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Destination Singapore

[singlepic id=2018 w=320 h=240 float=left]A month had passed since my first trip out of Bangalore. This time, rather than a seaside vacation, I wanted a change in country. The intent even for that original trip had been Singapore, but the whole needing a visa thing had proven a deterrent. Well, I now knew enough to get a hold of a travel agent and get the Singapore visa ball rolling, in advance. Thus it was that, as another four day weekend and travel opp. presented itself, I was READY. And this would be far from a solo vacation. My college roommate was coming in for the weekend from Hong Kong (her chosen place of residence the last decade), I had a dear friend from my San Diego days (who is a native Singaporean) there, and I was going to be staying with my uncle. Basically, all I needed was the visa and ticket and to just get myself on that plane (or two, given that Bangalore is not the most convenient spot to travel abroad from) and I would have company, entertainment, good food and plenty of fun, guaranteed!

Now as anyone who knows me well will attest, I am NOT an early morning person. Rather, I am a certified (or is it certifiable?-hmm, lets not go there!) night owl. Thus, staying up all night packing and preparing for my trip was no hardship. Getting up after 3 hours sleep, however: a whole other story. Still, I was showered, dressed and raring to go when my cab showed up at 6.30am. And I was happily daydreaming about the fun time ahead on the (long) ride to the airport, when my bubble burst. Air India had decided that they would magic away my 8.30am flight to Chennai, and instead put me on one that went via Kochi and arrived in Chennai at 2.15pm. My irate demand of the customer service agent on the other end of the line, of what the hell was that, my connection to Singapore was at 1.15pm, was met with a placid and rehearsed “please contact the airport manager ma’am, I cannot help you.” Greeeeeeeeeeat! So it was that I arrived at the airport in full battle mode, backpack and anger on hand. After being ignored by the first 2 guys who were supposedly helping us dislocated souls, I finally got hold of another chap and began blasting away. He, harried enough, made a few assurances and took off, claiming he would see what he could do. In the meantime, I got on the horn to my best friend, who was planning on meeting me at Chennai airport and hanging out for a couple hours. Sorry babe, change in plans-the idiots have canceled my flight and I am not even sure I will get out of Bangalore in time to make my connection, much less hang out in Chennai. Not exactly the news you want to give your oldest friend whom you have not seen in 3 months and who rearranged her whole damn day to see you!

[singlepic id=2017 w=320 h=240 float=right]First promised passage on the 9am Kingfisher flight, I saw that one fly away. At this point, irate beyond measure, I adopted a new tactic and began following the Air India representatives around. Next I was told there was a Jet Konnect flight, and so those of us absolutely determined to make that connection to Singapore, trotted over to the Jet counter. Here’s when the bad news sank in…they were overbooked themselves and there was no chance they would be able to accommodate all us Air India fallouts. At this point, I increased my volume and pitch and began bemoaning anew, much to the chagrin of the AI employee who “requested” that “ma’am” refrained from yelling as we were at another airline’s counter and they would not like it. Umm, how about the way YOU have been treating me, I am even less happy, I retorted, tired of following you around like a dog and not getting any satisfaction, either! This is when I heard a snatch of Tamil being spoken, and cottoned on to the fact that the “big boss” manager was a Tamilian. Quickly switching over from American accented English to full blown Tamil, I proceeded to pout and complain to this personage until he promised to come himself with an update and hopefully, boarding pass. And amazingly, less than 15 minutes later, he and his entourage flagged me down at the Coffee Day counter (whose hot chocolate was quite disgusting and a total rip off at Rs. 105 for a small cup), and handed me a shiny boarding pass for the 10.30am Jet Konnect flight to Chennai! Wow, never in my life have I been so grateful to look “foreign” and yet speak fluent Tamil-if that’s what it took to charm my way on board that flight, more power to me!

Thus it was that getting to Singapore was a massive operation. But let me tell you, it was worth every moment and irritation and certainly every cent spent. I fell madly, deeply, and completely in love with this island. Whether it was being able to sit at a Starbucks rather than a pale imitation, and eat a fabulous French chocolat croissant while sipping an Earl Grey Latte (S$ 10 for both), or going shopping at H&M, I found lots of touches of my former home. Singapore really is the perfect mix of east and west and one of the safest places to roam around. You can get pretty much any food or drink you desire, eastern or western. And being a mere 4 hour plane ride, rather than 30 hours away from the motherland, is a huge advantage in my eyes. Yes it’s definitely pricier than the US, but hello, its not like India is cheap anymore, and I am happy to spend for those items I desire and just cannot get here! I unblinkingly spent S$ 15 for a pint of wheat beer, drunk at Boat Quay while listening to a fabulous band of middle aged English and Canadian dudes, who made me happy with Rolling Stones and such classic rock, and even indulged my request for Queen. Those are the experiences that I enjoyed so much in the US, and which I have as yet been unable to recreate in India. Great live music, a laid back atmosphere, good food and drink…these are the things that make me feel content. Boat Quay was also the site of an incredible Italian meal. My friend had a savory crepe and I ordered something I have not found on any menu in Bangalore or Chennai–Risotto (in a mushroom and white wine sauce). And to start with, he and I shared a blue cheese dip that was served with warm, crusty bread: mmmm, heavenly! And with a price tag of about S$ 65, it was not an expensive meal, given the quality and the locale.

