Friday, January 26, 2007

Republic Day - A "Celebration"

As we celebrate the 57th anniversary of the formation of the Indian Republic, I cannot help but think that the tradition of exhibiting India's military might on Republic Day has gotten old. When the tradition first started we had just become independent and we were weak and certainly undeveloped. At such a time to project strength through a display of military prowess perhaps made sense, just in case someone else got the same idea the Brits had. The USSR, equally perceived as weak and impoverished after the Second World War, had used the massive displays in the Red Square to show the world that they were a Superpower and we could do the same thing.

Now, 50-odd years later, we are ready to sit down at the main table, and have been for a while. We are one of the world's top 5 economies with the world's second highest GDP growth rate. We are a solid democracy and have been for 99.97% of our history as an independent nation. We are at the forefront of the latest technological revolution and the 21st century is being talked about, around the globe, as the Indian century just as the 20th was the American century. When we talk, the world listens. We don’t need a show of our military power for the world to take us seriously.

Given these facts, that we continue traditions that are part Soviet-style demonstrations of our military machine and part Colonial hangover of the Queen's (King's) birthday honors list (all those Padma awards) are anachronistic at best and indicative of our continuing insecurity at worst. I mean, if the military parade on Republic Day is meant for a foreign audience, then a) they are more focused on our economic prowess and b) those who would do us harm presumably have some estimate of our military power (if they don't, then it makes even less sense to display it in public!).

If, on the other hand, the parade is primarily for domestic consumption, then shouldn't the cultural aspects of the parade – the folk dances, the floats, the school bands - be given more prominence? It is, at the end of the day, a celebration of the Republic and shouldn’t celebrations be, I don't know - fun?! What is more celebratory – row upon row of grim faced soldiers and the latest missile technology marching past or the dancing and color and the general cheerfulness that accompanies the latter half of the Republic Day parade in Delhi?

Not that I have anything against military parades per se. If the same military parade that is held on January 26 is held instead on December 16, it would not only be contextual, but also topical. Why December 16, you ask? Because that, almost forgotten, day is Vijay Diwas – the anniversary of the surrender of the Pakistan Army in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh (incidentally, the largest surrender of any armed force, ever). Should not the military showcase its strength and give its gallantry awards on the day of India’s greatest military victory as a free nation?

After all, the Republic or its independence was not won by force of arms, was it? In fact, we pride ourselves for having won our independence by doing the exact opposite, i.e. by eschewing a force of arms - perhaps the only colony in the history of the world to do so! Why then isn't the peaceful overthrow of the (then) world's greatest colonial power and the cohesive existence, as a nation, of the world's most ethnically and linguistically diverse polity the primary focus of all our national day (Independence Day and Republic Day) celebrations?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wise Man Say... 07.01

"My favorite animal is steak."
-Frank Lebowitz

New York Top Ten: Food - Part Deaux!

Here is the second half of my New York food list Once again, in no particular order, I give you:

The Tasting Menu at Babbo: I’m sure there are those that think Babbo (110 Waverly Pl., New York, NY 10011) is not the best Italian restaurant in the city, but I am damned if I can find even one of them. Babbo is the flagship restaurant of Chef Mario Batali – he of the famous shorts and orange crocs – and traces its pedigree to the now almost mythical, Po restaurant on Bleeker St., where Mr. Batali perfected his craft. And while he owns numerous other fine establishments in the neighborhood such as Otto, Del Posto, Esca and Lupo, it is obvious that Mr. Batali’s heart is really at Babbo. If, on the day that you dine there, Mr. Batali is in the kitchen, consider yourself twice blessed. For Babbo doesn’t so much surpass one’s expectations as shatter them and leave them lying in the dust. From the fennel pollen (!) in the goat cheese tortellini to the hot chili flakes in the linguine with clams to the guinea hen with pumpkin to the ricotta based cheesecakes, there is absolutely no shortage of wonderful surprises at Babbo. Even the choice of music – 70s rock for the most part – is surprising.

