'East is East, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.' Why Mumbai's Mustard Restaurant might have some interesting answers for Rudyard Kipling when it opens
I must admit that I had headed to a preview dinner, at the soon to be opened Mustard Restaurant in Mumbai, a couple of evenings back with a slight sense of trepidation.
This is the second instalment of the Mustard concept. Their first restaurant is located in Goa. The restaurant is a brainchild of Shilpa Sharma and Poonam Singh.
Mustard offers both French and Bengali cuisines
'Not fusion,' as the owners stress, but two different menus.
Mumbai had introduced me to the concept of 'multi-cuisine' restaurants years back, of which Mughlai Chinese is the most common.
To diners who have grown up in the city, it would be no surprise to find a mutton Rashida sitting quietly beside a lamb triple Schezwan rice for example or even a Mysore dosa with a Mexican jalapeno paneer nacho platter. And then are the buffets at weddings or corporate lunches here which cheerfully offer Russian salad, veg au gratin, Goan fish curry, butter chicken and Singapore noodles, all in the same line up, finished of course with gulab jamun and vanilla ice cream.
I find this food fauda (do watch the Netflix series of the same name if you haven't, and fauda means chaos) unnerving and prefer to stick to any one cuisine while eating. Hence, the idea of eating French and Bengali during the same meal seemed a bit weird to me. I couldn't see myself chomping on a choice entrecoute done medium rare (a pipe dream given that we are in beef ban city) and a kosha mangsho at the same time.
The owners of Mustard say that they thought of the pairing keeping in mind the fact that mustard is an ingredient common to both cuisines. This seemed to be a bit of the force fit to me at a first glance. A bit like the rather porous Third Front in Indian politics.
Ten days spent eating in Paris, Nice and Cannes, and add to that a few more in French restaurants in Montreoux, HongKong and Singapore, make me no expert in French food of course. However I must say that mustard in my experience, features more as a condiment on the side of a dish, than as an integral part of the French cuisine. I could be wrong of course.
Yes, mustard oil is the oil of choice in Bengal no doubt, but mustard as an ingredient does not feature in every Bengali dish. That I am pretty sure about!
I had eaten at the Mustard in Goa following a PR organised invite when I was close by in the early days of its opening. It was a few years back and I do not remember much about that night barring the fact that the Bengali food smacked of some seriously traditional flavours and seemed to run on a completely different track to the dishes that we had tried from the French menu.
Was this because the connection attempted was too literal and contrived rather than conceptual, I wondered.
Those were early days of the restaurant of course but I knew that if I was to go back, then I would stick to any one. Possibly the Bengali one, and frankly the idea of going to Goa to eat Bengali food didn't make much sense to me given that I would rather have my fill of Goan food when there but then I have access to Bengali food in Mumbai and cook it too.
On encountering Pritha Sen
|Pritha Sen and her band of boys|
It was a couple of years after the time when I had gone to Mustard in Goa that I got to know Pritha Sen in person.
Pritha wears many hats and had started her career as a teacher, worked as a journalist, works now with weavers in the north east of India in helping them eke out a sustainable livelihood.
I knew of her first as a food historian, though she prefers to call herself a food researcher, who wrote prolifically on food, especially Bengali food, and also conducted food pop up experiences and caters food to a select audience in Gurugram.
Mustard has a separate consultant chefs for each line of food and Pritha has been their consultant for the Bengali line from its inception.
Pritha and I have become friends over the last year or so and I often use her as a sounding board on things to do with writing in particular and life in general. We do not let the fact the she went to the rival Jadavpur University in Kolkata while I had gone to Presidency College, come in between us.
Last year I had met her for an impromptu lunch at her apartment in Gurugram and despite the last minute plans, she had cooked up a maelstrom of dishes for me from across the Bengali diaspora. Many were dishes that I had not tasted before and yet struck a chord. The food and the conversation around it was so captivating that I almost missed my flight.
Then I got to know from Pritha that Mustard was opening in Mumbai and that she would be based here for a bit to set it up. It was fascinating to hear her stories about how the restaurant was taking shape from what was once an open space in a mall with no air-conditioning to what now looks like a most beautiful place. The decor iss a throwback to the tearooms of Europe and the grand British colonial apartments that you would expect to see in Alipore in Kolkata and is quite spacious for Mumbai.