The next night I had a totally VIP experience. My college roommate is friends with the Executive Chef of a fancy restaurant–the kind of place you go to see and be seen. This particular place, called Ku De Ta (it exists in HK too, and soon will be in Bangkok), was atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and offered an unbeatable aerial view of the city. The previous day my friend and I had gone on the Singapore River Boat Cruise and he had pointed out Marina Bay Sands as home to a really spectacular swimming pool that traversed the length of the building and from the end of which one felt like one was floating above the Singapore skyline. Little did I imagine that the following night I would be able to experience this phenom firsthand! We started off at the outdoor eating area of the Ku De Ta restaurant, but thanks to my friend’s “in”, we got into the exclusive club, on the house, in the VIP section, which translated to us sitting adjacent to the Infiniti Pool! The food we had was gourmet and luscious, and since a large number of tapas style dishes made its way to our table, I can only say they all looked and tasted amazing. Tuna, Scallops, Salmon, Black Cod, Pork Belly Salad, Squid, Eggplant, Mushrooms, Fried Rice—the list was never-ending! And having the Chef send out a selection of desserts with his compliments was the finishing touch to a grand meal. Strawberries, Coconut, Mango, Chocolate, and more was passed around our table as the five of us made loud oohs and aahs and shamelessly dug in. For me personally, the excellent white and red wines I had also contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the evening and my meal. Good wine at a less than exorbitant price is not something I have found to date, locally.

The cap to my VIP travel was that I got upgraded to first class on my return flight, which on the Singapore-Chennai sector, is a blessing! Not that it redeems Air India in my eyes, given the earlier drama and of course, the fact that every single flight I was on (Chennai-Sing, Sing-Chennai and Chennai-Bangalore) was delayed. I was in Chennai for about 9 hours, from 11pm on Sunday night, during which time I got to see and hang out with my best friend, her husband and his friends, so even though I landed back in Bangalore on Monday late morning supremely sleep deprived and having to take the morning off from work thanks to lateness of the flight, I am so glad I at least got that time with her. Oh, and having Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle walk past, literally inches from my nose at Chennai airport, was quite entertaining, too!

This is part I of II of my Singapore adventures, since I ate multiple times at this outdoor food court called Newton Food Center, a mere 3 minute walk from my uncle’s apartment. I indulged in my love of noodles and duck and tried all the local specialties. All freshly prepared and quite divine! So for that, do check in again next week…

Ed: The front cover photo is from Gung. A big thanks to Duncan for taking the photos on this page.

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Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday

“Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
When you change with every new day
Still I’m gonna miss you…”

This 1960s song by the Rolling Stones always plays in my head whenever I visit or even think of, a Ruby Tuesday, one of my favorite restaurant chains. The decor in every Ruby Tuesday I’ve been to features sports and movie memorabilia, and generally classic stuff at that, rather than the very new. I clearly remember being seated at a John Wayne table once, for example. I had missed Ruby Tuesday as a regular hang out and eating place, the last 6 years of my US stint. When I was on the east coast, there were two of them mere miles away. But for whatever reason, there was not a single Ruby Tuesday to be found in Southern California, and the closest one I found on their location map was… Vegas! Yes sure, I will be driving 5-6 hours to frequent said establishment! So it came down to a pilgrimage made on my annual trips east-at least one time we’d hoof it to the Enfield (CT) Ruby Tuesday, and I would indulge in their Southwestern Egg Rolls and some main course, and a strawberry lemonade or on occasion, one of their cocktails. Thus, Ruby Tuesday went from being a convenient stop when shopping at the mall or hanging out in Enfield, to this misty-eyed sojourn for me. Imagine my delight then, at finding out that there was a Ruby Tuesday here in Bangalore!

So during my parents’ recent visit, I said we can eat anywhere, but I just want to check out the Ruby Tuesday menu to see if its anything like the ones there. And as it happened, we were walking right past it on Church St and the host outside was encouraging people to step in, take a look at the menu, and offering the enticement of a Happy Hour special: buy one get one free drinks. I took a looksie at the menu and was thrilled to find it featured many of the same items, with some Indian dishes (biryani, curry, pao bhaji) to cater to the local tastes, and even a reasonably decent selection of veggie options (always a must when the mater is around). I was okay with walking on to return at a later date, sans parents, but knowing my thrill at finding the place, they said lets go in. So it was that I made my first visit to a Ruby Tuesday in 15 months…and got teary the moment we walked in, given that the color scheme and decor were what I knew and loved. I hate to admit it, but it took a minute for me to see clearly again, overwhelmed by the memories of good times and long conversations and the company of dear friends, that Ruby Tuesday has borne witness to in my life. Ironic, that I had to leave CA and come to Namma Bengaluru to enjoy Ruby Tuesday again.

The menu not only had the same options, it was quite identical in color and layout too! And the drinks menu was as tempting and diverse as ever. My dad got a rum and coke (Rs. 395+100), my mom her standard Kingfisher beer (Rs. 180), and I decided to not get what would have been my usual, a margarita, and instead went for something called The Motorcycle (Rs. 450), which featured a heady mix of tequila, white rum, vodka, gin, and blue curacao. A version of a Long Island ice tea-and definitely bang for one’s buck with that much alcohol and a 2-1 deal on! For starters we got chips and salsa (Rs. 150) per my mum’s request, and sat back enjoying the music (which started out way too loud, but was turned down after I asked the waiter to do so) and each other’s company. The menu had a number of tempting items on it, and I would have really liked to see how good the Southwestern Egg Rolls were, but knowing neither of my parents would like it, and noticing that there was no beef option (sigh, yet another place that does not serve!) I decided to dive straight into the main course.

