Here's what happens when modern day Indian chefs come across ancient Indian grains. Smoke House Deli 2.0

From the new green dot menu at Smoke House Deli

Being fans of the TV series it is based on, it was but natural that we went to catch a show of the new Downton Abbey movie yesterday. Not that it is running at too many theatres in Mumbai now and finding a place that was screening it was quite a task. If you love the franchise, you will enjoy the film. It is a 'time pass' film as we say in Mumbai, or to use language that Carlson would approve of, it is a 'feel good' film. Do not expect much in terms of storyline, but if you want to lose yourself in the world of kings and queens and peers and vicars and castles and wide green expanses and scones and tea of the England of the early 1900s, i.e., if you are Bengali or Parsi, then you would go out of your way to catch it. I must warn you that you might not understand much of what happens on screen if you have not seen the TV series previously.

We saw this at the PVR at Phoenix Mills at Mumbai's Lower Parel. It has been ages since I have seen a movie there. They have completely redone the foyer. Made it brighter and with a lot more eating options including sushi and what have you. We tried a chocolate croissant, as they call a pain au chocolat here, and it was of a fairly good quality. The cappuccino that I had needed a lot of work though. It was a throwback to the coffee machines of Gaiety Galaxy of the 90s, even though the chairs were so much better.

Movie done with, we headed to the Smoke House Deli outlet at Phoenix Mills. The restaurant has had a bit of a makeover recently in terms of the menu at the Phoenix Mills outlet and the look too. We had gone there one evening after that and had an avocado toast which had liberal slices of good quality avocado sourced from Madekeri in Coorg, feta and sourdough. Barring the overly crisp bread, it was a lovely plate of food indeed and sat easy on the conscience as well though, as Vir Sanghvi pointed out in his book The Indian Pantry, avocado is all fat even though it is considered to be a super food.

My plan yesterday was to have a burger that they call the 'bacanator' there and which I love. Once we settled down, one of their managers, Saurabh, got us copies of the menu and along with that what they call the 'green dot menu.' A newly launched menu it seems, consisting of dishes made with locally sourced and seasonal vegetables and ingredients, presented in a western/ 'European' format. Encouraged by what Sourabh explained about the concept, I decided to ditch my bacon burger dream and order from this instead as the menu offered ingredients such as green moong, sweet potato, black rice, buckwheat and many other ingredients that have become part of my own diet at home, now that I am older and trying to eat more prudently.

This black rice, bora saul rice and buckwheat risotto has my heart and deserved more than an Instgram post

I wrote this post primarily to tell you about a dish that really impressed me from their green dot menu. A risotto made with black rice from Manipur, the short grained bora saul rice of Assam and Himalayan buckwheat. I remembered reading about the bora saul rice somewhere and was keen to try it out. I do have black rice at home occasionally and I know that it is a tricky one to get right. I had heard about the Himalayan buckwheat from chefs Ranveer Brar and Prateek Sandhu, when they spoke about their travels to Ladakh, at a dinner hosted by chef Romy Gill at Soho House Juhu recently. The menu at SHD mentioned blue cheese which I love and I was keen to see how the dish would pan out.

The dish was marvellous. Not an 'Indian tribute to a risotto,' or 'khichdi meets risotto,' sort of stuff one sees in Mumbai these days. A true blue risotto. This belonged to the cheese packed North Italian school of cooking (barring the pork which was not there). The rice had a nice bite to it as a good risotto rice should have. Yet, the dish did not tax ones jawline unlike what had happened at times during my earlier attempts at trying  restaurants (including SHD Bandra and its upma) dishes made with other low GI grains such as quinoa or oats. The risotto here was delectably creamy and that did full justice to the textural complexity of the grains. Not of the runny, limp, 'flood on a plate' renditions that you might have experienced while ordering risottos (or pastas) in India. The chefs at SHD had used the blue cheese remarkably well. The sharpness of the cheese brought alive the dish which was made with grains which taste rather dense otherwise. Yet, its flavours were not excessive which can be a turn off when blue cheese is used by chefs who do not understand its flavour well. What I had yesterday, was a beautiful example of applying restraint in the kitchen, while cooking with a tough to harness ingredient.

Sourabh told me that they add a green pea puree to the dish. This gave natural sweetness to the dish I feel, and this is what might have added a much needed contrast to the cheese. They had also added bits of crisp capers which I felt admirably cut the creaminess of the dish. The dish was all about balance. Just as they say, life should be.

