of at least three other Chinese restaurants in close proximity. Amit tells us there are more than a dozen restaurants along the road.

Beijing, as far as decor goes, believes firmly in excess. What do you associate with China? Beautiful ladies in flowing robes, standing in a garden with a lotus pond? Paper lanterns? Red fireworks? Polished wooden trellises? Dragons? Pandas? You name it, Beijing has it. The façade has a row of red paper lanterns; in the centre of the main door is a large oval inlay of glass, with said lady in garden painted on it. Inside, the decor is heavy in dragons and pandas. A large garland of faux crackers, all red and gold, hangs from a wall, and there is more painted glass. The wall is pale pink, with a textured finish. The curtains are printed, pale grey-blue, white and a lemony yellow; above these are heavy swags of deep blue fabric. The effect is startling, especially when combined with the bright lime-green shirts of the waiters (the advantage of which, of course, is that they’re easy to spot).

Awful decor notwithstanding, Beijing seems to be extremely popular. It’s a very large restaurant, but every table is crowded to capacity. The only table they’re able to find for us is a small three-seater in a corner so cramped Amit has trouble squeezing in. A place so popular must have food to die for, I think, and delve happily into the menu, trying to ignore a vast and horrid painting of pandas, positioned just above our table.

Beijing’s menu is large, dominated by seafood (though it steers clear of the more unusual Chinese delicacies like abalone and sea cucumber). There’s an array of noodle, rice and rice noodle dishes, plus plenty of chicken, lamb, and vegetables. No beef or pork, keeping in mind the largely Indian-Hindu clientele, I suppose.

We finally decide on our order: mixed non-vegetarian Hakka noodles, prawn fried rice, chicken with baby corn and mushrooms, and Thai garlic prawns. Along with that, Anurima and I order a fresh lime soda each, while Amit settles for a Coke. The drinks arrive very soon after, and the food too is served up quickly enough. It’s middling to fair to good, depending upon what dish you’re eating. The prawn fried rice, for instance, is excellent: the prawns very fresh and delicious, the rice fluffy and light, and the whole of it so flavourful it’s best eaten on its own. The Thai garlic prawns, spicy and rich in both garlic as well as soya sauce, are also good, but could have done with a little less of what seems suspiciously like red chilli. The noodles—in accordance with Anurima’s instructions ("We don’t want vegetables in them; just meat or chicken or whatever!")—are full of tiny shrimp, strips of roast chicken and lamb, but there’s also a hint of something burnt that’s not very appetising. The chicken with baby corn and mushrooms falls definitely in the `avoidable’ category: though the chicken is succulent, the baby corn is more toddler than baby, and the mushrooms are canned (and this in an age when fresh button mushrooms are freely available in just about every large city in India). What’s worse, the sauce uses too much cornflour, which congeals in an unhappy fashion as soon as the dish begins to cool.

All in all, a so-so meal. We even end up waiting quite a while for our bill: repeated (and increasingly desperate) gesturing to the waiters doesn’t have any effect for almost 10 minutes.

The pluses? The portion sizes are huge—we didn’t even come close to finishing our meal, despite all three of us having big appetites and shovelling in more than we’d normally eat. And yes, it’s cheap—less than Rs 1,000 for the three of us.

Beijing Bar & Restaurant
77/1, Christopher Road, Tangra
Calcutta, India

For Mumbai’s Most Panoramic View

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

Marine Drive—a long curving strip of road that hugs a part of the seashore in Mumbai—is one of the city’s most celebrated neighbourhoods. It is right next door to Fort, an area of splendid colonial buildings; it’s a great promenade, and at even given time during the day, you’re sure to find dozens of couples sitting quietly and looking out over the sea, at the boats going out to sea. At night, Marine Drive comes alive in a twinkling, shimmering row of street lights that have earned it the name ‘Queen’s Necklace’. Yes, Marine Drive is the place to stay, and fortunately for me, the hotel where a room has been booked for me is on Marine Drive: the Hotel Marine Plaza.