Having confirmed with our waiter that burger in fact meant chicken and nothing more, I moved on. The ribs (Rs. 825-Rs. 995) were tempting, but I was not really in the mood for such a messy meal. So I ended up ordering Chicken Bella (Rs. 475), which was more memorable for its side of white parmesan mashed potatoes, though the mushrooms and artichokes were quite good in the dish; just the chicken was a tad tough. My mom liked her Cottage Cheese Stacker (Rs. 395) which came with the same steamed veggies and mashed potatoes as mine, along with garlic bread. She did bemoan the abundance of carrots versus the broccoli but the broccoli that was there was perfectly cooked. I ordered the Grilled Chicken Fajitas (Rs. 475) for my dad who enjoyed the sizzling platter of chicken and veggies, and our (well mum’s and mine) only complaint was the complete lack of resemblance to sour cream, of the sour cream served. And somewhere along the way, our free second drinks showed up…and man they were as strong as the first! Altogether a bittersweet trip down memory lane, and I look forward to many repeat visits and making new and local memories. Though given the not-cheap price tag, perhaps not a weekly indulgence!

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When the parentals came to town

So, after 7 weeks of living in Bangalore, I finally got to check out Brigade Rd/Church St/Commercial St/Museum Rd-the heart of Bangalore’s (what I would call) downtown area. A place packed with stores and lots and lots of good restaurants (in other words, one of my personal heaven scenarios). My parents, who come to Bangalore quite often and know this side of it well, were my companions, and I was looking forward to visiting with them, eating good food, and plenty of beer-ing. My only stipulation was ‘no Indian food’, having had a surfeit of it of these past weeks. I have never been someone who can eat the same cuisine day in and day out; even as a kid I remember my mom always making something different a couple meals in a week. And Subway, KFC, McD’s, and Dominos where I have had lunch in the past couple weeks, seeing that they are walking distance from work, so do not count!

Meeting up with the parentals on Saturday afternoon after their train got in, proved a little challenging since their hotel was kind of hard to find. Get dropped off at Koshy’s, said my dad, and we’ll meet you there. Koshy’s is one of those establishments that has been around for the longest time, and of which I have fuzzy but fond memories from my childhood. My mom used to take me there for really amazing ham and cheese sandwiches (an item no longer on their menu, sadly, though I know it was more from a sense of nostalgia than foodie-ness that I wanted to eat one). Old world service and staff; polite, starched, and just a little crusty, made it a fun trip down memory lane in general. Our food was decent; nothing to commend or condone. Fish and chips for me, roast chicken for my dad, and vegetable cutlets for my mum, along with the requisite bottles of beer. The only dessert on offer was caramel custard, something I always reject at restaurants, since I have never eaten better than my mum’s.

Tea and pastries later on, we decided. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase. I wanted to try Au Bon Pain, an East Coast chain that I have frequented in the US, where they serve cookies the size of soup plates, with their oatmeal and raisin being a favorite for my aunt and myself… ah, memories of sitting at the giant Harvard Square Au Bon Pain with her and other friends (this is the spot where a lot of ‘Good Will Hunting’ was filmed). Sadly, the one that my dad thought was at Barton Center was gone, and so we hoofed it to a place called Daily Breads. I suppose the name should have been warning enough, but hey, Hot Breads in Chennai serves perfectly adequate pastry and cake! I was not tempted by anything, but my dad helped himself to a butterscotch-caramel pastry that was quite inedible and my mom’s order turned out so bad I cannot even recollect what it was! The cakes were dry and crumbly, quite the opposite of what constitutes “good” and my iced tea was disgusting as well. Right then, an experience NOT to be repeated!

A tad cranky from not getting my sweet-fix OR a decent cuppa, I was in the mood for an early dinner. We ended up at the Museum Inn and its Bamboo Shoots restaurant. Oh and what a good choice that turned out to be! Run by the BJN group, which boasts a total of 13 dining establishments in Bangalore alone, Bamboo Shoots’ ambiance and service were really soothing, and the food and drink worth its ‘fine dining’ tag and price. My parents got beer as usual, and I felt like a Bloody Mary (de rigueur for me in India, since finding a good margarita is not easy) after which we ordered a round of vegetarian dumplings and chicken sui mai to go with the drinks. Superb, authentic, and not very far down from the stuff I ate in Hong Kong a few months ago. The pepper sauce that accompanied these dishes was quite delightful! Eating askew, we moved to soups next, too full to contemplate main courses (but never so full as to skip dessert). My eight treasure soup was worthy of its name, and my dad was happy with his hot and sour. I ordered Ice Kachang for dessert, something I grew up eating at Cascade in Chennai and revisited in my time there. This was Bamboo Shoots’ version, and quite on par–colorful cubes of jelly, condensed milk, ice-cream, and shaved ice. Our waiter mentioned a weekday lunch prix-fixe deal for Rs. 275, which my parents took advantage of yesterday (I was at work and had to miss this treat). According to my dad, the variety was wide and the dishes all excellent. Starters, main course dishes, and dessert too! I am going to have to venture that side for lunch some day, clearly!

