An Emoji Evening at Gaggan

Gaggan Menu

The Emoji Menu at Gaggan

I used to watch Masterchef on TV and turn up my nose in disdain when looking at the food that was prepared. Tiny bite sized portions, surrounded by edible flowers and “negative space”.  What the hell is negative space? It’s an empty plate! I wouldn’t pay for that! When I go out for a meal I want a decent sized helping of food. I’m still growing!

But this all changed after I visited a restaurant in Ubud called Locavore and had an eight course degustation menu. The food and the experience blew my mind, and I actually wasn’t hungry afterwards. Eight courses ended up being over twenty once you added in the amuse bouche’s and various other tantalising morsels and after a two hour lunch I left the restaurant stuffed and with a very satisfied smile on my face. No more would I scoff at Master Chef! I had seen the light. In fact, I learned to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into conceptualising and then creating each dish. I loved the way too that dishes would look like one thing but taste of something completely different. It really is an art.

One day while watching Netflix, The Boss and I chanced upon a series called Chef’s Table. One of the episodes was about an Indian Chef, Gaggan Anand, who despite an underprivileged background became a world class Chef and created the eponymous restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok, now ranked number 7 amongst the Top 50 restaurants of the world ( 2017 ). His story was fascinating and inspirational.

Now, The Boss and I never go out to eat Indian food. We can eat it at home, cooking being one of The Boss’s innumerable talents. Most Indian restaurants turn out the same average homogenised dishes which bear very little relation to what one would get in an Indian home. Mainly slight variations on a few North Indian dishes and completely ignoring the incredible diversity that makes up real Indian cuisine.

However the documentary about Gaggan piqued our interest and we thought that maybe, one day, when we were in Bangkok and tired of eating Thai food, we might give his restaurant a try. But it wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

Then, in a masterstroke of marketing genius Gaggan announced he is closing the restaurant to pursue other ventures.

Boom! I went online and booked a table.

The earliest booking I could get was three months later but as time does, those three months passed surprisingly quickly. As the day neared, the excitement and anticipation grew although we sometimes questioned the extravagance of flying to another country just to have a meal. But we hadn’t been to Bangkok for a while and we saw it as a good excuse to take a break from Hong Kong for a few days.

On the day itself we were ready early, having read in online reviews that if you don’t arrive on time your reservation is cancelled. We didn’t know if this was true or not but we weren’t willing to take a chance especially with Bangkok’s notorious traffic. We opted for the BTS SkyTrain as the safest way to get there and then walked the 1km from the station to the restaurant arriving 15mins before our scheduled seating time. Gaggan is located in a converted and renovated old wooden house to the rear of an apartment building and we walked down the driveway from the main road to be greeted at the door by smiling staff who after checking our name led us into the crisp white interior. Surprisingly we weren’t the first to arrive, there were already other diners seated and waiting, and we were taken past them and up the stairs to the first floor all the while being greeted and welcomed by other staff members as we passed.

Once seated a waiter came over and introduced himself. He happened to be from Bombay so The Boss and he established which part of the big city each other was from and where they grew up. Formalities over, the conversation soon moved on to the single sheet of tracing paper that lay on the table in front of us.

“That Sir, Madam, is your menu”

The paper was blank apart from a single column of emojis running from the top to the bottom of the page.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes Sir, it’s an emoji menu. You have to guess what each dish is using the emojis”

The Boss and I looked at each other and laughed. This looked like it was going to be a fun evening.

“All the food is finger food. You will have to use your hands for all, bar a couple of courses for which we will supply you with cutlery. But don’t get used to it!”

We both examined the menu more closely. Some of the emojis gave an obvious hint as to what the course contained, a prawn, an aubergine for example, but others were confusing. Fire, a cup of tea, a martini glass, a fire cracker.

While we were puzzling over the menu, another young man in a suit approached our table.

“Good evening I am your sommelier for the evening. Here is the wine list. Please take a look and I will be happy to answer any questions or make any recommendations”

The wine list was huge and I could have spent all evening finding something to drink so I asked for something white by the glass that would go with everything, hoping he wouldn’t bring me a glass of Lassi.

“I will be right back” he said, returning a few minutes later with a bottle of German white which he proceeded to open in front of me, all the while explaining it’s antecedents.  It sounded very impressive and I arranged my face into what I hoped was a suitably knowing expression, trying to give the impression that I understood what he was talking about. I nodded here and there at what I thought were suitable intervals and he poured some into a glass, pausing to allow me to taste it. I took a sip and thought to myself “does anyone ever tell the sommelier that the wine he chose is terrible? What happens if I don’t like it? He just opened a fresh bottle in front of me. Will I still have to pay for it?”