Sourcing ingredients was an issue and Pritha is very particular about what she uses. Thankfully, she had support. "I could not have done it without my boys whom I had trained in Mustard Goa and some of whom I have got here," said Pritha to me once on whatsapp. "I am so proud of them!"
I was inspired by the stories of Pritha's second wind though I must say that the work seemed so physically daunting that at times I needed to take a quick nap even to recover from just listening to it.
I couldn't wait to experience what they were cooking up at Mustard.
Did Mustard pass muster?
|Trials before the storm|
I went to Mustard, as a guest of Pritha, last week. This was as part of the many preview dinners that they were hosting.
I must confess that I went to Mustard that evening, determined to focus on one cuisine, the Bengali one. I didn't want to mix metaphors or flavours after all.
That was not to be so!
The kitchen staff sent out starters from both halves of the open kitchen of the large and majestic restaurant. Emboldened by my favourable experience at the start, I tried dishes from both the Bengali AND the French kitchen for our mains. On my own accord.
This sums up the story of the evening for me.
Here's the thing. The two menus did not seem seem to be discordant at all.
If I was with a mixed group of diners, with people ordering according to their own varied tastes from a menu, I would still feel that the dishes on our table could very well sit in peaceful co-existence.
Of course the flavours of the from each side was distinct from the other and yet they did not clash unlike the way one would expect the fare in a Bengali restaurant, which usually tends to be high on oil and spice compared to what's eaten at home, to do with what we had eaten during the lovely week that K and I had spent in Montmartre in Paris a couple of years back.
'Many in body, one in mind.'
The reason for the culinary harmony between the French and Bengali culinary traditions that I experienced this time around at Mustard became clear once I listened to what Pritha had to say once we settled down for dinner.
Pritha explained that according to her both Bengali and French cuisines lay a premium in highlighting the subtlety of flavours and in making the most of each ingredient used in a dish.
This reminded me of Anthony Bourdain writing in his book, A Cook's Tour, about how nothing was wasted in the French kitchen unlike in the American one. That is true of the Bengali kitchen too. Think meter chorchori, machhed mudo diye daal or lauer khosha bhaaja for example. Edible flowers? My granny would serve me kumro phool bhaaja, batter fried pumpkin flowers, ever since I was a kid in her kitchen in Kolkata. Something that came back to my while having zuchhini fritters in an Italian restaurant in Sydney years later.
The historian in her, made Pritha point out that the time the French were taking their fine dining philosophy (1700 and 1800s) across Europe was also the time by which the French were were well entrenched in Bengal. This meant that the fine dining in Bengal then was at par with what was available in Europe with French trained chefs and bawarchis being employed by the British and the Bengali aristocracy too. The latter also meant that the ladies of the house often imbibed many of these influences.
This made sense to me when I thought back to the betki Meuniers, the baked Alaskas, the fish a la Dianas and the devilled crabs of the Mocambos and the Oasis's and the Moulin Rouges (yes, we have one too, but sans the can can today) of Kolkata's Park Street, which defined 'continental' food for us while we were growing up Kolkata.
There was of course a French outpost in Bengal in Chandannagore and they had come to India before the British and had left after them said Pritha.
Pritha told us that chef Gregory Bazirre, who is the consultant for the French side of the menu, comes from a family in Normandy which has run a restaurant in a local village for around ninety years and which is always packed. She said that with the new menu at Mustard, chef Greg had gone back to the rustic traditions of the food that has shaped his identity. The plating of her dishes looks even more rustic at times but they might still be working on that.
We had first eaten chef Gregory's food at La Poisson Rouge at Baga quite enjoyed it. He is behind the food at Bandra's Taj Mahal Tea House too. Another of our favourite spots.
Pritha said that like chef Gregory, she too has gone back to her roots in developing the menu at Mustard. That she has tried to pay homage to the food of 'undivided Bengal'. The food represents some dishes that were a part of her growing up days and many that are based on what she has discovered while researching hing Bengali food.
Neither chef aims to replicate the food of yore to the T of course, but yet try to stay true to their DNA in faraway Mumbai. The two were clearly working in unison towards a common goal of putting out great food while staying true to their origins.
The food at Mustard this time, unlike in my earlier visit, made sense to me this time. And that is because it is bound by a shared philosophy and not just an ingredient.
There is more in common between Bengalis and the French, of course, than what Pritha said. We both love the arts and are food obsessed too and can argue with each other on politics till the cows come home. Let's not forget the wry joke from my school days in Kolkata. That of the various European nations, the French were the only ones to play 'our style' of football. Just as the Brazilians did,
Wait, I think this was said in all seriousness!