For Sunday lunch we tried a highly recommended (by Prashanth, my colleague, friend, and food guide in Bangalore) burger place, Ice and Spice. We lucked out and found place to sit indoors; there were literally two tables inside and we snagged one. My parents were definitely not into the idea of dining al fresco on a busy street, on what was the hottest weekend in Bangalore since the summer! The crowd is young (well certainly much younger than middle aged and parent age) and some of it was trying awful hard to be frightfully hip, but the food was very worth the music and fellow diners. I got the Tons of Fun Burger (lamb, with fried egg, chicken salami and the usual accoutrements), my dad had the chicken club, and my mom got an order of french fries and a veggie steak, since her first choice of cottage cheese steak was unavailable. Food arrived fast and was very good…a lamb burger cannot satisfy my burger craving the way a beef one would, but it was definitely a party in my mouth with the merging flavors of lamb, chicken salami, and fried egg. Dessert choices were quite endless, and I went for a Choca Mocha, a misnomer, given that it was all chocolate and no mocha/coffee (which would be the only reason I ordered it, given that I absolutely detest the smell and taste of coffee), and hit the spot. Creamy, chocolatey and yummy! The ‘rents went for cheesecake, that, sadly, bore little resemblance to what I call cheesecake…I found both theirs too sweet and of the completely wrong texture (but then that is my complaint wherever I’ve had cheesecake thus far in the motherland). If it had been called just gateau there would have been no reason for complaint because the Irish Cream (mum’s) and Chocolate Marbe (dad’s) were good desserts. Best of all though, was the price tag on this meal-a mere Rs. 700 for the three of us!! Okay then, Ice and Spice, I SHALL return…

I ate a few more meals with my parents, but nothing worth talking about, save one. Our dinner out on their last night in town was supremely satisfying and I literally teared up at the restaurant, overwhelmed by memories of the good times and friends I shared them with, over the years in the US. But that is the subject of its own post, so tune in again next week for that rundown. Overall, I had a great weekend, filled with food, drink, shopping (I have turned into a shoe-whore since my arrival in India, never having a problem with size, and finding this a reasonably cheap addiction, given that my purchases run in the Rs 200-Rs 900 range), and the opportunity to be the ‘child’.

Ed: The front page photo is from the Manchester United Bar and Restaurant.

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A Glimpse into Bangalore’s Street Food

[singlepic id=1892 w=320 h=240 float=left]Another work week follows the all-precious weekend. Its a recurring cycle of life now: work-weekend-work, punctuated by the occasional long weekend where one rushes off to find adventure in another city or country. But one can also manage to find plenty of sartorial and culinary pleasures in the small and every day, if one cares to look. I don’t live in the heart of town in Bangalore (MG/Brigade Road), nor in the happening areas of Koramangala or Indira Nagar. Unless I am willing to venture further out to these areas, I find my food choices to be rather limited-as in, to Indian cuisine. But a trip with work mates last week, to an area called “Khao Galli”, left me in good cheer. A street filled with road side and shack eateries, where one stands and eats fresh and hot samosas and jalebi, or idli-dosa, is not exactly my idea of “wow.” But it was a group activity, and the idea was to hang out, so I figured, why not? And along with the chance to bond with my colleagues and go on a random little expedition, I actually ate some really good food!

What started this train of thought for us was my eulogizing over a dish called Neer-Dosa, which I was introduced to at a Ganesh Utsav event I went to with work mates. Neer-Dosa is Coconut Water Dosa, which comes out looking and tasting like a spongy appam, without the lacy, crispy edging that makes appam recognizable. Served with two types of chutney, a spicy coconut one that had smoke coming out of my ears, and a divine jaggery and coconut concoction that was soothing and supremely pleasing to the palate, I was quite taken with this local item. Time for a trip to Khao Galli then, declared my colleagues.

We started at a bakery, V.B Bakery, where I for one took great and frankly, a tad childish pleasure in seeing the likes of Cream Puff and Honey Cake on the menu. And oh, that Cream Puff was quite outstanding-a typical puff with, instead of the customary savory filling, a pink cream center that overflowed and threatened to make one a silly sight to behold. So worth it, though. My friends got masala buns and pineapple cake, but I think the cream puff was the main event (I went back at the end of our eating expedition and got two for the road). So, having started with dessert, we made our way backwards to the main course. Idly-Dosa stand located, we placed our orders…I don’t like idly, sambar, or masala, so my choices were limited. But my friend and food guide on this outing ordered me a onion dosa, which turned out to be what in my household is called “uttappum,” a thick dosa with onion, and surprise topping: Dill! The dill elevated what was a perfectly adequate dish into something unique and really flavorful. I enjoyed that dill-dosa to my heart’s content, and would like to go back for more some time soon.

At this point it had started pouring rain, so we stepped to the stall next door, selling hot bhajjis, pakodas, vadas and such. I got a banana bhajji that was quite yum, and since we asked for it “masala” style, it came with a sprinkling of grated veggies and some spices. Hot, fresh, not too oily, it hit the spot…just the thing for a rainy evening. Our final destination of the evening was a chaat/samosa place, though by this point we were all way too full to contemplate any more on the spot gluttony. Jelabi, samosa, and katchori to go then, I decided. The jelabi was mediocre, but the savories were as good as any, and as always, good chutney makes all the difference. All in all, a very successful venture down a road filled with hot and fresh, simple fare. And at around Rs. 10 a dosa or samosa, how can you possibly go wrong?

