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Arigato New York!

A whirlwind two week trip in NYC ends this evening. This time, I immersed myself in experiencing localized Japanese cuisine, especially since a unanimous chorus chimed that NY does Japanese food best. The jury’s still out where I am concerned, but I have to say that as a witness, I feel led down a fantastic culinary experiment.

I consider it a bit of irony. The two cultures have at different times in history, been at crosshairs with one another, from Pearl Harbor, to Hiroshima – Nagasaki disasters, to the stealth economic aggression displayed by corporate Japan in the 80s in displacing the label Made in USA (long before Made in China invaded American homes). To see gourmet symbiosis of this kind is like a happy ending… or even an excellent compromise.

So keeping aside the cliches of the uber cool Nobus, Morimotos, Megus etc (they don’t stand discounted, merely exceptioned) my recommendations in this article are two NY establishments that need no introduction to the local aficionados but a definite must-do for all visitors.

Sen-sei Gari set up his chopping board and omakase counter on 78th street between 1st Ave & York Ave about 13 years ago. That was when a good number of proud Japanese chefs were plotting a revolution to overthrow the abysmal assuage called California rolls that were being passed off as Japanese food. America needed to learn that Japanese cuisine was a seduction of senses that could not be defiled by a fast food interpretation!

About the meal itself at Sushi of Gari – a modest, cramped, brightly lit decor must be overlooked, or even intentional, so as to not upstage the food itself. The norm is to bring a curious appetite and to indulge in an omakase (chef’s selection incorporating a melange of his imagination and the day’s catch). You can ask for a combination of sashimi and sushi, but we preferred to rest on just the latter and were not disappointed by the trail of 12 individual nigiris being served to us, with toppings that I can swear, are unique to Gari. The palate-stealers are then ordered as repeats – washing this meal down is impossible as the grains of rice expand in one’s belly. All you can do is remind yourself – this is worth it!

Lasting impressions – the coal seared cod nigiri (smoky, tender, sweet rawness), the yellow tail jalapeno nigiri (perfect cut from the fin ensures a thread like texture, the spice of the pepper is matched with an undertone of wasabi) and the diced tuna dressed in sesame seeds and pine nuts, cocooned on a shell of fried seaweed balanced on a nigiri of rice (no sense is left unfulfilled).

A word about the service – outstanding, warm, patient and prompt! You will feel spoilt by the attention.

Tables are impossible to come by at short notice, so book in advance. Chances are, you’ll see me standing in line!

The other taste temptress of samurai proportions is Sushi Seki, named after its founder and head chef. Interestingly, Seki San worked under Gari San, before he branched off to set up his outpost a few blocks down the road (on 1st Ave, between 62nd & 63rd St.).

So this was my second visit to the restaurant, having been completely won over by an omakase at the chef’s counter I indulged in a year ago (served then by Jackie San). I have to say that the meal was a bit inconsistent this time, though the quality of ingredients called out fresh uniformly. I suspect the slide was because we were seated at a table this time, so the attentiveness of the chefs at work does suffer. Also, we had a patronizing waiter who did his unwitting best to spoil the experience. The food was the redemption.

About the meal itself – We did the sushi & sashimi combo omakase here. The sashimi platter was perfectly adorned as it appeared before us. However, the single slice portions per person left us rather under satiated. My call – the fatty tuna – cut to perfection. The sushi platter made its appearance. The yellow tail nigiri was a stand-out dish by itself. And the piece-de-resistance was the handroll that made its appearance at the end.

Now I have already established how I look down on the whole California roll/ hand roll culture. If it must be sushi, then only nigiri and maki will do. However, I have to make a big exception for the Seki handroll. The seaweed wrap deserves a paragraph by itself. An uncut sheet, beaten thin to a nano feel between one’s fingers, a preserved crispness that allows for perfect perforation with each bite. And a taste of the ocean that makes you feel like a a worshipped Moby Dick. The filling was of a mother-load of melange of crabmeat, scallop chunks and raddish. The wonderment was how that sheet of seaweed managed to whole this weight together.

This is what I will go back to Seki for. And only if I get a seat at the chef’s counter.

MA

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And it’s called WOMEN. 

Just got out of a near empty show of Eat, Pray, Love (of course, the movie’s in its fifth week in the US, hence the lean attendance). Felt nice to have an almost private show. 

