Monday, June 28, 2010

Open again

I had closed both Faraway Diaries and Finely Chopped yesterday. I have opened them again. Here's why

Friday, February 12, 2010

A trip to grandma's for the the summer hols ... Literati Bookshop and Cafe, North Goa

Some of our friends had told us about a place called Literati near Baga at North Goa. We were told that it was a cafe and a bookshop.

K and I went to the beach on our second day at Goa. I was carrying a stomach bug. Couldn't take the sun. So we decided to check out Literati the next day and have breakfast there.

I must confess that I was a bit underwhelmed when we reached there. We had the image of a Lila Cafe sort of place in our heads. What we saw was a pretty house in a lovely garden. Three rooms of books and a veranda which looked on to the garden. The 'cafe' part seemed limited. Creatures of urban comfort that we are, we missed our cappuccinos or having straws to sip the nice cold coffee on offer. The 'cheese sandwich' was just as your granny would make it. Cheese in two slices of bread, toasted in a griller. The food tasted tasted and smelt of the summer vacation trips to one's grandparents place.

As you have probably realised by now, Literati was a fairly rustic and simple operation. There were Irani cafe- like rules. 'No taking food inside.' 'No taking books outside'. 'No taking first hand books into the second hand section.'
So you had to sit quietly in the veranda and look into the green Eden like garden as you munched on the sandwich that granny made. 'Eden-like garden'? Was the place growing on us? Read on to find out more.

Fuelled by coffee and cheese we set off to check out the books. My first discovery was the 'Lost Diary Of Adrian Mole'. This set the tone for the rest of the morning. For Literati was not an assembly line of CD cum books cum mags cum fridge magnet cum Barbie shop. Literati represents the last of a rare, fast breed called 'bookshops'. They had the usual Pamuks, Harukamis and Balduccis. But if you looked around you would find books popping out and calling out to you. Books which would met your interests. Or of those whom you were fond of. There is nothing like the joy of discovering the perfect book when you least expect it.

The first room had the new/ first hand books. Then there are two more rooms which have second hand books. There are comfy sofas to sink in. Well worn. Ceiling fans to cool you. The mood is balmy and lazy thanks to the trees outside. The staff are very sweet and helpful. Don't expect any supermarket speed and efficiencies though.

To take the grandma metaphor further, the place did remind me of my visits to my grandparent's house when I was a kid. And the joys of discovering great books in my grandpa's collection. Literati is not a steel and chrome air conditioned functional shop. You should go there if you want to unwind, laze, step off from the treadmill and discover some great books. The place invites you to walk around, feel at home and takeaway memories. Don't go there if you want to pick a book on the go.

I suddenly heard Bengali being spoken while I was roaming around the shop. To be expected in a book shop I guess. They turned out to be a Bengali father and daughter couple. A Bengali lady called Mita, who had married a Dutch gentleman and had settled in Goa, and her father Mr Das who had come from Delhi. So we ended up having a Bengali association meet in the heart of Goa! Like my grandpa, Mr Das too felt that I should have joined the IAS!

Literati left us underwhelmed. And then overwhelmed. It grew on us. As K put it, it was the discovery of the trip. I can't tell you how good it felt be in a 'real' bookshop after ages. And in such an awesome setting. Looked after by such good natured people. Literati has shot up our 'must visit' list at Goa.

We picked loads of books for ourselves and our friends. Just about manged to dodge the excess budget limits.
For me the high point was meeting my old friend Aidy Mole again. And what better time for that than on my birthday trip? Hang on Aidy, the world will hear of your Newt Tales someday.

  • Literati is at a place called Ice Factory near Calangute at North Goa. Here's their web site for more details
  • They are shut on Sunday
  • The shop closes at 6 PM
  • The kitchen shuts at 2.30 PM. Because "she (the cook I assume) leaves"
  • They don't serve aerated soft drinks. But they serve wine and beer. That's Goa
  • If you see a lab who looks like Marley then you are likely to have met Frieda. Do say hi to her from me. Poor thing had to be dragged away as K squealed in fright when Frieda scampered in

Friday, February 5, 2010

KL Strikes Back

I visited KL in 2006. I was mighty unimpressed. Wrote about the same here.

