Oh the perils of being late. “Let’s go for breakfast by the beach,” my friend had said. “We’ll pick you up at 10.30am.”
Being a Sunday, naturally they didn’t meet that deadline, and consequently we missed breakfast by about five minutes. That five minutes turned out to be not just the difference between muesli and scallops, but about $50 per head.
We opted to remain at the beachside suburb’s most expensive restaurant for lunch anyway - it was a good spot, scenic and a bit protected from the wind - and hang the cost.
Sealevel is in Cronulla, Sydney’s Deep South. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely spot geographically, the ocean on one side and a bay on the other, and people who live there rarely move away. In fact, many who live there love it so much they get the postcode tattooed on their limbs, right next to the tattoo of the Southern Cross.
Sealevel has an outdoor and an indoor section and we opted to sit outdoors, albeit next to a heater and buffeted from the ocean winds by plastic sheeting.
Entrees are, as one might expect, heavily skewed towards seafood, while mains include two lobster options. I chose the soup of the day (corn and capsicum) followed by scallops, an entree but to be served as a main. Others chose oysters, salt and pepper squid, and fish and chips. If the choices sound a bit run of the mill, they are - however I think this is one of those places that like to think they elevate old favourites to new highs and charge accordingly.
Having said that my soup ($13) was sweet and creamy and delicious, and I was thoroughly pleased with the unusual option. I’m so sick of soup of the day being either pumpkin or minestrone - yawn.
My scallops, just four of them (the waiter told me there’d be five), were even better. Served in their shell on a bed of saffron flavoured leeks cooked in butter with a herb and almond remoulade, they had a hint of seawatery brine, a nice firm but not chewy texture and plenty of accompanying flavour.
My friends described the squid as “nice”. More specifically, “nicely cooked, nicely seasoned, and nicely served.” They are journalists too, might I add.
The oysters however, were described as just “okay, a bit bland”. I don’t eat oysters - yeuch, snot - so I have nothing to add here.
Dessert was a serve of profiteroles, three big ones, filled with custard, doused in chocolate sauce and served with a big scoop of cream. I ignored the cream and tried to taste the choux, which was fresh, not frozen, but I don’t think it had been made that day. The custard, and I love a good custard, was sheer cardiac arrest bliss.
Service was great, with the waiter regularly coming over to check on us without hovering, switching the heater on when he saw us shivering, and dutifully rolling up, then back down, the plastic sheeting, in line with our whims.
Sealevel is, without doubt, a great addition to the charming coastal enclave and definitely worth a visit if you find yourself down there. Just, you know, watch your back.
It was one of those time-travelling moments: feeling utterly transported back three and a half years in time. I was in Bondi, shivering in my shorts and Havianas as the rain bucketed down. A friend had cancelled our dinner plans, her work day abruptly ending in a hospital waiting room. The shops at Westfield had closed, and I was left standing on the street, wondering what to do next.
Three and a half years earlier, we’d been living in Bondi. Usually, rainy nights back then ended at our little flat on Imperial Avenue, halfway between the shops and the beach, DVDs and takeaway Thai in hand. Now, our Imperial flat long given up and passed on to fresh renteurs and our temporary dwellings at least an hour’s train ride away, we had no easily-reached abode to hurry back to.
But we did have the Thai.
Our favourite Thai joint, one of Bondi’s many, was conveniently located at the end of our street on Bondi Road: but no one should be fooled by its seemingly prosaic exterior and location. Manohra Thai might appear to be another humble and cheap suburban Thai BYO, but its shopfront belies the awesomeness within. Forget the old over-sweetened, over-creamy traditional Sydney Thai stalwarts, Manohra’s dishes have a lighter, fresher and altogether tastier touch. The first thing I ever tried there, chicken with mint, was a jaw-dropping revelation: tender bits of chicken with sliced vegetables in a thin sauce that was sweet, salty, fishy, citrusy and spicy, in perfect balance.
Manohra had actually been on my initial “things to do in Sydney” wishlist for this trip to Australia, but I’d crossed it out, thinking that it was too big an ask, too far a distance to travel, for just four days in the city while staying way out in the suburbs. So when it was suggested, while shivering under the awning outside Borders, it didn’t take long to jump on the next 380 down Bondi Road.
After a quick stop at Kemeny’s to get a bottle of their Hidden Label cab sav ($12) we walked the two blocks down the hill, past the Fruitologist, past Wellington Cake Shop, past that horrifically overpriced Pilates studio that charges the rich Bondi women $70 per class. And there is Manohra Thai: still with the same flocked gold wallpaper, low lighting and blondwood chairs as were there three years ago. (Actually it was renovated around that time: a restaurant with food as good as Manohra’s will never be allowed to get shabby.)