I will share my reaction to the film, but first, there’s a revolution in the making in Hollywood and if its role as a global trendsetter is to be taken seriously, then we have a paradigm shift taking place. I speak of themes and content of cinema that are more than ever centered, grounded and woven around the lives of women in all shapes, sizes, eras and ages. How fascinating it is that an industry that is nearly a century and half old is finally interested in how the ‘other’ half lives, breathes. Or in this case, eats, prays and loves. 

An honest confession – I resisted reading the book by Elizabeth Gilbert. A self-professed snob confession – I try to steer clear of books that make it to Oprah’s Book Club; they all tend to be self-help ladled with a generous helping of self-indulgence. I feel a bit hypocritical as I write this as I do think my blog could qualify as being more of the same. C’est la vie. 

This cynicism wore off fairly quickly as curiosity got the better of me. Describing the book as a realistic, live tale of discovering the ‘secret’ as opposed to reading ‘The Secret’ – another Oprah Book Club celebrity, made me buy the book. I only got around to reading it this week as I knew I had to watch the film and it makes sense to do that in the prescribed order of book first, film next. Just for the sake of critiquing integrity I guess. 

Am going to start with the bottom line – It is true that Italy is about food and the amore of food. It is also true that Indian spirituality is more about tolerance and patience which forces one to submit to discovering a new level of self-awareness. And pray hard to hold onto it as it seems the only sane thing to do! And finally Bali, it is indeed about love. How else can you explain co-existing in harmony with lizards the size of your thighs and frogs that inhabit every room you would hope to escape them, and still find it to be the most beautiful place on earth?! 

There is first hand experience in all of the above. But here’s the film’s version – 

A woman facing premature midlife crisis (or it could easily have been a lifelong/ adult life crisis that merely manifests itself as the biological clock ticks to a dangerous point of no return) that result in a series of bad relationships, decides to rediscover herself, her path, her guru. To do this, she deems that a year off from her life as a writer in New York is called for. Much to the disapproval of a trail of friends, ex lovers etc that she leaves behind, she finds adventures in three lands. Characteristically, each of the three represent a dichotomous clash of values, existentialism and yet, help the film’s protagonist, the author herself, to discover and heal different aspects of her life. 

Julia Roberts displays the kind of ambidexterity that can only be associated with an actress of her caliber and importantly, her honesty. She brings so much authenticity to each performance because at some level I believe, she is an authentic person. Among the supporting cast, James Franco is the part as the younger lover with a faddish fascination of Indian chanting. Javier Bardem is gorgeous and plays the mature Latin American lover who finally sweeps her off her feet – so perfectly cast! 

But for me, the character of Keytut, the toothless ninth generation medicine man in Bali, beautifully scripted and wittily captured by Hadi Subiyanto, is a winner and unfortunately, will probably be an unsung one at that. 

The film is long, by Hollywood standards. But it has a rich pace of story-telling that helps to overlook this. 

And most of all, if it sounds like a chick-flick, it is. But to my male readers, if you are evolved enough to tune in to what a woman has to say on a blog, I think you have much more to gain from one whose tale made it to celluloid! 

Final bottom line – Eat, Pray, Love – it’s a mantra that could heal as well as Om Namah Shivaya. Try it. 

MA

I need a husband.

On my flight from London to New York this week, I grimaced as I took my seat. Adjacent to me was a young lady, who later confirmed her age as being 27 years. What had made me roll my eyes was that she had her fourteen-month daughter, on her lap, ready to be my companion for the 8-hour journey that lay before us. Not a welcoming thought. 

This is really not about the kid. Or how she actually turned out to be quite an angel during the entire flight, barring a few goo goo and gaa gaa’s, no yelling, no tantrums. I suspect that’s because her mum was the one who needed to be looked after! 

The young lady introduced herself as Miriam (she insisted on doing this with almost all the passengers in the cabin, realizing the temporary aversion most frequent fliers have to ‘baby-on-board’). She felt compelled to assure me that her little girl would be no problem as they’ve been doing the London – New York round trip practically every two weeks for the past six months. The reason – she was in a divorce battle with little Michelle’s dad. 

I raised my eye-brows and nodded of concern, to which she chirped on to educate me how this was her second divorce; the first one came through quite easily actually, from which she has a three year old son, who throws tantrums in-flight, which is why she preferred to leave him with her mum. 

Two divorces by the age of 27. And from the looks of it, Miriam is far from being all done and dusted with the business of marriage. She volunteered how it is just too bad that these two relationships haven’t worked out. But that wasn’t going to stop her from finding true love, she determined. 

