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    First Sampling: Floyd Cardoz, the poster boy of modern Indian food, returns to India with Bombay Canteen


    Cardoz has been quite the poster boy of contemporary Indian food abroad; most famously at the helm of New York’s Tabla that tasted heady critical.

    By Anoothi Vishal

    Through much of last year and all of this, restaurant circles have been abuzz with news of, well, the return of the prodigal. Ensconced in one corner of Kamla Mills, in Maximum City’s increasingly chic Lower Parel neighbourhood, Bombay Canteen (BC) has been one of the most anticipated restaurant launches. Its chef and partner Floyd Cardoz, after all, has been quite the poster boy of contemporary Indian food abroad; most famously at the helm of New York’s Tabla that tasted such heady critical, if not commercial, success in the early years of the millennium.

    Now, with Cardoz returning home and deciding to feed not videshis-with-a-yen-for-desi but desis with a yen for embracing cultural complexities instead of faux videshi, the wheel, it seems, has turned a full circle. In more ways than one. But that, later…

    Chintus and Crawford Market Saucers

    The final spit and polish is in progress when I sail through the portal (days before the restaurant launch recently) and am immediately comforted by what I find inside. Bombay Canteen is not one of those charmless places that aspire to be something else, somewhere else.

    Yes, it’s new-made to look like old. But you get the feeling that it is a friendly old soul, alright. Bombay is referenced in so many ways: right from the marble-topped tables of the erstwhile Irani cafes to an assortment of different coloured and patterned tiles on the floor, as if this was the remains of an old mansion in Town. There’s old Hindi film music playing. And the nibbles — called "chintu" served immediately as you arrive — arrive on Crawford Market-sourced saucers (I tried the kamal kakdi chips and the superb devilled eggs, with a Goan egg curry masala filled in with the yolks).

    But this is also a "canteen". Or at least seeks to replicate the informality of one. So one sits at large, no-fuss tables, the big-ticket dishes come in vast, sharing portions (an entire chicken rubbed with black spices; move over KFC bucket!) and so forth. However, more than that, here is also food that may remind you of the good old days. "I still remember the Feema (kheema) pao of St Xavier’s canteen", says Cardoz, of his early days in Mumbai, "the taste of the aloo-gobhi-poori you got at the station and going home to crab and Goan sausage". Cardoz’s cooking is an attempt to celebrate all these sights and smells. But don’t be under illusion: BC food is far more inventive and playful than the caramel custard, bun-samosa and, in my case, "ghas-aloo" (not the grass you may imagine) and worm-infested chickpeas that formed our school and college staples.

    Turning Tabla

    When Cardoz teemed up with Danny Meyer to open Tabla in 1998, what he unleashed upon the till-then curry-loving (or curry-hating) populace of the world was a kind of Indian food quite unknown. It was not the restaurant-created ed balti meat and chicken tikka masala. It was not even "authentic" homestyle food. "People there would hate the bitter flavour of karela [bitter gourd] or not like bhindi [lady’s finger] and yet these were on every Indian menu. I wanted my food to be more user friendly, so I decided to use local produce," says Cardoz.

    Maine crab cakes were hence married to Goan spices, Hudson Valley foie gras accompanied black pepper, anise and pear compote, samosas were stuffed with duck meat, bhetki replaced halibut… American ingredients teamed up with Indian spices and ways of cooking. For those impressed with haute dining, this was a new experience and soon, in other dining capitals, not just in London, but also in Mumbai and New Delhi, we began to see a trickle-down effect.


    As an almost mint-fresh graduate at the turn of the millennium, when I started writing on restaurants, one of the first tentative bites I took was from a salmon tikka at Vineet Bhatia’s (another of the early practitioners of this genre of "modern Indian" food) Mushq in Delhi. It seemed exquisite. Mushq didn’t succeed. But what slowly but surely began to take off was imported and expensive ingredients done the "Indian" way. If we have asparagus taka-tak on shaadi menus today, perhaps we should thank Cardoz for it!

    Which is ironical. Because, clearly the early aim behind using all those plump and plush ingredients was to use the local and seasonal — quite the reverse of the food culture it spawned at least in India. In the elite dining circles of New Delhi and Mumbai, we began aspiring to the so-called luxury imported ingredients, ignoring the vast local and seasonal produce of our regions.

    Think Local to Go Global

    In many ways, what Cardoz is attempting at Bombay Canteen is then the reverse of what much of "modern" Indian food is perceived as. It is superbly contemporary. Yet it is also in sync with his philosophy as a chef.

    There are no imported ingredients used at all. Everything is unabashedly local, as are the ways in which this is cooked. The best dish I had that day was stingray cooked in a banana leaf. It’s a fish that even local fishermen leave to cats or throw back into the ocean because there are no buyers.