We began, as always, with the moneybags: four crisp, straight out of the deep fryer, little parcels of sweet chicken mince inside a golden fried wonton casing. They were served with a sweet chilli sauce for dipping; this visit the combination was a little too cloyingly sweet for my tastes, but in the past the filling has been lighter and more savoury and the sauce a little less sticky. Still, the crunch factor of the fanned fried wrapper can’t ever be beat.
Mains are a tough one as we have so many favourites. There’s the Crying Tiger, perenially chalked up on the specials board, which is my dining partner’s all-time top. I remember it as a sliced bit of tender beef fillet doused in a watery, fresh, herby and fiery chilli sauce. Then there’s the prawn soup, served in a hollowed-out coconut, with whole prawns sitting in a coconut, lime and lemongrass broth, which is sweeter than you’d expect and so more-ish my mother once famously tried to spoon-feed it to everyone at the table.
My top pick was always chicken stir-fried with cashews and chili jam, also available with tofu instead of chicken, a deliciously spicy-sweet sauce with vegetables and, pleasingly, not light on the nuts.
But this visit we went with the barbeque duck and the chicken with basil, plus rice for one (enough for two):
The crisp lacquered duck, one of three duck dishes on the menu (there’s also a roast duck salad and a duck curry), was chopped Chinese-style and served on a bed of wilted greens, still raw enough to cut through the fatty ducky juices dripping from the meat.
The chicken with basil, another takeaway stalwart, was just as I’d remembered: spicy, sweet, lemongrassy and bursting with fresh flavours and crunchy vegetables. The amount of chicken appears to have reduced somewhat since our last visit, but otherwise faultless.
Desserts here are, as with most Asian restaurants, a bit ho-hum: there’s sticky rice with Thai custard which is appealing, but this time I demurred, as it’s not the black sticky rice I love.
After the meal, despite the trek up the hill to the station, the rain and spiky ocean winds didn't seem quite so bad. The warm Manohra afterglow was good enough fortification to last all the way home.
Christmas finally seems to have arrived in Delhi. Street corner vendors wear Santa hats while smoking their beedis. INA Market is full of temporary Christmas bunting stalls and, out the back, live turkeys. A handful of restaurants are finally on board with this firangi festive thing and are emailing around special menus. Tinsel dangles like overgrown weeds throughout Select Citywalk. Shimla hotels are almost totally booked out with holidaymakers keen on a white Christmas. (I will be joining them, thankfully having secured a room even though I left it really late.)
In fact, it will be my very first white Christmas. In Australia, the mercury usually hovers somewhere between 30° and 35° (except for one memorable day three years ago when it was 9° and sleeting in Melbourne), and consequently, Australians have come up with a unique Christmas feast that climactically appropriate, yet still festive: seafood barbeque, lashings of beer, cold roasted meats, salads, finished with fresh fruit, pavlova, and, increasingly, an ice cream plum pudding. Nigella Lawson's Christmas book, released last year, includes a recipe for an Australian Christmas Pud, which is essentially bits of plum pudding broken up in chocolate ice cream.
I made an ice cream pudding for an early Christmas dinner earlier this week; unfortunately my freezer chose that moment to have a teenage meltdown and refuse to function, and consequently I had to rename it Chilled Christmas Dessert Soup. It tasted fine, but I think it's far better actually frozen.
All ingredients are fantastically, easily available here. Plum cakes are at every corner grocery store; I got mine from Defence Colony Bakery and it was divinely rich and dense.
No photo, sadly, due to the molten mess.
Frozen Christmas pudding
1 1/2 litres vanilla ice cream (Mother Dairy is great)
1 small plum cake or plum pudding, cubed or crumbled
1-2 teaspoons rosewater (the Dabur brand usually used for face care is fine)
1 handful nuts (I like pistachios), chopped roughly
1 scant capful Old Monk rum
a few squares of chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup dessicated coconut
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Soften ice cream, transfer to a big glass or plastic bowl, add all ingredients, stir like a madwoman, refreeze (stirring every so often to make sure it's mixed and pudding bits don't just sink to bottom). Add more cinnamon and nutmeg if it does not taste Christmassy enough.
Once frozen, invert onto a festive-looking platter: Gladwrap used to line the bowl prior to freezing might help with the inversion. Cut into slices to serve. Or scoop with a spoon.
The rosewater is pivotal, the rum is not, just my nod to local tastes.
Optional extras/variations: mixed glace peel, raisins/sultanas soaked in rum or brandy, vanilla bean seeds, chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, Turkish Delight.