At this point, my face wore an expression akin to that smiley with the inverted S shaped mouth. On cue, she explained that she came from a very conservative Jewish family, and that my expression was one that she was more than accustomed to. 

When I gently asked if she thought it would be challenging to find a man to be a father to her two kids, pat came her reply “Oh my kids have their dads. I need a husband.” 

Wow! What a bazooka of an answer! How can a 27 year old have figured out that in the complex matrix of relationships that parental and marital expectations must separate at some point? Is this what gets taught in Relationship 101? Who updated the course with new material and forgot to let the world know?! 

And then it dawned. After generations of being the reason why failing marriages remained propped up by an exaggerated sense of parental accountability, there is a new breed emerging that’s living by their vows – to love and to hold, till death do them part – in this case, death being that of a marriage! 

Interestingly, these same vows say nothing that you need to have kids and hang in there irrespective of the death of your marriage! Wonder who interpreted this to mean that… 

By now my dear readers, I expect some of you to question my qualification as a single female without children to comment on this rather sensitive subject. Especially when it is always ‘about the children’. Well, deal with the fact that I am as unbiased a commentator as one can get on the subject and this is my blog! 

I expect some of you to feel offended. Come one. So did I, prior to this epiphany. Especially when Miriam spoke with a certain sense of blasé about her divorces. But her simple distinction of the permanence of parenthood having nothing to do with the temporary state of her marriage made me realize how much better off kids who find themselves in such situations would be, if this was the way divorce was handled. 

Imagine being born into a world, where from day one of cognizance, you are assured by your parents that no matter what and come what may, the two of them would be your parents. And how much stronger would you be if you never entwined the commitment of their marriage with their commitment to you. This applies to kids dealing with divorced parents as much as kids dealing with parents who fail to get along but continue to live together for meaningless reasons. I think an en masse realization of this nature would shut down an entire industry of shrinks that thrive on resolving issues arising from this misnomer. 

I expect Miriam will find her husband. Or at least I know she will keep looking. What I also know is that her kids will always have their parents. Nothing’s going to change that.

MA

Holy Cow!

My six years old niece Alisha attends a private school in London. It has a very diverse student profile, from different backgrounds, nationalities and faith. 

Last week, during lunch in the school cafeteria, the children were served a choice of food, which included beef & mash. Now Alisha has no food restrictions or preferences. In fact, she loves her juicy burgers! So it was natural that she would pile her plate with the beef & mash, over the other food on offer. 

Interestingly, and we later discovered this, she elected to sit at the end of the table where other kids chomping on the same food sat. Evidently, she had an instinct for the fact that the kids at the other end, largely of Asian origin and more specifically, Indian, were not eating beef. 

As she ate her meal, she was suddenly subjected to heckling by her Indian classmates. The comments were rather strong and included chastising her for eating beef and that she was a bad Hindu. 

Thankfully, Alisha is a chip off the old block. More importantly, she prefers to enjoy her meal rather than indulge in a senseless feud. She simply shushed the girls, asked them to eat their food and leave her alone and proceeded to finish her meal. The heckling continued but she chose to ignore it. 

Later that day, she informed her father of the incident, who took it up the next day with the school principal, insisting that steps be taken to avoid children being singled out and ostracized on the grounds of religion. This is the UK, where political correctness has a slightly more elevated importance than it would in India, and the school principal readily agreed and acted accordingly. 

Some of my observations – 

  • I recall a similar incident when I was a kid myself. We lived in a building that had a large population of Jains and chaste Hindus. The kids would leave me out of games in the park “because she eats salami and ham”. That was in 1977. Apparently, the malaise of prejudice that we pass on to our children remains widespread, prevalent and strong as ever. 
  • How can a six year old know what is a good Hindu and a bad Hindu? Why do families indoctrinate such finite beliefs in their child, particularly when they chose to live in cosmopolitan urban settings and aspire to belong to an international community? Is such decorum valid? Aren’t diet and devotion unrelated? 
  • Is it any surprise that respect and tolerance is a diminishing value and that communal divisiveness is an outcome of advocacy by society’s educated class?
  • The kids who picked on Alisha were like her, just six years old. We can’t possibly blame them. But we certainly need to enlighten parents that they are responsible for what they impart. More critical, let’s hope as responsible adults they don’t discriminate on these grounds in their walks of life, social and professional. 

