Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bouillabaisse on the Corniche and 'Hindi Food' in the skies


Often the image of a place is romantically etched on the mind from something one has read or seen. And, very often it leads to disappointment when reality confronts imagination. This has happened many times over in my life.

The picture of Marseilles for me was encapsulated in the reproduction of a Paul Cezzane masterpiece, I had come across in a magazine long ago. So, on this trip when I decided to venture out of Paris over a free weekend – I took a TGV ride down south to Marseilles. I would have been disappointed had it not been for a kind colleague at the company HQ, who recommended a small inn away from the bustle of the port town – yet not too far from the heart of action – on Corniche John F Kennedy.


The corniche, which is really a split level stairway extending over 2 kms is sometimes referred to as the longest bench in the world, opens out to a magnificent view of the Mediterranean. The small ships ferrying passengers to Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia going past against the backdrop of the Frioul islands make a beautiful mental snapshot.

Buwee-a-bas

The Bouillabaisse (pronounce buwee-a-bas) - once a poor fisherman’s stew made of discarded fish, has now been elevated to the ranks of fine food - is the signature dish of Marseilles. True to French tradition for exacting culinary standards, only restaurants that have signed the “Bouillabaisse Charter” are accredited as serving the authentic stuff . But, at a price tag of Euro 60 per serving – Chez Fon-Fon or Le Ruhl (of Jacques Chirac fame) it was well beyond the shoe-string budget of the humble keeper of this blog – who chose to settle for the more affordable fare at a mid-town café, leaving him appropriately under-whelmed.


'Paise Hotel' in Paris

Brought up on a staple of clichés and stereotypes, one always associated French Cuisine with Fine dining and Parisian Cafes – until I discovered this little hidden treasure in the by-lanes of the St Germaine area called Polidor (Cremerie Restaurant Polidor at 41 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince – near Theatre d l’Odeon). Near rustic in ambience, it can be described roughly as a French equivalent of a “paise hotel” in Calcutta – with no exclusive seating, sharing long tables with other guests who are accommodated as they come, waitresses almost throwing the plates at you while placing the bread-basket and pitchers of vin-de-table from casks.

Being an incorrigible creature of habit, it has become my regular haunt ever since I was introduced to it by a friend – so much so this time around I chose a hotel next to it to stay in. But, serving traditional fare it is a place for serious diners – typified by two old asterix look-alike Frenchmen seating next to me, who went through all the courses from the Fish Terrine to the Beef-tongue Piquante wrapped up with a rich Crème Brulee and Espresso. When I am not in a mood for the pickled duck roast or veal in lemon sauce – I fall for a little taste of home in the Pork Madras Curry, obviously transported from the Pondicherry connection. (and, btw - they don't accept credit cards)

Gender Matrix on Air

Airline food is generally bad and some are ‘more bad’. But occasionally one is pleasantly surprised. One meal I look forward to is the Indian selection on the Jet Airways London – Mumbai / Delhi sector. Catered from the Bombay Brassiere – it is one of the best ‘Hindi food’ ( as a friend’s young son, quite appropriately – I think, calls North Indian cuisine) I ever had – be it up in the air 35k feet asl or with feet firmly on terra firma. It could well be that, after days of Continental food the taste buds crave for some spicy titillation. But, by the same token, how come I don’t find the ‘desi khana’ on other international airlines as appetizing ?

Somehow, on Jet I always prefer the vegetarian option – which is usually more innovative in comparison to the “chicken tikka masala” variant in the non-vegetarian menu. This time I really relished the ‘Lauki ka Kofta’ with real home-style Arhar ki Dal. The desserts are a treat – tho’ I usually pass the Rabdi or the Firni for the irresistible Haagen Dazs Belgian Chocolate Ice-cream.

Moving on to another 'in-flight' experience - tho' not of the culinary kind, on this trip – I came across a lady in a business suit moving around the cabin, who distinctly looked like a staff in mufti. Upon enquiring, I learnt that she was an ‘in-flight auditor checking on the quality of service. A short conversation later, she told me that recently the airline had a high turnover of staff – and they found such on-the-job training really useful for the new recruits. She taught me another new term “gender matrix” , that is apparently skewed a wee bit in favour of the male crews on international sectors and which they were trying to correct by inducting more women on board.

It is for these continuous innvovations and attention to details of customer service, Jet gets my vote for sheer professionalism – on ground or high in the skies.