Listen to the introduction:[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eace of mind is probably what most of us yearn for from time to time; the reason behind our periodic departures from the usual towards the unusual. Of course, the definition of usual holds many images and perhaps of different hues for each of us including shades of calm, exotic, exercise, sand, food and so much more. Given the different things we look for it really is possible to vacation anywhere and not necessarily in settings traditionally accepted as conducive, such as locations at a high altitude, close to the sea, in exotic locales and so on.
Why am I building a case making it possible to vacation anywhere? Because a few days ago, I found myself in a resort, less than two hours from my house in Greater NOIDA and perhaps 30 minutes from most locations in Gurgaon. Resorts are usually built to be immersive experiences, designed to insulate the visitor from all external influences, which is perhaps the reason they’re visiting to begin with. The Heritage Village, where we spent that weekend, was no exception. Spread across 12 acres of well maintained land just off NH8, the property is designed from the ground up to resemble what I thought were colonial, tropical influences from all over. Wide open spaces, both inside and outside, areas to sit back and look beyond, friendly, if rustic service, multiple restaurants and bars and very quaintly decorated rooms organized into clusters are what I thought made it a nice place to spend a weekend or two. If they improve their F&B, then perhaps more than two weekends too.[column-group][column]
The resort however wasn’t the reason for being there that weekend. We were there to experience SelectED, a provider of bespoke dining experiences. One might be tempted to label them as “Caterers”, which is perhaps the general category their company may fall into. Based on what I saw however, SelectED is and aspires to be more than that. We were exposed to three types of meals conceptualised and created by the SelectED team – high tea, a sit down dinner and Sunday brunch. Here’s what happened.
A well-understood “high tea” should have cold roast beef at the top of the table, a cold Yorkshire pie at the bottom, a mighty ham in the middle. The side dishes will comprise soused mackerel, pickled salmon (in due season), sausages and potatoes, etc., etc. Rivers of tea, coffee, and ale, with dry and buttered toast, sally-lunns, scones, muffins, and crumpets, jams and marmalade.- The Daily Telegraph, May 9, 1893.
High Tea has evolved over time, beginning as a substantial meal for the working classes, moving into a practical consideration for the upper classes and, as some sources say, a light in-between meal to sustain the leisurely classes. What most agree with, is that high tea has for most part, stood for a substantial meal, than a poofy one for all but the rich. From a meal mostly about meat, bread and tea, to one that is now seen to be about dainty confectioneries, high tea certainly has come a long way.
In the Indian context, given that we didn’t really drink tea until the 1920s, it would be reasonable to say the concept of tea-time snacks is a recent occurrence, even to the extent of classifying High Tea as a fashionable concept than a cultural one.
“While many Indian cultures include tea-time specific snacks, including south India and Bengal among others, most, if not all of these are younger than 150 years and due to British influences in the country”, says Dr Kurush F Dalal, Asst Prof (Archaeology), Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Mumbai, a man of many talents, not the least of which include an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of food, laughing at the thought of murals depicting Mughal emperors, china cup in hand, sipping tea with a duly outstretched pinky.
Having said that, we do have a definite tea time culture and when that is extended to High Tea, a fusion of elements is what usually happens. The High Tea menu by SelectED therefore was predictable in its stance, but disappointing as a spread, unless it was meant to be ordinary and of the sort that the average household could execute with a single day’s notice. Apart from the uninspiring spread, I thought the items themselves could have been executed better; freshly fried stuff that dripped oil, those which should have been leavened and weren’t, that which was intended to be kept warm under lights, but instead dried out to a hard, leathery finish and so on. A plethora of issues existed including but not limited to the dodgy coffee, the questionable nature of Gems as a tea-time item, the age of some of the baked items and so on. I perceive tea to be a time when comfort food is on offer or at least elements comprising such foods. At this tea, there were none. Thankfully, the High Tea was the only such experience with the next two being stellar.[/column][column]
Dinner & Brunch
Dinner that evening was another matter entirely. Cocktails were served with a selection of snacks, all of which I thought were well made. Those however, we can skip to the sit down dinner a little later, where SelectED shone. Platter concepts were well thought through, consisted of flavors and combinations that made me sit up wide-eyed and take another bite, only to experience the same thrill, before rushing into the rest, armed with a fork and knife, slashing, slicing, poking and chewing my way to a state of bliss. I recall with absolute clarity the stuffed baby aubergines with idiappams spiced with fried mustard seeds, and tamarind salsa, the spicy and piquant lamb chops teamed with fragrant rice and the grilled salmon with basil pesto and aloo chokha among others.
While I thought the execution of some platters could have been better, as long as humans are behind the stove, I’m going to overlook that and continue waxing eloquent on the quality of thought that went into the design of the meal. There were no wine suggestions, which I thought would have made quite a difference, given the depth of each platter-concept, though given how much I enjoyed the meal, even eating a second, different main course, I’m not going to grudge SelectED that optional extra.
The next morning was brunch, which started a bit early I thought, at half past ten on a Sunday morning. I had mixed feelings about this one, thought it most likely was a reflection of my own past experiences in restaurants, which tend to follow a fixed pattern. If anything, this brunch was different. As with tea, brunches too tend towards displays of the familiar and comforting, so the barely awoken can shuffle from counter to counter, plate in hand and pile on the most desirable from the lot. For me, that meant, bacon, sausages, fragrant mutton biryani (yes, they had that too!), pork-bao sandwiches from a live counter and more, including a selection of desserts. They also had upon a counter, skewered olives, tomatoes and pickled gherkins – called an Insalata Caprese; an unknown rendition of the classic Italian salad, which instantly takes away points as did the ‘Calzone’ at High Tea, made of unleavened all purpose flour dough.
The point of the whole experience, to my mind wasn’t just the serving of food in different formats at different times with different dishes, but to illustrate a clarity of thought, a uniqueness in the process of conceptualizing a meal based on different base preferences and the serving of those meals to a varied audience with different tastes and perceptions, and coming out with flying colors (except the High Tea, where I believe much thought wasn’t put in).
Another point to note here is, SelectED is a catering company, not a restaurant. It doesn’t have a single menu to perfect. It doesn’t have a fixed location to service. It doesn’t have a fixed kitchen to cook from. It doesn’t have a fixed set of clientele to please. The team can be called anyplace, to cook anything for anyone and has to score full marks every time and their clients aren’t going to give them a handicap for all the disadvantages they start with, and rightly so, given SelectED chose to work with those disadvantages. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we have to ignore the excellent quality of the final delivery, without taking their constraints into the equation. Taking another look at the entire dinner experience from this perspective, I wonder what this team would have delivered without all of these constraints? They would have been rockstars, is what they would have been. Remember, not only does this bunch of people have to deliver a meal that their customers pay good money for, they have to do so in spite of their operating constraints. The last two meals I partook of therefore, that would have done a restaurant proud, did them doubly so, given the unpredictable nature of their operations.
Would I recommend SelectED? Yes, I would. Wholeheartedly.