Fine dining? The five star conundrum…Red Zen, Courtyard Marriott + Ling’s Pavilion Cameo, Mumbai

If you have been reading this blog for a while then you would have realized that I am not a big fan of either restaurant chains or of five star restaurants.

Small places with the owner running around from table to table work best for me. If the place has some history then things couldn’t be more perfect in my book.

My discomfort with five stars is not to do just with the costs. I don’t mind spending on something that I really enjoy. As we were discussing in a workshop the other day, ‘value for money’ doesn’t mean how cheap something is. It is more about whether you are getting your bang for your buck. With their standardized, often soul-less, playing safe, fare, one has rarely come across a 5 star meal that has turned one on.

Recently, an international chef, whom I won’t name, who has worked in 5 star kitchens across the world, told me “I always tell my wife…if you want good food, don’t go to a five star”.

Amen to that.

The other day I had a pretty good meal at The Courtyard Marriott Mumbai’s Red Zen when I went there with Suprio Bose, Director of the Catalonia Tourism Board in India. A man who is trained in gastronomy, knows his food, is great to talk to, is globally travelled and an overall good egg.

We were at The Courtyard as driving in Andheri E is a drag and Courtyard worked best for me.

Suprio and I skipped the coffee shop buffet and went to Red Zen. I had gone there couple of years back when the place was new and there was one of those blogger’s meets there. This was just when calling bloggers for a meal was becoming de rigeur for any new restaurant launch in Mumbai. I remember that the food at Red Zen had underwhelmed me and this was one of the reasons why I rarely went to any of these meets after that.

This time lunch was good though. Not cheap. Wouldn’t expect it to be. But the food was good, the experience great.

Will you get the same high if you were to go to Red Zen? I honestly don’t know. Here’s why…

Suprio bumped in to Anshul of Courtyard as we settled down and we spoke for a bit and then Anshul offered to bring his head chef to us. True to Anshul’s words, Thai chef of Thai Cantonese origins, Phongthorn Hinracha joined us at the table. The first thing, which is a good thing, is that he sat down to chat with us. I have often observed that Indian chefs don’t sit down at the table of guests even if the chef owns the place. Not always of course but often. At times, we get too prissy about ‘service’ in India IMO. Rituals supersede essence.

Smiling and very slim (does he taste what he cooks?) chef Hinracha quickly explained that my earlier meal was not from his time and washed his hands off that. He joined Red Zen about 7 months back.

“They used to make curries from bottles earlier but now we make curries fresh. Ingredients flown in from Thailand.”

I gently broke it to Chef that I pick up basil, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves etc from Pali Market and, as he exclaimed in response “pea egg plants too!!!”.

He had also tried to make the Thai curries thinner at Red Zen. The way they should be.

“I guess Indians eat curries with rotis and therefore used to curries being thick. So the Thai curries are thick here too” said Hinracha.

Thick Thai curries in Thai restaurants in Mumbai break my heart. Or, is it the Bengali in me that’s grown up on patla jhols (this fish curries) that finds thin Thai curries more palatable?

Chef explained that 5 stars have to work within safety service standards. For example, food has to be cooked up to a certain temperature and so he would have to keep the pots boiling even if he knew the prawns were cooked. We all agreed at the table that overcooked prawns are criminal. Hinracha said that he couldn’t use fish sauce to season, unlike in Thailand, here. He often had vegetarians say that the ‘veg’ pad Thai they had in Bangkok tasted different from that in Red Zen.

As Chef Hinracha said with a wry smile, “unlike in Bangkok I can’t add fish sauce and pass it off as veg”.

Yes, a big organisation has its rules and you have to play by them.

Got to know how fish sauce is made from the chef. Catch from the sea, loads of it, packed over salt for two years…their juices mixing with the salt to farm the sauce. “This could include everything including prawns and shellfish.” Again a problem for the nanny state of the world of 5 stars. This would be a problem for people who have seafood allergies.

My suggestion was that they should keep the authentic versions and then customise according to requirements after talking to the customers. After all they do not charge street cart prices so they can take this effort.

And no, they are not comfortable with local pork so no pork at Red Zen. The folks at Thai Pavilion & Pan Asian had expressed the same reservations with local pork.

So you see a 5 star, like any big corporation, would play safe and suck out the individuality and excitement from an experience. Would you put your money here? Not if you are willing to hedge a bit and walk out of rarefied climes in search of good food.

It’s a different story if ‘adequate’ is good enough for you.

Suprio and I were ready to order, the food talk had made us ravenous. Then Chef Hinracha said with a smile, “Can I order for you?”