And the tasting menu is where the creative brilliance of Mr. Batali and his staff really peak. A roster of food and wine pairing that is in a word, sublime. There are things like ducks and venison and pink peppercorn honey on that tasting menu! If you have to visit only one restaurant in New York, this should be your destination.

Coq Au Vin at Tout Va Bien: Tout Va Bien (311 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019) has been in its present location for more than half a century and it that time it has become a favorite of French sailors in town for Fleet Week. So you know that they must be doing something right. It is the classic bistro – loud and informal, especially when the sailors are in town. The, very good, house wine can be ordered by the pitcher as can the sangria, the wait-staff is friendly yet knowledgeable and the tablecloths have red and white checks. In short – a happy place. Their take their coq au vin very seriously though and most of the times it is cooked to perfection – the chicken just barely hanging on to the bone and the sauce thick with the aroma of the wine it was cooked in. Equally good is the bouillabaisse (available only on Fridays). It is also one of their most popular dishes so if you get there late at night or when the theater crush is the heaviest, you order it at your own risk. But one worth taking as most of the time they get it right.

Chinese at Grand Sichuan International and Wu Liang Ye: Having grown up on “Indian Chinese” as perfected by the Tibetan cooks in Delhi and the Tangra chefs in Calcutta, the transition to the more authentic Chinese food available in the city was a bit difficult in that everything tasted slightly bland. Then I discovered, almost simultaneously, Grand Sichuan International (745 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10019) and Wu Liang Ye (338 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016). Both of them specialize in the Sichuan style of cooking and the food at both places is the make-your-eyes-water-and-your-nose-run kind of spicy. Which is all to the good I say. Although both places make half-hearted stabs at Cantonese cuisine, if you stick to their core competence when ordering, you won’t be sorry. Either the green tea, which is gratis, or a Coors light will go a long way in assuaging your protesting innards. Grand Sichuan even features freshly slaughtered chicken and it makes everything that it is put in better. For spicy Chinese food, especially on a night when serious drinking is contemplated, there really is no better place than one of these temples to the chili-pepper.

Brunch: A meal that I discovered after moving to the US, brunch is already one of my favorite American food traditions. Not least because after an, um... busy Friday night, steaks and eggs in the morning with a Bloody Mary really hits the spot, if you know what I mean. In a place like New York, there are literally zillions of places where you can eat brunch of course but two of my favorites are Joshua Tree (366 West 46th St, New York, NY 10036) and Candela (116 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003). Joshua Tree is open till 4 AM Thursday through Sunday and till 2AM Monday to Wednesday so it’s a one stop shop to get both the hangover and the cure! It serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday till 4PM and for my money makes the second best eggs Benedict ever (other than my own, of course!).

Lit up almost entirely by a multitude of candles and with a number of nooks and crannies where people who don’t want to be disturbed can retreat, Candela is a rather beautiful restaurant near Union Square. If there were such a thing as a romantic brunch, this is where you would bring your date (and be reasonably assured of a happy ending, if you know what I mean). And the food is good too. The brunch menu (served only on Sundays) has a seriously good frittata stuffed with sausage and spinach and a banana French toast that hits just the right spot. They have burgers too which, while they are not the best in the world, come on a toasted brioche bread that soaks up the juices from the patty without turning into a soggy mess. And for 20 bucks, you get all the Mimosas and Bloody Marys you can drink. What could be a better way to send a Sunday afternoon?

Cheesecakes: And finally, dessert. The subject of cheesecakes is another one of those issues that is sharply divisive and on which people have rather strong opinions. There are number of places where one might get really good cheesecakes including at the aforementioned Babbo which does a ricotta and robiola cheesecake that is out of this world but for authentic melt-in-your-mouth New York style cheesecakes, it is (almost) universally acknowledged that you need to go to Junior’s (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension at Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11201) or Elaine’s (17 Cleveland Place, New York, NY 10012). Junior’s is justifiably proud of its “World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake”. Around since 1950, Junior’s cheesecakes are certainly not for the weak of heart. Packed with cream cheese goodliness and crisp and crunchy crust, Junior’s cheesecakes can be the downfall of just about any diet known to man. But as the song goes, “what a lovely way to burn.”