The Marine Plaza is part of the Sarovar Group of hotels. This is the first time I’m staying in one of their hotels, and when I enter, it’s to find a place that’s clean and sparkling—with perhaps a bit too much sparkle. The rooms are arranged around a central square well that soars up (not very high) to a skylight that lets in lots of natural light. The lobby is all in shades of muted green: the sofas are a pale pistachio colour, and the flower arrangement in the middle of the lobby is dominated by green orchids. The general theme of the decor is ostentation: plaster mouldings, frosted glass, glass lifts, gilt.

I am escorted up to my room by a bell boy and told that my luggage will be delivered shortly. My room’s a suite—a small drawing room, with a bedroom beyond. Like the public areas, the suite is clean, comfortable, but fussy. It has none of the subdued style I’d seen at The Park in Kolkata. After a while I realise what’s wrong with it: everything is patterned, and the patterns don’t match. The frosted glass door leading into the suite has a pattern; the upholstery and the woodwork and the lampshades in the bathroom... all have designs, some geometrical, some stylised traditional, some floral. The drawing room has a coffee table, writing table and chair, and a sofa—the latter covered in a muted blue shiny fabric that’s trying to be elegant but failing miserably. The carpet is also in shades of blue (and pale yellow and green), covered over with a pattern of cartoon fish and flowers. Whoever thought up this decor needs to be sacked, pronto.

The theme is blue, I realise when I enter the bedroom: the large bed (very comfy, I later discover) is all fluffy pillows and crisp white sheets, but with a deep blue runner (strangely enough with a design of yellow pineapples woven into it) along the bottom. To match, there are blue and red cushions on the bed too—one of the cushions is covered with squiggles in ballpoint pen.

The room has a TV, safe, mini bar, chairs and a coffee table, and a tray with tea and coffee fixings. The bathroom, which is small and has an awful shower curtain made of faux lace (plastic?), has some unusual amenities. Along with the usual hair dryer and the tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, etc, there is a jar of cotton balls and a jar of detergent. I’ve seen hotels where they discourage guests from washing clothes in their bathrooms, but the Marine Plaza obviously isn’t one of them.

Not that the hotel doesn’t offer laundry services; it does. It also has banqueting facilities, a business centre, a fitness centre, a pool, and four eateries: a pub called Geoffrey’s; a 24-hour restaurant named Bayview; a Chinese restaurant (Oriental Blossom) and a pastry shop, Sin. They also have room service, a facility that I avail of since I’m too tired and sleepy after my early morning flight to go out for lunch. My order—grilled pomfret with citrus sauce—is delivered within 15 minutes of my placing it. The grilled fish is fresh and delicious, as are the French fries and the sautéed carrots and baby corn served with it. The cauliflower is undercooked and too tough to cut with a dinner knife, and the citrus sauce isn’t very citrusy. A simple meal, not great but adequate enough—and I love the tiny sesame-encrusted bread rolls served alongside: very cute!

Would I stay at the Marine Plaza again? Perhaps. It’s not recommended if you’re an aesthete who gets the hives at the very sight of something too ostentatious to be beautiful. But it’s comfortable, good value for money, and the location is superb. But yes, be warned: the wardrobes are a mess. Mine was too shallow to allow more than one or two garments to be hung, and there was an unnecessary shelf across the middle of the wardrobe, which meant that one couldn’t hang anything longer than a shirt. In a land where a lot of people—especially women—wear long, flowing clothes, this is really rather dumb.

Hotel Marine Plaza
29, Marine Drive
Mumbai, India
+91 22 22851212

Food to Die For

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

According to Condé Nast Traveler, Indigo is one of the world’s 60 best restaurants. It’s been visited by everybody from Mumbai’s glitterati to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the Clintons and Elizabeth Hurley. And my brother-in-law, who may not be a page 3 celebrity but certainly knows good food when he encounters it. His rave reviews for Indigo meant that when two friends of mine—who’ve attended the book launch in Mumbai—offer to take me out for dinner to Indigo, I leap gratefully at the idea.

Indigo is, I learn later, housed in a refurbished and restored turn of the century colonial bungalow. Since we arrive at night and are ravenous, we aren’t really interested in the architecture of the place. We hurry in, to a tastefully decorated restaurant with walls painted in cream textured finishes—one wall at the far end is a deep, vivid indigo; and there are large abstract paintings, nearly all incorporating the restaurant’s signature colour. The tables and chairs are all straight lines, uncluttered and unobtrusive in colour, with muted lighting and one fat, squat candle on each table.