Last I checked, Alisha has friends of a variety of nationalities. She loves learning about different cultures and enjoys sampling food from them. She’s as naughty as a six year old should be. She ducks doing homework and loves to play with her dog and rabbit. She is attentive to her grandparents, affectionate to her aunts and uncles and unconditionally in love with her parents.

To me, all this makes her a very good Hindu.

MA

For the fourth time in the past three months, I watched the stand up comedic shows at The Comedy Store in Mumbai, a franchise of the original English enterprise by the same name. To be honest, it is a wonderful alternative way to spend an evening, particularly in Mumbai where one tends to get straight-jacketed into a multiplex or a restaurant and very little else otherwise for leisure. 

And last evening’s show was a riot! Practically flawless, it had all the ingredients of tongue-n-cheek, slapstick, profane innuendoes and a highly sporting audience that participated in being the target of all of these. 

Not to put a damper on the experience or that these should be misconstrued as being offended, I just find myself reflecting on the flip side of all the laughter. 

As I played back the acts, the jokes in my mind, I realized that in that crowded auditorium sat about two hundred souls, including yours truly, who had sought escape for two hours from their respective routines to be subjected and subjects of a string of mockery and taunts that were sexist, racist, communal and well, in a civilized world, rude! 

The environment is set to legitimize humor drawn from rather offensive, politically incorrect content. In fact, we are paying to make fun of and to be made fun of! What lies exposed and perhaps not analyzed enough is the human psyche that thrives on cruelty. 

How different is this then from kids in a sandpit who single out the weak and amuse themselves with chiding and picking on them? This of course, is not condoned by us and often punished to a point where the humor in the moment is lost, no, isn’t allowed! How come then, the very same adults who police this natural instinct, are the ones who accept it as therapy? 

Oh I get the whole ‘laughter triggers happy thoughts that up the levels of endorphins in our bodies’ and how good that is for our health. But at what cost are we claiming our share of laughter? Are we a species that is hard-wired to survive by putting down one another? Is this simply a social transformation where we’ve evolved from senseless mob oriented physical abuse to a structured, seemingly civilized congregation of mockery? 

Is humor or a sense of it overrated? Is it what makes us excessively tolerant towards an unhealthy abuse? Think about it. When Bush set off on his tyrannical rampage of the Middle East, the number of jokes that were created and circulated could fill an erstwhile copy of the Oxford Dictionary (erstwhile because there’s a diktat that the new updated versions will only be published online from now onwards). Why, closer to home and in recent times, look at the number of jokes we’ve consumed on the debacle of the upcoming Commonwealth Games – all meant to make us take it with a sack of salt. 

I guess then laughter is no laughing matter. Or then maybe it is. Either ways, feel free to laugh off these random thoughts on a random Sunday from a random blogger. 

For now, I’m off to watch Tom & Jerry cartoons for a laugh.

MA

It’s amazing how a bridge and a mall can inject life into an otherwise insipid piece of land that existed without any real identity for so long. Worli in Mumbai is apparently where its at… or it’s beginning to be. I moved here three years ago, so I guess that can be called foresight??

Seriously, it is excellent to see the number of restaurants and cafes mushrooming in this otherwise entertainment-arid part of Mumbai. I had the pleasure of sampling one of the new brave-hearts last evening.

Two One Two (212) has replaced the dodgy club called Magic that replaced the once posh Maruti showroom of Vitesse Motors opposite Nehru Center. On driving up, I was very pleasantly surprised by the raised open air patio that welcomes guests into a spacious, generously designed restaurant. The generosity refers to the fact that tables aren’t crowding one another and there’s enough room for people to enjoy privacy as well as scan who all they may be in the dining company of. There’s also a bar area and the patio has seating which encourages pre and post dining hang-outs.

The menu aims to be all Italian, with an exhaustive directory of anti-pastas, pastas, pizzas, and entrees. The dessert section didn’t appear and on this occasion, the meal was fitting enough to not warrant a palate cleanse.

My friend ordered a chicken salad and I settled for the rocket (arugla). Both were preceded by a large pizza tray filled with a variety of oven-fresh, warm breads and a choice of two pestos. No complaints and I suggest you avoid polishing off the entire offering as you would want to leave room for the food!

The salads came in extremely large sized portions, which took us by surprise. We were later explained that the establishment expects guests to share an order of salad and have other anti-pastas. Noted, wiser and there’s always a next time.

Both salads were fresh, crisp and well dressed. Speaking for mine, the blend of olive oil and balsamico was balanced and not overwhelming. 