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The Movies, Kodambakkam, Chennai

[singlepic id=1726 w=80 h=92 float=left]Spring No More

[singlepic id=1892 w=320 h=240 float=left]Its back to Chennai for this one, folks! I have been ruminating on a particular place for ages now, and realize that I’ve developed quite the love-hate relationship with this establishment. Called “The Spring”, it is in the Nungambakkam/Kodambakkam area. The location is absolutely perfect, and the reason I was introduced to the place was its convenience. My parents and I were staying at a hotel right next door when I first arrived, and this was a no transport needed, no thinking required option. I would say quick, but alas, dining at The Spring is anything but! It also became an easy to go to place from my best friend’s when I was staying with her, being just down the road.

The food has always been above average, be it the buffet or the extensive a la carte menu. Indian-Chinese, Pasta, Pizza, Mediterranean, North Indian fare-all good. Cleverly written menus, both in terms of food naming and drinks too. Every moniker pays homage to filmdom, from the drinks to the starters and main course. The decor is charming and fun and very smartly done (more on that in a minute).  The place has rooms, but I cannot comment on that aspect, having only been there (multiple times) to eat. There is an open lounge area where one can sit and be served, which they call their 24-hour coffee shop, “Caffeine”. Deep lounge chairs and mirrors give this space a cool and clean look. There’s one wall dedicated to that bastion of Tamil cinema, Rajnikanth, which showcases black and white drawings of the icon from numerous movie roles. Very amusing and well effected.

Then there’s the restaurant called “The Movies” which features tables dedicated to different movies and movie-related themes. The glass topped tables have newspaper clippings, photographs, and articles about the movie/star featured at that particular table, with matching chairs. Every chair in the place has a famous face featured on its back-mostly Hollywood, but with some Bollywood thrown in for good measure. At “The Hangover” table, for instance, each chair sported one of the actors, and the table top had information on the release date, box office success, bios of the major cast and crew, and such. The Harry Potter table (with a nod to the creator and author as well as the actors) made me smile in delight. The famous directors table had Spielberg (but of course). The Slumdog Millionaire one had Freida Pinto, Danny Boyle, and the Chennaite who brought India recent Oscar glory (A. R. R). Aside from the individual tables, the walls are covered in film strip style wallpaper, featuring old Hollywood movies and stars–something I am sure most of the crowd in there would not be able to place, but being the movie obsessed female that I am, I most certainly did! I made sure to walk around the room and put names to all the faces I saw, both on the walls and at the tables.  My first time in the restaurant as opposed to the lounge, I remember expansively declaring “this is my favorite place in Chennai!” Anyone who knows me well will attest to the fact that “The Movies” would be in my favorites list thanks to the decor (and the food choices too).

Would that I could still claim this affection. The reason for my aversion is two-fold. I was warned right off the bat by the parentals that the place was abominably slow with their service. Young and/or untrained wait staff is a major contributing factor. There is the ‘oh god, I got asked a question by a customer, save meeeeee’ level of panic on many of the faces, each time. The first time I forgave it and found it mildly amusing. Giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the level of service never improved and the same guys remained equally “duh.” It should not take 20 minutes or more to serve a simple beer. And most certainly should NOT take over 35 minutes for a Mojito order to be fulfilled. Damn, is he growing the mint leaves after I make my order, or what?!

This happened on my final visit to “The Movies”, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. You see, I was not in the mood to eat the buffet spread after a heavy afternoon meal. And had a jonesing for gourmet pizza. I got told point blank, by the manager, that it would take at least 1.5–2 hours to produce anything off the a la carte menu and he advised that I go with the buffet. I asked if even bruschetta or some other starter would be a long wait and was categorically reminded: 1.5 hours. Now this just annoyed me and I chose to only have my drink and skip eating. And despite my companion’s urging to just get the buffet and eat only what I wanted (their buffet features a lovely dessert spread, beautifully laid-out in small, bite sized portions that allows one to sample everything and then return for seconds) I was at that point way too angry to even be tempted.

The final nail in the coffin of my relationship with this place, however, was the crowd that visits. When sitting at the coffee shop, it makes little difference. But when in the restaurant, which, I failed to mention before, also has two huge screens, set up projectionist style, running movies constantly, the noise levels can get quite unbearable. Add to that screaming, running, absolutely out of control kids, and the experience goes from bad to worse. The Spring seems to attract large groups that want to eat and chat while their young ‘uns run amok. Yet again, I am amazed at the amount of money people seem to have, to waste, even. The kids barely eat, too busy screeching and flinging themselves around, and the adults are oblivious and chowing down, at Rs. 600+ a pop! Cease and Desist, I was tempted to holler at the top of my lungs (not that anyone would have heard or paid the slightest attention).

