Saturday, 15 November 2014

A meal at The Square Novotel Kolkata

I had been stuck at the same traffic signal for over 10 minutes now. The traffic had been moving very slowly and the lights had turned green and back to red before I could drive through. Behind me a few cars were honking relentlessly. A throng of people and a few cows were crossing the road, the people seemed to be in great hurry, the cows were more relaxed.  The bus on my left billowed out a black cloud of toxic smoke. I rolled up my window glass. It was quieter inside the car. The parking lot of the mall on my right was full. On a weekday afternoon? 

I thought of a November afternoon 8 years ago. I had taken a drive on these Rajarhat roads to get a feel of the place for my first journalistic assignment, I was still in college then, and returned to write about the vast stretches of green, the marshes and the trees swaying in the breeze, extolling its bucolic beauty and reveling in the fact that the place did not betray its proximity to the city, it seemed far, far away from the madding crowd! 

In these eight years Rajarhat has changed beyond recognition - malls and multiplexes, posh housing projects, modern offices and Five Star hotels stud the landscape. And Novotel Kolkata Hotel and Residences, is one of the newest addition to the Rajarhat landscape and the city's luxury hotel brigade. That's where I was headed. The hotel's marketing and communications manager Aparna Banerjee Paul had invited me over to join her for lunch at the hotels signature all day dinning destination The Square, which came with the promise of food out of the box. 

I walked into The Square to bump into members of the Atletico de Kolkata squad, I had seen their bus parked outside. I do not follow football but I could always go back and make my brother, quite the football fanatic, feel a little jealous I thought. The Square, sprawling and bright, with its posh, contemporary interiors, the huge glass walls through which the autumn sunshine came pouring in, a mammoth mural of innumerable tiny butterflies, red and black and the live kitchen counter on the other end, made for an inviting setting for a lazy lunch.

The menu at The Square is an assortment of European and Asian favourites. A few French numbers on the menu had caught my fancy. I had been musing over the Coq au Vin when the first course arrived, and it was French! Salad Nicòise. A medley of soft colours and contrasting textures the salad turnout to be more than the eye candy it definitely was. Crunchy iceberg lettuce and fresh French beans, tangy bursts of pickled pearl onions, perfectly boiled baby potatoes, the juicy black olives, delicate quail eggs and generous amount of tuna chunks tossed together in a light, lemony vinigarette - the salad was a great way to start a meal I had begun to look forward to.

Next up was yet another French Classic - The French Onion soup. My fondest memory of the French Onion soup goes back to a freezing evening in England when my dear friend Lorna, a Britisher brought up in France, had made a huge bowl of it. The two of us had lapped up the entire bowl while we talked about our lives, so different from each others. There was something about the warm bowl of homemade soup the thought of which still makes me want it. Anyway, this time the soup came in a pretty red chausseur bowl with tiny handles ad a lid.A chunk of bread laced in melting Gruyere and topped with caramelised onions floated in the thick, brown, soup. The soup turned out to be flavourful, aromatic and comforting but not much of a surprise. But I would definitely settle for it on a cold winter evening. 

The soup was followed by a Spinach Mushroom Risotto. I am a big fan of a risotto done well and done right, so I was looking forward to this one. Porcini, parmesan and spinach seemed to me like a good combination. And the promised drizzle of balsamic vinegar should be interesting I thought. But when the risotto arrived I was a little disappointed. To me it appeared over-cooked. I could be wrong, may be I was being too finicky. I scooped up a spoonful and holding on to hope and put it in my mouth. And I was not happy.

It is difficult to forgive a risotto that is gluey or mushy, no matter how flavourful. Yes it should be moist and creamy, but never gluey. Each grain of rice should be able to act as a carrier of the flavours, mushy rice however dissipates the flavour, as was the case with this one. Yes  it was crammed with porcini and button mushrooms, yes the spinach lent a distinct earthy flavour, and the Parmesan shavings on top generously sprinkled, but the risotto was far from al dente. Naturally the flavours were muddled too.

 I thought it was necessary to bring this to the chef's notice. However, according to him, cooking the arborio beyond the al dente stage was hardly an accident. He said it was a conscious decision since most guests want it that way. Well, it is true that most Indians do not subscribe to the al dente club, and I do understand the chef's predicament, I have had guests at home complain my pasta was not properly cooked when I had served them my perfect Spaghetti Bolognese. However, I think it is time to educate the public by introducing them to the nuances of a particular cuisine. They can't continue to have ketchup with their pizza and ask for mushy risotto and pasta forever. It breaks my heart.

Moving on, the next dish on the day's menu was the pave of Salmon with skin. Fresh fish, crunchy vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes - no trimming or complex play of flavours, with each ingredient talking for itself. . Not much could go wrong with this one. I would have liked the fish to more flaky, but that's being a little too fastidious. This one was a hearty dish, simple and fresh.

But the one dish I was looking forward to all afternoon, disappointed me the most - Grilled Buffalo Tenderloins. When the generous chunk of meat accompanied by a medley of veggies and topped with a thyme utter enriched jus, arrived at our table, I was super happy. I couldn't wait to slice into the meat, see the juices ooze out and yes the lovely bright pink centre. But alas there was no pink, only a dreary brown, It was a well done steak.  I had wondered why I had not been asked how I would like my steak. I had assumed it would be the universal medium rare. What I was not expecting was a dry and stiff chunk of meat. The steak was a big let down! The jus was delicious though, and the vegetable nice and crunchy, if that's any consolation! 

The dessert platter inspired mixed feelings! I loved the pistachio flavoured macaron that came with the restaurant's signature Pista Dacquiose with Mango Raspberry Delight, which in turn left me confused.I liked the pista dacquiose. the mango mousse and the raspberry mousse as seperate elements but I didn't care much for the combination. It was unreasonably ambitious and failed to hit the mark 

Overall, the meal had a few highs, but there are things that need to be taken care of and as soon as possible. 

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