I'm not a big fan of the chickpea but I do appreciate its healthful qualities and try to eat it with some degree of regularity. An amusing doctor - called Dr Schmeully, I do not lie - I once visited in Sydney gave me a good recipe for a chickpea salad when advising me on how to reduce my cholesterol: chickpeas boiled with a couple of red chillies and the rind of one or two lemons, drained, mashed a bit, and some fresh chopped onion and parsley added. I went one step further and added a slug of olive oil, sauteed onion rather than fresh, a dash of salt. Oh, and a few chopped slices of ham.
Thankfully for my arteries, I've recently perfected the art of hommus making, a stellar way to ingest chickpeas, and am not embarrassed to say it's been a hit at every event I've taken it to.
Unfortunately I can't post pictures of my efforts as the last time I tried to make it, for a Lodhi Gardens picnic the other week, the blender jug blew up/I blew up the blender, and the hommus ended up on the kitchen walls. Not too attractive.
Apart from how it tastes, there are a few good things about this recipe. One is, it's healthy; chickpeas are ridiculously good for lowering cholersterol and preventing diabetes. Two, all the ingredients (except for the tahini which you only have to buy once every four or five times) are very easily and readily available at even the most humble and local of Indian grocery stores, meaning no unholy schlepps to Defence Colony or Le Marche or Star Bazaar at 7pm to try to gather ingredients. Consequently we come to three, which is that it's relatively cheap,and makes a massive amount, about twice as much as you might take to a picnic.
2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight*
a pinch of salt (maybe two pinches)
3-5 garlic cloves, depending on taste (I prefer more rather than less)
3/4 cup tahini**
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice***
1/2 cup of filtered water, plus around another 1/2 cup more as needed
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
A slug of good quality extra virgin olive oil
Rinse the soaked chickpeas well in a few changes of water, then put in saucepan, cover with water and add the salt. Bring to boil and simmer over a medium heat for two to three hours, until the chickpeas are soft enough to squash between your fingers. Skim any foam that rises to the top and discard.
While they're boiling, chop garlic cloves and place in blender or food processor. Add tahini, lemon juice and water, whizz.
Once the chickpeas have been drained and cooled, add them to the bowl along with the chilli powder and process again - add more water if it gets a bit heavy and sticky. Taste for salt, add salt if needed.
This bit is vital: once all mixed together, give another whirl in the blender for a minute or so: this will get some air into the mixture and make it light and fluffy.
Serve topped with a sprinkle of chilli powder, a glug of olive oil and perhaps a bit of chopped parsley.
Try oven-roasting the garlic cloves for a bit of a caramelised flavour.
Substitute sweet or smoked paprika, if you have any, for the chilli powder.
Add ham, which improves almost everything.
* to make things a bit quicker and easier you could substitute with two tins of chickpeas; just drain, rinse and boil for about 10-15 minutes to get rid of any residue.
**tahini is not terribly hard to find: it's always available at Star Bazaar at Kailash Colony market; undoubtedly it's available all throughout Khan Market, DefCol Market, Le Marche. I've also been surprised to see it in smaller, less expat-oriented grocery shops around the place. It's about 350rs for a big jar.
***squeezing those itsy little Indian lemons is the hardest part of the recipe; sometimes I cheat and bulk it out with a few shakes of bottled lemon juice.
ITC Maurya, Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Margh, New Delhi
(011) 2611 2233
Open for dinner only 7pm - 11.45pm daily
In the nakedly brash, aspirational, eternally grasping and materialistic city that is New Delhi, one way to get people to take notice is to draw attention to your humility. I initially thought that to be the MO behind the naming of one of the ITC Maurya/Sheraton* hotel's restaurants. However it turns out that My Humble House is actually the India installment of a pan-Asian chain that has its roots in Singapore.
The flagship Singapore MHH, in fact, appears to be quite legendary, having won awards such as the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence Best Asian Restaurant for 2009. There are also restaurants in Beijing and Tokyo.
The cuisine is neo-Chinese, with the added gimmick bonus of poetic names. Dishes like chicken stirfry are elevated to haute status with names like Dewdrops on a Monkey's Tongue, or duck in black bean sauce called Pearls of Delight Sent From Heaven.
I am, of course, making these names up, although the actual dish names are not far off. Despite at least five requests, the hotel's PR has failed to reply to my request for a media pack and a copy of the menu so consequently I have to rely on my rather shaky memories of the night I dined there last month, hazy thanks to good company, good cheer, copious wine.
- Decor is beautifully minimalist, Japanese-inspired, neutral polished concrete floors, stark walls, good lighting. A great canvas for designer-clad diners.
- Expensive: even with a gift voucher it came to about 5,500rs per couple.
