Monday, September 27, 2010

Review of Ziya at the Oberoi, Mumbai

21 September 2011. After much thought and delibration, I am updating this post because it still continues to see a lot of hits. 

I want to share that Ziya is no longer on my list of Mumbai favourites. My most recent dining experience at Ziya was extremely disappointing. I tasted the new Gourmand Menu in its vegetarian and non vegetarian avatars and found it very lack lustre. The non vegetarian version is too seafood heavy and 2 courses had no salt - an inexcusible mistake for a restaurant of this calibre. The vegetarian menu is heavy on gimmicks but low on flavour and just not worth the money paid for it. And most of the courses were red. There was none of the play of color and flavour and texture in this new menu that the previous one had. To be fair there were some good things, like the ginger sorbet bollinger palate cleanser and the whole wheat spinach combination that one of the dishes came on. But not enough to correct the balance. Overall, it was very disappointing. Like the day of my previous meal, the restaurant was aware I was dining there (AND bringing along a MOST illustrious guest.) I also want to state that this meal was paid for in spite of their offering to host it. (All those people who worry about anonymous reviews, this is a classic example of what I say, a restaurant can brush up on service but if its serves dissapointing food, it will do so regardless of who is being served.) In fact it will take a lot of convincing to bring me back.

The Oberoi has always been one of my favourite places to dine out at in South Mumbai. Despite my high regard for it, however, I do not get to it often enough, living well on the other side of Mumbai as I do. But Ziya, their new restaurant had been on my radar, so being townside last weekend I took up their long standing invitation to dine there.

An interesting Amuse Bouche of Lassi and a Papad roll.
The Kebab Platter my companion ordered.
Tandoori Scottish Salmon also my companions choice - delicious! 

Since I was invited to dine at Ziya, I am not going to comment on the service but I believe that the consistency of food will stay the same no matter the premise of the review so I will focus on that.

A large part of the dining experience at Ziya is the ambience. Heavy on gold offset by cream, but in an entirely elegant way, the restaurant has a show kitchen that is particularly arresting on one side and a breathtaking, panoramic view of Marine Drive, on the other. Designed to accentuate an enriching dining experience without the overbearing  opulence a lot of ‘Royal cuisine’ restaurants use as a backdrop to lashings of cream and butter to justify their prices, Ziya showcases the signature "evolved cuisine" of Chef Vineet Bhatia, who, (as the menu at Ziya introduces him) is "the prodigal chef." This term of endearment stems from the Bhatias long relationship with the Oberoi. He worked as the chef at Kandahar with for five years before emigrating to the UK. Seventeen years later, he returned to render a contemporary Indian restaurant to replace Kandahar's antiquated north-west dining experience.

The menu at Ziya sidesteps typecasting the food as “fusion” or “nouvelle Indian”, suggesting diplomatically that “the light and imaginative dishes display a clever balance between innovation and an immense respect for the history of Indian cooking”. I have to admit here that I did translate this into marketing jargon to cover up something indefinable after reading the dishes on offer.

I was wrong!

I opted for the seven course Gourmand menu. I prefer to opt for a set or tasting menu when dining at a restaurant for the first time. Like the back cover of a book encapsulates the best of the book, a set menu showcases what a restaurant thinks is their best, allowing one to avoid wading through the larger menu, making wrong choices and generally messing up. And if the set menu appeals, one can come back to sample other things...

With Ziya, the Gourmand menu translates to an array of dishes presented in breathtaking detail to calculated to delight the eye as much as the palate; carefully arranged in stacks, towers and pictures, surrounded with artistic swirls of chutneys and raitaa, the colours and shapes make the food true to the Indian ethos of colour on the plate. And each plate set before you is a melange of not just colour but also flavour, texture and temperatures.  With Ziya, the Gourmand menu translates to an array of dishes that make you gasp, once at their appearance, again on tasting and a third time when you finish your serving of that fabulous dish!

Let me take you through my meal....

The Crisp roti wrapped prawns, for instance, sets crunchy roti wrapped prawns against little cubelets of Bloody Mary jelly, and a velvety tomato soup. It is a lovely plate, that promises many surprises for the palate. My only complaint is that while the waiters at Ziya adequately highlight the components of the course, they fail to tell me the order in which to eat it. I ended up trying the soup first, then the jelly and then the prawn as the components caught my eye, because, unfortunately the prawn had little flavour, and was more about the crispyness of the roti ‘noodles’ it was wrapped in. When I tried it in the right order, the prawn first, followed by the creamy tangy soup that washed away fried and seafoody flavours of the prawn and concluded with the spicy Jelly to cleanse my palate, the dish’s play on textures came through.

