Why do we chase the epicurean experience? The truth is, that the gourmet affair is an epiphany – a sublime, revelatory moment that uplifts and thrills the senses, and lingers on long after, reverberating in the recesses of memory in little explosions of taste, colour and sensation. That tiny carvarejea in downtown Lisbon must have closed sometime long ago in these twenty years, but the crunch of the freshest, most perfectly fried Mediterranean sardines lingers; you would never find your way to that restaurant in the alleys of Cairo, so why does the taste of Nile Perch, dusted with unknown herbs and spices, served by an anonymous host still haunt your palette?
The sparkle of Istanbul, like an upended Milky Way, reflected on the velvety depths of the Bosphorous as you dine beneath the Galata Bridge drifts across the mind again and again, threaded with memories of unforgettable flavours. Prague's scattering of wine bars and expensive restaurants is an embarrasment of riches. But on the hard gray edges of Communism in the early '90's, when canned food was all there was to be seen in window displays, we were moved almost to tears, when the young Czech from whom we had rented an apartment led us to a cloistered, extremely elegant restaurant, which served the most exquisite fish and seafood. The windows were definitely one way, cutting out the public gaze and the extraordinary meals we lingered over, attended to by suave staff, appeared to be figments of the imagination when one emerged into the reality outside the doors of the restaurant. The experience was nothing short of transcendental, to be carried away, mulled over, and recalled with pleasure and wonder, time after time.
As India goes global, metros burgeon, the pulse quickens and criss-crossing the world becomes de-rigueur. Along with the influx of an astonishing mix of nationalities and technology pouring into various hubs across the country, flavours and ingredients from across continents meld excitingly with ancient cuisines. It has resulted in a revolution of sorts in eating out, over the last few years. The thrill lies in the unpredictability. Worldly head honchos, accustomed to the sophistication of dining offered around the capitals of the world rub shoulders with the men and women who actually drive the industry – often from small town, even rural India, who arrive carrying embedded within them the tastes of their own, distinctive cuisines. Bangalore has risen to meet the challenge of both. You couldn't hope for a more complex mix – of very chic, upscale restaurants with menus to rival the best in the world, to the din of stainless steel being hurled around, as your fingertips wrap themselves around a delectable fish curry on a day's set menu chalked out on a blackboard, in a tiny space crammed with formica topped tables where several generations dine en famille.
the gastronome, it's a matter of a relationship. The actual dining experience begins from the moment you make a move towards the place of your choice. Making a reservation at your favourite restaurant, you sense a reciprocal excitement and enthusiasm – ripples travel from the reservation desk to the kitchen – you simply know the welcome is genuine, the efforts will be superlative. From the walk down the corridor, to the way you are greeted and ushered in, like an old and valued friend, seated, wined dined, and finally, reluctantly released, sometimes having lingered long after closing time, it's what you want to partake of again and again. Staff who remember your every preference, who attend to you unobtrusively, who can salvage a potentially disastrous situation and the ruin of an expensive evening, who can actually recommend food and wine to your taste –an experience worth its weight in gold.
At the other end of the spectrum, you queue on the pavement while noisy traffic streams past, only to be met with taciturn waiters who never quite make eye contact, gazing into the middle distance while they rattle off the day's special. They set your meal down with a clatter and a slosh of water from a glass, onto the table. But they recognize the the serious business of eating, and your food would never be anything but what you expect it to be. Over a period of time you know you've become a favoured diner when you receive a barely there smile, and the slightest nod.
And of course, the men and women themselves – upon whose skills the reputation of the whole experience rests – the chefs. Bangalore has some of the best. Insouciant, incredibly young men, who pepper their conversations with amuse-bouche and sous- vide; play with sophisticated, imported ingredients, pushing the edges of food to science fiction with the use of cutting edge technology; who toss off seven course tasting menus of incredible delicacy, imagination and beauty which would not be out of place in Adria and Roca driven kitchens across the globe.
Others, equally gifted, inheritors of some of the oldest culinary traditions in the country and the world, more comfortable speaking in the rounded syllables of their native tongues, who venture out of their domains to converse with only the select few. They prefer to hand grind their spices, allowing them to spill their secrets slowly, seeping into the food they create for us, into our memories. Still others, handling world cuisines with aplomb, working in the freshest of local produce with a twist, working with suppliers, to source the best of local flavours. They work a subtle alchemy, interpreting and blending ingredients without destroying the essence of the original.
And so the search goes on, for the best experiences; those secret ingredients, and those ordinary ones which combined perfectly can transform a dish; for those conjurers with that magic touch, the chefs; that perfect lighting, the ambiance, the background sounds, the passage of people and faces – the elusive amalgam of all these elements which gets the balance just right – and sometimes, disasterously wrong. Like the clutch of Konkan restaurants in Mumbai which, having served inspired seafood, had fans jetting in to dinner from other metros for their signature dishes. Riding on their growing fame, they decided to go swank, trading in their friendly 'lunch home' décor for encrustations of sea shells, carbuncled niches and mermaids – it was like being betrayed by an old and trusted friedn. Somehow the food never tasted the same again.
So when you find that perfect convergence of time, space and taste, recognizing the ephemeral nature of the experience, you return again and again to recapture it, of only in memeory.
The Gourmet Experience was published in Food Lovers Magazine. Vol. 3, Issue 1.
Image Credits: K.P.Ponnapa