“And what will you make for us” I replied

“Well I realize that you are missing the tastes that you remember from Bangkok. I will try to recreate those experiences and I hope you eat spicy” said the chef as he smiled and disappeared.

He came back with a waiter who carried two plates. Barbequed chicken.

“You get this all over Bangkok. I prefer to use the leg piece of chicken” said the chef.

Well so do I and the juicy full flavoured bites of chicken were testimony to why one should go for the leg pieces of chicken.

The dish was full of spunk and the skin crackling like bolts of thunder on a stormy night.

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“I have also made a som tam. I have added fish sauce for you” said Hinracha with a smile and then apologetically “the plating is five star but the taste’s real so don’t worry”.

I took a bite and went back to an evening in Bangkok seven years back when K and I were returning to the Ambassador at Sukhomvit after dinner when I stopped at a salad cart and had a serving sitting on the pavements.

Chef appeared again. This time tom yum. The flavours very clean as Suprio happily observed.

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Chef looked at me nervously “hope the prawns are not over cooked”.

They were cooked just right and broke easily.

“These are frozen prawns though as we don’t get fresh ones,” said the Hinracha.

That was fine and the soup was really good. Tad lukewarm  but the bites of lemon grass added to the thrilling ride across the bowl of soup.

“I have kept some lime at the side as we prefer to have our tom yam’s really sour in Bangkok. You can customise it”.

Yes, this was the sort of the stuff we had cooked up in the cooking class at Chiang Mai. The Chef was quite tickled to hear of how I had carried back the mortar and pestle from Chiang Mai.

Chef disappeared after this and came back with the mains.

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Pineapple rice with Indian basmati (1). It was adequate nothing great. Pad thai. Great textures. A bit too ketchup and sweet for my tastes.

“It is meant to be sweet and sour” said the chef.

What wowed me though was the chicken green curry. Silken, intricately flavoured, a chilli hit which gently crept upon you and then tapped you at the back of the throat. Anna and the King would both approve I am sure.

“Indian curries use masalas and you feel the heat all over the mouth. The Thai curries are made with ground chillies and you get the taste of spice a lot later” said the chef as I smiled serenely like a monk. The monk’s words of wisdom? Eat the curry by itself to truly savour it.

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“Now I will get you dessert”.

“No” went Suprio and I. We said we weren’t too fond of the sticky, sweet, coconut desserts that we had had in Thailand.

Phonghtorn Hinracha gave a Buddha-like smile, disappeared and then came back with two martini glasses.

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A thin syrup with ice shavings, chunky water chestnuts, balanced well with slivers of tangy jackfruit with the flavours of jasmine tea holding it all together. Very light. Tailor-made for the ugly chaos that was waiting for us once we stepped out into Andheri E.

“The jackfruit balances the water chestnut” Said Chef Hinracha

On a separate note, Isn’t it crazy that Andheri E has the highest concentration of high end hotels and is yet possibly the ugliest part of Mumbai today?

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The dessert was no gooey chocolate brownie or an effervescent macaron but Chef Hinracha had got me a dessert which I liked and was surprisingly Thai.

Good to have one’s preconceptions shattered in such a pleasant way.

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So should you go to Red Zen?

Well Suprio had gone to Red Zen on a Monday shortly before this. He had a bad spare ribs day. He was later told that this was because it was Chef Hinracha’s off day.

When Suprio told him this, the chef said, “I know…I am training them, holding their hands…but things are different when I am not there”.

Something I had heard once at Dakshin too when there head chef was missing.

To the best of my knowledge the prices on the menu in five stars remain the same regardless of whether or not the chef is at work.

So you take a call.

PS: Talking of owner run restaurants, we were at Ling’s Pavilion the other day to meet Meera Sodha, who is travelling across India, with Hugh, eating her way through the land of her ancestors.

Baba Ling was there and the dinner that followed was stellar. Pork soupy dimsums and then the mains that I consulted him and ordered. Like all Ling’s fans I never look at the menu when I order here.

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First was the beautiful, pure and simple, the rather naked, pepper crab. It was all about the unblemished, unsullied, uncorrupted, sweet meat of crab.

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The scrambled egg with bitter gourd that Baba Ling is so proud and on which K and I are surprisingly sold on. A new discovery, crunchy snow peas with slithery intensely flavoured home dried pork and then the pan fired noodles which we are addicted to.

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Baba sure did us proud in front of our guests from London.

I pulled Baba’s leg about his recent Wee Will Winkie turn where he takes the last booking at 1030 pm at night and last orders at 1030 pm.

“I come to work at 7.30 dear. We are open all day. Most Cheenas come early in the evening to eat here. I am here till we close and leave only after we have washed up the kitchen and closed for the day”.

Well, you know where I will definitely be heading back again

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