A New York Times described Elaine’s cheesecakes as “ethereally light” and having then tried it, I agree completely. It almost seems impossible for a cheesecake to be that light. But don’t be fooled – it still packs a punch and will leave you feeling sated like only a cheesecake can. A word to the wise – don’t try this after downing a 20 oz. steak dinner. You will do justice neither to the steak nor the cheesecake.

So there you have it, the ten not to be missed food experiences in New York City. Once again – the usual disclaimer: these are my favorites, not the favorites. Watch this space for the next list.

Friday, January 19, 2007

"New York, New York, It's a Wonderful Town"

I've often been asked why I love New York. This passage, of which I was reminded recently by my friend Rearset, written by a person I consider one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, is possibly one of the more eloquent answers there are:
"I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline. Particularly when one can't see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do [they] need?"... "Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window - no, I don't feel how small I am - but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."

-Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, p446.

Monday, January 15, 2007

New York's Top 10: Food!

Of course, the first list was going to be about food. What did you think?!

Actually, even as I was writing out this first list, I realized that it was going to be a tougher job that even I had anticipated. So this first post is only five of the ten eating places I was going to write about. Even with the truncated list, this is one long post (hence the smaller font), so be warned. The next post with the other five will probably be as long so be warned again.

Anyway, without further ado and in no particular order, here are the ten (or so!) absolute must-eats in New York and where to eat them:

Steaks: For the true carnivore, there is really only one place to eat steaks - Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn (178 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11211). Things are really simple at Peter Luger's - they only serve porterhouse steaks for 2, 3 or 4 people and they only cook them up to a medium, if that (if you like your meat cooked more than that, you really shouldn't be eating steaks anyway!) and they only take cash. If you are dining there alone, they'll give you a steak for one, but why would you go alone to Peter Luger's?!

For those who want a little more variety and/ or a more traditional steakhouse, there is Keens Steakhouse (72nd West 36th St, New York, NY 10018). Keens has been around since 1885 and other than its steaks, is famous for its ‘legendary mutton chop’, which is actually a gargantuan 26 oz. lamb chop cooked to perfection (i.e. stuck over a candle for a minute). They even have a ‘pipe club’ and have pipes that once belonged to Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt amongst others. Whatever.

All-You-Can-Eat Meat: A churrascaria is a Brazilian steakhouse with a concept as almost as simple, and as brilliant, as Peter Luger’s. Each diner gets a disc one side of which is red, the other green. As long as the green side of the disc is up, the servers keep bringing you meat – prime cuts of beef, pork, sausages, even the odd chicken or turkey – and carve it right at your table. When you are ready to give up, you flip the disc over to the red and they stop. When you get your second wind, you flip it over again – you see how it goes.

There are a number of churrascarias in New York but the Churrascaria Plataforma (316 West 49th Street, New York, NY 10019) has pretty much perfected the genre, as it were. You can wash down your food with a cool Guarana (a Brazilian soda sort of like a cream soda) or something stronger like a Caipirinha (any one of a variety of cachaca based cocktails). Your meal comes with sides like rice, mashed potatoes, vegetables, fried plantains, etc. and they even have a buffet salad and appetizer bar. But, really, who gives a damn?!

The one thing they don’t do well at Churrascaria Plataforma is feijoada, Brazil’s de facto national dish – a stew of any and every kind of meat you can think of and black beans. For this, you need to go to Via Brasil (34 West 46th St, New York 10036), where they make the best feijoada I’ve eaten in a restaurant. Both places have live music and atmosphere and whatnot, but like said before, who cares?!