Instead I went for the easy answer, “excellent choice! delicious, Thank you.”

The Boss had other thoughts on her mind. “Are you French?” she asked.

“Yes I am.”

“But you don’t have a French accent.”

“I can do one if you prefer” he replied with a grin.

The Boss wasn’t about to let him off that easily. “Why not?”

“I was brought up in Scotland, lived in Denmark and spent a year touring around India on an Enfield motorbike.”

“Oh really! That’s interesting. What was your favourite part of India?”

“Galouti kebabs in Lucknow.”

We all laughed.

“That wasn’t the answer I expected” admitted The Boss.

“Well, it was my favourite part of India. I consider Awadhi Cuisine to be the most developed and complex cuisine in the country. I love it” and with that he was off to the next table with the rest of the bottle.

The first course promptly arrived, a tiny but beautiful bite sized morsel. The waiter explained what it was and how it matched the first of 25 emojis on the menu.

I don’t want to give anything away and ruin the experience for any readers who decide to visit the restaurant so I wont describe the food in detail. I also don’t want to sound like a pompous food critic and talk about complexity of flavours and textures etc but suffice it to say each dish was a piece of art and an incredible explosion of flavours in the mouth.

Every dish was completely different and we were both amazed as to how Gaggan had thought of them. He has to be some kind of genius. To come up with one of the dishes is clever enough but to think of 25 courses is beyond comprehension.

I will be the first to admit that The Boss and I had an unfair advantage over many of the other diners having lived for a considerable amount of time in India and being able to recognise certain flavours in a dish that bore little or no resemblance to the traditional original dish, but even so, the flavours and combinations were such that anyone would be amazed by the meal.

As each dish arrived we tried to guess what it was from the corresponding emoji on the menu. Sometimes the waiter would tell us, sometimes he would give a hint, and sometimes we would have to guess while he walked away with a grin on his face.

Each dish seemed to build on the anticipation of the next, as they were all so different and incredible it was hard to imagine how he could better it.

The dishes were tiny though, often consumable in one mouthful. The Boss wondered if she would need to go for another meal afterwards as she was convinced she would still be hungry.

After one particularly tasty mutton dish, the Thai waiter asked us how it was. “Delicious” came our unanimous reply.

He grinned and said “If it was bigger it would be perfect.”

We agreed but by the time we had finished the tenth course The Boss admitted she was getting full.

Adding to the enjoyment of the evening was the interaction with the staff. Their service was exceptional and the repartee between them and the guests very amusing. They obviously enjoy their jobs.

After a poultry dish one of the waiters asked us “Did you know what that bird was? No? It was penguin.”

Some of the dishes were prepared at the table by one of the Chefs and this added to the whole theatre like experience.

It wasn’t just us that were enjoying it. The oohs and ahh from the other tables and the facial expressions on our fellow diners indicated that everyone was having a similar experience.

The meal was extra special for me as it was like a journey around India, each dish reminding me of something I had eaten, somewhere I had been, sometimes the flavours very familiar, but sometimes hard to identify because the visual aspect of the dish in front of me didn’t match the picture created in my head by the flavour.

It was a wonderful experience, not just a meal but a form of theatre and if you are planning a trip to Bangkok in the future I highly recommend that you make a booking as soon as possible before Gaggan closes down. You wont regret it!

I am looking forward to his new venture in Japan.

Reservations for Gaggan can be made online at

www.eatatgaggan.com

or by phone:

Ph. (662) 652 1700

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Paradise found at the Gallery Cafe, Colombo!

