Note: This is not an anonymous review. The dinner was hosted by Dakshin. I have not attempted to put down the names of the dishes in the post. Some of the names were tongue twisters for me. I have put the menu of what we ate that evening with the official descriptions at the end of the post.
I thought I’ll play at being a food writer the other night and head for a free dinner at a five star.
Naah, I am being mean. In fact the folks at ITC had been really very nice and had gone out of their way to call me over for dinner for a while. This was when after I had a rather ordinary dinner at Dakshin, Mumbai, sometime back and wrote about it.
After reading the post the folks at ITC wanted me to come over and give my feedback. The day I went was apparently the chef’s day off. I was told that he was very keen to know what had gone wrong.
“Just come over and tell us what happened. You don’t have to write about this… No we don’t expect you to do a before after. Just come over once.”
I had rather boorishly said no to these earnest requests for a while till I finally dropped in almost six months later. I quickly read up what I wrote the last time as I had completely forgotten about the meal by then.
The problem with Dakshin and ITC Maratha is that it is pretty far off from home but I did finally reach after a longish drive even at that time of night. I walked into Dakshin and joined the folks from ITC and young Chef Manu who is the head chef at Dakshin, Mumbai.
The fear of a crick in the neck by staring up while talking made me convince chef Manu to sit down instead of stand at our table. Which was a good idea as Manu is quite passionate about food. Each dish that came my way was accompanied by a story from him. And I am talking about twenty odd dishes!
Manu definitely knows his food well, especially Indian food. He even takes breaks to travel around the country to build his culinary knowledge.
Chef Manu explained that the concept of Dakshin is to showcase food from the four Southern states of India. It is built around recipes which are often traditional and forgotten. The decor of the restaurant apparently is based on that of South Indian temples including the menu whose cover looks like the door to a temple.
We discussed my previous dinner. I mentioned that we were intimidated by the array of dishes in the menu that night and didn’t know what to order. Turned out that we were not guided as per the standard protocols that evening which created the confusion. So this time I had the Chef himself deciding what I should have from his kitchen and in what order.
The starter included a pomfret fry which I was told styled on the fried fish which you apparently get on the streets of cities at TN. At Dakshin they make a variation by deboning it to make it easy for the guests. The simple uncomplicated taste reminiscent of a pomfret fry in a Bengali house.
The prawns this time were grilled really well. Juicy and blending in well with the marinade. I pointed out that the prawns last time were different. Last time there was no harmony between the prawns and the masala. Manu said that I had ordered a different dish then. There the prawn was coated and grilled immediately there while here they were marinated and the roasted. For the name of the dishes wait till the end of this post….the names are too long which makes it critical that you have someone good to take you order.
There was country Andhra chicken too. Very juicy except that they don’t use country chicken here. Manu said that this is because country chicken can be bony plus they apparently can’t find country chicken that is certified on quality.
The chicken was tasty but lacked the heat of Andhra dishes. The sort of heat that seared your palate. Manu pointed out that they had toned down the spice levels for their guests. Well, I guess at five stars you will always get a sanitised version of reality.
We had the Iyer’s trolley which was a choice of dosas. The sweetish banana one and the dal based ones were fine but what won over my heart was the little round kunni paniyaram which Manu tells me that you rarely get these days. Colleagues who have been to Chennai and are South Indians have said you might get this at Adyar there.
The mutton stew was creamy and lovely. The mutton softer than last time. Chef said that it was perhaps my bad luck that I got a tough piece last time as the others were fine with it. Though when paying a load of money I would rather not eave my meal to chance.
My Malayali colleagues found it too coconutty though last time. Chef explained that the coconut levels of stews vary at Kerala and this one is the stronger version. I didn’t have a problem with the consistency last time and worked for me this time too.
Manu showed me the ‘right way’ to have ishtew and appam…dunk the stew in the middle of the appam….fold the appam into an envelope…eat
A Malayali junior politely smiled at me when I later told her about this. She had an indulgent look on her face.
There was a lamb fried in the style of Keralite beef chilli. There is no beef or pork here.
70 pc of the guests of Dakshin are vegetarians apparently. Well, they are the guys with all the money. Chef Manu said he had picked up the recipe while visiting a Muslim wedding at Kerala.