The maître d’ tells us that a table will be available—but, he adds apologetically—we will need to vacate by 10, which is when it’ll be needed for a reservation. It’s 8 now, and we’re hungry as can be. Of course we’ll be gone by 10.

So we’re led to a table, water is poured into our glasses, and menus are handed over. There’s a range (wide but not cumbersomely so) of soups, appetisers, entrées, desserts, etc, as well as a page listing the day’s specials. Nearly all the dishes are primarily Western, but with a hint of the East in them. The dish I (and my friend) settle for, for instance, is panfried trout with toasted almonds and basil poha. Poha, for the uninitiated, is puffed rice, typically cooked in India by being lightly fried along with finely chopped onions, potatoes and spices. My friend’s husband is inclined to be less adventurous, and orders tenderloin.

With that, we order drinks—my friend and I, again thinking along the same lines (yes, we seem to share tastes) order a frozen fresh lime. This comes in a whisky glass, a gloriously fresh concoction of finely shaved ice with limejuice and syrup. It’s so perfect, and the two of us sing its praises so much that my friend’s husband—who had ordered a grappa, which he downs swiftly, orders a frozen fresh lime for himself. Later in the meal, at the recommendation of our waiter, he orders a kiwi frozen fresh lime (which contains, in addition to the regular ingredients, kiwi pulp). Not as good, is the verdict.

While we’re waiting for our food, a basket full of warm bread rolls and bread sticks is placed on the table along with a tiny dish of chilled curls of herb butter. We dig in, and I can safely assert that the onion rolls—with fried onions baked into the bread—are among the best breads I’ve ever had.

Our food arrives about 15 minutes later, all three plates placed almost simultaneously. The tenderloin looks juicy as CB cuts into it, but not all of the accompaniments are to his liking. On the side, for instance, is a large portion of what looks at first glance like sautéed potatoes but turns out to pumpkin, which he doesn’t care for (neither do I, actually: I’m glad that didn’t come with my order).

The panfried trout we’ve ordered is Manali trout, deliciously fresh and flavoursome, the skin crisp and perfect. It’s a large fillet, topped with a generous helping of golden slivers of almond. On the side is a portion of pale green basil poha: it’s been cooked with tiny cubed potatoes, but with the addition of what tastes like fresh pesto. Very unusual, and very nice! There are also a few thin slices of green tomato, rolled in semolina and deep fried, nothing exceptional.

Considering how hungry we’d been when we arrived, the bread (replenished midway through our meal) and just the single entrée is filling enough to make us all skip dessert. CB calls for the bill. I don’t get to even have a look at it—he and his wife refuse to let me pay, but I’m guessing the average cost per person will have worked out to a minimum of Rs 1,000, maybe closer to Rs 1,200. This is an expensive place.

But well worth it. The ambience is comfortable yet stylish; the staff is efficient and friendly; and the food is superb. Indigo gets my vote.

Indigo Restaurant
4, Mandlik Road, Colaba
Mumbai, India
+91 (22) 66368999

Sandwiches, Pies, Cakes and More

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

At the book launch, I also get to meet a long-lost cousin, Joey (whom I last saw about 7 years ago) and his fiancée, Rukmini. After the event’s over, Joey and Rukmini have to be getting back home, but they promise to meet up with me the next day. "Come with us for brunch," says Joey, and I’m amenable to the idea.

The next morning, Joey and Rukmini arrive at my hotel, and we take a cab to Gaylord (which is when I realise that it’s very close to the hotel—only about 10 minutes’ leisurely saunter. No need for a cab).

Gaylord is an old and much-respected restaurant, for which I later hear much praise: according to a number of people, it serves excellent Indian food. But the three of us aren’t interested in Indian food, at least not for brunch; we’re headed for the covered verandah outside the restaurant, where other goodies are available. This verandah, dim and cool, has a trellis all around and lots of plants and creepers. In effect, not al fresco dining, but somewhere in between dining inside the restaurant and eating out on the pavement (the latter may be wonderful in Europe, but can be unpleasant in most Indian cities, what with the dust, heat and pollution).