    "I went to the local markets and saw so many varieties of squashes and greens that are not used," says Cardoz. For now, there is baigan [bringal] and lauki [bottle gourd], pumpkin seeds, kokum, Goan sausage, poi saag, and even masala chai flavours [in ice cream] that tumble out of his kitchen. Yet everything is inventive. It is not what your mother — or mine — would put on the table.
    There is no molecular gastronomy, no artificial foams and gels. Cardoz "reimagines" the familiar but refuses to tread that ground ("I don’t understand why a chef would want to dehydrate and then rehydrate curry leaves… or why someone would want to deconstruct bhelpuri," he says tongue firmly in cheek). Instead, we get palak paneer that turns out to be a salad with fresh and whole spinach leaves…

    There is kothu roti with a non-squishy makeover — bread, cabbage, sauce and fried egg, neatly layered, that need to be cut up, tossed and mixed in together, allowing for more texture. And there is methi thepla "taco", with pork vindaloo. (Manish Mehrotra does something similar at Indian Accent with his pulled pork/pulled kathal phulka-taco, a dish which I find unparalleled). You may prefer the flavours of the original (like I do for the kothu roti), but what you cannot help but admire is the creativity sans gimmicks.

    The chef and indeed the entire Bombay Canteen team — banker-turned-restaurateur Sameer Seth, who had gone to Cardoz to be hired and now partners with him and Yash Bhanage, who has worked wonders at the bar (try the punch; all the cocktails are inventive, use fresh ingredients and are competitively priced) — will be on the floor, observing, waiting, and watching. We will be doing the same.


    Local goes luxé

    Self reflection may not be easy, but it’s necessary. In life. And in art. When Bombay Canteen’s Floyd Cardoz talks of “looking inwards” and “celebrating who we are”, what he means is finding inspiration from the local and the traditional. Despite games of showmanship, where most restaurateurs and chefs today are engaged in wowing customers through sleights of hand and/or complicating their plates, luckily there are those treading the other path. Their ingredients are local, as is their inspiration. Local gastronomy is going luxé. It’s a happy new trend.

    Prawn vermicelli upma, anyone?

    I wasn’t prepared for an Indian accented meal at the newly refurbished Olive Beach, Bengaluru. And yet, with chef Manu Chandra cooking that is exactly what one should expect! In all his ventures, the local has taken centrestage — dabeli and Chandraji’s meat curry as bar food, locally sourced pork, veggies, seafood all dressed up quirkily... The meal at Olive, one of the best in its inventiveness and yet clarity of plates, was a leap in the same direction. My two standout dishes: bhetki with smoked yoghurt and chironji seeds, astounding in its combination of unexpected flavours, and the deceptively simple prawn vermicelli, complete with a tempering of mustard and curry leaves. It was a fantastic take on the vermicelli upma breakfast. Exactly that. Exactly not!

    Amaranth to Chyawanprash:

    Indian Accent’s Manish Mehrotra has always pegged his food to nostalgia. Karela, aloorasa, amaranth, and even seasonal lotus buds and Chyawanprash are used.

    Mewati barbecue and safar ka khana:

    But more recently, it is the menu at Apas, the poolside restaurant at the spanking new ITC Grand Bharat that stands out. The restaurant offers a “Mewati barbecue” as well as the historically-pegged “safar ka khana”, a new construct! Mewat may be known more for its crime and abysmal sex ratio than food. But with the new hotel in that region, local ingredients have been used to give a new twist. Bajra tikki, moth paneer, and fish marinated with local Mewati mustard are the happy outcomes.

    Safar ka khana, meanwhile, is a smart idea too. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, safar ka khana, literally, food taken along while travelling, has been an established genre. Breads layered with fat, dals cooked plainly with may be dried mango and tempered with just ghee and garlic, junglee maas and the do pyaaza (the first salan of India, ostensibly) are all, in fact, “travelling dishes”. All these find expression in five-star environs.

    Reviving tradition, the five-star way:

    In fact, even The Oberoi has been attempting to upgrade its Indian menus. Rivaayat has been a project that chefs Rohit Gambhir and Arun Mathur undertook into the bylanes of old Delhi and other towns.

    Cooks specialising in single dishes from Shahjahanabad, Lucknow, Amritsar and Hyderabad were called in to teach chefs at The Oberoi. I tried a couple of dishes at The Oberoi, New Delhi, and came back impressed with the likes of haleem, chowk ki tikki and talli murgi.

    The writer examines restaurant trends, food history and culinary cultures

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    1 Comment on this Story

    Aman Aman2165 days ago
    Bombay Canteen is not one of those charmless places that aspire to be something else, somewhere else.
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