My last time there, my companion, not a child friendly soul by any means, expressed a wish to stick his fork in the throats of the kids hoofing around, next to and between our table and chairs. The fact that I, child enthusiast, preschool teacher, and all-around child magnet fervently agreed with this suggestion, says it all. A place where the staff are completely unwilling to ask parents to control their children just a little bit, so that they don’t destroy one’s eardrums and ability to think, much less enjoy a meal, is a place I would shy away from. Add to that the deplorable service and generally switched off attitude of the management, and movie themed or otherwise, good food and vast menu notwithstanding I must pass…

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Of Bouncing Waves and Buoyant Heart

On the 4 month anniversary of my return to India, I found myself with a distinct craving for a beach vacation. Living in San Diego these past so many years, I was used to getting in my car and just heading to one of the many beaches in a 20 mile radius. In landlocked Bangalore now, and with a 5 day weekend looming, I made a last minute and very determined decision: I was going to Goa for 4 days. My first ever totally solo vacation, not just in India, but in my entire life! Sure, I’d gone to conferences alone before, to present papers. But even then I either had a friend join me for part of the time, like in Las Vegas, or else had company in the form of fellow attendees, like in San Francisco. Plus, Goa seems to have a certain reputation, and my near n dear ones were not too sure about the idea. But, like I said, de-ter-mined… so I booked the tickets, chose Calangute Beach as the area to be in, did a ton of research on hotels in North Goa, and then having narrowed the list down to 3-4 budget ones, did even more extensive fact finding on cleanliness, safety, access to beach, and such ‘important’ factors, before finally zeroing in on a place… which was sold out! Okay, on to choice number 2 then… and repeat. Finally, I was rewarded with a decent seeming budget establishment that had rooms, and hey, were even giving me the last night free; one of those buy 2 get one free deals that was actually worth something!

Brimming with enthusiasm and just a few ounces of fear (umm, this was a good idea right, its not too reckless of me to take off like this all alone, especially since I really hate eating out alone, am crap at lying, have a poor sense of direction…?), I loaded my new backpack, ordered my cab, and before I knew it, had left ‘namma Bengaluru’ for humid, rainy, lushly green Goa, a place oft heard of but never visited. One pre-paid cab ride later, I found myself at the entrance to a small and muddy lane, looking for Kris Resort, a near but not on the beach place just off the main Calangute Beach Road. Old but clean, with a faded façade and lightly stained furniture and walls, and most entertaining, a morality clause! Couples checking in as such, stated the rules, had better be able to produce ID to prove it! Plus-no boys going to a girl’s room, and vice-versa. Hahaha! This was going to be a superbly entertaining stay! Even my dorm in college was more lax about male visitors.

Of course I was the only female on her own, be it at the hotel, the restaurants I ate at, or even wandering around the beach. Clearly, I was either supposed to be with a large group of giggling girls, a mixed group of macho boys and giggly girls, or part of a coochi-cooing couple, or with my family. Well, all perfectly good options I am sure, but hello, this was my empowering, solo, woman on top of the world vacation, people! My first evening, I walked over to the beach and went and stood in the water, enjoying the whooshing sounds of the wild waves as they crashed at my feet, and watching the overcast horizon and sunset. The smell of the sea air, being on the beach, and the general feeling of bonhomie was quite incomparable. Once darkness and major hunger pangs hit, I walked around the market area and tried to decide which place to eat at. Not being a fan of fish or coconut, really, Goan food did not hold a whole lot of appeal. Neither did anything that said ‘vegetarian food’. Or straight out ‘bar’, though a beer was definitely top of my list of priorities for the moment.

That’s when a bright teal sign on the first floor of a building caught my eye: Tibetan Kitchen Restaurant and Bar. To me that meant Momos (dumplings) and Thukpa (noodle soup). Yum! Chicken momos, thukpa topped with minced meat, and Kingfisher Draught beer on hand (and quite excellent the food was too, not over spicy or oily), I sat back and engaged in one of my favorite occupations: people watching. The place offered a good view of the street and was totally unpretentious. The waiter was sweet and the service was good-in fact, let me state, right at the onset, how friendly and nice and house (city/state) proud the Goans are. Yes it’s a tourist destination, I am fully aware. Still, from the ladies on the beach hawking their wares to the restaurants, my hotel staff, and even cab and auto drivers, it was so nice to be in a place which was welcoming and where people genuinely wanted to be helpful and aid in your having a good experience.

There are also those who would like to give you a good time, whether it be the guy offering Ecstasy on the street corner or the men on bikes who think it’s their duty to hit on a female walking down the road. It was amusing the first couple times, especially since they gave up after a few minutes of my smiling but firm refusal to go anywhere on the back of the bike, or to hand over my phone number. But my last morning in Goa, there was one incredibly persistent chap who felt he would be remiss if he did not follow me up and down the street as I indulged in shopping, onto the beach for my final dip, and indeed, all the way to lunch, while importuning me every few minutes to give him my number, or allow him to take me to the airport, because, you see, he was so in love with me, and I was just so beautiful. Riiiight! He did finally leave me alone after I walked into my chosen restaurant for my final meal in town.

Of this dining establishment, named Infantaria, I cannot say enough good. It was mentioned to me by a colleague at work as a ‘brilliant’ place to eat that served out of this world chocolate croissants and pancakes, along with the demand to bring him back a couple of the croissants. I was expecting to have to call him and get directions, but on my second day in Calangute, I took a walk on a side road, and lo and behold, there was Infantaria, packed to the brim. My explorations done, I waited patiently for a seat and as a singleton, lucked out and got a spot in 15 minutes. Since it was well past brekker time, I got pasta with spinach, mushrooms, and chicken in an alfredo sauce and a peach iced tea. The pasta was just sensational; as good as any I’ve eaten in the US, at little Italian home style restaurants. The oodles of garlic and perfectly al dente penne were mouth wateringly good and I ate every last morsel and really had to stop myself from taking my spoon and scraping the edges of the plate for the remnants of creamy garlicy goodness; had there been a piece of bread I most certainly would have! To top off this sumptuous meal, I ordered a pot of Earl Grey and the Russian Chocolate Cheesecake… and hoped and prayed it would be decent. As I’ve written before, I am in eternal search for authentic cheesecake in the motherland. And ladies and gents, that search is now over! That cheesecake had all the elements I find requisite: light and creamy texture, a perfect crust, and a slightly tart flavor. The chocolate used was also quite spectacular and I sat there in a haze of food induced happiness for quite a while.