We sit down at one of the small round tables, and a somewhat taciturn waiter, who looks as if he’s grown old working at Gaylord, comes by to hand over a tatty-looking menu. It doesn’t look appealing, and the items listed on it—mainly sandwiches and Indian snacks like the ubiquitous fritters known as pakoras—are boring. Joey orders a ham and cheese sandwich and a pot of tea. Rukmini says she’d much rather go and have a look at the bakery. "They have some good stuff," she says. "Much better than what’s on this menu."

On her recommendation, therefore, I head into the bakery too. This is a small room, glass on three sides, next to the verandah. It’s not actually a bakery—just a display area for a vast range of pies, pastries, cakes, tarts, breads and whatnot. The glass cases all around us have shelves with sliding doors beyond which are trays loaded with goodies. There are breads, lovely wholegrain ones bursting with goodness and more sinful ones with cheese and spices and herbs; there are rolls and croissants, both plain and filled with everything from cooked chicken to mushrooms to onions and herbs. There are custard-filled tarts, fruit pies, sticky Danish pastries, doughnuts of different types, and God knows what else. I’m dazzled, and confused—everything looks and smells delicious.

Rukmini and I each pick up empty plastic trays from a stack, and go about filling them with what we want—which turns out to be pretty much the same. A chicken hot dog with mayonnaise, a mushroom pastry, and a cinnamon and apple pie. On one side of the room is the cash counter, where an efficient sales clerk quickly computes the value of our trays and hands over a bill (which Rukmini doesn’t even allow me to see). Food paid for, we go back to our table in the verandah. Joey’s ham and cheese sandwich, a large portion with plenty of ham, arrives soon after.

The chicken hot dog is unusual, but good: it’s a large, very soft and very fresh slab of bread, sliced in half and with a chicken frankfurter inserted in the middle. The roll is topped off with a huge dollop of mayo mixed with plenty of chopped onions and green peppers. Nice! The mushroom pastry, a savoury tart filled with finely chopped and cooked mushrooms, is all right; it has a little too much pepper for my taste.

Our tea has arrived as well, milk and sugar separate. It’s not Earl Grey or Darjeeling, but it’s hot and delicious, especially with the apple and cinnamon pie. The pie crust is one of the lightest I’ve ever tasted, but I wish the filling was of chopped apples, not grated. Still, it has loads of flavour.

By the time we finish, I’m feeling satiated and happy and ready to take on the next city on my tour, Chennai. Brunch at Gaylord has been satisfying. Though I haven’t been allowed even a peek at the bill, from the prices listed on the menu, I’d say this wouldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred rupees per person. It’s a cosy, comfortable little place and nobody stands on your head to hurry up and vacate your table, so it’s great for if you want to sit for ages and chat with friends or read a book while having a leisurely brunch. Do remember, however, that you have to pay separately for items you buy at the bakery counter and for items you order from the menu: for the latter, the waiter will bring you a bill at your table.

Gaylord
Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate
Mumbai, India
022-2821269

Value for Money

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

If there’s one thing I don’t much like about a lot of the more upmarket Indian hotels, it’s their somewhat stiff politeness. I’m not advocating rudeness, but I’d love it if more receptionists and hotel staffers could be genuinely friendly.

Entering the grand and glittery lobby of The Residency Towers, I feel my heart sink. The lobby is of the quintessential ‘grand Indian hotel’ variety: all gilt and marble and granite. Everything sparkles and I have the creepy feeling that the receptionist’s sparkly smile is as fake as the golden gleam on the chandelier.

But no, it isn’t. This guy’s efficient, but he’s got a sense of humour too. "Your friend checked in earlier," he tells me. (Anurima, the publicity manager who was with me in Kolkata and has arrived in Chennai from Kolkata while I’ve been away in Mumbai). "She looked at four rooms for you before she decided on which one would be suitable for you," he adds with a grin.

The bellboy who escorts me up to my room is equally friendly and asks if I had a good flight, and where I’ve come from. The room he leads me to is large, clean and comfortable, though furnished in the style that I’ve seen in the lobby. The bigger and brighter, the better: that’s the motto here. Against pale yellow walls and blonde wood dados, there’s a forest green padded headboard and similarly padded panels on sliding doors that shut out the windows. The bed’s large (this is a double room), with four fluffy pillows and very clean sheets. The blanket, though sandwiched between sheets, is a dark brown that I am immediately suspicious of, but what the heck. There’s a wardrobe, mini bar, fresh fruit, mineral water and tea/coffee fixings, besides the usual plethora of chairs and tables, luggage rack, TV and whatnot.