But the food at Ziya is not simply about throwing together contrasting textures. There are a lot of exciting tricks on the menu, such as the playing of varying temperatures to surprise the mouth that followed in the next course, a Warm Wild-Mushroom khichdi came topped with a swirl of Makhani ice cream. The ‘ice cream’ of frozen butter chicken gravy, sat on top of a bed of rice separated by a crunchy cracker. Different textures and flavours, delighted the mouth but the warm khichdi that held to its savoury heals perfectly complemented the makhani ice cream that left a slow burn of heat in its cold wake down the throat!

The seductive tone of the meal progressed, with a Varqi 25 carat black spiced Chicken Tikka carefully laid on a bed of saffron upma, with the subtly sweet, barely spicy chicken garnished with pure gold leaf contrasting the pillowy seductively scented saffron upma perfectly in all aspects from colours to textures and flavours. It is a dish that I will be a long time in forgetting because it will take a lot to beat it.

I thought I had claimed that too soon with the serving of the next course, the Grilled Chilli and Curry Leaf Lobster that followed took the oomph factor of the meal a few too many notches higher, its flame colors contrasted by a bright green bed of broccoli khichdi surrounded by a moat of flame Lobster jus, the whole dusted at the table with spiced cocoa powder. But the lobster, like the prawn we had earlier, wasn't succulent or flavourful enough with not a hint of chilli or curry leaf in sight. A classic case of looks alone do not a great dish make!

Thankfully the fifth course, a palate cleanser, of a champagne sorbet in which a scoop of ice shavings were luxuriously smothered in Mo√ęt et Chandon made up for the a lavish letdown of the lobster, washing away the disappointment in a sweep of icy bubbles.
The sixth course of Smoked Tandoori Lamb Chops, silken potato mash, lamb samosa, spiced lamb and mint jus and lemon grass foam arrived at the table with a considerably less fanfare than the Lobster, but made up for its low key appearance with layer upon layer of flavour! The mildly spiced lamb chops were perfectly cooked. The meat separating almost lovingly from the bone, the silk-smooth saffron scented mashed potatoes offering ample contrast in texture to the crispy minced-lamb samosa that was very cleverly slightly spicier than the meat. A perfect bite of a dish that I could not get enough of! 

For dessert (and here is where being a food writer helps) I opted for a Chocolate Palate, a platter of several chocolate concoctions including a white chocolate kulfi and hazelnut brownies, Chocomosa (bitter chocolate-filled samosas) and rose-flavored ice cream and a Paan Panna Cotta. And at the behest of my dining companion, a Coffee ice cream. Most of the chocolate offerings were banal, but the Coffee ice cream was delicious albeit not the best choice for dessert after the sumptuous meal I had just finished. The Chocolate Samosa, was an outstanding interpretation of a classic combination of crisp pastry and chocolate, right up there with detectibles such as churros con chocolate. The other exception was the Paan Panna Cotta, subtly redolent of Paan, a bowl full of just that would have made a far better sweet finale to the meal in my opinion.

I rarely dine out on Indian food (of the Mughlai, Punjabi ilk, that is, although I am all for smaller places that do other cuisines). I find the fare at this sort of restaurant too heavy. Knowing its popularity I am willing to admit that this might simply be because it does not meet my personal palate references. But the Indian Palate is changing. A host of international cooking shows, a flourishing travel industry and fabulous cookbooks showcasing the world on a plate are shaping the city's collective palate. Indian food cannot afford to remain mired in cream, butter and heavy upholstery. It needs to move forward and take its place in more contemporary avatars while respecting tradition. And Ziya, quite frankly, has proven superlative in delivering on this. Granted, the seafood options can be improved upon,  but the negatives are far outweighed by the positives and I will certainly be back to discover more !

Located at the Oberoi, Ziya is open for lunch and dinner. A meal for two costs approximately Rs 4,500 without alcohol; the seven-course gourmand meal for two is priced at Rs 7,000 without alcohol.

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