Gallery Cafe EntranceI have a very nosy man to thank for another great meal in Colombo
It all started in Bangalore airport in the worst queue I have ever seen. Two and a half hours to clear immigration as the officials stabbed at their keyboards with a single finger of each hand and asked the usual asinine questions of each passenger. “Why are you leaving? Who are you meeting” and the best of all to The Boss; “Why couldn’t you find an Indian man to marry?”
I am pretty anti-social and don’t often like to talk to strangers as I find myself infinitely more interesting. But when you are standing next to someone for 2 hours you are bound to eventually strike up a conversation. After the usual inanities about how long the queue was, the Indian Inquisition started: Where are you from? Where do you live? Where do you work? How long have you been married? and so on and so on. I was as vague as I could be, trying to cultivate an air of mystery. In the end he gave up the interrogation and proceeded to answer all the questions I had no interest in asking him. After listing all the flights he was taking, all the cities in the US he was visiting and how many companies he had started, he finally gave me some information that was actually useful.
“When you are in Colombo make sure you go to Geoffrey Bawa’s old office. It has been converted into a café and is really nice.”
Geoffrey Bawa is Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and is considered the founder of the style known as ‘Tropical modernism’. There are wonderful examples of his work throughout Sri Lanka and I knew enough about him for the mention of his name to pique my interest. That combined with the word café was enough to set a plan in motion.
Shortly after arrival in Colombo we started googling and discovered that the place is called The Gallery Café and run by Paradise Road. A quick check on Trip Advisor threw up some mixed reviews but enough positive ones for us to decide to visit for lunch. The owner of the hotel we were staying in also confirmed that it is worth the visit.
Lunchtime duly arrived and we pulled up outside in our tuk-tuk.
Let me tell you, Gallery Café is a delight. From the minute you walk in it is a visual feast, architecturally and artistically, hinting at the wonderful culinary experience to come. You enter past a couple of gnarled old Plumeria trees, and down a small passageway which leads into a courtyard lined with art. Beautiful columns frame a fish pond filled with black fish and, in an artistic touch, a solitary white fish.

Gallery Cafe Colombo, Fish Pond

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Artwork

Gallery Cafe Courtyard

This then leads to another open plan seating area and courtyard, again filled with art and sculptures, the tropical heat kept at bay by the clever building design and the numerous fans wafting cool air.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo
The ever smiling and attentive staff promptly seated us and helped make a few recommendations.
The Boss ordered the house specialty Black Pork Curry and I had the Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken with spinach and potato mash.

Black Pork Curry

Black Pork Curry

Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken

Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken

Both were fantastic.
One main course never enough to satisfy Tommy, I then ordered the Pan Fried Modha Fish with lemon and caper butter on crushed potatoes. This too was as good as the others.

Pan-fried Modha Fish

Pan-fried Modha Fish

What would a meal be without dessert so we finished up with the Via Paradise; layers of meringue with coffee liqueur soaked cake, tiramisu cream, chocolate ganache topped with black cherries.

Via Paradise

Via Paradise

Heavenly!
For me having a good meal is not just about the taste ( although taste and quantity is pretty high on my list) but also about the ambience. Gallery Café ticks all the boxes and is a place where you could spend the whole day whiling away the hours with great food and drinks.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Courtyard

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Courtyard
On the way out we were admiring once again the shapes of the old Plumeria trees at the entrance and got talking to a man we later learned to be the owner of the Café, Shanth Fernando. He explained how the branches of the trees were weighted with stones so that they grew low and gave the trees their unique shapes.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Plumeria Trees
He also entertained us with some of the back stories to a couple of the not so positive Trip Advisor reviews.
My advice: Visit for yourself. Some of the best food I have eaten in a long time, great service, and in a wonderful atmosphere.
In fact we returned the next day just for dessert.
The Passionfruit Pavlova was superb.

Passionfruit Pavlova

Passionfruit Pavlova

Freshly Consecrated at The Ministry of Crab

Keep Calm and Crab on

One of my best culinary adventures in Sri Lanka was sparked by a good friend’s prior visit to Colombo.
A nautical man, often said to be the inspiration for The Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow, he was using Colombo as his base for plundering the high seas.
After a hard day pillaging the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean he would retire to his favorite restaurant to stuff himself to the gills with crustaceans.
Knowing he is a sailor I was initially reluctant to look at photos of his crabs. However once he explained that he was in a restaurant that specialized in them and plied me with bite by bite what’s-app messages and photos, I was inspired to pay the place a visit.

Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo

Ministry of Crab
Located in the renovated 400 year old Dutch Hospital precinct in Colombo, Ministry of Crab is owned by famous Sri Lankan cricketers Mahele Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Japanese born Sri Lankan Chef Dharshan Munidasa. Its aim is to celebrate the best of Sri Lankan seafood particularly it’s famous crabs and that it certainly does.