I finished my plate, after stopping midway earlier thinking that I should not eat so much. It was rather delicious and comforting.

Well, buckwheat and black rice are all low GI grains and are a part of the sort of food that I try to eat these days. What I call my #LittleJackHornerMeals. It is good to see restaurants come out what nice options in this area too.

With Sourabh and chef Vikas at SHD

Sourabh later introduced me to chef Vikas, one of their young chefs in the kitchen. They were both visibly  passionate about the food being served and this was infectious. Listening to chef Vikas made me realise that a lot of thought had gone into the conceptualisation of this dish. Take for example the fact that they had mixed three grains and not just used black rice as the latter by itself can get rather dull. I did enjoy the odd chewy bite of black rice which seemed so much less intimidating than having an entire plate of black rice. Vikas told me that the menu had been conceived by chef JD (Jaydeep Mukherjee).

Smoked corn soup

We did try a couple of other dishes yesterday afternoon. I had the smoked sweet corn soup, which once again was from the Green Dot menu. The soup was served piping hot, which is what I needed as I had a sudden case of sniffles that morning. Every bite spoke of the natural sweetness of the fresh corn which made it truly hearty. They had put in chilli oil and that made me cough a few times at the start though, given my low tolerance levels for chilli heat, but I got used to it eventually. They had put in black rice crackers instead of traditional croutons. Croutons while delicious and addictive, are deep fried pieces of bread at the end of the day. Black rice crackers seemed a far safer idea though it did get soggy quickly. Definitely an idea worth pursuing for sure from a health point of view.

Akoori with bun (no maska specified the Bawi at home)

K had an akoori from the regular menu. She asked for 2 eggs instead of 3 and a less spicy version and bun with no maska (butter). She loved the dish and could not stop praising it and did a #chetepute on it. I tried some too and found it to be pleasantly loose textured though I felt that the taste was a bit different from that at Ideal Corner in Fort where I had akoori a couple of weeks back. This was more 'Mughlai' sweet and spicy, but still tasty and the Parsi on the table did wipe the plate clean. By now one has learnt enough about Parsi food to know that know two cooks will ever deliver dishes that taste the same!

When we were done and settling the bill, Sourabh came out with a tasting sample of the ice creams launched by them at Smoke House Deli. One featured vanilla grown in Pollachi at TN ('world's most expensive' claimed Vikas), another 72 per cent dark chocolate from Madekeri in Karnataka and a third strawberries from Mahabaleswaram in Maharashtra. I could have told you about how creamy the ice creams were and how intense some of the flavours were, but K did my late father in law, the biggest ice cream lover the world has known, proud by finishing them while I took the pics.

K doing her dad proud

At the end of the meal, I stepped out impressed by how well the professional chefs at the restaurant had rendered dishes which were made with ingredients that are local and considered to be better for health today. Ingredients which were not a part of 'continental' restaurants in the country earlier.  Ingredients that I myself had got to know of thanks to the  work of the content creators of the world of food ... the food writers, bloggers, instagrammers, authors, home chefs, TV chefs, etc ... but which I had not really experienced the potential of. This meal completed this story for me and went to show how different parts of the culinary ecosystem can great together to take the Indian food story forward.

I was also impressed by the passion Sourabh and Vikas showed while talking of the dishes at Smoke House yesterday. Coincidentally, I read an interview of Riyaaz Amlani who heads the Impressario group of which Smoke House Deli is a part of, this morning while writing this article. It struck me that a lot of what he spoke about in the interview in terms of trying to present food which is more easy on the heart and and is more socially aware too, was actually encapsulated in the plate of risotto that I had yesterday. A restaurant driven by such sound vision would always win many hearts.

I often feel that restaurants such as Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Cafe or even Indigo Deli (which belongs to a different group and I am talking of the Bandra outlet here) in Mumbai do not get their share of time in discussions at restaurant award jury meets that I have attended.

The fact that they still run packed after all these years shows that their customers definitely have their ears to the ground regardless of what the lists say!

Anyway, as Mrs Patmore said in the Downton kitchen, that's enough philosophy for now, its time for some elbow grease.


Chef Vikas talks about the risotto

Sourabh talks about the ice cream. From my IG stories

Moneys & fine print: Our meal cost us around Rs 1,600. Ice creams were on the house. We dropped in unannounced. We are regulars at the restaurant and the visit did not turn out to be anonymous.

Also of interest

Explaining what #LittleJackHornerMeals are all about
The interview of Riyaaz Amlani that I referred to