Now one could always argue that this was a superficial outsiders un-researched take. But then that's what this blog is meant to be. A sum up of first impressions. I was actually at KL for more than a week. First for a conference. And then with Kainaz when she joined me. We did the touristy bits. Saw the Twin Towers. Climbed the other tower. Went to the Batik factories. The Museum and the Malls. Scoured the streets for food. Went to a highly recommended disc. Zouk. Which was shut. We were happy and relived to move onto Langkawi.

Three years down the line I discovered that the best way to see KL is to skip the Twin Towers!
If you look at KL from the surface then it is hard to find anything which distinguishes it from other Asian Tiger cities. What you need is someone who loves the city. And shares common interests with you to give you a real peek into the city.

Folks like Arindam and Sasha. Bengalis who moved into KL from Calcutta then Delhi and finally Mumbai. Arindam was earlier upset when he read that I was not impressed by KL. And was incensed that I had called Singapore the food capital of the world. He was bent on proving me wrong. Soon the opportunity came and I landed at their place at KL one Friday. What followed was a culinary romp through buttered pork, suckling pigs, chilly pan mee, siew yoke, fried frogs and lots lots more with a bit of touristy shopping thrown in at Ikea, Watsons and Carrefour.

We didn't see the Twin Towers. And I had a whale of a time.

Moral of the story. It pays to connect with someone who knows the city before you land up there. Ideally someone who has common interests with you. This will not always be possible. But you will be surprised what a little bit of blog searching or Facebook questioning could throw up. I learnt this from the expert. Sasha actually reads up travel sites and enters into discussions there before she plans Arindam and her vacations. Individuals tend to give less exhaustive but more intense and useful information. You are likely to gain much more than just going to impersonal travel directories, books or agents. I am going to do that the next time.

Anyone interested in Mumbai, Calcutta (slightly dated info), Baga Goa feel free to ask me questions. Especially if they are to do with food.

And you can go to my food blog, Finely Chopped, to see what we were up to in KL this time. Check this for live updates from KL and some more posts after I returned.

Here are some pictures to tempt you ...

Sasha and Arindam... the two people who can really bring KL alive for you

My first bite of frog

Roast suckling pork

Home of a heavenly delight - Chilly Pan Mee -handmade noodles, poached egg, fried mice pork, fried anchovies, a secret eleven spice chilly mix

A great place near the Mid Valley Mall for Siew Yoke (pork belly) and the legendary Chicken Rice

Yes, yes guys win, KL 7 Singapore 1

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chocolate and cheese and other sins Swiss

This is a piece which I wrote to sum up our Swiss trip. The idea was to debunk the nation that Switzerland is beautiful but unidimensional. And bring in a food lover's flavour to it of course. I conceptualised this as a magazine article or a chaper in a Travel book. So its not really short. The only mainstream media people to have published me so far are Mumbai Mirror. The only way this will fit in a newspaper will be if they delete every alternate line. Well here's the article, a long read I must warn you. Hope it sees the light of day someday.

