Fifteen years ago, the USP of the coffee shops in the five star hotels of the city was simply that they were the only places where you could get a bite to eat at say 3.30am. Expectations relating to variety or even quality were not very high. If you got a decent burger or fish and chips or fried chicken with ketchup and mustard, a few greens and a bread basket, it was considered a fair and square meal at that time of the morning.
How things have changed. Today coffee shops are referred to that way from sheer habit. They have become serious multi-cuisine restaurants with elaborate a-la-carte menus; they pose a challenge for the finest chefs. There is constant experimentation, innovation, creativity and reinvention, and you can walk in at four in the morning and have soups, salads, platter spreads, tandoori items, Indian or international combos, a range of pastas and desserts. Not to mention sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and pizzas.
The Atrium Cafe at The Park is a case in point. It has evolved over the years in more or less the same way as I have described and just a week ago, chef David Cananzi and his team launched a new menu in which at least 60 per cent of the dishes are different from the previous one and there is a definite signature feel to it, which is not easy to define except to say there is great innovation, some instances of fusion, many examples of using locally available ingredients in completely new ways, and all in all an interesting approach. In recent years, redoubtable chefs like Shaun Kenworthy and Yvonnick Jegat Deniau have set trends and made their mark; Antonio Carluccio’s short visit gave the Italian character of the menu much colour and Cananzi has carried this forward.
At lunch the other day we started with a light and cooling salad — Kiwifruit, cherry tomatoes and button mushrooms topped with a healthy bunch of rocket leaves. The dressing was a combination of vinegar, lemon juice, white wine, olive oil and apple cider. Rocket is a personal favourite when it comes to salad vegetables. It is predominantly a Mediterranean ingredient but grows all over the world.
And being a member of the mustard family it has a slightly bitter edge to it which complemented the sweet-sour combination of kiwi and tomato and the earthy flavour of the mushrooms just so. I could have made a meal of this salad.
For starters there were handsome-sized prawns coated with a mixture in which the main ingredient was tiny squares cut out from the thin dough sheet normally made for wrapping wantons and dim sum. Deep fried after coating, the prawns had a rough, jagged crisp exterior and were fleshy and juicy inside. Tandoor-baked chicken drumsticks with a mint-based marinade were the other starters served and the dips to go with these starters were a Cananzi special Kasundi, a sweet-tamarind chutney and an aioli sauce made with rocket.
The kasundi was made with pungent mustard, a dash of ketchup, lime juice, white vinegar, a pinch of turmeric powder and finely-chopped cashew nuts.
The main course items were risotto with chicken, saffron, spinach and pecorino cheese and pork chops cooked with rum and various herbs and spices and served with crisp-fried bacon and cabbage and sauteed leeks. Risotto is one of the Atrium Cafe’s strong points, with nice moist consistency and robust character in the stock in which it is cooked. The fried cabbage and bacon that went with the pork chops enhanced the full-bodied nature of the dish.
An entirely non-veg meal except for the salad and dessert (banana tart with kahlua sauce) but, in fact, the new menu has a wide array of vegetarian options; almost a 50-50 ratio. There is strong emphasis on Indian items and some cleverly conceived fusion ideas as well. Calcutta bekti simmered in thin Bengal mustard gravy, fried aubergine and steamed rice appears under Indian Mixes and tomato soup with coconut milk and mini vada (instead of croutons) under Soups. And much more.
Old favourites haven’t been forgotten, though, and you will still get their Mixed Grill and Fish and Chips, which they do well.
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