The Menage a Trois at the Apollo Bar of the Taj, whose name in any case 50 per cent of the flashpots of Mumbai who lunched there could not pronounce, is closed. It has been replaced by the Chef Hemant Oberoi-inspired Cali-Indian cuisine.
Cali-Indian is part of the fusion cooking (borrowing bits and pieces from various cuisines and combining them into a new dish)that is trendy in the West. In this case, it is a fusion of the crisp freshness of Californian ingredients with the aromatic richness of Indian spices. Actually, it is much more complicated than that.
Mr. Oberoi is the executive chef of the hotel, in charge of its various eateries. If the Zodiac Grill is his showpiece, the Apollo Bar is his dream restaurant. It took him a year to devise and perfect the new cooking, select the crockery, prepare the menu. The end product, I may tell you, is superior to anything ever eaten in Mumbai. Take a bow Mr. Oberoi. No, not the Oberoi-Hemant Oberoi.
I was invited to the Apollo Bar one lazy afternoon this week to try the food. Viewed from the 20th floor, the world below looked pleasant and at peace. Domestic tourists, many of whom were having their first view of the sea, were queuing up for the launch ride. And, inside the bar, waiters moved softly in gloved hands and on padded feet. The air-conditioning, perhaps, was a little too high, and the music a little too loud. But I was there for the food, I should not complain about miscellaneous things.
And the food is definitely United Nations: soft shell crabs from California, salmon and lamb from Scotland, beef from New Zealand, duck from China, pakchov from Hong Kong, seven varieties of lettuce from Holland, balsamico sauce from Italy. I will not mention the prices. Later, perhaps, right now I do not wish to spoil your appetite.It is a short menu, a dozen items, veg and non-veg, and, unlike the Menage days, when there was only luncheon service, the new menu is available both lunch and dinner. Also, for the benefit of those who complained about the small portions at the Menage, these are comparatively larger.
Between receiving calls on his mobile, and instructions to chefs in various kitchens over the internal network, Chef Oberoi talked. "I spent a month in California, visited the Spago, Melange, visited the markets, picked up various pieces of crockery, one of each type, then took them to London and gave them to Wedgewood as samples to manufacture sets for us. When four people have a meal at a table, not only the food on each plate looks different, but each plate looks different."
Chef Harshad Thakur, who looks after the Apollo kitchen, informed about the health aspects of his food. The cream content in the food is negligible and most of it is prepared in extra virgin olive oil instead of butter.
Time to move to the food. They served me a warm mushroom salad, which looked either like a still life painting or the flag of a particularly romantic country, with the Dutch lettuces spread out on the plate, three types of mushrooms making a central mound. The mushrooms were shitake and button, and morrel, crisply fried and done in a ginger, garlic and pepper sauce. Each mushroom had a sort of a batter covering that you crunched through to reach the soft centre. Very popular, I understand, with vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
The menu has two soups, veg and non-veg. I had the roasted corn soup with jalapeno cream. The interesting part was how it was served. One waiter placed a square plate in front of me, not too deep and in fact definitely shallow. In the centre of the plate were scattered fresh corn kernels, over roasted, more like popcorns, and at one corner of the dish was placed a plump red Mexican chilli. If they tell you the chilli is not very hot, do not believe them, but you have to bite into it. No point in having a jalapeno if you are not going to taste it.
To continue: a second waiter came with a silver pot of soup, which he carefully emptied into my plate, on the top of the popcorns. The soup was made of vegetable stock, garnished with turmeric and flavoured with popcorns and jalapeno. Indian palates should love it, Western palates would make a discovery with it.
The non-veg soup is a chilli consomme, served in the same grand style. It has chick-pea dumplings and chillis.
That takes care of soup and salad. I shall now mention a few of the outstanding dishes. And the most outstanding should be the soft shell crabs. Correct me, please, but I think the Apollo Bar is the only place in town serving them. First of all, they are not home product, they come from California, every fortnight. And, in fact, the only two places they breed are California and the Australian coast. And you may have had soft shell before, but this is real soft, you may cut it with a knife, put it in the mouth, along with the meat, chew it and eat it.
The crabs are marinated with garlic lime, salt and pepper, done in a tempura batter of very fine flour and water, and deep fried in extra virgin oil. They are done with a ginger dressing, and served with horse radish cream and a salad.
The pink salmon, Scotland's pride and joy and rival to its scotch, is served in a big thick wedge, a large chunk of some of the tastiest meat in the world. It is grilled and tossed with pinenuts in balsamico vinegar, and served on a bed of wholewheat grain which has been soaked and boiled. The eventual flavour is sweet, sour and nutty.The New Zealand tenderloin, at least the one I had, was among the most tender beef I have eaten. No mad cows here. The meat is on a T-bone, you hold it between your fingers and bite through it, separating meat from bone. You get it with black pepper and cider sauce, and it is served on a bed of pakchov. Note the combination-New Zealand and Hong Kong.
Most of the herbs and spices and Indian or Asian, and the chicken is char-grilled in a tandoor but served with asparagus and fennel. Similarly, the satays (prawn, chicken, lamb) are served with a pestou instead of peanut butter. However, the parsley that goes in the Italian pestou, is replaced with coriander. A bit of chicken tikka here, but refined.
Before we move on to the vegetarian items, let us clear our mouth with a shorbet. Once again the genius of the Apollo kitchen comes into play. I was served a sugarcane shorbet, sugarcane spiked with ginger, exactly as you wuld find it on the pavements of Mumbai, but much more hygienic no doubt, suitable for the most delicate stomach. It came in a glass, with a spoon, and was like the more familiar ice gola, compliments of the house.
And a mention of the butter. It is a white butter, prepared in the main kitchen, half the butter pat is flavoured with sunrise tomatoes, the other half with pestou. Apply generously on the onion breads and consume with the soup.
The veg dishes include a fondue, served in plate, not a bowl. On the bread, baked in the hotel (they call it spiced burschetta),they pour the fondue of asperagus and smoked pepper. A little like spreading cream on top of bread. Then there is a pizza made with four different cheeses-fresh parmessan, morzella, gruyere and emantel. It is topped with artichokes and carmelised garlic. Yes, carmelised. Next, lentin and spinach parcels, dumplings packed with spinach, feta cheese, placed on a base of lentils (whole green mung and masoor, tossed with chillis, garlic and ginger. Served with a curry-flavoured sauce.
The dessert came at the end of a long afternoon. I was served a sauternes custand (good old caramel custard), with California prunes and a dash of Armagnac. And I was given one frosted banana to eat from the fruit salad plate.
The prices vary from Rs.475 for the tenderloin and Rs.400 for the salmon to Rs.125 for the soups, plus the taxes, must not forget them. A king's ransom, perhaps, but a worthy sum, you will agree, as you come down the 20 floors in the high-speed elevators, mind and heart filled with the flavours of carmelised garlic and smoked chillis, basil, pinenuts, Mediterranean bean stews, pickled cucumbers and mintflavoured avocados.