Surprisingly there are hardly any celebrity chef based restaurants in Mumbai if not in India. Yes, Sanjeev Kapoor did give it a shot. But somehow with his fixed smile, he doesn't really seem to be in Oliver, Ramsay or Bourdain mould. Hemant Oberoi? But those are more Taj properties than Hemant Oberoi restaurants.
I say 'surprisingly' because the Khansamah, Thakur, Maharaj, Bawarchi or cook was an important part of the houses of the Indian landed gentry. But weren't they revered the way, say chefs in France were. Plus there is this entire 'dignity of labour' thing. The stuff of Wren and Martin essays. Cooking wasn't really in doctor, engineer, professor or barrister league in India. Which is why I was intrigued by the launch of 'Koh' at the Intercontinental, Mumbai. The accompanying PR blitz told us that it is a signature Thai restaurant set up by Chef Ian Kittichai who is apparently big internationally. I managed to sweet talk K into taking me to Koh last Sunday.
Five stars are special occasion places in my book. I expect to be wowed when I go there. And I am not just taking about the food. I look at three things. Is the food memorable? Does the ambiance stand out? Is the service special, are the waiters well informed?
I have not really been impressed by the decor of a number of five star restaurants. Some like India Jones, Trattoria, Thai Pavillion, Bukhara look like old school grand restaurants at the most. Souk at Taj and 55 East at the Hyatt, Kalina, look better. San Qui & China House are passe.
I was quite impressed by the looks of Koh though. It had a nice modernistic feel to it with its violet theme, walls with Oriental writing, and mix of seating styles. The place seemed different from the average place.
The service? Well K was feeling cold. Suddenly a waiter, Sandeep, came up to us and asked her if she was cold and then gave her a shawl. We were quite impressed. Never happened to us before. The waiters and maitre d's knew their menus and could answer our questions. They did push their specials, which were the most expensive dishes. But they said it with apparent confidence and passion which made one believe in them. And they got me my fish sauce and chili dip immediately on asking. We were quite happy with the service.
I wanted pork and we started with the 'chocolat baby rack'. Highly recommended by the waiters. K who is a bit reactionary when it comes to chocolate said the she preferred not to mix her chocolate with anything. I, on the other hand, have often been intrigued when I see Western chefs use chocolate in dishes. I quite liked the chocolat baby rack. The meat was very succulent. I liked the deep chocolate sauce that it came in. A sauce which was chocolatey but not yet overly sweet. An equivalent of a honey based Oriental dish. I saw a natural fit in the innovation given the preference for sweet which Orientals have. I had one problem though. The flavours of the sauce had not really permeated into the meat. So you had to make sure to dip the meat into the sauce to get a glimpse of genius. Tender pork, elegant chocolate, even the Gods couldn't have scripted it better.
Wok tossed tiger prawns in bird's eye chillies left no ground for complaint. The prawns were really tender and well flavoured. The taste remained in your mouth till well after. I relished every bite and moaned in pleasure.
We thought of trying the lamb shank cooked for twelve hours in Massaman curry. Every waiter in sight made a pitch for it. They claimed it was their most popular dish. The lamb was indeed very very succulent. Reminded us of the nalli nihari of Gallops. The curry had a nice tangy touch to it with a faint flavour of crushed peanuts. Strangely enough, for a twelve hour cooked meat, here too the flavours of the curry hadn't infused into the meat. You had to consciously combine the two together for the magic to happen.
I wanted to eat this with jasmine rice. But the steward insisted on pairing these dishes with garlic rice. 'Trust me', he said. Such confidence is so rare in a restaurant that I normally go with the flow when it happens,
Our waiter, Sandeep, got the rice in a big stone bowl. Apparently it was under cooked! Sandeep said that the final 20 percent of the cooking happened at the table. He proceeded to add the sauce and stir the dish. In a bowl made from volcanic lava apparently. Smoke came out and he served the rice with fanfare. Tamasha? Well, that's what one is paying for. I really liked the rice. I found it to be very well flavoured, hot and yet delicate and light. The steward came to ask us if the combination worked for me. Which it did. He then repeated the spiel about the 20 percent cooking on the table and lava bowl. Well at least they know their script there.
Didn't have any space for desserts. I did like my drink, Firefly. Vodka, watermelon juice and Thai basil. The Basil gave it a very interesting flavour. They didn't stock Absolut Vanilla which K wanted.
Our bill was in four figures. We did order the more expensive stuff. Still, 'expensive', was around 8 to 900 Rs (18- 20 USD) each. Which is roughly the same as high end, non five star restaurants at MumbaiKoh . I reckon that a couple could eat at around Rs 2500 (45 USD) if they order sensibly. Which is pretty good given the overall package.
Overall, Koh left a good impression with me. Though, I agree with Kainaz, it doesn't really threaten Thai Pavillion. My favourite Thai food remains to be the curries that we ate at a little cart at Sukhumvit, outside the Ambassador Hotel.
And to answer their tagline, no, I was not 'feeling Koh' or anyone else for that matter. I was with my wife after all.