Pizza at Lombardi’s: New Yorkers take their pizza very seriously and have very definite views about what it should and should not be. Not for us all the deep-dish nonsense. The quintessential New York pizza is street food, meant to be eaten on the go. As such, you want the crust to be crispy on the outside so that the toppings don’t seep through, chewy and soft on the inside so that the toppings don’t slide off and they have to be thin and large so that they can be folded vertically, like a sandwich. Et voila! (Or Mamma Mia! as the case may be), you have the famous ‘Brooklyn style pizza’. It’s all form following function, baby.

But, when you want to kick your pizza up a notch as Emeril Lagasse would say, you head on over to Lombardi’s (32 Spring St, New York, NY 10012). Opened in 1897, Lombardi’s is, by their own admission, the ‘best pizza on the planet’. They make only two kinds of pies – one with marinara sauce called the Original, and one with mozzarella called the White Pizza. There are only two sizes, you can’t buy slices, they don’t reservations and they only take cash (it seems like there is a theme developing here). They also have calzones but all the times I have been there, I’ve never actually seen someone order one. Their pizzas are sublime though, loaded with as many toppings as you want, perfectly foldable and the crust is almost graham cracker crunchy. Wash it down with some of their house Chianti and for about $50 two people can stuff themselves silly.

Hot-Dogs: When it comes to hot-dogs, there are two schools of thought – the Chicago school and the New York school. Not to disparage the Windy City but their hot-dogs come with a neon-green onion relish that tastes just like it looks. ‘nuff said.

In New York, we eat our hot-dogs with some mustard, a bit of relish and a dab of sauerkraut. Never ketchup! Even though the friendly guy at the hot-dog cart will have it, as soon as you ask for ketchup, it marks you as an outsider, a tourist! But getting a hot-dog ‘with everything’ from a street-cart is definitely on the must-do list, as is a visit to Gray’s Papaya (2090 Broadway, New York, NY 10023) where the hot dogs are nor the best in the world (but at 95 cents they’ll do) but the papaya drink is really the reason to go there. Then there is the Nathan’s Famous hot-dogs at Coney Island, which is where it all started in 1916 and which is the site of the famous hot-dg eating contest. But the king of all hot-dogs in New York is the ‘guaranteed 15-bite’ nearly one pound monster at The Brooklyn Diner (212 57th street, New York, NY 10019). At nearly $16, it is frikkin’ expensive for a hot dog but it is worth every penny. The hot-dogs come with a giant mound of onion rings and the hot-dogs themselves are really delicious – all-beef, kosher – and their sauerkraut has juniper berries in them. Take it from someone who has done a lot of primary research on hot-dogs, the Diner’s the real thing.

Burgers at the Burger Joint: The Burger Joint at the Park Meridien hotel used to be one of those insider places that only a few people knew about. Unfortunately, those days are long gone and now the lines and the wait for the burgers are long. Fortunately, the burgers are still the best in the City. The Burger Joint only serves two kinds of burgers (here we go again) – hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and the easiest way to order is to get one with ‘everything on it’. They also have awesome milkshakes and pitchers of beer (Sam Adams only). Definitely a place with attitude (what place in New York isn’t?), they proudly proclaim, “If you don’t see it, we don’t have it.” One of the few places that will still do a burger medium rare, the Burger Joint has extraordinarily succulent melt-in-your-mouth ½ lb patties and really good fries served the old-fashioned way in paper cones. If it’s burgers you want, and there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t, the Burger Joint is the place to go.

New York Top 10

A very beautiful and smart friend of mine is planning a trip to the City for the first time and so she asked me, as - ahem! - the veteran New Yorker to give her a list of the top-10"must do" things in New York. I thought and I thought and I thought. Then I thought some more (she really is rather stunning and when someone like that asks you for something, you treat it like the command it is). But finally, I have to admit that I was stumped. There is absolutely no way that you can narrow down the New York experience to 10 things. Can't be done. I mean, it's like asking Gandhari to name 10 favorite of her hundred sons - could she ever do that?!

