Monday, September 2, 2013

Vanilla bean caramel custard

We are back with a recipe after what seems like eons and a promise to have more recipes going forward. Folks who have been patient and not given up on us, thank you and we love you! :) We are breaking the hiatus with a perennial favorite at most homes in Kerala, the quintessential Caramel Custard. The reason it enjoys that status is probably because it is fast, easy, kinda healthy considering it only has milk, eggs and sugar AND can be made with ingredients already existing in the pantry. Plus, it can make a statement all on its own. I remember my mother whipping these up pretty often; she'd steam it in the rice cooker too and I remember eating it by the spoonfuls even when steaming hot!
It is versatile, you can infuse any number of ingredients, exotic or otherwise (i'm thinking saffron, pistachio and chocolate to name a few). It can be eaten cold or for the more weird ones like me, warm. When made the traditional way, it borders on comfort-food-ism and who can say no to that?

I made a simple variant, the vanilla bean caramel custard because I had a vanilla bean at hand.
Two eggs did not feel overpoweringly eggy, but feel free to reduce the amount of egg used if you feel the need - it may not set as well when baked being the only downside. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

For the custard:
-400 ml milk
-100 ml condensed milk
-2 eggs
-20 g sugar (or as per taste)
-1 vanilla bean
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the caramel:
-20 g sugar
-3 tablespoons water

Prep the ramekins by placing them in a large, flat tray that can hold the ramekins as well as water halfway upto the height of the ramekins.
Mix the milk and condensed milk and scrape the innards of the vanilla bean into it along with the bean. Heat the mixture in a medium sized saucepan and bring it to the boil. Let it simmer for 2 minutes before switching off the flame and closing it with a lid and leaving it to steep for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 170C.
Whisk the eggs and sugar till incorporated and add the hot milk mixture through a strainer in a steady stream. Keep whisking the egg mixture with the other hand just to make sure the eggs do not cook. Whisk well, taste to see if it is sweet enough and then pour into the prepared ramekins. Place in the oven and let it bake till just set, but still wobbly when touched (you do not want it to set firm). That was about under 30 minutes in my oven.
Once cooled, refrigerate, and when ready to eat, run a knife carefully around the rim and turn it over onto your saucer/dessert plate. Watch the amber caramel ooze around the custard - Bliss!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Flying Elephant, Park Hyatt, Chennai - Restaurant Review

The Flying Elephant has been on the restaurant circuit for a bit, and i remember hearing about the hype and the hoopla that surrounded it for a while. There was talk about the many levels within the restaurant, the 6 kitchens in the restaurant and how the waiters break into a Harlem shake kind of rendition of Gangnam style. Good stuff about the food as well was also doing the rounds. Not to mention how expensive it all was. We had an out-of-towner with us this weekend, my brother of the Mycaptureoftime fame. He had heard exciting things about the restaurant too and he was  also particular we tried it out. So, decked out in fancy sandals and our sartorial best, we headed out on a Saturday night for a promised night of sumptuous and glitzy revelry.

You know how the first impression about a place sets the tone for an experience? That sort of happened here. I remember thinking to myself that the hospitality at the entrance of the hotel is in dire need of makeover. But  i convinced myself that it was but a minor detail, and we were escorted to the restaurant.

It suddenly dawned on me where the hype about the various levels in the restaurant came from. It is laid out in a unique manner, with a central mezzanine like well. We did not have a chance to walk around and explore the restaurant, thanks to some certain turn of events about which i will discuss in the coming paragraph. The décor is good, a tad confused but probably could pass off as avant-garde.

I am handed the drinks menu (probably i'm the only one in the group that looks like a person who drinks.  And for those who do not know me, that was sarcasm. i very rarely drink when in restaurants, especially overpriced ones!) and we peruse and we decide to go for the New York Smash and a regular pint of beer. I choose to stick to my glass of water and we order a plate of the dimsum starters. While we wait, we tell our server we are bloggers and ask if we can take pics. He says yes, and we proceed to get the artillery out. I stick to my iPad, but my brother, the photo blogger/avid foodie takes out his trusted Canon and we get up and walk to the grilling station and try to click pics of the action. 