The bathroom is roomy and looks clean. There’s a large shower cubicle without a bathtub but with a plastic bucket and mug, since many Indians are used to that. The pressure of the water is a little wonky and I end up having to keep one of the knobs pressed if I want the water to keep flowing.

The Residency Towers obviously believes in catering to every possible need of a guest, and the bathroom crawls with amenities. There is, of course, soap, shampoo, conditioner, and moisturiser—but there’s also a comb, shaving cream and razor, toothbrush and toothpaste, and (this got me very curious) a small packet coyly labelled ‘for your care’. I wonder for a while what it contains. Tampons? Condoms? I finally succumb to temptation and open the pack for a peek. A strip of emery paper, a Band-Aid and a pair of cotton ear buds greets me. Ha-ha!

But onto the other facilities. The Residency Towers, as their in-room brochure explains, offers banqueting and conference facilities, gym, pool, spa and salon, baby sitting, laundry, a bookshop (they haven’t received my book yet: it’ll come in a couple of days’ time), a business centre, chemist, florist, and arrangements for everything from courier facilities to a doctor. There’s room service; a 24-hour coffee shop called Main Street (this is next to the lobby and is where we’re to go for the breakfast buffet included in the tariff); a South Indian restaurant called Southern Aromas; a ‘rest-o-bar’ called Bike & Barrel; a multicuisine rooftop restaurant, The Crown; and the Residency Club Lounge, exclusively for guests staying on levels 17, 18 and 19.

For dinner (on two nights out of the three we spend at the hotel) Anurima and I go to The Crown for dinner. This combines chandeliers and muted maroon wallpaper in a faux Regency style decor; beyond it is the terrace, fringed by a curving pool that meets the glittering horizon of Chennai by night. Both nights, we manage to get a table beside the pool, and it’s lovely. The dinner’s not quite so lovely. At our first meal, my bowl of Italian seafood broth, though made with very fresh fish (and a single ring of calamari) is watery. Anurima’s plate of spaghetti with mushrooms and olives in cream sauce has the unexpected addition of a tiny chip of porcelain. The waiter’s profusely apologetic—he offers to change the dish (Anurima was anyway near the end of the meal, so declines). The manager doesn’t bill Anurima for her meal, and has a plate of fruit placed at our table to compensate.

Our experiences at the coffee shop are much better. They lay on a huge spread for breakfast: doughnuts, croissants, muffins, cake, sausages, bacon, eggs, cheeses, ham, potatoes, juices, fruit, cereals, and an array of North Indian and South Indian dishes: appams with vegetable and coconut milk stew; idiappams (known as string hoppers in Sri Lanka) with coconut milk, idlis and vadas with sambhar and about five types of chutney, utthappams, upma, parathas and the excellent ‘filter coffee’ that is the most widely drunk beverage in most of South India. The lunch buffet is equally vast and good.

Though we have some unfortunate experiences here (that bit of porcelain in Anurima’s food, and the fact that the hairdryer in her bathroom catches fire one morning), this wasn’t a bad hotel as far as I was concerned. At Rs 5,200 per night (inclusive of that very filling breakfast) I thought it pretty good value for money. But yes, it made me steer clear of hairdryers after that.

Residency Towers (The)
115 Sir Thyagaraya Road
Chennai
+91 44 2815 6363

Sumptuous Chettinad food

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

Well before we reached Chennai—in Kolkata, to put it on record—Anurima told me, "When we go to Chennai, I’ll take you to eat Chettinad food." This after she discovered that I am a fish fanatic and don’t mind spicy food. The Chettinad area is part of the state of Tamilnadu (of which Chennai is the capital). Most of Tamilnadu is known for its excellent food, much of it dominated by ingredients such as coconuts, rice, and lots of vegetables (a large section of the population of Tamilnadu consists of orthodox Brahmins who shun all non-vegetarian food). Chettinad too is famous for its superb cuisine, and while it follows many of the same culinary traditions as the rest of Tamilnadu, it also has its own specialties: plenty of spice, and no stinting on the lamb and the seafood. For die-hard carnivores like me and Anurima, Chettinad food is a must-eat!