OK, bad example. But you get the general drift.

Then I had my Eureka moment. I am going to split this up into categories like Food or Entertainment and make a list of 10 for each! Problem solved. Damn, I am good!

I thought I'd have a separate post for each category and just so it is easy to keep track of (for those keeping track of these things or those who might also want to visit me and use these lists as a sort of blueprint for what they would like to do in the City), they will all have the same title: "New York Top 10 - '---'".

Caveat emptor: Although the title says "Top 10", these lists are anything but. Simply think of each list as the 10 things I would like to do. You don't necessarily have to agree or even be interested in a particular category/ list item.

Off we go then - keep an eye out for the lists.

Man, the things I do in service of Beauty...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Snowflakes Keep Falling on My Head...

Say Hallelujah!

So we finally had the first snowfall of the season, and the year. And about damn time, too! Ok, they were only flurries. And they lasted for about 30 seconds but for those 30 seconds, it was real live snow falling in the City!

I was beginning to despair ever seeing the white stuff. This has been the warmest winter on record in the United States and the first completely snow-less December in New York in a 129 years. I mean, it was 70 freakin' degrees last Saturday! In January! It was almost enough to make a man start to believe Al Gore - and that is a scary thought!
But now the temperature has dropped to a bracing 31 as I write this and hopefully more cold weather and snow is on the way.

C'mon, say it with me - WINTER ROCKS!

*The painting is called "Snow in New York" by Robert Henri (1865-1929) and was painted in 1902. I got the image from a course website of the USC Annenberg School of Communication.


Check out this commercial for the new BMW X5. It doesn't do much for me as an advertisement for the X5 but it does give you an up close and personal view of the hallowed Nürburgring track.

Now you know what Schumi sees (or saw) from his little red Ferrari as he goes round the bend.

Oops! Did I say that out loud?!

Monday, January 08, 2007


For someone whose annual pilgrimage to India requires regularly flying to and from Delhi in late December/ early January, I've been extraordinarily lucky over the years. I've never had a flight canceled or even delayed because of weather. And anyone with any experience of a north Indian winter will tell you that that is remarkable indeed.

Well, this year my luck finally ran out. On a night when the fog was so thick, it was claustrophobic - like a white wall closing in on you - my flight was canceled and I was witness to the slow but inexorable descent into chaos of a full 747-load of passengers. It was certainly - how do I put this delicately - an interesting experience. Here are the good, the bad and the ugly highlights of the wait.

The Good: The airline told us right off the bat that our flight was likely to be delayed as we were checking in even as the computer monitors above the counters were showing that the flight was on time. They checked in the bags, told us not to clear immigration, asked us if we would rather go to a hotel or go back home if the flight was canceled, noted phone numbers and contact information and were generally the very model of efficiency. And I am ashamed to say this, but I was totally not expecting such professionalism and was absolutely amazed.

And the next day, when I found the same guys still on duty, still smiling, still patient as they had been all night, I was officially flabbergasted. Big kudos to them.

The Bad: Unfortunately, the airline staff made up for their singular diligence by their singular lack of foresight. Apparently it didn't occur to anyone to order buses to transport those that needed to go to the hotel until after the flight was officially canceled, despite telling everyone repeatedly for about two hours that a cancellation was imminent.

They apparently also expected the buses to materialize as soon as they asked for them, as if by magic. Which would be the only explanation for herding all the passengers outside the terminal to wait for the buses in the miserable Delhi fog. For another two hours. To their credit, no one seemed more shocked that the buses didn't magically appear than the airline staff. They worked off their frustration by running around randomly and yelling at each other.