Observation: the chefs behind the counters give a quizzical look, and i realize, they are not used to being photographed at work. Or if they are, they don't seem happy about it. I smile and try to re-assure a chef by telling him the bread he sent to the table is very nice when we are interrupted by our server. He asks again and tells us the pictures should not be shared on a platform and such, and i again explain to him, that we are bloggers, we are taking pictures of the restaurant and the food for the blogs, and that these are not for sale. He tells us his manager will get back to us. We say ok and head back to our table to wait. The momos arrive, and they are good. Definitely small portions, but good, and served with a super hot dip.

For the main course, I had opted for the Grilled salmon with caramelized beets and toasted hazlenuts. The other dishes doing the rounds were Pork Spare Ribs and Lamb Chops with artichokes.
The NY Smash is a good drink, though we don't get much of it (the big fancy block of ice takes up more volume in the glass than the cocktail itself), but its a smooth, bourbon based drink nonetheless.
We are still waiting for the manager or the server to come and let us know the verdict when the server appears and tells us the manager will be talking to us. Disappointed, we continue to wait patiently. Eventually, the food arrives. The salmon is cooked well, but being a reasonably thick chunk of meat, could do with more seasoning. I was a fan of the caramelized beets, i thought it complemented the salmon very well. Just that there was very little of it. The fish was placed on a bed of mint paste, of which i was not a fan. The mint was bordering on bitter, but i didn't mind it much, the beets covered it for me. Oh, also, the few toasted hazelnuts scattered around the fish.
The pork ribs were cooked very well again: tender, soft and pretty much falling off the bone. The lamb chops was again, cooked well, with a trace of pink in the center. It, again, could do with a bit more seasoning, but was still alright.

Please remember, the promised manager has not appeared yet, and we are done with the main course.
This lack of basic courtesy puts us off and we decide we do not want the dessert. We ask for the cheque, hoping for a 'feedback form' as well, but we get just the cheque (perhaps they are confident of the feedback they'll get). We pay, and on our way out, tell the server that the manager has not come to meet us. He replies saying 'He is downstairs, you can meet him on his way out.' !!!
Imagine the gall!

In a few words, the experience and the service were a major let-down. The food was good (but terribly and unjustifiably overpriced). Probably we had a bad day but there are these other things that you expect when dining at a luxury 5 star restaurant, like courteous, good service. or even more basic things such as replenishing the glass when requested or greeting the guests and making you feel welcome. The Flying Elephant failed miserably in this area that particular day. Would i go back? Most probably not, not for a while at least.
Sadly, the saving grace, the food (and not the half baked attempt of the waiters at dancing to PSY's Gangnam style), was eclipsed by everything else. So, in all, a forgettable experience at the over hyped, exorbitantly priced Flying Elephant.

P.S: I eventually did click pics of the food we ate and a couple of other pics we clicked before the good server came and told us to hold the shutters. The photographs are processed on VSCO.

Friday, May 24, 2013

China XO, Leela Palace, Chennai

The new kid on the Chinese block is China XO, the specialty restaurant and brainchild of Leela Palace, Chennai. And a force to reckon with they are. We had the good fortune of dining at China XO for dinner couple of weeks back and the fact that i took so long to write about it must give you an inkling to how much i wanted to take time out to do it justice, because anything else would not just do. It would be an understatement to say we were bowled over by the entire experience. The authenticity and the painstaking effort put into making each element a pleasant journey for the senses or the palate shows. China XO is class personified, and i'm thinking eclectic and exquisite should probably begin to describe it. 

Nestled in the far end of the wide corridor that branches off Jamavar to the right (which i'm so tempted to visit in the near future - a peek through the glass in the aforementioned corridor literally beckoned me in, it was like a cornucopia of colors, soft lights and elegantly dressed staff meandering through the maze of laid out heavy furniture - how do they strike such a balance you wonder!), China XO strikes you as elaborate and very stylish. Keeping with the Leela tradition, it is contemporary, yet chic, and they know the right dosage to make sure you feel wowed, and yet not overwhelmed. Oh, and rest assured, you are bound to run into celebs here. There were some esteemed restaurant owners and filmdom glitterati that we rubbed shoulders with at the restaurant. We were also given a tour of the 3 Private Dining Rooms, which are actually 3 rooms of infinite luxury and style.

Coming to the food part of the night. Food, oh glorious food. We were spoilt for choice, and decided to start with the chicken dumpling, chicken and prawn siumai and chilean sea bass dumpling. The siumai was yum, as were the fillings for the other dumplings as well, though we found the steamed coating a tad dough-y. 

