In Search Of The Perfect Meal
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What is your definition of a perfect meal? I am talking about the sort of meal that you would not mind travelling the world for. A meal whose story you would like to tell your grandchildren about someday.
The sort of meal that could be a near out-of-body experience for you. The changes are that every element in such a life-defining meal would come together in perfect unison to make you feel like royalty. The food, the service, the seating and the surroundings, even something as basic as the dinnerware used. That is what distinguishes a fine dining experience from a great home-cooked meal or eating at an iconic street food joint. The sense of luxury and precision that goes into each aspect of the meal is what perfection is all about and that comes from practice and passion. It is an experience that leaves you feeling pampered and special.
The perfect meal starts with the use of perfect ingredients; diligence in sourcing is what lays the foundation for a great dining experience. It is the lengths that a chef goes to get you the best produce that can make or break a meal. In the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, one gets to see the chef’s obsession to source the best fish for his restaurant, which involves rejecting many on the way. This explains why his restaurant has a year-long waiting period at times.
At the Saffron restaurant at J W Marriott, Juhu, chef Shahnawaz Qureshi uses lamb from New Zealand to make his otherwise very Indian mutton burra kebab. The juiciness brings in a different dimension to the kebab from what is the best of meat. The chef knows what works better for the international palate and the jet-setting crowd. He knows his guests and takes the effort to source the very best for them.
It is not just about great ingredients alone, of course. You can get bring the best of ingredients to the kitchen, but you need the skill of a great chef to create magic with them. For a meal to be distinctive, it boils down to the genius of the chef, as well as the hours put in in the kitchen to perfect his art.
Take the foie gras soup that the chefs at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Pierre, at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel had once made for me. Serving a slice of foie with chutney or serving a pan seared foie gras would have made the dish special in any case. Making a soup of it though, where every bite burst with the flavour of great foie gras, meant that the memories of the dish stayed with me long after I had returned to Mumbai. The dish was prepared especially for me based on my preferences and that’s what a fine dining experience is all about.
Personalizing is the key. You don’t get foie gras easily and have to travel the globe for it. However, there has been a global movement towards conscious eating and a big part of this is eating local and thereby reduce one’s carbon footprint. This is what motivates Prateek Sadhu of Mumbai’s Masque Restaurant to source his duck from Gurugram and not Normandy and Chef Sunayan of the ITC Sonar in Kolkata to source duck meat from the local haats (village markets) surrounding the hotel. The chefs have used their cooking prowess to convert the gamey meats through techniques such as sous vide cooking, to make the end result comparable with a duck meat dish that you can get anywhere in the world.
It takes passion to bring perfection to the plate and that’s what a great chef does. The ambiance of where you are eating plays a big role in making a meal memorable. If you were to go the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai for breakfast, you will remember the experience as much for the perfectly made buttery and creamy scrambled eggs there, as you would for the view of the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. If you were to have a dim sum lunch at the Michelin-starred Man Wah, which is located on the 25th floor of Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, then you would remember it as much as for the perfection of its xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and egg custard tart as you would for the majestic glimpse of the Victorian Harbour.
Not all restaurants come with a view of course, but some make the extra effort to make you feel special. If you were to dine at the Dum Pukht at Mumbai’s ITC Maratha Hotel for example, you would be surrounded by the western express highway, the international airport and the busy and grimy Mumbai suburb of Andheri East overall. Doesn’t sound very royal right? Yet, you feel like royalty when you step in and nibble on the perfectly textured kakori kebabs and flavour-packed Awadhi biryani at the Dum Pukht. They have recreated the feel of a royal palace of Lucknow in the restaurant. The seating gives you a sense of privacy and exclusiveness.
Even the glasses and plates used look like they have come from the kitchen of a hedonistic and epicurean nawab and the experience leaves you feeling like one. Understated ceremony lies at the heart of the perfect fine dining experience and nowhere does this come through as beautifully as it does in a multi-course Chinese banquet. My first taste of this was at Flower Drum, a very exclusive Chinese restaurant tucked into one of the alleys of Melbourne. This was at a meal thrown by the agency I worked for to toast our paper which had won top honours at a global market research conference. I basked in the glow of the delectable meal and the special occasion for months after that.
Food and art go together and one could argue that food is art too. For the gourmand, the perfect meal can give the same satisfaction that a rare painting does to the well-travelled collector of art. Sometimes food and art can come together as it does at the Pavarotti restaurant at Milan which is located beside the Duomo. Every inch of the restaurant celebrates the life of the talented and legendary opera singer- whether it is through the paintings on the wall or his quotes written on the menu. Our dinner there consisted of heirloom Italian dishes made with artisanal produce, paired with vintage wines, beverages enjoyed with the recorded voice of Pavarotti serenading us in the background and this lifted the meal several notches higher.
The experience becomes more exclusive of course when the sense of history is very real and not just recreated. The palace hotels of Rajasthan are an example of this. You can have your dinner and then retire to the same chambers that were once the abodes of the maharajas. I once had the privilege of having dinner at the Westminster in London, which is the British Parliament building, as a guest of a British MP. The venue was the quirkily named ‘Strangers Dining Room’ where MPs can entertain guests from outside. Seated at a table across us was another Indian, acclaimed author, Vikram Seth! Every element of the meal, the service at the table with very distinguished looking waiters guiding us through the order, the artistry of the sauces on which the fried duck wontons were served and the quality of the meat used in my steak would satisfy the most discerning of epicureans. As the produce used there was understandably indigenous to the extent possible, one got a rare taste of British age beverages as well as a flavour of the power-packed English mustard.
The dinner ended with our host taking us on a personalized history tour to the House of Lords and then the House of Commons and right up to where the Prime Minister sits when the house is in session. Could a meal get any more perfect than this?
Kalyan Karmakar has been obsessed with food ever since he was a child and has travelled across the world seeking the perfect meal. He is one of the pioneering food bloggers of India and is the author of the award winning blog, www.finelychopped.net. He has recently written a food travelogue called The Travelling Belly which was published by Hachette India.