So on Day 1 in Chennai (we’re spending three days here), Anurima takes me off to Kaaraikudi, a Chettinad restaurant on Rama Krishna (‘RK’) Salai.

Our first view of Kaaraikudi is promising: our driver turns the car through a gate, guarded by a life-size medieval Tamil warrior made of plaster. He’s brightly painted and gleaming with plaster sword, a crown/helmet, breastplate and more—not perhaps aesthetically great, but eye-catching. Past the warrior, the yard holds three restaurants: an unprepossessing shack named Coastline, which serves seafood and looks depressingly empty; a Chinese restaurant called Shogun (isn’t shogun Japanese, not Chinese?), and a beautifully carved door of dark wood—the closed entrance to Kaaraikudi. The restaurant has been shut for renovations.

Just as we’re beginning to curse our luck, we see a cloth banner with an arrow pointing to Shogun: the Kaaraikudi food is available there! Yippee! We’re ushered into the red lantern-fan-dragon interiors of Shogun (very nondescript ‘Chinese’ decor) and seated. We don’t even have to say we want the Kaaraikudi menu, not the Chinese one: all the other diners are tucking into fragrant Chettinad food too; there’s not a hint of noodle, soya sauce or monosodium glutamate.

By now the publisher’s local sales rep, Mohan, has joined us too. So we examine the menu, and with his expert help (he’s from Tamilnadu, and fond of Chettinad food, so worth asking for tips) we place our order.Sura puttu, mutton biryani, onion raita, prawn curry and crab masala—and an order of the flaky, ghee-laden breads known as parottas. Our drinks (fresh lime sodas; I ask them if they have coconut water, but no) arrive shortly after, and after a wait of about 10 minutes, so does the food. The crab masala is mainly Anurima’s domain: she loves crab with a vengeance, and happily digs into it when both Mohan and I have only a little bit and decide it’s enough for us. It’s tasty—the crab’s fresh and succulent, the curry spicy but not mouth-searingly hot—but I am always short on patience and hate all the effort that goes into getting a little bit of crabmeat out of a none-too-fleshy leg. But I do have a fairly large helping of the prawn curry, which consists of large prawns briefly cooked in a thick tomato-onion gravy. Eaten with the hot flaky parottas (they’re a Southern version of the north Indian parathas), it’s simply divine.

Mohan has recommended the mutton biryani, a bursting-with-flavour rice dish layered with cooked spiced lamb (‘mutton’ in India is lamb), garnished with wedges of hard-boiled egg. Biryanis of different types—from vegetable ones to gloriously flavoursome coastal ones in which the rice is simmered in coconut milk and studded with cooked prawns—are popular in much of India, and this Chettinad version’s better than many I’ve tasted. The lamb’s tender, with portions of marrow bone included (in India, considered among the tastiest pieces); the spice is just enough to give it flavour without making it chilly-hot, and the rice is so good, it can be eaten on its own. Or with the onion raita, whisked yoghurt, lightly salted and mixed with lots of chopped onion. My favourite, though, is the sura puttu. Sura is shark, and this is a heavenly dish, very simple and very good (so good, in fact, that I later search the Net for a recipe for sura puttu and find one that I’m going to soon try and replicate!). The fish is poached briefly with salt and turmeric, then flaked and added to a mixture of sautéed mustard seeds, curry leaves, and onions. Superb!

By the end of our meal, we’re too full to fit in dessert, so we ask for the bill instead. It’s on account and I don’t get to see how much it is, but Anurima later mentions that it was very reasonable. The food, at any rate, is excellent; I’d recommend Kaaraikudi just on that basis. The service is all right, and while it’s at Shogun, the ambience is definitely most un-Chettinad, but who cares?


A Seafood Lover's Dream Come True

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

With the day beginning to wane and all three of us—Anurima, Mohan and I—exhausted after touring bookstores (to see if they’ve displayed my book suitably prominently) and publications (for me to give interviews), we’re thinking longingly of a break. A walk through cool sand, a long cold drink, and something to eat. "I want fried fish," says Anurima, and I agree happily. Fish, especially in a coastal town like Chennai, is invariably wonderful.