To make the transition to the main course, we ordered a Char Siew Chinese style pork roast with honey. It was big on flavors, however failed to kindle any special amorous feelings for the dish.

We were contemplating on the next plan of attack when the kind exec chef, Chef Dharmen dropped in to check on how we were doing. He took matters into his own hands and ordered for us. And that is how one of the highlights of the night, the Cheong fun dim sum prawn happened. The Cheong fun dim sum prawn  gives all other dim sums a bad name in that, it takes dim sums to a entirely different level, what with its tender, succulent and juicy jumbo prawn enveloped in a 'crisp-as-crisp-can-get' light coating ,which is in turn covered by the steamed exterior that we are so used to eating for momos. This excellent combination of textures and the eventual explosion of the mildly flavored prawn just set off all the alarm bells in our heads, and we couldn't have enough of it. As we kept affirming to Chef Dharmen over mouthfuls, it is their winning dish.

Or so we thought, till the Crispy kurobuta pork belly came. 
So here's the thing, watching the number of TV food shows that Pavan does, or eating/preparing pork in as many various ways as possible, there's this understanding between  us: he is the pork connoisseur and i'm the sceptic (for some self confessed weird reasons). He is all for the, you know, proverbial crispy skin, juicy fat, glaze of fine sauce, and the delicious meat underneath it. Well, the Crispy kurobuta pork belly was all this, and much more. The stuff good food dreams involving pork are made of. The crackling on the cubed pork belly was an eye opener and it may have just converted a sceptic. We unfortunately do not have pics, and that should give you an idea about how much we enjoyed it. 

So here we are thinking we have pretty much seen it all when we realize the Chef has ordered a Peking duck for us. We had heard about it and how it was their signature item, so we waited in quiet anticipation. While we were waiting for our duck to arrive, we saw a couple of ducks travel in style and amidst much fanfare to the respective tables, on dinner carts and accompanied by the Chef. As we looked on with slightly open jaws, the Chef proceeded to slice up the duck there, in front of the guests and serve the diners. We were intrigued to say the least, and Chef Dharmen gave us a brief outline about this fabulous dish while we waited. The Peking duck is a very popular dish from Beijing, so much so that it is considered a national dish of China. The dish is prized for its crispy skin, so distinctly separate from the fat underneath it, the literally melt-in-the-mouth fat and meat. In the authentic way, the cooked duck is brought to the diners, carved and sliced by the Chef using a dangerously sharp looking knife, and then served to the customers with a side of pancakes, sliced scallions and cucumber and hoisin sauce. 

After placing the order at China XO, the diners are told that it will take 45 minutes, as the duck has to be cooked in the wood  fire oven on order. Our interest sufficiently piqued, we waited it out with Chef Dharmen who is possibly the most fun and un-assuming Chef ever. He regaled us with his many anecdotes which we will remember very fondly every time we see a ship washed up the shore or sees dim sums. :)

Our Peking duck was ready and wheeled out to us under the auspices of Chef Mann. Chef Mann set to work as the accompaniments were laid out in front of us. Without exaggeration, we got a plate of the most delicate and crispest duck skin ever imaginable, another plate of similar beautiful skin with a bit of luscious and divine fat under it and a third plate of tender, gently flavored duck meat. We were beside ourselves with excitement and instructed on how to go about it, as there were an array of items in front of us, including a bowl of white sugar! So this is how we do it: lay out a pancake on your plate. Spread the hoisin sauce on the pancake making sure to cover it with a light smear. Place the skin with fat on the pancake, followed by little garlic butter if you fancy it, followed by the meat. Top it off with the sliced scallions and the cucumber and roll it up into a tight roll, and dig in using your hands. Await the explosion of all the different flavors and textures and be prepared to go 'wow'. I can not seem to type all of this out now without drooling a tad bit onto my keyboard. The texture of the meat is amazing and pairs perfectly well with the rest of the accompaniments. And the best part of all this was, none of it left us feeling overly stuffed. It was light and easy on the stomach. 
P.S: Strange as it may sound, the sugar is meant to be sprinkled over the skin and popped as is. A little prelude to the amazing-ness that ensues. That caramelized, crispy skin literally melts in the mouth with the sugar and leaves you wanting more. 
Their Peking duck is nothing short of 'wow!' and it is clearly their pièce de résistance.  It beats everything else, hands down, and will remain 'The dish' for me for a long time. And that says enough about this exquisite dish, really. 