Can we get to the meat please? Or should we say the fish?
|The Bengali mezze|
However, let me not leave it all in the air, like we Bengalis and French are wont to do as the British would wryly say, and give some examples of what I meant in what I have written so far from what we ate at Mustard that evening.
Take the Bengali 'mezze platter' with the crunchy (there is a soft one too though not at the restaurant) version of the Baqarkhani bread of Dhaka paired with dips of intense smoked cheese (a Dutch influence perhaps), pureed spinach, minced shrimp and a robust slow cooked loita maachh pate. Loita maach is of course the good old Bombay Duck which I am told was originally more popular in east Bengal though it has now made an appearance in the fish markets of Kolkata. In a dinner conversation at friend's, Pritha ascribed this phenomenon being a result of the rising affluence of those who had come to Kolkata during the partition and who had then settled in the south of the cities. Those who were once referred to as 'refugees' have now become sought after consumers and that shows in the dynamics of the market.
If you shut your eyes, you might think that you were in Lebanon, Algeria or Morocco, while making your way through the mezze at Mustard. All former French colonies of course. As everyone following the World Cup knows, the French football team has a large proportion of players who draw their roots to its former colonies.
Being the archetypal red meat loving Bengali male, French food to me is all about luscious steaks and tartares and foie gras (pan seared please) and grilled beef marrow and I wondered how would I get that in Mumbai. Hence, I had underestimated the French half of the menu before coming there as I realised later. You do not get these for obvious reasons at Mustard too.
|Cheese baked mussels|
However, the influence of Normandy on chef Gregory showed in the subtly flavoured baked mussels and lobster thermidor canapes that we had at the start and which were all about the great quality of the seafood used. That's when I remembered that Normandy was where the Allied invasion happened in the second world war and it struck me that seafood would probably be abundant there. I realised that French food does not have to be just about meats and butter and cream. That there is a piscetarian side to it too.
Which, I realised, was one more connection. Bengalis are known for their love of fish. Albeit fresh water fish.
|Mocha guley kebab|
|Kaach kola shammi kebab|
There were two starters from the Bengali vegetarian side that looked like Galauti kebabs but were subtly flavoured and had none of the intense garam masala spicing that one associates with the much revered kebab made famous by Tunday in the by-lanes of Chowk in Lucknow.
One was the mocha guley kebab, a coin shaped kebab made with finely chopped banana blossoms. The taste of which was defined by the inherent sweetness of the mocha and the texture of which had the pleasant bite that one associates with a mochar ghonto and the mochar chop too.
Then there was similarly shaped kaacha kola (unripe banana) shammi kebab which had a more dense feel to the texture of its stuffing. While having it I remembered my late grandfather who use to wait all year for the season of unripe bananas to come. so fond was he of that. He would have liked the kaach kola shammi kebab too I am sure and above that be most tickled to find this humble ingredient which even my granny didn’t like, though she cooked it for him, featured in such a posh restaurant.
If you presented either kebab to a European then they probably would not find any of the garam masala or chilli powder or oiliness which they would expect in a kebab or a pakora from India.
|Polenta and gruyere croquette|
We did have a few more starters such as the polenta and gruyere croquette from the French side and the ilish and bhetki paturi. The latter was wrapped in kochu or coulcasia leaves and not the usual banana leaves which meant that one could chew on the leaves too and this added a novel dimension to the taste.
I must mention the chops or kebabs made with khoi or popped rice from the Bengali side of the Mustard kitchen. This could very well be a cousin of the polenta croquette. While I have had khoier mowa in Kolkata, this was a wonderful new experience for me.
|The Khoier chop/ kebab|
There were some tiny 'taaka' luchi and alurdom where the flavours were very grandma's kitchen like. Every dish comes with a story here and Pritha told me that such tiny luchis and alur dom were once a popular street food dish in North Calcutta. Taaka means Rupee and refers to the coin-like size of the luchi.
For the mains, we tried (I had K, her mom and mine for company and hence I could try so many dishes), the doodh tyangra. Small river fish cooked in a delectable milk and turmeric curry which to a European audience would bring back memories of Far East Asia. It is made with dairy though and not coconut milk.