The meat was a bit tough for my taste.
The beef chilli went well with nice crisp porotas. These were not Malabar porotas I was told and were hence crisper. Crispy always works for me.
The Dakshin’s signature dish of prawns in a green mango chutney, a dish some of my friends love, fell flat in front of me. The prawns were rubbery and required extreme bicep flexing of one’s cutlery to cut.
For me there’s no worse way to insult prawns than to cook them till they are sapped of their soul and then torched with masala.
Manu said that prawns in Indian houses tend to be over cooked. “That’s how we cook our curries”.
Well not me.
This is where I felt Dakshin could have made a difference. This was just a waste of prawns.
But the fish gassi was a strong comeback. Chef Manu said that the gassi at Dakshin here is distinct as there is a heavier dose of methi. The sauce had a peasant mouth feel but it was the fish that impressed me. Given that I don’t like an excess of fishy tastes Manu said he chose the more neutral basa for me.
A huge risk as the basa is a very delicate dish.
Well the basa at Dakshin was the best spicy rendition of basa that I have come across so far. Nice and light the way basa should be.
Pity that I don’t the picture of the landmark dish that evening. Perhaps I was too busy enjoying it. Chicken cooked in bhavnagari chillies. You first got the flavours of the chilli and then the heat walloped you. The sort of dish that made you sweat it out. Yet you enjoyed as you knew you were getting a fairly authentic taste of the country side.
There was the rice with kheema and eggs which were a lot crisper than last time’s stodgy version. Apparently having the chef around did make a difference. This one I liked.
There was podi which was rice with various powders – sesame, gun powder – etc with ghee. This part is a favourite of mine at the Andhra thali places of Bangalore and Hyderabad. A high point of the meal despite all the fancier stuff that came before.
Curd rice came at the end. Apparently a must to finish a South Indian meal. It was nice and cool and paired well with the garlic pickle. The recipe at Dakshin is that given by the head of the industrial group from the South. TVS.
I had a few spoons but beyond a point not the sort of stuff that would excite a Bengali.
I asked Manu about the curd rice at Shiv Sagar that has onions, cucumber, tomato etc. Manu said that the Shiv Sagar one is the Shetty version.
The sweets at dakshin still didn’t work for me. The basundi was toned down as I found it too sweet last time. Was still rather sweet. The coconut payasam too heavy on coconut for my tastes though the bites of fresh malai were nice. And then there was a badam halwa which had nice bite but left to myself I would have preferred a Mysore pak.
So I ended my meal with a nice steaming cup of filter coffee. Which is when I realised that our chat that started at 9 pm over raasam and a ginger fruit drink had carried on beyond 1 am. Well if you like talking food then chef Manu is the man for you.
I guess Dakshin would work for you if you are looking for an Indian fine dining experience and want to explore life beyond the North of India.
This is the formal list of what we ate that night:
Meal at Dakshin, ITC Maratha
(Stimulating, clear lentil soup, flavoured with tomatoes, pepper, garlic and cumin)
(Seasoned fresh juice with hint of ginger)
(Mini dosais of the day from the Iyer’s trolley)
(Dal Adai, kunni paniyaram, banana Dosai)
(Pomfret fillet marinated in a spicy mixture, pan-fried)
(Prawns cooked in a blend of ethnic masala, a specialty of Dharwad’s Shivaji community)
(Succulent nuggets of chicken marinated with chili, garlic, Roasted to perfection)
(A typical Mangalorean preparation of fresh fish with bedgi chilies and coconut.)
Chemeen Manga Charu
(Prawns cooked in traditional spices with raw mango)
(Tender pieces of lamb cubes and potatoes simmered in fresh coconut milk and spices)
Malabar olatheyethu mamsam.
(Lamb morsels tossed with browned onions, coriander and spices.)
(Lacy pancakes of a fermented rice batter)
(Layered bread of refined wheat flour)
(Rice tossed with mutton-mince and eggs, green chillies and capsicum)
(Curd and rice, tempered with mustard, red chillies and curry leaves)
(Tender coconut kernels in cardamom flavored coconut milk.)
(A dense sweet confection made from almond paste, ghee and sugar.)
(Saffron flavoured milk reduction)