Mohan, therefore, gets the driver to take us to Besant Nagar Beach. Named after Annie Besant, the Irish-British born Indian freedom-fighter, this is a much smaller, lesser-known beach than Chennai’s huge Marina Beach. When we arrive at Besant Nagar Beach, there are a handful of families strolling around, a few people sitting on the sand after the sun has gone down and darkness has fallen. A couple of minutes’ walk from the kerb is a row of stalls strung out perpendicular to the waterline. As we draw closer, we discover that the stalls are almost identical: except for one which sells aerated drinks and fresh coconut water, the others are all fish fry stalls. They’re tiny, made of a frame of bamboo, plastic sheeting and other flimsy material. Each has a showcase in front, covered over with different types of fish. You select the fish you want to eat, the stall owner will fry it for you, and you eat it sitting on one of the plastic chairs in front of the stall.

We select, for no particular reason, a stall that has a large printed banner across the front proclaiming the name of the owner: Jennifer. Also on the banner are pictures of crabs, prawns, different types of fish—and Jesus. Jennifer is apparently a pious soul, (I’m hoping it doesn’t mean we should be praying for our lives while eating here). The burly man behind the stall stands patiently by as we examine the seafood lined up, all marinated in spices and ready to go into hot oil. Finally, we make our selection: pomfret, crab, prawns, mackerel, and anchovies. The man acknowledges our order and we wander off to sit down on three of the plastic chairs laid out in regimental lines in front of the stall. In front of each chair is a plastic stool on which one can keep one’s plate. Mohan also shouts to the man behind the stall to fetch us a couple of bottles of Coke from the nearby drinks stall. Jennifer—an elderly woman clad in a crumpled sari, her greying hair caught up in an untidy bun—has meanwhile arrived behind the stall and is getting our food ready.

The fish arrives in batches: one dish at a time, served in a paper plate, with extra paper plates on the side for bones and so on. The first to come is the mackerel, and from the first bite, I’m a fan of Jennifer. I can kiss that woman, the mackerel’s so good. It’s crisp, spiced just right (not too hot, not bland), and is served with a generous helping of chopped raw onions and a big wedge of lime. Delicious!

And it gets better and better. The pomfret is served whole, with deep parallel gashes along the sides to help us separate the fish into sections. The skin’s gloriously crisp and has been rubbed with spices, so the fish is spicy on the outside, less so on the inside.

Next are the prawns, which are rather more spicy; and the crab, fried with a coarse sauce of tomatoes, onions and spices. I love crab if I’m spared the messiness: make me poke about trying to gouge the flesh out for myself, and I lose interest. Anurima, who adores crab, ends up eating most of it herself.

What is absolutely the best is the anchovies. Known in Tamil as neythili, these are (or so Mohan tells us) half-dried before being cooked. Jennifer fries them with mustard seeds and lots of chopped curry leaves, with a very light sprinkle of spices. They’re crisp, delicately flavoured and out of this world.

By this time, Anurima and I are so stuffed we can’t possibly eat any more. We go off to wash our hands (behind the stall is a bucket of fresh water with a mug to scoop up the water; you wash your hands onto the sand). The man who’d taken our order hands us a wad of paper napkins to wipe our hands, and Mohan pays our bill, adding a hefty tip to it. We then trudge back to the car, Anurima and I with some difficulty, we’ve eaten so much.

Jennifer and her ilk may not offer fancy dining, but this is an experience not to be missed. The beach is interesting, and the fish—fresh from the sea and absolutely delicious—is excellent. And the price is unbelievable: we pay Rs 276 for all of it, including the Coke and a tip. To fill up two very hungry women and provide a snack for a man who had to go home for dinner, that’s hard to beat for sheer affordability.


Stylish and Comfortable, but Iffy Food

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 2, 2009

By the time I arrive in Bangalore, I’m feeling like death warmed up. The past week has been one of constant stress, with early morning flights most days and the days themselves packed with interviews, visits to bookstores, and book launch events. All I want is a comfy hotel room where I can crash. Fortunately for me, the Fortune Select JP Cosmos Hotel is the most comfortable hotel I’ve stayed in on this trip.