“Switzerland’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get next” with apologies to Mama Gump
The audacity of hope
I must confess that Switzerland wasn’t on the list of our dream destinations. Nor were we planning an international trip this year. It all began when I was invited to present a market research paper at a conference at Montreux, Switzerland. My wife decided to join me and soon we went into a holiday planning mode.
Our mail inboxes were clogged, phone lines were busy and the roads outside our house was jammed in the run up to the trip as friends and well wishers kept telling us that we were making the biggest mistake of our lives. The common refrain was that Switzerland was pretty but boring, the place for Yash Chopra besotted tourists, not for ‘people like us’, that there was no history or character. Most suggested that we should go to the conference and then branch out to the rest of Europe. The fact that we planned to spend a fortnight there, including the conference week, made many want to jump out of their windows in despair and disgust. Add to that Lonely Planet’s cheerful introduction which said that Switzerland was a place that even folks from Western Europe would find too expensive.
Despite the red flags we started our arduous journey via Dubai to Zurich with a prayer and a thermal suit.
Smoke on the water
Zurich airport was cold, antiseptic and efficient. We took the escalator down and went to the train station. We were guided to the appropriate terminal by a very kind and patient grandpa at the help desk. Lonely Planet was right, Switzerland had an ageing population and was a bit like a Parsi Baug. As we found out, the folks at the stations and the ticket collectors were extremely helpful, warm, spoke fairly good English and doubled up as tourist guides, country ambassadors and even babysitters at times.
We were armed with a ‘Super saver’ Railway pass on the behest of our enterprising travel agent. This opened all train doors, got us onto all buses, ferries and even got us discounts and free entries into museums. A railway pass is a must if you are going to Switzerland. If you are going on your honeymoon you can afford to leave your spouse behind but not the Super Saver Swiss railway pass.
My wife and I did our Dilwale Dulhaniya bit and jumped into a train with our suitcases and reached Montreux a train switch and four hours later.

Our hotel at the French speaking Montreux, Villa Toscane, was a restored villa with no staff except in the mornings. We drew the curtains open and looked out onto a most amazing view. A tranquil lake. The lake of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’. A stately mountain. And a huge balcony and a terrace by our side. We were living the Princess Diaries.

We had to go the adjoining hotel lobby for breakfast which for me turned out to be a warm croissant, a pat of butter and more than a pat of Nutella chocolate spread. The salty burst of butter rushing to meet the noble, hazelnut chocolate spread, cocooned in a maternal bread is the stuff which makes heaven what it is. Add a good strong coffee, with a point of view, and you have just what was needed to start the day. Did I mention that every coffee that we had at Switzerland, be it at Starbucks, or at supermarket dispensers, or at elegant cafes or at hotel breakfast buffets, was a work of art matching up to the best treasures sleeping in Swiss bank vaults?

Yes we’ve all attended conferences at fancy hotels. But this one was special. It was at the Music Convention Centre, home to the International Jazz Festival, when we market researchers weren’t discussing statistics.

A bus ride of twenty minutes and you reached the Chillon Castle which looked like it was straight out of an illustrated Hans Anderson book. A castle which inspired Lord Byron to pen a poem and vandalise the dungeon walls by etching his name.

Montreux was also where we had the first Swiss national dish of Roesti, assorted meats served with fried, soft potato straws (roesti). This had my Parsi wife jumping in joy as she found it to be a cousin of her Sali per eendus and Sali per kheemas.

Montreux is where I realised that pizza needn’t be a melted goop of cheese and tomato puree on bread. We sat by the lake, close to aapro Freddy Mercury’s statue, and had a very elegant pizza with shards of Emmenthal, blobs of Mozarella, fresh rocquette leaves, cherry tomatoes and pepperoni … individual tastes which came together as one happy family on the crisp naan-like pizza crust.

There was a Lebanese, Mediterranean joint too which was an Asian god send for Indian tastes. Is this a good time to say that Montreux is where we tried a horse steak? In case you are wondering, it was a fairly tough cut of meat.

