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Why I’m Boycotting Saravana Bhavan

28 Oct
Pongal

Pongal

TODAY I start my boycott of Saravana Bhavan. It may be invisible to many New Yorkers, but it has been my favorite South Indian restaurant since my first visit five years ago. I knew Saravana Bhavan before its reincarnation as a wannabe lounge, with its white leather sofas and gleaming new bar. I knew and loved the bright orange and hot pink fabric flowers that brightened up its walls, before those flowers began to droop. I’ve stood outside in the cold on Sunday mornings when it’s always packed, waiting for a table for two. And I’m not going to do it anymore.

There are some places that seem to glory in their inhospitability. The famous chicken and rice stand midtown, where lines stretch down the block. That neighborhood adda where they’ve seen you a million times before but would die before acknowledging it. And then there’s this place, which takes it to the next level.

Often there is no one at the door to greet guests. No problem, just flag down the nearest waiter. The man who’s assigning the seats is curt and abrupt and verging on rude. You’re irritated, but you catch the eye of that nice waiter who knows you, S. (yes, there is one nice waiter there, but he may be the only one), and he takes care of you and you let it go. Often when you bring people there (and you’ve brought A LOT of people there over the years), you’re embarrassed at the poor service and apologize for it: “The service is terrible but the food is good.”

But at some point, you have to stop making excuses for the place. There is no justification for treating customers like cattle, like you’re doing them a favor by taking their order, not noticing when water glasses need to be refilled or the table you’re waiting on has been waiting on YOU for the past 20 minutes to place their order.

I know that the outpost in Curry Hill is part of a sprawling chain that recently opened a new branch on Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe in that establishment they understand courteousness. In this one, they don’t. And it goes all the way up the chain.

Today was the first time that I felt the urge to speak to the manager about an unpleasant experience. I’ve seen him around on plenty of occasions. He was there watching the TV screens they had put up during the cricket world cup earlier this year when India beat Sri Lanka. I watched along with everyone else as I waited, unnecessarily, for a good half hour for a large order that was to have been ready for pick-up when I arrived. I went to this person perhaps naively imagining that someone in the restaurant business would not condone such incivility to a paying customer, to (gasp!) a regular. Instead, I was strongly told off for daring to expect that my companion’s meal and my own would arrive at roughly the same time. What did it matter if my meal arrived 20 minutes before my friend’s and was growing icicles in the interim? (This would never happen at even the humblest udipi in my hometown, Mumbai; those restaurants are models of efficiency.) I should have just eaten it, licketysplit. The waiter was under no obligation to inform me that our main courses would not be arriving together when we ordered together or even when he brought me my dish. I would have to eat my dosa cold, and that was that.

There are some things that are good when cold. Kulfi, chhaas—even revenge—come to mind. A crispy dosa, not so much. So I took myself and my unreasonable demands out of there. For $7.15 or thereabouts, this South Asian restaurant has lost a loyal customer. In the future, I will be taking my business to Pongal, across the street.

TWO years ago The New York Times published an exhaustive list of rules for restaurant staffers by Bruce Buschel. It was clearly meant for fine dining restaurants, where the ethic is much more than just a quick table turnover. I understand that every eatery cannot and will not adhere to this high standardthough I wish more would try. But here are my picks from this list that cost nothing or very little and will contribute a great deal to guests leaving any restaurant happy.

Do not let anyone enter the restaurant without a warm greeting.

When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.

Make sure the glasses are clean. Inspect them before placing them on the table.

Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.

Do not bang into chairs or tables when passing by.

—Bring all the appetizers at the same time, or do not bring the appetizers. Same with entrees and desserts. (Ahem.)

Do not disappear.

—Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

I looked carefully for a “Do not yell at guests” point, but I guess some things are so obvious Buschel figured it didn’t need to be said. I, for one, prefer to eat my dosas hot and somewhere else. 

Hungry for Survival

28 Jul

WHEN I was growing up, there was a massive famine in Ethiopia. It lasted from 1984 to 1985 and was likely over by the time we were old enough to understand them, but politically incorrect jokes was how we learned about hunger in the Horn of Africa.

“How many Ethiopians can fit in a phone booth?” went one. The answer: “All of them.”

“Have you ever tasted Ethiopian food?” went another. “Neither have they,” was the punch line.

Somehow, in our juvenile, uncomprehending minds, people starving to death were good for a laugh. It’s not funny anymore. Somalia is in the grips of a frightening famine, and its people are fleeing — 1300 a day — across the border to Kenya, to a swelling refugee camp that was built to accommodate 90,000 people and now struggles to hold 400,000. It is the biggest refugee camp in the world, and the hungry are still coming.