The icing on the cake/this brilliant meal was the dessert. Frankly speaking, and with due apologies for stereotyping, all i've come to expect from a Chinese dessert is fried ice-cream, ice cream served with crispy fried noodles or fruit salad. But China XO does things with style. We got to try a little bit of everything:  Crispy muskmelon with vanilla bean ice cream, fried sesame dumpling with black sesame paste filling, crispy sesame pancake with lotus and almond jelly. Our favorite was the crispy (oh so crispy!) muskmelon with the vanilla bean ice cream. The almond jelly was good, light and just a tad bit almond-y. I took a shine to the fired sesame dumpling and found the black sesame filling particularly intriguing. Onto the highlight of the dessert: The crispy muskmelon! The musk melon was puréed and stewed and had a super crispy outer coating that just enhanced the subtle taste of the melon. That, paired with a scoop of the ice cream was the perfect ending to a fabulous meal. 

ChinaXO is currently open only for dinner, and i cant wait for them to open for lunch, i'm told the view of the sea from the restaurant is spectacular.
The staff's attention to detail is, again, heart warming and as you leave, can't help but feel, Leela had checked all the right boxes, yet again.

Friday, May 17, 2013


We recently packed our backpacks, took the camera and a few other essentials and headed out to the sunny beach of Varkala, the 'Goa in Kerala', if you will, with a bunch of friends and some family.

Aim: The clichéd ''Looking to unwind-get away from the monotony of  the city life (even if only for a few blissful days) and plain veg out in shorts and shades, eat good food AND sleep in"

and Varkala delivered.
P.S: A few other things got thrown into the bargain: loud train journeys, pictionary with the masters of cheat drawing, hilarious drinking sessions with ridiculous trips down memory lane and fun community-style meals to name a few.

So, in short, mission accomplished.

Varkala is a little beach town in the south of Kerala. It is quaint, offers many photo ops and is a backpacker's or elite gucci toting traveler's paradise pit stop. It is not too crowded or over hyped like its other beach compatriots such as Kovalam or Cochin, but all of that is judging a book by it's cover. There is more to Varkala than the beach, papa naasham,, ayurvedic massage parlors or the swimsuit clad foreigners adorning the beach.
For example, i got to paraglide! With a French gentleman called Aurel in tandem, i soared for 25 odd minutes in the hot, unapologetic sun over the turquoise blue waters of the Arabian sea. It was exhilarating, a generous boost of endorphins and much more fun than what i'd always imagined flying would feel like. LOVED it, and i would do it again in a heartbeat.

We were traveling with friends, some of whom we were seeing after a gap of years. years. That's a really long time to not see friends. Seriously, not cool. It was fun, fun and more fun, all the way (think ruthless pictionary, merciless tripping on each other and catching up-on-everything-in-the-past-few-years among other things.)

The food scene is good, we probably didn't visit the right places. Quite a few 'Tibetan' restaurants abound in Varkala, most of which are of shoddy lineage. And, a head's up: if you are famished from an evening of frolicking in the beach, do not go to these restaurants thinking you will be served in a reasonable amount of time. One meal at such a joint had us waiting for more than an hour and a half. We'd only ordered the usual fare of fried rice/noodles thinking that'd be the easiest items for the good restaurant folks to dish up, but nope. (we were a group of 20 but still didn't think 1.5 hours was justified.) The food, once it came, was alright, but we made sure we never went back there.
But somehow, the food scene, as disappointing as it was, was not all that disappointing because it was not a priority for us this time around. Sometimes, just sometimes, having a good time with friends, inspite of all the differences, supercedes even the allure of food.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel - Restaurant Review

I had a taste of the high life last week. Glitzy lobby, studded with the IPL Sunrisers Hyderabad team. An elaborate dinner with the works in a private dining room in the Southern Spice, Taj Coromandel. Grandiose ambiance that made me feel like we had time traveled. I am talking about the Mahavirundh at Southern Spice, literally a meal fit for Royalty, and honestly speaking, i lost track of the number of dishes after probably the 30th odd item on the menu-they just kept coming and coming! 
But at Southern Spice, i believe it is much more than just the food. Their hospitality is legendary - let me cite a small example: Towards the fag end of this elaborate saga, i was saving up on space for dessert and really couldn't handle more main course items, so i said 'no, thank you' to the rest of the dishes that were doing the rounds on the table. That's when the kind server politely insisted, and let me stress on that, insisted : "Try ma'am, little thayiru saadam". So i repeat (!!), 'no, thanks'. He suggests very earnestly ''Try ma'am, it will be very nice with pickle"!!! For a second there, i was lost. Are you really telling me to eat, like my mother would??! Then i exchanged looks with a friend sitting next to me, and he said very nonchalantly, ''Yes, they do that here''. and i burst out laughing! Brownie points for the service!