The Ugly: Just at Indian drivers, when they get to Europe or America, develop impeccable road manners, follow traffic laws and lay off the horn, so also when Westerners come to India, they become 'Indian' in their ways a little too easily. When the first buses arrived to take us to the hotels, absolute pandemonium broke out as everyone tried to get into the bus, out of the cold and on their way. The people with the French, German, British, American and Lord alone knows what other accents pushed little old ladies and grandpas in monkey-caps with the best of them. As the chaos got worse, the veneer finally slipped from a French (sounding) couple fighting just a few feet from me and the man uncorked a "Bloody Indian Savages" salvo. The airline staff, to their everlasting credit and showing quite extraordinary presence of mind, whisked the couple away in the couple of seconds of stunned silence before they would have gotten lynched.

Two things struck me about the whole incident - one, that the couple, even acknowledging their bigotry, showed the monumental stupidity to racially abuse Indians, in India, in front of a already restless and angry crowd. That should qualify for the Darwin awards right there! And two, I had overheard them telling some people as we were waiting for the buses, that they were returning from Auroville, having gone there on a pilgrimage.

Epilogue: As I was waiting to board the plane the next day, I learnt from one of the airline guys who had been there since the night before that someone had apparently forgotten the wake-up call to the couple from Auroville and now they would unfortunately have to take the next flight out. Which was likely to be canceled because of fog.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Food for Thought

So I am back in the City after a couple of weeks in the old country. It was a bittersweet trip. On the plus side, I met an old friend after three years during which she had to deal with some nasty shit. I remembered her as a beautiful, if slightly flighty girl, impetuous and given to impulse. She was as beautiful as ever but more poised, calmer, more put together. Most definitely the highlight of my trip to the city the Lutyens built.

On the downside, this was probably the worst trip I had foodwise. Usually, one of the best things about going to Delhi is the chance to hit up my old favorite haunts, eat the food of my youth and generally reminisce about the flying habits of ol’ daddy time.

This time round I realized what has probably been apparent to Delhites for a long time now – Nathu’s in Bengali Market should close. The place is filthy, the ras malai is inedible and the chhole bhature – omigod, the chhole bhature, they were perhaps the worst I’ve ever ha! I was in such shock and so terrified of what I would discover next that I actually hit the Haldiram's in Chandni Chowk just before going to the my favorite chhole bhature place at this shack across the Town Hall. Thankfully, they hadn’t yet lost their touch and their rabri-falooda did much to assuage my feelings.

Not for long however as I discovered that the momos at the Nagaland stall at Dilli Haat and the usually dependable Punjabi-Chinese at Chopsticks have both gone rather rapidly to hell in a hand-basket. Add to that the fact that this year, for the first time in living memory, my brother and I failed to make it to Golden Dragon for our traditional Double Fried Pork and beer and you can see how this was turning into a disaster.

He made up for it by taking me to one of his favorite Italian restaurants in Mumbai, Da Vinci, but they were obviously having an off-night as well because they managed to screw up my risotto and his wife’s Caesar Salad (which needs talent, believe me. I mean, the thing had no garlic, I don’t think they had even heard of anchovies and the fucker had drowned in the dressing).

We followed that up with an eminently forgettable meal at Delhi’s Lodi Restaurant comprised of nothing-to-write-home-about lamb shanks for me and the bro and a completely bland overdone steak for his (it was billed as a fillet, but I seriously doubt if it was even beef!).

Oh well, I suppose this means that one the next trip, I will have to find me some new favorite eating places. It will be tough job requiring extensive field research but I guess someone has to do it. Watch this space!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Must See TV

Check out this series of brilliant on-line commercials for Blendtec Blenders. Seemingly based on the 'Will it Float' game on Dave Letterman's show, its called Will it Blend and amongst the things they blend: a can of soup - with the can, a bottle of beer - with the bottle, golf balls, cell phones and my favorite so far - an Ipod. Awesome!

The only more effective ad for a blender I've seen was a long time ago for a brand I can't remember in which they mixed concrete in the blender. Maybe that's what these guys should do next!