- Beautifully presented food, beautifully prepared. We had pork, chicken, duck of various compositions. All were delicious without being particularly memorable.
Conclusion: I would go to My Humble House again - particularly if someone else was paying - and would most likely take people who were difficult to talk to: extended family, business consorts, people I didn't know. Those menu descriptions are a great icebreaker, guaranteed to fill up at least three units of time. Handy for awkward silences.
*I believe the hotel's official name is the ITC Maurya; yet everyone knows it as the Sheraton.
For a foodie, I have a conspicuously long list of foods I don't like to eat. Eggs in any form, cabbage, beetroot, tripe or any other kind of offal, passionfruit, or fish. Only in the last five years have I deigned to eat shellfish and while I now quite enjoy crab and scallops, I generally stay away from fleshy fish. So for a fish dish to leapfrog to the top of my 2009 culinary list, it must have been pretty extraordinary indeed.
Indian Accent serves a fish moily, a Keralan, coconut milk-based recipe, which is tweaked to make it fresh and modern, in line with the restaurant's particular brand of contemporary Indian cuisine. Here, the fish - in this case, red snapper - is coated in a rice flour coating, shallow fried, then served with the spiced coconutty sauce poured around it (moily is usually a wet curry). It is crispy and light on the outside, soft to the point of fluffy inside. It is simple yet perfect; modern yet true to its origins, balanced and original. For this fish-aversionista, a true revelation.
I first tried the moily a couple of weeks ago as part of Indian Accent's chef's tasting menu. The restaurant, which is part of the boutique Manor Hotel in a swish, residential part of south-west Delhi, is a sleek, quiet dining room with soothing, neutral decor studded with Indian hints - 'accents', if you like. There's a column of diyas one one wall and some framed black and white photos on another.
The tasting menu is 1900 rupees per person (1800 for vegetarian), with the option of five half glasses of matched wine for an additional 1000rs. It's a great deal, considering the quality of food.
Chef Manish Mehrotra spent months finalising the menu and the manager described the tasting menu as "not necessarily our best dishes, but the ones that work best to showcase what we're all about."
Highlights? For starters there's a modern take on paani puri: two little puchkas (puris) filled with a spoonful of spiced couscous accompanied by shot glasses of flavoured water (mint and coriander; pomegranate and cinnamon); pour in the water, stuff the whole thing in your mouth and let it explode.
Then there's a soft mincemeat kebab, a galawat, stuffed with foie gras and served with a strawberry and chilli chutney, that nails the whole east-west thing superbly.
The red snapper moily is one of four main choices, alongside another winner: dosa with masala morels and water chestnuts. The water chestnuts are the perfect foil to the richness of the morels and the buttery dosa that's wrapped around the mixture like a cone.
I also got to try a single, delectable, perfect scallop, topped with a dab of prawn balchao (a spicy Goan prawn paste) and a dusting of kokum powder. I have traditionally been dubious about whether delicate scallops can handle any sort of spice or heat; this dish proves they can.
Indian Accent doesn't slouch when it comes to desserts either. For the tasting menu there's the choice of crumble using apples from the Himalayan Kinnaur region, along with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a shot glass of custard, or a toffee coconut and jaggery brulee. Then there's the Old Monk rum ball. Old Monk is the rum of choice for Indian college students so it's a kind of cute in-joke that most foreign diners generally won't get. (Or, considering Old Monk retails for about 160rs for a litre bottle, it's a cute way to save money on raw materials. But I prefer to think of it as a cute in-joke.) The rum ball is doused in liquour before being set alight; it's less a rum ball and more a round scoop of dense, rich pudding.
Individually, each course was a delight, and as a whole it was sophisticated, well-prepared and presented and, thankfully, wholly lacking in pretension.
But it gets better. On Sundays, Indian Accent serves lunch, as opposed to the ever-popular brunch spreads that infect Delhi hotels and restaurants. Rather than a groaning buffet table full of global choices and a cavernous dining hall full of noisy families, Indian Accent does a plated, three- or five-course sit down lunch, but with free-flowing Möet & Chandon, from 1500 rupees.
So for my birthday lunch, to Indian Accent it was. Like mosquitos to bare skin, we were all over the Möet before they had a chance to plug in the coils.
(We worked out we drank at least a bottle each. Each bottle is priced at 5000rs on the menu. How do they make any kind of profit on this offer?!)
