Last month I headed to India for a long-awaited trip. It is probably not immediately apparent to people, but I have Indian heritage as my father’s side of the family are Anglo-Indian (the result of inter-marrying between English colonialists and Indians during the 18th and 19th centuries). We headed to southern India as we had been told that “it was the more relaxed part of India” and that it would be a good introduction to this colourful and exciting part of the world.
Our trip started with a couple of days in Mumbai, which was somewhat of a culture-shock after having gotten off the ‘plane. We were immediately greeted by the sights of people living in severe poverty and also the absolute insanity of Indian roads; both of which we would experience a lot more of over the next three weeks as we made our way from the west coast of India to the east coast (via Goa, Hampi, Mysore, Bengaluru and Chennai). When it came to our time in Mumbai our main intentions were to get acclimatised to India (which we achieved) and to get over the jet-lag (which we did not). Another aim of ours was to try out some of the food and drink scene in Mumbai that I had heard so much about.
Drinks with a View – The Harbour Bar at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
One of the most well-known sites in Mumbai, and indeed in India, is the “Gateway to India” – a magnificent stone arch monument that looks resplendently out over the Mumbai harbour. When we went there the area was absolutely thronged with locals who were queuing up for local boats to take them to the popular Elephant Islands. The best place then to take in a view of this magnificent monument is over a drink at Mumbai’s most famous hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. This is a wonderful building that absolutely oozes with class and grandeur. It features beautiful large dining rooms and lounges to take tea in or to have a nice lunch; whilst also having an outdoor swimming pool area that provides a (very rare) oasis of calm in amongst the hubbub of Mumbai. We, however, headed straight to the Harbour Bar – which commands a breathtaking view of the Gateway to India from its seating area. The Harbour Bar is known to be the first registered bar in Mumbai, having first opened in 1933. We were greeted by the bar manager, Jezan and were attentively served by the inimitable “Mr Mistry” who told us with great pride that he had been working in the bar for 41 years; we knew we were in good hands.
The cocktail list made for interesting reading, it seemed to combine classics that everyone around the world would be familiar with; alongside some more inventive concoctions that were designed to showcase either local drinks or to pay tribute to Mumbai itself. I started with a Gin Martini made from Star of Bombay gin (it felt appropriate), now I am quite particular about my gin martinis; but this one I did very much enjoy. I felt that there was an interesting menthol or eucalyptus profile to the drink, which I very much liked. A classic drink for a classic bar with a classic view.
My wife went a little more radical with a cocktail simply called “Royalty”; the description on the menu read: “a drink of the royals as dry fruits are infused with Woodford Reserve, along with crème de cacao, spiced home-made honey water and spiced bitter.” Quite simply this cocktail tasted like Christmas in a glass, beautiful flavours of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, with a slightly rich, decadent profile to the drink.
For my next drink I chose “Berty’s Rob Roy”, which is the bar’s on take on the classic Rob Roy with 18yo Chivas Regal (which has been infused with raw mangoes), alongside sweet vermouth infused with cinnamon, creole and bitters. This made for an exceptionally smooth cocktail; I didn’t quite get all of the flavours that the description promised, but it was certainly an enjoyable drinking experience. We had this alongside a “Bombay Blazer”, which was described as a “complex tropical concoction that uses the botanic of gin and the sweet nectar of pink guava to provide a drink that represents this diverse city”. Unexpectedly the meaning of the cocktail became clear when Mr Mistry set fire to some spirits and poured them into the glass to make for a rather exciting spectacle. The drink itself didn’t quite land the punch that I was hoping for based on the description, in truth it seemed to be a little too sweet for me.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Harbour Bar in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, I would very much recommend it to anyone who wants to find a little bit of calm and old-school class in amongst the hustle and bustle of downtown Mumbai. The cocktails are pricy (by Indian standards judging on the rest of our trip), but to my mind they are absolutely worth it for the ambience, the history and, of course, for the stunning view over the harbour!
Getting into my dhosas
One of the things that I was most looking forward to on my trip to south India, was the excuse to eat a lot of masala dhosas. My family has a love-affair with these staples of South Indian cuisine and I was looking forward to trying a lot of them; after all they are eaten in south India for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
On my first evening, when we were still a little shell-shocked after our arrival, I was pleased to stumble upon a vegetarian restaurant (we had decided to mostly stick to vegetarian food on our trip as it reduced the risk of stomach upsets…!) not far from our Air BnB in Bandra (north Mumbai). I knew the place must be good as there was a queue of locals waiting to get a seat, so we joined the queue.
