Those who follow my food writing know that I seek out food experiences when I travel. It’s as the byeline of this Collection says — I Travel to Eat. However, in the process of ferreting out fine dining experiences around the world, I am acutely aware of the possibility that I may have overlooked some of the culinary treasures in my own back yard. Which is why, when I was invited to a degustation at the Ritz Carlton in Bangalore, I gladly accepted.
Truth be told, I haven’t had a great deal of luck with fine dining meals at Indian five-star restaurants. Maybe its just me but whenever an executive chef has offered to create a bespoke meal for me, either the service or the creativity of the menu has just not been upto the mark. That said, Chef Anupam Bannerjee came highly recommended and, while my expectations weren’t sky-high, I was cautiously optimistic.
Tuna Tian and Onion Tarte Tatin
The pre-starter set the mood for the meal early on. We were served two plates of food crowded with elements. There was a tian of tuna and avocado — the tuna was roughly chopped, tartare style and coarsely combined with the avocado — along with an unusual conically shaped mini tarte tatin of onion. There was also an avacado and feta cheese puree, a tiny pillow of pita bread and a delicious caper and raisin relish. I have never tried capers and raisins before and now I am wondering why. They make a wonderful combination.
Melon and Yoghurt Terrine
The next course was called Textures of Melon and Chef Bannerjee managed to squeeze more textures out of the melons than I would have thought possible. On the first plate was a melon garden — a layered presentation of different riffs on the theme of melon. Right at the bottom was a layer of compressed water melon that was both dense in texture and concentrated in flavour. This was the base for the melon garden which had a variety of musk melon and water melon scoops along with melon gelee and melon caviar.
The second plate was a yoghurt terrine topped off with a berry compote and melon caviar. The terrine was garnished with edible flowers and delicately balanced on a pile of basil seeds. (I can’t get over how much basil seeds look like the insides of a passionfruit, even if they taste completely different.) Before we tucked in, the chef poured a ginger ale and gari flavoured consommé of cantaloupe into the bowl. What a playful and refreshing way to start the meal!
Sea Bass, Asparagus and Ravioli
The next course was, for me, the course of the day.
A perfectly cooked fillet of Cochin Sea Bass, cooked en pappilotte with a wonderful selection of aromats that filled the room with fragrance once the paper bag was cut. This was a delicious, delicate fish, the eating of which was as much a treat to the nose as to the palate.
There were two sides for this course. The first was essentially three ears of carefully garnished white and green asparagus. The white asparagus had been planed and covered with edamame beans, cherry tomatoes and red radish. The green asparagus was wrapped in a sweet, crunchy fig and date chutney with a crust of roughly broken pistachio. Also on the side was a selection of four different ravioli — each stuffed with a different filling (capers and thyme; salted caramel; candied lemon and orange fennel) — and served in a mash of purple potatoes.
It was at about this time in the meal that I realised that I was going to have to pace myself. We were just at the third course but already, with the number of plates in each course and the array of elements on each plate, it already felt like we were 6 courses down.
Whelk, Octopus, Crayfish, Scallops and Lobster
If I thought the courses, so far, were complex and multi-layered, the next course took it all to another level.
In the exotically angled glass was a delightfully quirky deconstruction of the classic seafood bouillabaisse. Instead of serving a liquid broth, the stew had been gelled with the seafood elements sprinked on top. It was a bit weird, at first, eating a jelly instead of slurping a soup but it went well with the fennel and orange flavoured octupus and pickled whelk.
The main protein element was pan-fried scallops and butter poached lobster garnished with truffles, mushrooms and pumpkin puree — but delicate as it was it played second fiddle to what was in the covered bowl to the side.
The real star of this course was the crayfish royale. I cannot remember the last time I ate a traditional French savoury custard — its a technique that seems to have been all but forgotten in today’s world of modern fiddly gastronomy. Probably the only cuisine that still actively incorporates this is Japanese where the chawanmushi is still an integral component of a sushi meal. But this was the classic French dish with the flavours of crayfish infused into the comforting texture of custard.
Duck — Three Ways
The next course had duck — cooked three ways. And I was nervous. I haven’t had much luck with duck courses and instinctively approach them with trepidation. When cooked well, duck meat is delicious, its taste lending itself in equal measure to both savoury and sweet sauces. But when overcooked (and it’s so easy to leave it on the pan just a tad too long) there are few things worse than stringy legs or chewy duck breast.
Once again there were three distinct parts to the course. There was a shot glass filled with raspberry air — the raspberry foam was light and surprisingly savoury. Next to that was a delicious pithivier of duck — light pastry, with a delicious filing of duck leg confit. If it were upto me, I’d have turned the pithivier into the main event — it was moist, well baked and really, really tasty. To my regret, I just could not find the space in my tummy to finish the entire pie.