The menu for the set lunch is a limited version of the a la carte menu, but there are plenty of choices and thankfully, different options to the chef's tasting menu (but the moily still makes an appearance). For entree one option was thanda badam shorba with raita emulsion and badam papad. My rusty Hindu was only of limited help here: I deduced it was cold (thanda) almond (badam) something - sherbert perhaps? - with a bit of cucumber-scented foam and an almond-studded pappadum. But what is it? Turns out, it's a cold soup, essentially spiced cold almond milk, which is poured over the raita foam. It's quite refreshingly delicious, although a bit insubstantial. Perhaps it might work better as an amuse bouche?
Main was a slab of pan fried pork belly with vindaloo masala and red rice. It arrived, a quivering mound of fatty meat, perched atop that misnomer that is South Indian red rice - it looked pretty white to me. It was tasty but I could only manage a few bites before the combination of swollen carbs, rich sauce and über-fatty meat did me in.
Dessert, again was a winner. One of my friends actually squealed with delight when her dessert slate slab - bearing a ramekin of apple crumble, a Chinese soup spoon of vanilla ice cream and shot glass of custard - was laid in front of her. I wanted something different, something I'd not tried at the tasting dinner, got flustered and confused and pointed at my default option, the trio of ice creams. Luckily, they were divine: coconut ice cream that was sweet and rich, almost like coconut marzipan, spiced chocolate, redolent with cinnamon, and vanilla, which was anything but.
Indian Accent for the moment is a glorious secret, but I suspect it won't stay that way for long. Especially when people come to know about that moily.
(All images courtesy of Indian Accent's website and used without permission. I'm happy to take them down if you ask, but, y'know, it's publicity!)
Apparently, India has around 2,500 different kinds of eggplants. Or brinjals, or aubergines, or whatever you choose to call them. I used to be impressed by the three or four different kinds on offer at my local sabzi-wallah cart before I read that. Now, not so much. Where are the other 2,496?
Possibly because of the surfeit of eggplant, I eat a lot of it; in stirfries, pastas and salads, but oddly, not in Indian curries - for no real reason other than sheer laziness. All that measuring, chopping and grinding is just too taxing when one doesn't have staff to do it.
But recently, I found a good reason to make the effort. In Rajasthan for the Pushkar camel fair a few weeks ago, I stayed at what appears to be a highly underrated hotel in Ajmer, about half an hour's drive from Pushkar. The building housing the Haveli Heritage Inn was built around 140 years ago, and is now home to two brothers, their wives and assorted help. The wives cooked us the most mouth-wateringly magnificent food - mint and potato parathas for breakfast, hot out of the pan and dripping in ghee; spicy Rajasthani-style chicken curry, creamy paneer with peas. And then brinjal bharta, a smoky mashed eggplant dish, which was universally voted crowd favourite amongst my group - including the meat eaters.
The secret, said the beaming wife/cook, when called out to receive plaudits, was to scorch the eggplants over a gas flame to give them their unique smoky flavour.
My efforts - guided in part by this recipe - didn't quite match her benchmark, but still turned out pretty tasty indeed, albeit without the Haveli Heritage touch of years of practice and - I presume - lashings of ghee.
Turns out, scorching eggplants over a gas flame is a surefire way to also scorch one's own hands, particularly when done with two metal forks in place of tongs. It is also interminably laborious, with each eggplant taking about 15 minutes of patient turning. Don't give up, however, and stick the eggplant in the microwave like a number of sacrilegious receipes on the interweb suggest, as this step really does bring out the smokiness that is the essence of this dish.
Baingan Bharta, or Punjabi-style smoked, mashed eggplant
2-3 big eggplants
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 onions, chopped finely
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1" piece ginger, grated
2 green chillies
2 tomatoes, chopped finely
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp garam masala
coriander, for garnish
Rub oil over the eggplants, theb roast them over a low gas flame, keep turning until the skin puckers and darkens and the flesh is soft. Alternatively, the eggplants can be roasted or barbequed. Set eggplants aside to cool.
Heat oil in a pan. When hot, add cumin seeds and stir until they stop crackling. Add onions, fry till translucent. Add garlic and ginger, then a minute or two later, add the tomatoes and the ground coriander, cumin and garam masala. Stir well, cook for five minutes.
When eggplants are cool enough to handle, slice in two and scoop out flesh into cooking pan. (I also added a bit of skin to add more smokiness). You'll undoubtedly find that the insides of the eggplant are still white, add them to the pan as well. Mash roughly with a fork, stir into the tomato-onion mixture over heat for another few minutes, or until all of the eggplant is properly cooked.
Serve, garnished with coriander, with chapatis, naan or parathas. Or sliced white bread if, like me, Indian breads are beyond your abilities.
This blog contains a combination of my own photographs and images taken from restaurants' own websites. I am happy to take any images down should you not be happy with me using them without permission. But remember that it's all publicity.