World Peace

Our next stop was Zermatt but not before we had our Eureka moment. We figured out that most cities were within an hour of each other by train and you can visit a city without basing yourself there. So we made two trips to Geneva from Montreux. During the first we saw the largest clock made with flowers and Le Jet d eau, a fountain on the lake which touched the sky. The picturesque stuff done, we came back for a reality check the next day.
We went to the Red Cross Museum. We walked through records of the worst of human atrocities and left, as my wife put it, happy for the lives we have.
We then went to the U N Building and sat in the conference halls where Indira Gandhi, Castro, Arafat and Bush had deliberated before us. Where the Security Council got together the morning India and Pakistan detonated the big N.
On the way back we said hello to Mahatma Gandhi. His was the only statue on the lawns outside the U N building. The cobwebs on his ears were a telling statement of the place of his philosophy of non-violence in today’s world.
The high point of Geneva for me though was the extremely cheesy quiche which we had at the supermarket at the station. Each bite made me grin like a Happy Cow. This was the quiche which spoilt me for all quiches after that.
She’ll be coming down the mountains
We finally hopped onto a train to the German speaking Zermatt. A town which is famous for the Matterhorn glacier. The mountain on Toblerone packs. ‘Climbing’ the peak meant three cable car rides. Just the way a lazy Bengali like me would have it. We finally touched snow when we reached the top. This was the perfect setting for a Hindi film song. The layers of thermals, woollen caps, gloves, sweaters, which seemed so incongruous when we bought them on a hot sunny afternoon at Linking Road, suddenly became life savers. We went into the café at the landing and had the best spaghetti Bolougnaise that I have ever had – loving and nourishing. I felt life return to me as I wrapped my palms around a warm cappuccino. We decided to stroll down on the way back and stumbled upon a village fair to sell sheep. This is where we discovered the secret Swiss treasure of Racalette; melted cheese, served with boiled potatoes and pickle a blockbuster star cast. We walked back to our hotel, Christiana, which, like every building in Zermatt, looked like Hansel and Gretel’s house with pretty pink and orange posies. The hotel where the concierge, Frank, welcomed us with a plaintive cry of ‘we missed you’ when we checked in.

Bern Identity
We made a couple of day trips to Berne which we fell in love with. I could tell you about the pebbled roads and the picturesque stone buildings of this Unesco heritage city. Of its clock tower. And its Church, Munster House, with its tower of 394 steps. I am proud to say that I am married to a lady who was one of the few to scale the all 394 of them. I could tell you about the charming market where people played chess with live sized coins on the road. Of the magnificent Parliament House. And of our visit to Einstein’s House. The house where the genius came up with the idea of the Theory of Relativity. Of the Wild Chasse (antelope) which I had at a meat shop cum restaurant and its tender, soft meat. But the one memory of Bern that I’ll cherish the most is the amazing smell of bakeries that welcome you the moment you got off at the Bern railway station. Coffee, cakes, quiches, pies, sandwiches, canapés, pretzels, steaks, cookies, Chinese (!) fried rice … definitely the tastiest railway station I have ever been to.
Irritating Interlaken
We made a stop at Interlaken which had so many fellow Indians that we felt that we were back home at Dadar station. A fairly boring, commercialised place. The base to the City Hotel Oberland, the worst hotel of the trip of otherwise lovely hotels. If I remember Interlaken at all it will be for the charming Restaurant Bebbe, its enthusiastic staff in black and white leopard print tights and exaggerated American accents from Hollywood of the fifties. The great racalettes, fondues, roast pork and roestis that they dished out. Topped with free ice cream on the last night.
Chocolate, cheese, heaven
Our next stop, Lucerne, was, as the cliché goes, heaven on earth. Just what the doctor ordered after Interlaken. Its medieval wooden bridge, the Kappelbruecke, which was burnt down and rebuilt was the stuff of poetry. Lake Lucerne was beautiful and rejuvenated you.
Another lovely hotel, The Waldstatterhof, Gothic outside, uber cool inside, with very friendly staff. The Picasso Museum with some very weird paintings and photos from the master’s last years. A quaint Saturday market, picturesque old town quarters. Dark chocolate with hazelnut slabs which we nibbled on at a Chocolaterie called Merkur, on our hotel receptionist Ricky’s advice.
Mc Flurry at Mc Donald’s … a shake with an M&M in every bite. And a cheese shop called Haas Barmetteler. Where the staff spoke English and from where I picked some lovely grainy Gruyere, Luc Noir, a cheese which reminded you of a salty old sailor, and slices of my new love, Racalette, to bring home to Mumbai. All are memories in my tummy now.