The centrepiece was roasted duck breast served on a bed of carrot puree with seasonal vegetables. Tucked away, almost out of sight in the midst of all vegetables was a little samosa — the third variation of duck — a pastille of duck leg confit with caramelized onion. It was pretty to look at and full of flavour but unfortunately, once again, my duck jinx had struck. The duck breast had been taken a little too far and, where I was hoping for moist tender meat, my serving was tough and chewy.
Thank goodness for the pithivier.
Slow Roasted Venison
The final main course (and if you have been paying attention you will have noticed that by this time we’d run through an entire pantry of proteins) was slow roasted venison. I cannot say that I have eaten a whole lot of venison so I don’t know whether or not this meat is easy to cook, but the hunk of meat that was put in front of me was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. It was pink, moist and tender from edge to edge and when you can chew the meat just as easily with your tongue as with your teeth, you know that the Chef has got his cooking times down to perfection.
As a side for the venison we were served a pot of vegetables. Not just any veggies — a selection of root vegetables many of which are hard to come by — Barrigole and Jerusalem artichokes, baby carrots, sweet potato, baby beetroot, Cep Mushrooms and cipolini onions. In hindsight there probably wasn’t a single ingredient in the course that had been locally sourced.
Raspberry Delight and Passionfruit Caviar
So finally it was time for the dessert courses — we were all stuffed to the gills but I was looking forward to see what surprises lay in store for us on the sweet side of the evening.
The first dessert was a raspberry delight. It was accompanied by a biscuit sandwich filled with lemon and mascarpone cream perched on tempered dark chocolate runouts.
The tartness (to counter the creamy sweetness of the delice) was provided by an agglomeration of passionfruit caviar and the drizzle of lemon cillo drizzle down the middle of the plate.
This was a good dessert that clinically ticked all the boxes. It was, in equal measure, both sweet and acidic so that neither flavour overpowered the palate and there was the melange of textures that you need to made the mouthfeel of every bite interesting. But in comparison to the creativity that had come before it, the dessert was competent without being spectacular. Certainly not in the same league as the sea bass or the pithivier.
Textures of Chocolate
The final dessert was aimed at my sweet spot — a variety of chocolate flavours and textures.
The hazelnut chocolate mousse was soft and creamy and peppered with generously sized crunchy hazelnuts. The milk chocolate ice cream was creamy but by the time it got to my plate had become a bit runny. But for me, the standout items were the two chunky pieces of salted caramel popcorn. The combination of salty cheese with sweet caramel has been used to season popcorn in cinema halls across for years, but this popcorn was coated with a chocolaty caramel so heavy and thick that the corn-popped centre felt like flavoured air.
By the time I get to the end of a degustation, I am usually so overwhelmed by the tastes and textures that have gone by that I give the petit-fours no more than a passing glance. This meal was no different. But I was so blown away by the way the presentation that I had to share a picture.
The entire selection of petit-fours came on a faux wooden log made entirely of white chocolate. If I wasn’t so full, I’d have been tempted to break off a chunk. There was mango chutney piled high on edible chocolate spoons, coffee pate de fruit, choux buns filled with lemon mascarpone, an English pound cake and chocolate pop buns on popsicle. It must have been delicious selection that was delicious and different but I will have to rely on my imagination because at the end of the I could barely sample a morsel.
Chef Bannerjee likes to present two or three different plates of food at every course. Each plate has a number of different elements, all of which go well with each other as well as with the elements on the other plates. It’s a style that takes getting used to — both because there are more elements per course than is usual, but also because it’s easy to forget to try flavour combinations across the plates as well within a single plate.
One thing that stood out clearly throughout the meal was the quality of the ingredients he had worked with. From the cornucopia of European vegetables to that delicious venison — the kitchen was using a vocabulary of ingredients that very few chefs in the city can even hope to access. That said, nothing should detract from the cleverness in the cooking, whether it was the texture of compressed melon or the jellied bouillabaisse.
The last thing I had expected to eat at a restaurant in Bangalore was a classical French meal with techniques and preparations straight out of Julia Child. But as surprised as I was with the oeuvre, I was even more impressed by the fact that, for the first time at a five star hotel in India, I’d been served a full-on degustation that ticked all the boxes on technique, variety and service. It’s not like the meal was without flaws. There were some elements that missed the mark and on the whole I think we could have done with less food or smaller portions. But these are minor quibbles. I can’t think of any other restaurant in the city and a precious few restaurants in the country that can cook to these standards.