On my final day, I returned to Infantaria to buy the croissants, and also ate one chocolate and one ham and cheese myself. And on the owner’s recommendation, got a hot chocolate… this place really knows its chocolate! Orgasmic would not be overstating things! Filled with chocolate and a sense of triumph on the execution and completion of a perfect single gal vacation, I made my way to the airport, promising myself, the beach, and Infantaria’s owner that I would be back. Perfect beach curls and happy skin, bedazzled nails (done by two sweet ladies on the beach as I sat and watched the waves my last night there), tattoo (temporary, sadly) of my zodiac, new anklets, and such frivolity aside, the food and sense of fun and freedom I felt in Goa makes me realize it’s the kind of place I’d love to live in, should I ever get the chance!

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What Price Ambiance?

The atmosphere one is in can really make or break the moment. Just as a congenial work environment and a quiet and peaceful corner to call home is essential to my well-being, so too, I have increasingly realized, is a good ambiance when eating out. Good food aside, the service, surroundings, and sensibilities of the restaurant/hotel one is at can elevate or reduce to ash, one’s dining experience. Possibly most of you are going “duh”, but of course! But the importance of these extraneous factors did not hit me until, well, my return to India. In my eating out in the US, I took for granted a certain basic level of service and decent noise levels, unless at a McDonalds or its ilk, or out and about in the nightclub scene. In fact, on more than one occasion it has been my group that looked around shamefacedly, realizing we were being rather raucous!

So, yes, it was an immense shock to my tender sensibilities that children screaming like banshees and running around like unguided missiles are a common occurrence at restaurants here. Not to mention waiters who are either so wet behind the ears that one can see the water accumulating on their collars, and/or for whom English is a language unintelligible. Perhaps its my slight accent, perhaps just my face, but I am getting mighty tired of places where my questions or requests are greeted with an all-knowing but completely uncomprehending nod of the head, or even better, a completely blank, deer caught in the headlights stare. Hello, I asked about a dish on your menu, not for the weather in Alaska! I am not saying you MUST speak English-all I am saying is, if you cannot, then don’t try because all you’ve ended up doing, dear waiter/waitress, is confusing yourself and annoying me, the customer. And restaurateurs and managers of such, please, please do take the time to train your wait-staff and make sure they are up to speed before throwing them to the wolves!

A recent day of culinary indulgence really drove the importance of ambiance home to me. In Mysore to celebrate my mum’s birthday, we had a lunch+tea+dinner out planned, so that she got a well-deserved break from the magic she generally tenders in the kitchen. Due to a late start, we ended up going to a nearby place for lunch, called The Pelican Pub. My parents frequent this place for it’s draught beer and easy reach. The menu is limited and whatever I’ve had has been just passable. But generally it’s quiet and the seating under the trees with thatched roof protection has a certain charm. On this day, however, our waiter was particularly slow and scattered and the addition of two little boys running around and having a grand old time in loud and boisterous voices in no way enhanced our dining experience. To cap it off, there was an additional item on our bill that none of us had ordered.

Fast-forward a couple hours and it was a stop at Just Bake, where a Death by Chocolate cake awaited us. Next time, I told the pater, let’s come and grab a bite here… yes, I know the beer won’t be available, but the serene atmosphere and the gentle air about the guy behind the counter (I believe he also owns the place) make up for that. And once I tasted the cake (light, airy, not too rich, but just oh-so-right!), I was a fan. All this indulgence called for a respite, for, believe it or not, the main event of the night was still to come. Rested and ready for more, we made our way later to Hotel Regaalis, run by the Usha-Lexus group of hotels and resorts. Making our way downstairs, to the poolside Tandoori curry and kebab restaurant called ‘CHARCOALS’, we passed a well-lit, quiet, and cheery lobby and reception area. The desserts on display at the little counter looked tempting enough, but Death by Chocolate was still alive and well in my memory (and stomach!). Down the flight of stairs and out onto the poolside, a secluded, palm tree tree-lined area with strategically lit fountain and tables scattered around the pool greeted us.

The staff were super courteous and the service was efficient and quick. Our drinks demands, of a margarita (me), rum and coke (dad), and beer, really chilled (birthday girl aka mum) were quickly tended to and a plate of cone shaped papad and a bowl of peanuts arrived alongside. As always, the strength of the drink was a welcome surprise…ah tequila my friend and soothing companion. The kebab platter of chicken, fish, and mutton was as good as most, as were the pudina parantha, kalonji naan, and tandoori roti ordered for the table. But truly, it was the ambiance (dim but adequate lighting, soothing sounds from the sheet of water in the amber-lit fountain, and stillness around) that raised the level of celebration and made me feel relaxed and indulged.