The last supper

Our last stop was Zurich. We arrived on a Sunday. All malls were shut. This was a big blow as we’d kept all our shopping for the end.
We got on a river cruise as we were at a loss for what to do. There was a sense of jubilation when we got down after what was the dreariest three hours of our lives for most who were on the boat.
But the magical night had just begun as we were looking for a good place to eat. We stumbled upon a Zurich Film Festival kiosk full of volunteers with ‘Free Polanski’ buttons. This is where we met Shivani, a second generation Swiss girl of Indian origin. She loved Zurich and was hurt to see that we were disappointed with the city. She enthusiastically pointed us to a lane called University Grasse. We walked through empty cobbled lanes with cathedrals lit up in a lovely yellow glow and the odd street musician giving us company. We eventually reached the street she had sent us to. It was dotted with little cafes, with tables on the pebbled roads, candlelights, and waiters calling out for customer a la Juhu Chowpatty… a setting which only Picasso could have conceived for our last night at Switzerland. We had the ethereal and creamy veal roesti with an unpronounceable name which Shivani enthusiastically recommended. And a Swiss treasure called Cordon Bleau … a cholesterol feast of crumb fried pork stuffed with ham stuffed with cheese. Which, might I add, before you get too excited, was dry and chewy.
Our shopping did happen the next day as my wife bought enough chocolate for Switizerland to topple over once we left. Lunch of a blue- blooded coffee in aristocratic sliver ware, ham quiche and smoked salmon canapés, mysterious and exotic dark chocolate pastries at the Sprungli café, of Lindt and Sprungli fame, and we were set to say auf weiderschen and au revoir to Switzerland.
As I sat on the plane I suddenly remembered all the warnings about getting bored out of my wits at Swizerland. Pity we never got the time to check that out.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"We are here" .... Lucerne Longings

Have you ever been on a holiday when you had the sinking feeling that things were not going right. Well we were quite low after Interpatel, sorry Interlaken, and trooped wearily into Lucerne.

But should have known things would change when we saw the Starbucks outside our hotel which was outside the station. Sat there as our room was getting ready and wondered what shocks Lucerene would hold for us.

Actually I should have got a hint when I saw the lovely Gothic railway station that we were in for a picturesque treat. This was the city of the awe inspiring Lion Monument after all.

Our luck began to change once we stepped into our hotel, The Walsdtatterhof. A faux Gothic exterior with bright, chirpy red foyer, modern rooms just as Lonely Planet promised. The room with its arty screen by the bed, classy desk, lace curtains, its spaciousness, neat and modern, glass bathroom (after the stink and stains after our last hotel) and petite veranda were just what we needed after the horrible City Oberland Hotel of Interlaken. We felt so good that we rarely felt the chill outside.

The best part of the hotel was the ever smiling staff. From the diffident Frank who would allow me some precious free Internet time as I blogged furiously to the lovely Ricky who patiently and passionately answered our questions on chocolate and cheese. She would whip out a map and start with a loud and sonorous "we are here" and proceeded to give us directions to the right cheese shop (Has Barmetteler) and chocolaterie (Merkur) AND chocolate (dark with hazelnut slab)

It's thanks to her that we didn't get lost in translation in the Saturday fare and local cheese sellers and antelope meat sellers and landed at the right places to buy some excellent cheese and chocolate.

Chas Barmettler with its fresh cheese pies and treasure troves of cheese was just the spot for a cheese addict like me.

We fell in love with the river, the fairytale architecture, and the wooden bridge which fire couldn't cow down. We started our visit to the city with a visit to the Picasso exhibition... and then things became prettier by the moment.

Sitting by the evening and sipping a cappuccino was an unparalleled high. Though it did get a bit too cold for me as the sun set late into the magical evenings.

I want to go back!!!!!
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