Saturday, September 13, 2008

Eating Indian: Mirchi at Esplanade, Singapore

Indian cuisine has a special place in my heart. I don't know why, but it appeals to me right to the my very core. Spicy, rich, fragrant, pungent, tasty, satisfying are all adjectives which come to mind when I think of Indian. Especially so in India, where the produce, seafood, meats are super fresh.

But also in almost any big city, its a cuisine I can count on to have a good meal. Be it in Geneva (I will blog about Gandhi's Cafe at Rue de Neuch√Ętel later), Bangkok (the thali in Bukhara at Thanon Sukhumvit is amazing), Kuala Lumpur or Penang, or Sydney (Zaffran at Darling Harbour is a great Indian restaurant). Of course in India, in New Delhi (especially Bukhara at Sheraton Hotel) or Mumbai, or even Karachi or Dakha or Colombo the taste and falvours are incredible. My postulate on why there are so many great Indian restaurants abroad is that Indian spices travel better than Chinese or Thai. Indian food in India is still a bit better than outside, but internationally Indian restaurants are close. Closer than Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, or Japanese restaurants outside of Japan, or even Cantonese outside of Hong Kong (and Singapore, Malaysia).

Kin and I went to catch the last performance of Puccini's the Grand Opera Turandot in the Esplanade for the 08 season. This was quite a good season by the Singapore Lyric Opera, the orchestra was magnificent, and singing quite good. We took this opportunity to eat Indian.

The fine dining scene for Indian cuisine has been characterised by Northern Indian cuisine, whilst the lower end is epitomised by Southern Indian banana leaf style. Both are great, and sometimes I have a craving for the rich, creamy nothern stuff, and at other times, I love the more base, sour, spicy taste of the South. Tandoor at the basement of Holiday Inn Parkview, Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Hotel, and lately Song of India have led for a long while. And more recently a few upstarts have started to make their mark. Mango Tree Coastal in East Coast is one such example. And Mirchi - A Taste of India, run by the folks at Harrys Bar (who also used to own Chicos and absolute favourite Mexican restaurant which sadly is no more...though it would be fair to say I love Chicos and Charlies when they were under the original management) is another.

Starting with a rather typical appetiser of papadams. The one served is the toasted/roasted type. Two versions were slightly spicy and the other not. Not surprisingly, being the fat lover that I am...I prefer the deep fried variety - more fragrant and better mouth feel, so the papadam had an uphill battle to win my affection right from the start.

Tough job for the papadams, and I found it to be dry, and sticks to my teeth. But the condiments which accompanied was inspired. Three small steel bowls contained a sweet mango chutney, a tangy mint chutney and salty variety.

I did not care much for the salty version...and as a freudian slip forget what it was, forget what it was. But the mango was supreme. Sweet, beguilling, it had sour undertones sufficient enough to cut the coyness from the sweet, and allowed the dish to be predominantly sweet. The mint chutney was very refreshing, and kept good company for the mutton/lamb...cutting the grease and richness of the meat.

And Biryani is special to me too...I never cared much for it while I was growing up...most of the time preferring white rice with my Nasi Kandar over Biryani. But suffice it to say, that I had my eyes opened when I first sampled its fragrant, enchanting delight in India. It totally captured my imagination. Most of the biryani's served by the eating houses and coffee shops in Singapore are no more than mere flavoured rice. But a well done example in India - say by the Copper Pot in Mumbai, is by necessity oily, rich, but hugely satisfying. The gosht biryani, lamb marinated in curd, and cooked in a pot sealed with dough so the cooking is done by dum (steam) is a style of Hyderabadi biryani known as kacchi.

The basmati rice used was thin, almost wirelike, and dyed with saffron and spices. Very fragrant, it was less oily than those I have tasted in India, which frequently comes almost drenched with ghee - super sinful (cholesterol and calories wise...but oh, so good). Burried deep in the pot - my mental image is one of a pot of one digs into it, one is rewarded with more and greater treasure, one finds chunks of very tender lamb. I found the lamb to be lean, and as a result, not as tender as it can be. The very best lamb usually come on the bone, fat exuding from the entire piece, and so tender it disintegrates on touch. Mirchi's was lean, and though tender, did not quite reach the ultimate tenderness. But overall, the lamb biryani was excellent enough for me to place this as one of the best 5 in Singapore.

We also had Murg Methi - a chicken curry-like dish. The thick gravy which was very rich, fortified with ground cashews. The chicken was extremely tender, and flavourful. The spicy, peppery chicken was very tasty. Really very rich in taste, it went extremely well with the naan.

Roti in particular naan is the staple in India, especially the North, more so than rice. And one of the hallmarks of a great Indian restaurant in India is the superlative naan. When I am in India, the naan is often so fluffly and tasty, that I keep nibbling after I am completely full after a meal, that this is the stuff which drives me to overeat. The Mirchi variety was very well done, actually excellent. We had the butter naan as well as a plain naan. Both were fluffy and light, and tasty. But compared to the best, it could not rival those I have eaten in India. It lacked the very last bit which encourages me to continue to nibble when I am full. But this is very good naan, and we are talking about the very last bit of excellence.

The dhal makhani was another must try. Black lentils are slow cooked,and was rich, thick, creamy...I suspect a large amount of butter and cream was used to achieve this great taste. Each grain of lentil was distinct, but almost melting into the creamy gravy. This is a full, rich, delicate taste. Truly superb. This is definitely one of the best dhal I have eaten.

Service was a delight, especially so for a Singapore restaurant. The waitress who served us was very knowledgable, polite, fast, and very professional. The ambience of the restaurant was very romantic...dark, with beautiful Indian accents decorating. Clever use of curtains allowed temporary rooms to be partitioned off to allow some measure of privacy for events.

A Taste of India
The Esplanade
8 Raffles Ave #02-23

Photo note. The restaurant was very dark, and use of a flash was mandatory. I bounced the flash off the neutral colored ceiling. I quite like the results.
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