I knew that I was going to order a Masala Dhosa and was delighted when it arrived. For the uninitiated, a Masala Dhosa consists of a thin, crispy rice pancake which contains a Bombay potato filling (which is nicely spiced through the use of mustard seeds). You get alongside it a sambar (a vegetable curry) to pour over the top, along with a chutney. Along our trip we experienced several different kinds of dhosa, with everyone claiming that their method was the authentic method for Masala Dhosa! This first one was particularly enjoyable, I felt, maybe it was because it was my first one in India, but I liked the slightly odd triangular shape to the dhosa (most of the dhosas I’ve had before were more of a cylindrical shape). I would eat a lot more dhosas over the next three weeks!
Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra
As Mumbai is one of India’s biggest cities, it certainly has an affluent side to it. With affluence comes a demand for fine-dining experiences and I was keen to push the boat out of one of our days in Mumbai to try out on of the city’s most-happening restaurants, partly because I knew that for the rest of our trip “fine-dining” wouldn’t be an option. I was also keen to see how fine dining was done in India versus the India fine-dining restaurants that I had eaten in in London (Benares, Gymkhana, The Cinammon Club and Quilon). It was for this reason that we headed to Masala Library, the creation of famous Indian chef Jiggs Kalra, which is situated in the heart of Mumbai’s business district.
I went for the Tasting Menu as I wanted to see what the chef had to offer. After the usual pre-menu snacks (which were carefully thought out and nicely presented), we started the main menu with a “Mushroom Chai”. The chai was made up in front of us, with a mushroom consommé being poured out from an attractive black teapot onto some freeze-dried porcini mushrooms and served with a slight cream. The result of all of this was a rather delicious mushroom broth, but one that paid tribute to the importance of chai in Indian culture. Whilst we were having the snacks and the tea I went for a glass of Indian Sparkling Wine! This was a glass of Sula Brut NV, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Shiraz (!) blend that is made in the méthode champenoise and gave rise to a surprisingly fine and elegant wine – I was very pleased to be able to try an Indian wine, always nice to discover something new.
Next up we had a “Reconstructed Prawn Chettinad with a Coco Cloud”. From what I can tell, a Prawn Chettinad is a traditional South Indian dish; this was a rather posh take on this dish. The bread was quite light and contained the prawn flavours within it. The coco cloud was a kind of mousse, which possessed a nicely sweet flavour that offset some of the heat in the dish. All-in-all rather clever and rather neat. To go with this dish we had a glass of 2014 Kendall-Jackson Avant (California), which was a pleasingly rich and vibrant Californian Chardonnay and matched up to the flavours nicely.
For the next course, we were given a Tandori Rosemary Mutton Chop, which was very nicely cooked and spiced, as you would expect. I particularly like the extra flavour and character that you get with mutton over lamb.
After this we started to move to more of the main courses, starting with a miso stew served with black rice, to accompany a Rajasthani Mutton Kachori. This was a really interesting combination of dishes, with the delicate and fine miso combined with the richness and power of the curry dish, which had a real power and majesty to it. Rajasthani food is well renowned in India and conjures images of opulence and indulgent banquets. What I particularly liked about this dish was that it didn’t hold back in terms of flavour or pungency – you certainly knew that you were eating this! To go with this dish, we were given another Indian wine; this time a Fratelli Sette (I didn’t catch the vintage) Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese blend from the Mahrastara region, which is the result of an Italian-Indian collaboration. Once more, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality and calibre of this wine, it possessed decent weight and power, without being over-done.
After this we moved on to the sweeter side of the menu. We were given a series of very pretty and attractively presented dishes; I particularly enjoyed the “Bibinca” and “Jamun Mousse” courses. Indian sweets in my experience have often been sickly sweet, but I found these dishes to be elegantly put together, with nice eastern flavours of pistachio and honey coming through, without being overly saccharine. The real high-point, however, was a little bit of a magic trick! For our post-dinner chocolates, they cleverly used magnets to float the delicious morsels in mid-air – truly like something out of Hogwarts (or should I say Hogsmeade?!).
I very much enjoyed this meal and was pleased to be able to do some fine-dining in India, as for the rest of my trip I was planning (and looking forward to) eating a lot more thriftily and more in keeping with the way that Indians really eat.