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You can’t win them all!

After raving recently in one of our sister papers about the splendid Christmas/New Year’s fare planned by Meikles Hotel after I was privileged to be a guest at a Press chef’s table five weeks before the event, I’m afraid a much anticipated follow-up function: Festival of India, a few days later, was (to me) a sad disappointment.

Column by Dusty Miller

There had been lots of hype about the talented young chef the Indian Tourism Development Corporation and the local Indian Embassy were bringing in from a top hotel in the capital, New Delhi, to take over the Pavilion Restaurant for several nights and as I love the food of the sub-Continent, I was drooling at the mere thought of his cooking.

Maybe because we went on the first night and Montu Saini, executive chef at the ultra-exclusive Ashok Hotel in New Delhi’s diplomatic compound, hadn’t — perhaps — got his head round Meikles’ kitchens, local ingredients and temporary subordinate staff and colleagues, but I thought the food very ordinary…at least in flavour.

It certainly looked nice (although little typed or hand-written labels explaining what was what would have been smoother and quicker than Indian chefs explaining verbally to probably 150 punters)… and sounded even nicer.

The first letdown was soup which, I have to accept, is damned difficult to keep piping hot on a buffet, but my tomato and coriander was merely tepid and a dining companion’s chicken and almond soup positively cold.

Again, that might have been a first night hitch. We’d been told to be there (“very smartly dressed”) at 7pm and although drinks kept arriving and conversation sparkled it was 8:30pm before the Indian Ambassador made a mercifully short welcoming speech and then we were entertained, fairly lengthily, by a troupe of colourful Hyderabadi dancers.

This was a bit much for a lady on my left who’s used to eating Zimbo-style by about 6:30pm. She was positively faint with hunger pangs which were not assuaged when waiters came round with — I suppose you could call it? —an amuse bouche of rather soggy prawns with a dip. Unfortunately she’s allergic to shellfish. “I’d murder for a poppadum,” she “whispered” to me sotto voce!

Well I didn’t actually see any poppadums, although “Indian breads” were on the attractive menu, which also listed starters of tandoori kingklip cooked with Indian masala, meat and lentil kebab with exotic stuffing and tandoori salads with spices and a hint of caraway.

Maybe it was because I hate queuing and let “the line” thin down to almost nothing, but I really didn’t recognise tiger prawns in a mouth-watering gravy of coconut, poppy seeds and cream, flavoured with saffron; traditional Hyderabadi curry; lamb and nali pieces cooked in onion and curd gravy or button mushrooms cooked in smooth tomato and cashew gravy.

As for puddings, I suspect I thought gajjar ka halwa [carrot cooked, sweetened and served with khaya] was a savory vegetable item in the wrong place. There was no gulab jamum left, when I visited the dessert section. I did enjoy fresh fruit and a very un-Indian slice of apple pie!

We should probably have gone to the last night, rather than the first. Problems were presumably sorted out after considerable tweaking. I did enjoy the night, overall…pity about the food!

A more conventional Anglo-style buffet was thoroughly explored between Meikles’ excellent eight-course Xmas menu sampling and the Indian festival, this time at Borrowdale Park racecourse.

As a very young racing reporter (Captain Coe, the Bookies’ Foe!), I professionally visited every racecourse in Great Britain and Ireland (except Cartmel, which had only one meeting a year) when Pontius was still a pilot! But I only go to the track once a year here: For the wonderful HRIB-sponsored meeting, always in late November.

And now, I no longer have even a small flutter. Wasn’t it WC Fields who said: “So you don’t gamble, huh? Sounds like a pretty good system to me!”

My guest picked the easy winner of the first race run after our arrival (we’d been marooned by a storm from hell lashing Avondale after a morning quiz at Reps.) Every other spavined nag she fancied, should have been swiftly sent to the dog-meat man or glue factory!

Amanda Wessels was the caterer and this cool, collected celebrity chef was still personally tarting up and replenishing stunning looking, great tasting, colourful displays of grand foodstuffs, first unveiled at lunchtime, until well after dark. That’s how it should be. Nothing looks worse than ugly gaps in a running buffet.

Drink flowed like water used to do in Ha-ha-ha-rare! Company was stimulating. An electrical storm which threatened to cause the meeting to be cancelled disappeared in the general direction of Mazowe and entertainment — by Kevin Hansen and a medical doctor who cannot be named for professional reasons, but hundreds of readers will know to whom I refer! — highly professional.

I even watched three or four races, just to see my companion’s fancied and modestly-backed gee-gees coming in 20 minutes after the winner had unsaddled!

Thanks HRIB (that’s Henderson, Rugg Insurance Brokers).


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