Saturday, December 30, 2017

#blahvsfood: The Best of 2017

Any year where you have eaten at 8 of the world’s Top 100 restaurants, 8 of Asia’s Top 50, 22 of India’s Top 50, drunk more than 45 different kinds of gin and more than 42 different beers and ciders is a year where you have eaten well and drunk well! 

So it’s saying a lot about the genius of Gaggan Anand, that my meal at Gaggan was by some distance the best meal I’ve had this year, and one of the best I’ve had in my life. This is no longer a modern Indian Restaurant. You see dishes from across India, Japan and South East Asia reimagined, reinvented, distilled to pure flavour and presented with playfulness to create a meal that is unforgettable. I need to go back again before it shuts.

In India, this was the year I rediscovered Indian Accent. As someone who has been going there for 7-8 years, I think I was looking for some sort of newness in the dishes and the approach. The new menu at the new venue at the Lodhi Hotel surpasses all my expectations. What I love about Indian Accent is that for all the technique and all the presentation, the fundamental principle is taste. A hearty familiarity, a warmth where if you closed your eyes you could be tasting food from grandmothers’ kitchens. 

Bombay Canteen has come into its own as a restaurant that is as revolutionary today as Indian Accent was a decade ago. It is making Indian food fun and accessible while sitting and bringing us flavours and dishes that have never been served in a restaurant before. No restaurant is as committed to bringing the breadth of India’s food heritage to our tables, no restaurant is upping its game as relentlessly where every 6 months it finds a whole other level. We didn’t realise it when it opened but in terms of pure food, Bombay Canteen is a game changer. Thomas Zachariah is cooking in a way no one else in India is, marrying the comfort and warmth of home cooking with technique that ensures that everything is cooked to perfection. The silky grandmother’s Kerala duck curry he cooked for me is one of my dishes of the year, and I still get visions of the perfection with which the duck was cooked and how it complemented the curry. Bombay Canteen will be in San Pellegrino’s Top 100 within the next 2 years. 

Poh is the best new restaurant in India. Chef Vikramjit Roy has simplified his food since Tian, with less focus on flashy technique and elaborate presentation. With each iteration of the menu, the flavours get richer, the freshness of his ingredients and produce shines, the presentation gets simpler and the star of the show is his food. I have not eaten Asian food like this anywhere in the world, it it’s own way it’s as creative as when Matauhita created modern Japanese cuisine at Nobu. I know that’s a statement that will lead people to accuse me of hyperbole, but I have followed Vikramjit’s evolution as a Chef for 6 years now and the sense I get is that over the next 2 years this is a Chef who will come into his own. And by the way, Poh serves hands down the best sushi and sashimi in India, miles miles ahead of Wasabi. 

India’s bravest Restaurant is Masque. I sometimujjes fear that Prateek Sandhu is a Chef who is ahead of his time for Mumbai. A locally sourced tasting menu, with an emphasis on foraging, fermentation and minimalist presentation, this is a restaurant that would hit it out of the park in New York or Scandinavia. I am thankful for the recognition he and the Restaurant are now getting because this is a Restaurant that deserves to thrive. This is my other bet for San Pellegrino’s Top 100. 

I am also glad to see Bawmra Jap’s Bomras finally get the recognition he deserves. In addition to the usual favourites, he also cooked me a meal of his traditional food, ethnic to his tribe in Burma that I won’t forget. His genius deserves a wider platform because it’s crazy that the world’s best Burmese Restaurant continues to be so little known after close to a decade. 

This year saw Alex Sanchez leave The Table so I hope that whoever replaces him continues to live up to the extraordinary high standards he set. This is one of India’s great restaurants and deserves a great chef. Meanwhile whenever Alex comes back to India and whatever he does next will be a Restaurant worth visiting! 

Gresham Fernandes continues to be the secret superstar of Indian cooking. No Chef in India has better technique. The mad genius sits at St.Jude’s creating avant garde dishes that could easily be served at 11 Madison Avenue. This guy needs a restaurant because I genuinely think Gresham could pop globally the way Gaggan has. He is cooking at the cutting edge of global cuisine. 

