MASALA MAGIC

Susan Kuro­sawa grills her own din­ner at Ban­ga­lore’s hottest new restau­rant

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

THE south­ern In­dian city of Ban­ga­lore is the coun­try’s in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy hub, a sub­con­ti­nen­tal Sil­i­con Val­ley that’s grow­ing at record speed. Life is fast and fash­ion­able here, and the A-list push takes no pris­on­ers. New clubs, bars and restau­rants have just one chance to snare the at­ten­tion of so­ci­ety snobs; busi­nesses that get it wrong can ex­pect lit­tle mercy.

Even the man­age­ment of the deeply es­tab­lished Taj West End — the city’s best­loved ho­tel since the early 1980s — wor­ries about such fick­le­ness when it opens a restau­rant. I am at the ho­tel’s Masala Klub on its launch night or, at least, the first din­ner sit­ting for pay­ing guests.

Lo­cal celebri­ties and lead­ing busi­ness wal­lahs have been in for the past few evenings as in­vi­tees of the ho­tel, test­ing the wa­ters, as it were, and try­ing their hand at Masala Klub’s sig­na­ture stone grill con­cept.

Ap­par­ently it has been a suc­cess and gen­eral man­ager P. K. Mo­hanku­mar is de- lighted to see that some of the ear­lier guests have re­turned. He’s hov­er­ing near the bushes, wait­ing like an ex­pec­tant fa­ther. The rea­son for such an­tic­i­pa­tion, I dis­cover, is whether pros­per­ous In­dian mid­dle-class din­ers, used to ret­inues of do­mes­tic ser­vants, will cook their own meals.

It seems they will. Suit jack­ets are re­moved and flow­ing sari scarfs in gem-bright colours are swirled out of the way. One sec­tion of Masala Klub has ta­bles fit­ted with slabs of Matterhorn stone from Swiz­er­land that have been mar­i­nated in herbs and saf­fron for 15 days. Trol­leys bear­ing the dishes from the stone grill set menus are wheeled ta­ble­side and din­ers pop the food on to this electrically heated plate and cook as they go. This re­quires de­tailed in­struc­tion from rov­ing chefs but the male din­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, seem to rise to this bar­be­cue chal­lenge, be­com­ing rather com­pet­i­tive as they grill, say, suc­cu­lent lamb ke­babs or prawns basted in pomegranate seeds.

There are three stone grill menus — veg­e­tar­ian, seafood, and red meat and poul­try — and each starts with a light soup such as tomato and pep­per broth with a hint of lemon­grass and fin­ishes with hot milk dumplings and tangy-sweet kulfi ice cream. The seafood menu, in par­tic­u­lar, is ter­rific, with stand-out dishes in­clud­ing cur­ried crab ke­babs and chunks of lob­ster in pick­led spices.

Myr­iad rel­ishes are of­fered on the side to ac­com­pany the self-grill cour­ses and there’s a fab­u­lous palate-fresh­ener of ta­marind and date chut­ney sor­bet. From a phulka (In­dian flat bread) trol­ley, cha­p­at­tis are cooked to or­der; light in tex­ture and pip­ing hot, they are ideal for mop­ping up fra­grant sauces.

For those who don’t like the DIY approach, there’s a Masala Stu­dio sec­tion with an open kitchen-bar where din­ers can chat with the chef, learn about the food be­ing pre­pared and even di­rect their de­sired lev­els of spices and sea­son­ings. The phi­los­o­phy is in favour of light dishes, most pre­pared with ex­tra-vir­gin oil and low-fat al­ter­na­tives to the but­ter, cream and cashew-based gravies of tra­di­tional In­dian cui­sine.

Tan­doori chicken and but­ter masala are not on the menu,’’ says cor­po­rate chef He­mant Oberoi, who has been with Taj Ho­tels for a record 34 years.

Oberoi and his team have trav­elled across In­dia look­ing for re­gional home-style recipes that can be mod­ernised. Among the adapted sig­na­ture dishes are fish fil­lets driz­zled with freshly ground pep­per­corns, placed in en­velopes of parch­ment-like pa­per and char­grilled with­out oil; and chicken flavoured with pick­led onions and burnt gar­lic.

There are also tast­ing menus served in more con­ven­tional restau­rant style. But this food, too, is light and kilo­joule-con­scious, from wheels of cot­tage cheese wrapped with aniseed and pounded red chillis and quick­glazed in a tan­door oven to a mys­te­ri­ous­sound­ing ke­bab cre­ated for leisure-lov­ing nobles who pre­fer not to chew’’.

Masala Klub looks out to a sec­tion of Taj West End’s flour­ish­ing trop­i­cal gar­dens, with a 120-year-old ta­marind tree as cen­tre­piece, and fea­tures smart con­tem­po­rary decor in soft greys and caramels; the round chairs with curved backs are al­most nau­ti­cal-deco in feel. Ceil­ing fans swish the sul­try air and open arches are hung with glass lanterns in daz­zling red, cran­berry and pur­ple.

It’s a won­der­ful set­ting in which to en­joy mod In­dian cui­sine, even if the vir­tu­ous ef­fects of such healthy fare can be soon un­done by a suc­ces­sion of wickedly good ta­marind cream cock­tails. Susan Kuro­sawa vis­ited Ban­ga­lore as a guest of Aber­crom­bie & Kent.

Check­list

The stone grill, stu­dio and tast­ing menus at Masala Klub start from 2000 ru­pees ($48) a per­son for a set 11 cour­ses. Sim­i­lar con­cept restau­rants are at Taj prop­er­ties in Delhi (Masala Art) and Mumbai (Masala Kraft and Masala Bay). www.tajho­tels.com www.aber­crom­biekent.com.au

Cha­p­atti time: Flat bread cooked to or­der

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