For our entrees, my friend ordered the grilled pork medallions with bell peppers and I settled for a hearty portion of linguine with crab, tomato and olives. 

The pork medallions were perfectly cooked crisp & glazed on the outside, with a soft, pink center. The linguine was again, a very large portion and deceptively piled in the center of a large bowl. I struggled to finish my order, and lamented at having had to waste some as it tasted good. The pasta was al dente and coated with a slightly excessive amount of sauce (I’ve learned to give in on this as most Indians tend to prefer a more wet quality of food as versus the expected drier texture). It disguised the sweetness of the crab-meat which should have ideally been center-stage in this dish. 

I found the service very warm, helpful and struggling a bit with the newness of its environment. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next few weeks, they get their act together completely dusted with the right amount of snobbery one has come to unfortunately expect from up-market dining in Mumbai.

Which brings me to the quandary. I think the owners of Two One Two have a winner on their hands. They need to decide whether the restaurant will be a fine dining experience or an informal bistro. I do hope they go with the latter choice as the location, the setting and the food is perfect to not be wasted on stuffy outings.

Book your table or walk in at – 

Two One Two Bar and Grill, 12-A, Hornby Vellard Estate, Opposite Nehru Centre, Next to the BMW showroom, Worli, Mumbai 18

Phone 2490 1994

First, for those who don’t know me well, you must be made aware as to the cult status the original 1987 Oscar award winning Oliver Stone directed Wall Street has in my life. I think the instant connection happened when in one of the opening scenes Bud Fox’s (played by Charlie Sheen) computer flashes that it is Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas of course) birthday – same day as mine. I’m a sucker for karmic coincidences and ever since then, have followed a ritual of watching the film on my birthday. Of course, in the recent past, it just kind of plays in the background. But that’s also because I know the film in and out, every scene, every dialogue. 

This film is why I read Art of War again and again. It is why I love steak tartare. Why in my previous avatar as a corporate don I would  summon employees at unearthly hours and ask them to spring back to work. All because – Money never sleeps!

So a reunion with my celluloid mentor, the original anti-hero, Mr. Wall Street himself Gordon Gekko, in the sequel that lit up at marquees this weekend, seemed emotional. 

Okay, let me qualify that. I was emotional. After all, it is like witnessing an unexpected resurrection. There was that. But there was also emotion of another kind, a small sadness, if you like. To see the mighty lion who roared in his den, reduced to a man nothing short of coping with an addiction he once had and is now desperately trying to disguise, revive… makes you want to shake your head and say this is not the way GG… this is not the way.

But that’s me. Let’s talk about the film.

In three words – It is good. In more words – worth a watch, especially if you are a banker, an investor, a person who needs a crash course on Wall Street 101 and why the mighty economic collapse of 2008 happened as and when it did.

The film has a story line that works in most parts. My dips were with Shia LeBouef’s character Jacob Lawrence, the young protagonist and his portrayal of today’s generation that balances profit with purpose – he wants to make money but also save the planet – like that’s possible??! I also had a tough time wrapping around GG’s reckless discarding of his daughter’s sentiment. But I guess that’s also the story’s message – once an addict, always an addict.

My cynical switch went on when I watched the story preach the hazards of modern day retail capitalism with its peddler being the government while financial institutions are the pimps. Yawn. Yawn. Yawn. Old hat. We know all of this has indeed happened, and therefore is a fact. But I think living in the era we do, information overload results in done-to-death dissection of situations in real-time. So when a film reflects in hind sight, it just comes off as a drunken drawl in a seedy bar.

Comparisons are inevitable which is why for me, the original Wall Street had an edge over its successor. It was edgy fiction that went on to become prophetic fact in 1987. The sequel tries to rebuild Gekko as the same witty, street-slang-using dark knight but he comes off more like Yoda preaching to Luke Sky Walker.

Bottom line – 

  • Greed is good, but now it’s also legal
  • The new generation is the NINJA generation – No Income, No Jobs & Assets
  • Everyone has a number – the amount of money they’d say is enough. The right number is MORE.
  • And finally, Bud Fox got it right. He turned Blue Star Airlines into private jet brokerage outfit and sold it at a very high valuation. Now he sips martinis, has twice the Darryl Hannahs on his arms and indulges in ‘philanthropy’.

Do yourself a favor. Rent the original Wall Street. Watch it. Savor it. And then watch what life becomes in its sequel.

MA