Manu Chandra is the other great Indian Chef who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a bit of a tragedy that his empire across Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar etc means that he is better known as a Restauranter than a Chef, and his cooking is judged basis his chains. Just go to the criminally underrated Toast and Tonic in Bangalore and you will realise how ahead of his time he is in terms of marrying the trends of Farm to Table and Comfort Cooking. 

For seafood, my go to place continues to be Kelvin Cheung’s Bastian. It’s miles ahead of the butter garlic crab at Trishna or the food at Gajalee and I don’t understand why I don’t go there every month.

For Indian Food at the 5 stars, the South Indian restaurants like Karavalli are the ones that genuinely set the standard far more than the Bukharas of the world. But the best Indian food is still found in standalone smaller places and we need to do more to break out of the butter chicken dosa stereotype of Indian food.

Bhatti Village in Goa is probably the best Indian Restaurant around. Every single thing is just perfect. 
Vinayak is Assagao has some phenomenal fish. For ghee roast prawns look no further than Sanigade in bangalore. Wildspice has a fiery Pandhi curry that puts Dakshin to shame. 
Best Biryani I ate this year was at Thallakapattu Biryani on the Coimbatore Coonoor highway. Or was it the always exceptional prawn Biryani at Grand Hotel?
For Sheekh kabab Ghalib at Nizamuddin has made the best Sheekh kababs and buffalo tikkas for close to 50 years now.
Bangalore Oota company serves the best local food in Bangalore while my mother makes the best pork dish in the world in her Khasi pork with Black sesame seeds. 
The other exceptional local food I ate was at an Air B&B at Allepey as well as another extraordinary houseboat meal. 

Speaking of local Food, I went to all 3 great Thai restaurants Nahm, Bo.Lan and Issaya Kitchen but none of them came close to local food in smaller places. I’ll go to Bangkok again to eat at Gaggan, Suhring and Eat Me. But every single Thai meal will be in a small local place. I’m also not sure I would go back to GAA. It’s very good. But it’s not exceptional.

Besides Gaggan my best International meal was at The Ledbury. It doesn’t seem to get the hype it deserves but those beautiful clean flavours have lingered in my memory even more than Clove Club and Hedone. 
In Amsterdam, BAK did things with vegetables that left me and my friends astounded while Bord’eau was just classic food cooked to perfection.

In Singapore, Burnt Ends is a temple for perfectly cooked meat and probably the best restaurant in the city now that the legendary Andres is shut. Neon Pigeon was also very good while Din Tai Fung is the one place I would eat at if I had a single meal at Singapore. Crystal Jade comes close but not quite. 
Singapore also has the best gin bar I’ve ever been to, the Art Deco Atlas Bar. Vijay Mudaliar in Native is serving the coolest alcohol I’ve had all year. 

Among the other newer places, I really really love the modern French at Slink and Bardot and I enjoyed Smoke Co in Bangalore. The most disappointing new place on the other hand was Forage. It’s good but I was expecting extraordinary because of my love of Grasshopper. 

I don’t think Kode was disappointing for me because it was exactly what I expect from every restaurant in the Massive Restaurants empire... soulless, pretentious, unoriginal food. Masala Library in CP is the only one that gives me hope because Saurabh Udina is one of the best young chefs around and I hope Sahil at Papaya fulfils his undoubted potential. 

Well that’s it for this year. I’ve eaten well over 250-300 restaurant meals. Some may say it’s excessive. But hey you only live once and when it comes to #blahvsfood, I think Blah is winning with every single great meal I eat! 

Happy eating in 2018!

Ps: special thanks to Prateek Sandhu for your Kashmiri meal, Thomas Zachariah for the amazing off menu meal you cooked, Nafisa auntie for yet another great Bohri meal, Bawmra for treating me to the food of your family. 

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