Unlike in the west coast of India where seafood and dairy are not paired, cooking (freshwater) fish with milk or curd is not uncommon in Bengal. While I am familiar with doi maach, this was again new to me and I wonder how many more surprises Pritha has up her sleeve in the Mustard menu.
I also tried the the Chitogramer Kala Bhuna, slow cooked beef from the Muslim kitchens of East Bengal, served with what looked like French crepes. The 'crepes' were in reality, shoru (thin) chaakli explained Pritha, made with a batter of powdered rice and lentils (motor dal in this case) and then steamed.
In the west of Bengal, they apparently add jaggery inside, and serve it sweet Pritha told us. Just as French crepes are both sweet and savoury, I thought.
I had never heard of the shoru chakli before but my mom had and she was very excited as she had never tasted it before.
|Both the moms loved the food. I thought I will put this picture up|
as my previous post featuring them got lot of hits. I might have
finally cracked the SEO game seems. Just put up pics of the moms!
The chakli combine very well with the onion rich, near Kolkata's Anadi cabin kosha mangsho-like sauce, The meat here was rather tough though. The only false note in the dinner. The result of using buff and not beef that Mumbai enforces I reckon and Pritha said so and said she is working on tenderisers to sort this. The curry was very Indian, very Mughlai, thought the sweetness of the onions tamed the potential fieriness of the dish somewhat.
|The delectable oxtail ravioli at Mustard|
K tried a small plate from the French menu for the mains, the oxtail ravioli, and we were both blown away by its magnificence.
The ravioli was thin skinned, symbolic of the way both the French and us Bengalis can be in an argument!
The oxtail was cooked to tender, tender perfection. While oxtail dishes can be very meaty and overpowering, their being sliced into thins slivers ensure that it was not so here.
As K said, and I agree, both the ravioli and the meat got equal importance in the dish. The ravioli was served in an intense oxtail broth which added loads of flavour to the dish and which I am sure David Chang would happily appropriate as being Chinese influenced. The broth did look rather Din Tai Fung like.
|One of the best risottos ever.|
I called for the mushroom risotto too and let me go on record saying that it is the best risotto that I have had in India and I have had a fair number here including at five star hotels run by expat chefs.
If, like my mother in law, you like your risotto to be creamy and cheesy and the rice mushy, then you would be disappointed by this, just as she was. Luckily she was stuffed by then and had enjoyed the rest of the meal.
On the other hand, if a risotto where the rice has a point of view and bite, and where the flavour hinges on the intensity of the stock used, portabella mushrooms in this case, then the ristotto at Mustard would make you sing.
|Taking stock of the risotto...chef Rajan Mhatre|
Chef Vicky Ratnani, a very talented cook himself with a great understanding of flavours, had once told me that classical European cooking hinges on the use of stock and that this is something many of our young chefs of today forget he feels.
He would be proud, I am sure, of the mushroom risotto landed by executive chef Rajan Mhatre of Mustard.
|Aaam doi and raspberry pistachio cake|
Desserts? I had a spoon of each.
The mango aam doi from the Bengali kitchen could very well be a French baked yogurt sold in a cafe outside the Louvre. The flat malpua served in rabdi might very well look like a 'deconstructed crepe suzette' (barring the orange segments and brandy) to a Parisian, but took me back straight to the world of the Gangurams of Kolkata,
While I was trying these out, I saw K and my mom in law lavish the same love on the raspberry and pistachio that Joey, Rachel and Chandler, of FRIENDS, once had to the cheesecake delivered by mistake to their apartment.
Time to think again Mr Kipling?
I went to Mustard expecting to be privy to the chaos and turmoil of the dialectical conflict caused by the its inherent contradictions... of the sort Hegel had spoken of in the context of society and which we had to study in Marxist sociology paper in college in Kolkata in the early 1990s.
And yet, I came back with the same warm fuzzy feeling of joy and pride that I had felt as a schoolboy in Kolkata in 1989, when the then President of France, the late Francois Mitterrand, had personally presented France's highest civilian award, legion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) to the late Satyajit Ray.
It was as if our dinner that night at Mustard, 29 years later after the momentous occasion, was our way of celebrating the event.
|Source: Times of India archives on the web|
Mustard in Mumbai is yet to open and the licensing work is in the process. This post is on the basis of a hosted preview dinner and is not meant to be read as a restaurant review. It is located at the Atria Mall in Worli.
|With a deservedly happy Pritha Sen at Mustard Mumbai|