Ministy of Crab Ministers
All you regular readers know that Tommy doesn’t need any excuse for a feed, but mention Crabs to The Boss and her eyes light up and saliva starts dripping in copious quantities from the corners of her mouth. So it will come as no surprise that soon after we landed in Colombo we were making arrangements for a meal at The Ministry. Unfortunately they are not open for lunch during the week and my pirate friend had warned me that table reservations are necessary as he had been made to sit at the bar one night after turning up unannounced (not comfortable when you have a wooden leg).
Reservations duly made we were outside their door minutes before opening, me trying my best to hold the Boss back while avoiding slipping over in the pools of saliva forming at her feet.

Ministry of Crab Kitchen
The place is impressive and really celebrates the glory of the crab. The crab theme is carried through the menus, the cutlery and décor.

Chef Dharshan

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We sat down and, bowing to the Boss’ superior crab wisdom I let her take charge and she ordered a large Pepper Crab. I live in mortal fear of finishing a meal hungry so I also ordered the Chicken Curry Rice as well.

Chicken Curry Rice
Crabs are not usually my thing as I have always found the effort/reward ratio not in their favor. When you have a tape worm as long as mine you need to find ways of shoveling the maximum amount of food in your mouth in the minimum time and spending hours picking out little morsels of flesh from a spindly leg did not appeal. However I have to confess that after a visit to The Ministry I have been converted. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see! Hallelujah! I have been baptized by Ministers Mahele, Kumar and Dharshan! These crabs were humungous and full of tasty flesh.
Despite being in the hallowed hall of the Ministry, one of the 7 deadly sins, greed, took hold and we ordered another large crab, this time Chili Garlic. This too was as delicious as the first!

Chilli Garlic Crab
Glancing around to see if we were the only ones feasting voraciously we saw a Chinese man at the next table, obviously a crab connoisseur. He had ordered a “Crabzilla” at over 2 kgs, the largest size available and was happily devouring it by himself.
2 crabs and various chicken accompaniments later we sat back, The Boss with a satisfied grin on her face and Tommy curled up happily in his lair. The best crab meal both of us have ever eaten.

Curry Crab
24 hours later we were back again for another crab sermon, and funnily enough so was Chinese Crabzilla man!

The Universe smiles kindly upon me once more

I am often amazed by how the Universe looks after me.
Yesterday my car broke down. Not normally a reason for celebration you might say, however it broke down just as I handed the keys over to the Valet parking attendant outside one of my favourite restaurants in Bandra. The car wouldn’t start and anyone who has been in Bandra at lunch time will know that the narrow lanes are so jammed with traffic that it was impossible to push start the vehicle. So always one to try and make the best of a situation, I abandoned the car, asked the Valet to keep a watchful eye over it and went inside for lunch. No sense in being hungry at a time like this.
After carefully placing my order I started making a few calls. My citrus salad and BBQ chicken wings appeared a short while later so I put down the phone and concentrated on the more important matter of satisfying my taste-buds. The wings were beautiful, very tender with a sweet but spicy marinade. Hunger temporarily sated I resumed the calls and by the time the main course of succulent Roast Chicken with grilled vegetables arrived, I had located a very helpful man at the local Mahindra dealer. With the manner of your friendly neighbourhood doctor he asked a number of probing questions (about the car of course) and finally diagnosed that there wasn’t enough charge left in the (now 4 years old) battery to start the car and it would need replacing. By now I was really enjoying the chicken, beautifully cooked as it was, meat just falling off the bone, and he put me in touch with a local battery dealer.
I contemplated ordering another plate of roast chicken but decided instead to direct my attention towards the dessert section. I ordered a lovely molten flour-less chocolate cake with orange sorbet, the acidity of the orange balancing out the sweetness of the chocolate perfectly. The only disappointment was that the Boss insisted on sharing it.
Dessert satisfactorily devoured and a couple of cups of a very pleasant white tea from Darjeeling later, an elderly man turned up on a scooter, (outside the restaurant I hasten to clarify), with a new battery which he duly fitted. I paid the bill, thanked the staff for their excellent service, retrieved my keys from the parking valet, and headed on my way, stomach full and Tommy enjoying a pleasant post-prandial slumber.

Room Service confusion

So I am working from my hotel room, and too busy to go out and get some lunch. I decide to order room service and press the number for in-room dining.
“I would like to order some lunch, please”
“What would you like Sir?”
“I would like the Thai Red Curry Chicken please”
“Certainly Sir. It will be there in 30 minutes.”
5 mins later my phone rings.
“Sir, the Thai Red Curry Chicken you ordered”
“Yes”
“Do you want Chicken or Beef?”