Southern Spice has been creating food centered memories since the mid nineties  but they recently underwent a renovation, and the new Southern Spice is accentuated with the old world charm of temple architecture from the Chola, Pallava and Pandava dynasties. The bronze detailing is noteworthy for an aficionado or amateur alike and care has been taken to represent the four states of South India in the décor. The finery extends to the cutlery and linen as well: with an assortment of gold plated and silver plated dinner ware flashing at us.

The cuisine is pan south Indian, and succeeds in the attempt to showcase the best of South Indian culinary scene. It is rooted in tradition, but branches out with a delightful contemporary twist to it (how else do i describe the Chocolate Puranam Mousse? It is a Belgian Chocolate mousse with a heart of molten coconut, lentil and jaggery mix and topped with a Chocloate disc and a mound of light chocolate mousse-full marks for innovation and execution!). And there are quirks: a sambar on the menu comes from the Chef's grandmother! The Elaneer Payasam is a recipe from the the kitchen of Mammens of MRF fame.

We started the mahavirundhu with a ginger juice concoction that screamed 'refreshing!'. There was a round of papads and deep fried goodies served with an arsenal of chutneys, followed by a tiny steamed apam and banana dosais made of banana and flavored with jaggery and cardamom. Injipuli koshambri, a salad of tempered lentils served atop a lettuce leaf came close on the heels.
We moved on to the hardcore stuff. Well, the hardcore appetizer stuff: Denji Rawa fry, or crispy fried semolina crusted soft shell crab left us wanting for more. But we had other things to try. Kori Kempu or shredded chicken marinated in chilies and spice and fried and tossed in yogurt was an interesting dish, the yogurt was not overpowering at all. But the star of the day for me was the Kair Katti Yerachi Kola Urundai. The name can be daunting, but rest assured, the dish is a pleasure for the senses. It is a perfectly seasoned crispy lamb dumpling flavored with fennel and wrapped in banana fibre.

The Vaigai Kari Sukka originating from Madurai was another favorite of the day: succulent lamb cooked in fragrant spices.
Special mention goes to the mysore rasam that was served between dishes. With a hint of lingering sweetness, the rasam doubled as an appetizer and digestive, and the aromatic rasam wowed all of us at the table.

Then the table was set for the heavy duty stuff, the main course. The gold plated plate in the banana leaf shape was laid out with the little bowls for the various curries and side dishes. Topping the charts was the edamame kurma, scallop pepper stew and the asparagus paruppu usili because of the twists they lent to the palate. Hot appams that were umoulded from the traditional appam chatti in front of us were devoured with the pachakari stew, which was a rendition of seasonal veggies, onions and potatoes simmered in coconut milk. Yum! Parottas paired extremely well too.
Special mention goes to the podi that was served with steamed rice, ghee and sambar. I am not a big fan of rice dishes, but this was admittedly good.

By then, i was stuffed and i had to save space for dessert. Other dishes doing the rounds were the Biryani and the Andhra speciality, the Bhejwada kodi biriyani or spiced chicken pilaf with fresh mint and of course curd rice.
Onto dessert. i couldn't wait to see how they'd improvised on desserts and i was not left disappointed. The Chocolate puranam mousse was decadent and would surprise anybody, chocoholic or otherwise.  Another dish that wowed me was the Godhi bella ice cream, made of broken wheat, jaggery and banana. The fav at the table was the chilled Elaneer payasam which was the epitome of light and refreshing.

The meal was a very elaborate affair and it does justice to a mahavirundhu. Priced at INR 5000+ tax, it is a meal emphasizing on indulgence and hospitality. A fun fact about the Southern Spice, it figured in the 'World's top 100 restaurants'!
The Thalis start at INR 2000+ tax. They also offer thalis where wines are paired with the food and that works out to 8000+ tax and upwards.
Southern Spice is in the lobby level of Taj Coromandel, on Nungambakkam High Road, Chennai.