If I were to pick one single item of food, among all the many splendored restaurants of The Oberoi, I would pick the salmon ka tikka at the Kandahar. It may be a bit of an irreverence, taking a pink Scottish salmon and turning it into a Punjabi fish tikka, but why should we complain. Let the Duke of Edinburgh take the matter up with Jiggs Kalra, if he likes. It is a Kalra creation and it is a success. Also, at Rs.325, a steal.
It tastes like a salmon all right, and looks like salmon meat, pink and tender, and you eat it like a kebab or a tikka, fork it and put it in your mouth. Ideal for an executive lunch, easily digestible at night. The restaurant could have used other fish, but most fish is dry and turns flaky in the oven. The salmon is an oily fish and so is ideal, the hilsa would also be good. The chef explained to me the preparation, cubes of salmon, matured in a slightly spiced marinade of dill, fennel, ginger and honey, add a touch of mustard oil to that, roast in the tandoor.
The other fish item in the kebab section, also worth ordering, is the karimeen pollichathu (I hope I have got the spelling right). It is a Kerala item, the karimeen, also known as pearl spot, an excellent fish found in the warm waters around Cochin, its only disadvantage being the number of bones. At the Kandahar, the bones are removed in the glass kitchen, and the fish is smeared with shallot, ginger, garlic and a paste of curry patta, then wrapped in plantain leaf and pan fried. It is a dry item, price Rs.375. This cooking method is practised in other parts of the warm sand, and there is the Parsa patri ni machi, though that is steamed.
But let me come to why I am writing this piece. it is to let readers know that the Kandahar cooking has gone in for a complete change, Jiggs Kalra, who has graduated from being a foodie to a foodist, has worked his magic. It is difficult to describe the change, but there is a great deal of subtlety added to the normal robust NWFP cooking. The six basic gravies in the handis are lighter, thinner and gentler, not too much cashew paste and almond paste and, yes, double cream. Jiggs Kalra, I think, wants to prove something, that Indian food need not be heavy, Nariman Point's corporate executives can have their lunch and go back to an active afternoon of decision making. He did that with Dum Pukht (that was an outstanding restaurant, such a pity it closed down along with the SeaRock), he is doing it with Kandahar. I wish him luck.
In the last couple of weeks, I have had both lunch and dinner at the place, I prefer lunch. Take a window table and look out on Marine Drive, a group of men beyond them, the sea flashing blue. I like the brightness of Kandahar, so much more comfortable that the street level restaurants that most five-stars prefer, concealed behind velvet drapes. But that, I am afraid, is the trend across the world, customers prefer lobby level restaurants. There is a decent crowd that gets together by 1.30 p.m., the cooks appear visibly busy behind the glass partition, giving impromptu performance of flying roomalis.
Talking of roomalis, there are the khakras you must start with. These are crisp rotis, more like brittle papads, famous in Surat, that are placed on the table straight away, along with the chutneys. Have the khakras with the green chutney, made out of coriander and raw mango, for once there is no mint in it. The other chutney on the table, also in house, is the saunth, made with amchur (dry mango powder), no tamarind. And the raw papaiya murabba, that you may have throughout the meal. For drinks, I suggest the chhaas, iced just to the right degree of coolness, spiced with freshly broiled cummin seeds, ginger, coriander and green chillis. Swallow the chillis, don't bite them, except for one or two. And it is time to order the food.
I have already two items from the kebab section, I shall mention a couple more. This is from the maansahaari (non-vegetarian) part. Go for the Kandahar ki khaas seekh. It is a seekh, but more like a large sausage, the outside made of chicken mince, and the inside a mousse of crab and shrimp. You may imagine how it tastes. The mince is the base for the taste buds, you bite into it and the cream of crab and shrimp meat fills the mouth, the crab dominates. The price - Rs.275, steal No.2. The other item I would like to mention here is the lamb chop. I prefer my meat on the bone, and though people talk of the leg of the lamb, the meat on the rib is better. There is too much meat on the leg for the marination to reach the bone, on the rib, it is just right. They call it chaamp on the menu, and, I think, from a rack, they make four portions., Rs.295 each. The chop is studded with cloves and black cardamoms, and braised slowly with kastoori methi and basil. The comes on the table, a nice chunk, pick the bone up with the hand and bite into the meat. Next, the kadhai cooking, where the real change is, between the old Kandahar and the new Kandahar. Most important, the kitchen has replaced the kadhai with the Chinese wok. They feel that the kadhai is a little too deep and hence retains extra oil, the wok is shallow, its surface flatter, it lends to stir fry cooking. So the meats and vegetables are less oily, less cooked, more crisp. The Indian cooks are now being taught to use the ladle less vigorously and the difference is mainly evident in the vegetarian cooking. In the tiny florets of cauliflower stir-fried with bell peppers, in the medley of mushrooms and cottage cheese that go to make an Avadhi paneer bhurji, minus eggs, naturally. Worth trying is an okra and baby potato dish with green mango. The mango is cut into very thin strips, like salli, and caramelised with lemon and sugar.
Among the non-veg kadhai dishes, I would recommend the crab chilli fry (Rs.445), flakes of crab meat, stir-fried with green chillies and ginger, and tempered with mustard and fenugreek, or the prawns, stirfried in black peppercorns, both are Kerala preparations. Or go in for the raan gosht. It is a leg of kid, but you don't have to chew and chew, the meat is shredded. Madras onions, which are remarkably sweet, and cherry tomatoes are used in the cooking, along with a basil and pepper masala. The number of handi dishes, the curries, have been brought down to three veg and three non-veg. There is the red snapper cooked in coconut milk and green chillies, adapted from Kerala; and the nalli, slow cooked in chilli and tomato gravy, from Hyderabad. Plus, jumbo morrels, stuffed with pomegranate, and simmered in a saffron and pomegranate gravy, for the vegetarians. And two dals. Forget the black lentils, only Delhiwallas eat it, go for the dal saat salaam (Rs.175). Prepared with all the lavish care and tortuous formality of Hyderabadi cooking, it has all the yellow and pink dals, udad, masoor, mung, channa, tur, mash, plus whole wheat. The dals are tempered seven times, each time with a different ingredient, garlic, onion, curry patta, cummin seed, mustard seed, hing. Eat the dal with a garlic naan. It has whole garlic in it, like in a garlic bread, you can seet it falling out of the roti.
After that, take a talk on Marine Drive, come back, have a badaamka halwa.