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A meal made in heaven

November 15, 2019 21:23 IST

Great chefs are alchemists.
They put ingredients and flavours together in ways that are sometimes unfathomable, says Rahul Jacob.

IMAGE: Chef Manu Chandra works his magic behind the grill at Olive Beach, Bangalore. Photograph: Kind courtesy olivebeachblr/Instagram.com
 

Years ago, a friend was so taken with a restaurant in San Francisco that she ate dinner there for a week.

I frequent restaurants less than most people I know and never order takeaway, but when I eat out, I am prone to a similar hyper-loyalty.

When I lived in London in the early 2000s, I ate once a week at Yotam Ottolenghi's original six-seater kitchen in London's Notting Hill, and very frequently at Brett Graham's The Ledbury down the road from it.

In Hong Kong, I returned time and again to Olivier Elzer's daring French cooking with Asian influences at Seasons and then L'Envol.

Moving to Bengaluru this summer, I vowed to be more adventurous and seek out whatever the flavour of the month was in Indiranagar.

IMAGE: A creamy and soft Eggs Florentine with specially crafted cocktails by their bartender, at Olive Beach, Bengaluru. Photograph: Kind courtesy olivebeachblr/Instagram.com

Instead, I have returned almost half a dozen times to Manu Chandra's Toast & Tonic, where the menu travels to so many countries that one risks jetlag deciding what to eat.

Chandra is a natural cosmopolitan.

This likely predates his studying at the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America and then working in New York City, but those influences are omnipresent.

The Toast & Tonic menu, now three years old and ably helmed by Tushar Sood, runs the gamut from injera bread served with an Ethiopian vegetarian platter to beef tostadas flavoured with local coriander and jalapeño to Syrian harissa used to sex up fried chicken.

This year, Chandra opened Cantan, a sumptuously decorated, witty take on Indianised Chinese food.

One has to love a menu that has a vegetarian dish named The Manchurian Candidate, a take-off both on gobi Manchurian and the iconic 1962 film about a group of American soldiers brainwashed by Communists.

IMAGE: Chef Manu Chandra's famous Brie en Croute, served with mushroom ragout, reduced peppers and herbed salsa. Photograph: Kind courtesy olivebeachblr/Instagram.com

Great chefs are alchemists.

They put ingredients and flavours together in ways that are sometimes unfathomable.

But their wizardry also hoodwinks our palate; when we return to their restaurants time and again at the exclusion of others, we are in a sense brainwashed.

Sometimes fate plays a role as well.

I was invited to a dinner for eight at Chandra's flagship Olive Beach; the Indian menu had been created especially for the evening.

The dinner was heavily Bengali-influenced interspersed with clever variants of South Indian dishes.

We began with a salad of sliced cherry tomatoes served with a concentrated rasam jelly.

If you could find cherry tomatoes this red and fresh, the dish appeared intuitively simple, even replicable.

What could be a tangier, more delicious accompaniment to tomatoes than an intense version of rasam?

It was paired with a crisp dosa disc that packed a lot of flavour.

A savoury payasam where vermicelli had been substituted by strands of chicken was then served with a very light yakhni.

This seemed high-minded haute cuisine, comfort food for our divisive times: Kashmir to Kanyakumari in a single soup plate.

IMAGE: Gourmet hot chocolate -- perfect for a lovely rainy evening. Photograph: Kind courtesy olivebeachblr/Instagram.com

Next up were aloo lutchi pillows, postage-stamped puffs with aloo dum puree inside.

Bengalis generally regard the samosa as an inferior, overweight variation of the singhara -- and with good reason.

These pillows were even more delicate, the liquid filling providing a sensory lift.

This balance and inventiveness was also evident in the thayir saadam arancini, an impish tribute simultaneously to the stuffed rice and meat cutlets of Sicily and curd rice, paired in a manner that would have made my Tamilian mother smile.

Chandra's take on palak paneer was baby baigan stuffed with ricotta sourced from a superb Bengaluru cheesemonger and then surrounded by a moat of pureed spinach.

IMAGE: Chef Manu Chandra. Photograph: Kind courtesy manuchandra/Instagram.com

Between courses, Chandra made appearances, describing the food wittily but briskly as if he had left something unattended on the stove.

Dressed in black, he looked more a Pilates instructor or trendy Italian tenor than a chef.

This was an operatic meal that hit a high note and then scaled higher.

One exception was the ode to shorshe maach.

The sea bass baked in kasundhi was just this side of over-cooked and overshadowed by delicious accompaniments.

This was followed by a mangsho that made the traditional Bengali version seem obsolescent by comparison.

Chandra had used lamb instead of goat, achieving a burra kabab succulence.

The marrow sauce accompanying it was so good one sipped it neat.

I turned to my usually articulate, polymath host.

He was momentarily at a loss for words.

"Manu is a genius," he finally said.

Over the past eighteen months, I was bored at the overhyped Gaggan in Bangkok, which has sometimes seemed the most widely discussed dining experience since Christ's Last Supper.

I have eaten with delight at Manish Mehrotra's Indian Accent in Delhi and at Thomas Zacharias's Bombay Canteen.

But the range of food and value for money on offer at Chandra's restaurants, and his celebration of all corners of the globe while also championing and challenging Indian traditions, is something else altogether.

This is a chef at the top of his inventive game.

Go -- and then go again and again.

Rahul Jacob
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