Three capsule lifts glide you half-way up a waterfall to the coffee shop of Vithal Kamath's The Orchid, India's first ecotel (an ecotel is an ecology-friendly hotel). Some preliminaries: The Orchid is the new five-star hotel (sorry, ecotel) outside Santa Cruz airport and behind the Centaur. Its coffee shop is called Boulevard, located above the ecotel's main concourse and looking down on it. It covers a large rectangular area, 138 covers plus a separate coffee bar, brewing and serving 24 varieties of coffee. You may sit at your table and watch half hypnotised the waters of the fountain fall in elongated streams, the sun shining in from the skylight above and turning them into silver ribbons. And, behind the waters, the capsule lifts move silently up and down the walls. You may get up and help yourself to an elaborate buffet lunch (12 desserts), or, depending on the time of the day, a slightly less elaborate buffet at midnight. Or you may order a la carte, everything from Thailand's yellow curries to Tenderloin Grand Duc Ivan. There is also a breakfast, starting at 5 a.m., and a 'lightning menu', where the steward places a stop watch on your table and matches it. All in all, a most comprehensive coffee shop.
My introduction to the Boulevard was with lunch the other afternoon, in company of Executive Chef Sanjay Malkani and Manager Brian Almeida, both ex-Oberoi. I skipped the buffet, except for the soup of the day, a mussels chowder, flavoured with a hint of saffron, and garnished with root vegetables. Then, after some personal consideration and on the chef's advice, I had a Gambas Don Juan (Rs.350). This turned out to be grilled prawns, not too large, almost pink in their freshness, in a sherry cardinal and morel sauce, also pink. There were some hash browns on the side, giving a salty tinge to the prawns, no other vegetables to interfere with the eating. The sauce was interesting, it was a lobster-butter sauce. Chef Malkani explained: We take a lobster's head and cook it in brandy, then smash the head, butter it, and strain it. It comes out as a pink sauce, butter-based. The lightly grilled prawns get sauteed in the butter. The morel sauce is black mushrooms, it gives it a body. As an entree it came out light and delicate, like eating into a prawn cocktail.
Chef Malkani had Bombay Duck Indiana Jones (Rs.225), and he gave me one of the bombils to try out. The bombil was stuffed with the tiniest of shrimps, sauteed, and with chopped green chillis. Once again, he explained the operation: We split the stomach of the Bombay duck and remove the central bone. The shrimps are stuffed in the stomach and the stomach is stitched with thread and needle. Dusted with rice flour, fried, the string removed and served. I thought it tasted like the Parsi prawn kebabs, that they eat with their dhansaks, though a little more subtle. Interesting, but I take my Bombay ducks seriously, I like them plain, gently pan-fried, the bone in it, so that I can chew on it and extract all the juice. When we were young, we were told that we'd get elephantitis if we chewed on fresh bombil bones, but that's an old wives' tale. Manager Almeida, (exOutrigger, Oberoi), he had a sate with the usual peanut sauce and the brown rice, nasi goreng, I believe, they call it in Malaysia. It was a chicken sate, he shared one stick with me. Earlier for starters, we all shared Lap Kai (Rs.160), diced and shredded chicken in a Thai dressing of lemon grass, very perky, the white meat tender, contrasting with grains of roasted raw rice. An unusual starter for an unusual afternoon.
I will mention two more unusual dishes. The Pomfret Mango, an invention of the chef, the pomfret fillets marinated in Madras curry powder, then grilled and curried and served on a bed of mango mousseline (mango puree and sauce holondaise), with mushrooms and fresh coriander. The second dish, Chicken Argenteuil, where the chicken breast is stuffed with spinach and asparagus rolls, and the whole combination pan-fried in a cheese batter with red wine walnut sauce.
There is also an extensive section of Continental and Indian vegetarian, including vegetables layered in flaky pastries on a bed of green peppercorn cream and topped with cumberland sauce. And paneer steaks filled with mushrooms, with a tomato-ginger-honey glaze. Plus, pastas sauteed in garlic-tomato and cheese cream sauces, kadi pakodas, chole bhature. And the rice dishes include, besides the biryanis and the Chinese fried rice, the bisi belle huli anna, the South Indian dahi rice with chopped green chillis and hot mango pickles, available 24 hours round the clock, Mr. Kamath assures me.
A word about the lunch buffet, 12.30 to 3 p.m., two soups, six non-vegetarian dishes (two seafood, two chicken, one lamb, a beef or pork), 18 vegetarian dishes 12 salads, 12 desserts, breads, rotis, naans, Rs.400, inclusive of all taxes. Says Manager Almeida: We include the tax in our prices, so there's no confusion later on.
Evening is a la carte, but there is a late evening buffet, from 11.30 p.m. to 3 a.m., Rs.275, and from 5 a.m., the breakfast service starts, which includes a Rs.325 buffet, which includes everything from eggs to order to sausages, uttapams and puri bhajis, plus cornflakes, porridge, fruits, fruit juices. Start the day properly fed.
And a Kamath glimmick, the lightning menu of appetisers, soups, curry favourites, meats, vegetable dishes. When a customer orders, the waiter places a stop watch on the table. Besides the clock, it has a legend written on it, 'If we delay, you don't pay'. The waiter then serves you in 15 minutes flat. A second late, and you eat free. Finish your lightning meal and cross over to the airport in time for your flight. Then find that your plane is delayed.
Of course, you can always spend time sitting on the stools around the Coffee Bar. There's straight coffee, from Turkish to South Indian, iced coffee, from Irish mocha to black forest, and laced coffee, laced with Cointreau, Tia Maria. Benedictine, Irish Whiskey, Tequila, Southern Comfort rum with cream of coconut. Try the Turkish, the beans are the Arabica variety, they are roasted and ground to a certain level, never fine, then the nrew is poured in, along with the sediments, in small cups. You may have it sweet, medium or without sugar. The Arabs have it very sweet, so should you. Try it tonight, and don't eat the sediments. Then get in the capsule lift and watch the lobby rise to meet you.