There were no irritants in the form of screeching, running amok children or oblivious waiters, or a headache or sweat due to generally too loud patrons or too many patrons as is quite often the case at the eateries I’ve been to here. There was no ‘mistake’ on the bill; the entire evening was smooth and easy and left us with a convivial feeling. I did get mercilessly attacked by mosquitoes, but that was my own fault for wearing a low back dress, and lets face it, I always get bitten, wherever and with whomever else I am. Still, given a survey to fill out, I mentioned that mosquito coils would help the bug situation. And would you believe it, as we were walking out, a young manager came running up to us and apologized for the inconvenience, saying they did indeed have them, but had not placed them that evening as it seemed there was no need. You mean someone actually read my comments and got back to us, asap? Color me impressed! Happy, sated, and full of birthday cheer, we headed home and I decided I had the subject of my next post, when the editor came a-knocking to be paid…

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Back to Chennai

Coming back to the home country after well over a decade has definitely been a trial by fire sort of experience. Alongside the happiness of seeing my parents and dearest and best friend of 25 years, there was the anticipation of starting a new life here, with all sorts of dreams and plans. Sadly, most of said castles in the clouds turned out to be just that and before I had even gotten over jet lag, the reality and idiocy of my plans had set in. I soon found out that it’s one thing to leave as a teenager, from one’s parents’ home, where I was protected and insulated from a lot of experiences, and quite another to return 14 years later, a “grown up” with the manifesto of being a single, independent entity. The anonymity, freedom, sense of self, and true independence that I had taken for granted since my 18th year, were suddenly completely turned on their heads. Apart from the obvious issues of what (not) to wear and where (not) to go, my basic foundation as a person was shaken to the core in those first weeks. Amidst tears and tantrums then, there was one shining haven in which I took solace: FOOD! Yes I am a foodie and though more likely to partake than prepare, I’d still like to boast of pretty good knowledge and a repertoire of food and drink.

My choice of city, Chennai (place of my birth and schooling) was a less than stellar idea. Don’t get me wrong here; I am proud to be a “Madrasi,” by virtue of having been born and brought up there, and was quite set on making it “home” once again. What I had not counted on, however, was the sense of alienation and unrest that was a constant in my time there, pretty much from the moment of landing. I had suppressed certain memories and happenings, clearly. Or perhaps they did not bother me quite so much as a kid, as they did now on my re-entry into society here. Being stared at, nay, gawked at, at every place I went to, be it the fancy mall or one of the many good restaurants around, much less walking down the road, soon got on my nerves. The usual (and valid!) charge leveled against Chennai, the weather, was also a contributing factor. Yes, I know, I was back in India, its hot, and yes, I am the genius who decided to time my return for the hottest months of the year, April-June (Hello Hades, Chennai calling). That trial by fire analogy-on certain days, it was more literal than figurative, shall we say?!

However, despite the many ways in which I am a poor fit in India and vice-versa, there are a couple things that make me happy to be back in the motherland. Friends and loved ones, of course, and also, the variety of food and places to eat. Chennai was a pleasant surprise in this regard. Be it Thai, Greek, Lebanese, Iranian, Italian, etc, I found great food and most of the time, a pretty darn good ambience. Also had a couple of really bad experiences, thanks to a complete lack of trained and professional staff and an unfortunately crude and loud crowd (more on this at a later date, if I am invited back to share again)…

I knew I would gorge on Indian fare, especially kebabs and such, as I am not much of an idly/dosa type. Yeah, sorry, if you were hoping for recommendations and eulogizing about that kinda food, move on, fair reader. Thou shalt be sorely disappointed. I was not expecting anything out of the world in my Mughali dining, given that this was Chennai and not Delhi, after all. I found myself quite charmed by the whole buffet experience at restaurants where they serve you the starters while you’re seated. Piping hot and unlimited in quantity, we rarely made it to the actual buffet (who needs mediocre, sitting-on-a-warmer biryani or curry when you have delectable and succulent fish, chicken, and mutton making its way right to your table, where you can concentrate on stuffing your face and not worry about standing in a line or negotiating space with other diners?). I enjoyed kebabs at quite a few places, like Copper Chimney, Sigree and BBQ Nation, to name a few. But the experience was heightened and taken to a whole new level at “The Great Kebab Factory.” Oh-my-gawd, would that I could have eaten more (and lets face it, my appetite, like my person, is far from tiny!).

I had also soo been looking forward to dining on Chinese food (oh how I missed thee, spicy and uniquely flavored Indo-Chinese preparations) but when confronted with the reality, realized again how youth and misty eyed memories can color one’s sense of perception. American Chopsuey, Gobi Manchurian, Chilly Chicken, Chicken 65…delish still, yes…but also, unfortunately, heart attacks on a plate! Foods battered and fried to an inch of their existence, while tasty, will be leading me to an even earlier than anticipated demise.

Maybe in the coming weeks I’ll detail more of my (mis)adventures both culinary and otherwise, on this site. I’d like to share some of the best and worst of my dining experiences in my first weeks here. Hmm, I did only say food, didn’t I? I meant, obviously, DRINK, too! I’m all about the super strong drinks meted out in India. Be it Mysore or Chennai, the drinks have never been watery. Chennai now left behind, its time to explore my new digs, Bangalore, and see what this city has to offer food and fun wise. Will my quest for a slice of authentic cheesecake be answered? Will I find myself missing Sparky’s Diner, an American eatery in Chennai which proudly goes by the motto: “Never Trust a Skinny Chef”? Will the pleasure and soothing quality of my last meal out, at Fusion 9, be matched or bettered here in Bangalore? Only time and lots more (but of course!) eating and drinking will tell…