The hotel (let’s call it the JP Cosmos; the full name’s such a mouthful) is just off Cunningham Road, one of Bangalore’s main thoroughfares, crowded with swish malls like the Reliance TimeOut store, where my book launch event is being held—it’s a five-minute walk from the hotel. The hotel itself is smart, quiet, and geared to business travellers and their needs. The lobby is functional, uncluttered and understated in its decor. The receptionist checks me in and hands me an envelope containing a ‘personalised’ (actually mass) letter from the manager, welcoming me to the hotel and describing some of the facilities available. The letter and envelope have got my name, even my gender, wrong—but I’m too tired to do anything other than grimace. It’s not a big deal.

I’m escorted up to my room on the first floor, a non-smoking floor that also houses part of the hotel’s business facilities. My room is a delight to be in: it’s all muted cream and white, the bed covered with a pristine white duvet and huge fluffy pillows, the floor parquet and the furniture in dark wood. Very soothing after all the gilt and glitter one generally gets to see in Indian hotels. In the large wardrobe, there’s an iron and ironing board, along with a bathrobe and towelling slippers. The room also has a safe, TV, tables, chairs, a mini bar, and tea and coffee fixings. In the brochure on the writing table I discover the facilities on offer: currency exchange, doctor on call, car hire, baby sitter, room service, etc. There’s a coffee shop called Zodiac, which serves Western, Chinese, and Indian food—the menu reveals occasional lapses in spelling: gosht dum biryani (gosht in Hindi meaning ‘meat’) is spelt ghost dum biryani. There’s also a bar on the ground floor.

I’m feeling so tired, all I want is a hot shower and a nap. The bathroom proves compact, smart and clean. Beside the mirror and washbasin are long shelves with clean towels, soap, shampoo, moisturiser, sunscreen, etc. The shower cubicle is a little small, but has a fancy shower which includes a body jet. I’m too zonked to figure out the intricacies of getting all those showerheads scattered down the length of the panel to spew, so end up using the handheld shower, but that’s good enough.

I spend most of my time in the room sleeping—the bed’s very comfy, the pillows just the right height and softness. While I’m gone for the book launch function, turn-down service is provided: I return to find the bedclothes neatly turned back on one side, a chocolate placed beside the pillow, and a feedback form (alas, already filled by a previous guest!) next to it.

I couldn’t be bothered with going out of the hotel to eat, so I confine myself to meals at the coffee shop, Zodiac. The staff here is nice. Not very efficient, but sweet—they begin recognising me after my first meal here, so are especially friendly beyond that, though the amiability doesn’t extend to making sure my bill comes really fast! The decor is in keeping with the theme of the zodiac: the walls have large paintings representing signs of the zodiac, a motif that’s carried over into the linen, on which the symbols of the zodiac are embroidered. My favourite part of the decor is the lighting: the lampshades are large inverted ‘bowls’ of pale cloth: very muted and pretty.

The food, unfortunately, is indifferent. On the first day, I order a lamb mince pie. This is something like a shepherd’s pie: cooked minced lamb topped off with mashed potatoes. The lamb has a surfeit of tomato (not something I’m mad about), and the potato’s too dry, but the garlic bread on the side is passable. For another meal, I order mulligatawny—a thick soup of puréed lentils, with a garnish of rice and a wedge of lime on the side. It’s filling, so much that I’m hardly able to do justice to the meen moilee that follows. This is a very light fish curry, bite-sized pieces of fish cooked in a pale yellow sauce of coconut milk, curry leaves and mustard seeds, served with steamed rice. Along with a refreshing glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, it’s a satisfying meal, even if not great.

The next morning, I go down to Zodiac for the buffet breakfast (included in the tariff of Rs 6,000). The buffet is adequate: fruit, cereals, juices, breads, eggs, cold meat, a few Indian breakfast dishes, tea and coffee.

Verdict: A hotel worth staying in. It’s well located, and the rooms are very comfortable and clean. They could pay more attention to detail (the already-filled feedback form? The incorrectly addressed letter?) and the food could have been better, but still. I’d definitely stay here again.

Fortune Select JP Cosmos
No. 49 Cunningham Crescent Road - Behind Sigma Mall
Bangalore, India
+91 (80) 42434243

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