Oxfam Ambassador Kristin Davis visits Dadaab refugee camp

Oxfam Ambassador Kristin Davis visits Dadaab refugee camp

The United Nations declared a famine in two regions of Somalia last week, but has still to airlift food into the country. The Islamists who control the territory have banned the World Food Programme. Meanwhile, the Somali Foreign Minister has said that 3.5 million people may “starve to death” in his country if the world does nothing.

I remember the homeless beggar children on the streets of Mumbai, where I grew up, and their distended bellies and hands stretched out for money or food, and I know that I do not understand the true meaning of the word “hunger.”

This Washington Post article on the famine paints a chilling picture:

Xukun Muhumed walked more than 130 miles to seek help for her thin baby, sickened by hunger. As she trudged slowly across the bleak landscape, choked by famine and drought, she wondered whether her infant son, Sadik, would survive.

“If Allah wants him to die, he will die,” said Muhumed, her voice dropping. “I have seen many people who have died along the way.”

“These are becoming roads of death,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told reporters in Nairobi over the weekend.

And yet aid from the rest of the world has yet to flow in. According to the Post:

Aid agencies have been sounding the alarm for months, but funding from the United States and other Western donors is several hundred million dollars short of what is needed. At the Dollo Ado refu­gee camp in Ethiopia, where many of the displaced in Dolo were heading, an additional 13,000 tents are needed to meet the fresh influx, said the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Meanwhile, aid agencies are struggling to keep the flood of refugees from overwhelming neighboring countries. The World Food Program is planning to open new feeding sites in Dolo by the end of the week, but that could be too late for infants such as Sadik, whose bodies have swiftly deteriorated after their long journeys.

The famine is not limited to Somalia, though that country is the worst affected. It has also hit Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Western countries may be dragging their feet, but we don’t have to. Médecins sans Frontières has feeding centers already on the ground and they have plans to expand them. Donate here.

Four on Friday: Cozumel Eats

17 Jun

SINCE this seems to be Cozumel Week on this blog (seriously, Mexico travel and tourism ministry, you think I’m going to get my commission anytime soon?) I am continuing the trend with four great places to eat in Cozumel.

1. Casa Denis: This one tops my list coz it stands the test of time. It was, hand’s down, my best meal during a week of delicious meals in Chichén Itzá, Cozumel and Tulum, and it was my best meal this time around, too. It’s the oldest restaurant on the island (or so they claim) and has old black and white photos displayed on the inside wall. The seating is mainly outdoors; sit on the side of the main square rather than the stuffier back. The servers are jovial, the margaritas huge, and the fresh watermelon juice pure heaven. But the reason you should go there is the food. The fish, like everywhere on the island, is fresh as can be; the preparation, divine. I had red snapper (last time it was grouper) rubbed with lime, garlic, and salt. I can’t think of a simpler seasoning but combined, it made magic in my mouth. I asked our server for the recipe, and this is what he said:

Delicious margarita at Casa Denis

Delicious margarita at Casa Denis

To prepare the garlic, cut it into fine pieces and toss it in olive oil with lime, white wine and jugo de Maggi (Maggi sauce, that you can buy in Cozumel). Once the garlic is ready, marinate the fish with lime, salt, pepper and garlic, and then grill or cook in a pan.

We brought a travel-sized bottle of the Maggie jugo back with us, and I can’t wait to try making the dish myself. But I know it won’t touch what we had at Casa Denis, and I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before we’ll be back there to have the real thing!

132 Calle 1. #987-872-0067

2. Tio José: This little place, which is called “Uncle José” is a humble eatery right by the water, close to the lighthouse. You can get a seat outside on the terrace or on the beach itself. I highly recommend the fish tacos (super simple, with tomatoes and lettuce and pickled onions—oh, those onions! I could write odes to those onions) and the pork tacos and the micheladas—beer mixed with lime, hot sauce, and salt. Best eaten with the sea breeze lightly ruffling your hair. And after you’re done, you can pull on your flippers and snorkel mask and wade into the water, as a number of families were doing when we were there.

One half block east of the intersection of Avenida 65 and Calle 11 on the south side of the street.

Fish tacos at Tio Jose

Fish tacos at Tio Jose

3. Chen Rio: This seaside shack on the eastern side of the island was recommended to us by a local for its excellent seafood. Accessible only through the lone paved road that connects the tourist-stuffed western side—bulging with cruise liners, “flea markets” and high-end jewelery stores—to the calmer, deserted eastern side, Chen Rio was still surprisingly crowded, a testament to how far folks are willing to drive for fresh lobster. If you’re in a group of four, you can get the seafood platter, with fish, shrimp, lobster and conch. Being only two of us, we settled for the shrimp and lobster platter, which was more than enough. There were no fancy sauces or delicate arrangements, just fresh white meat on lettuce and tomato, with a side of fries and four slices of avocado. They provide plenty of salt and wedges of lime; sprinkle liberally and dig in!

The Chen Rio seaside shack

The Chen Rio seaside shack

Our partially devoured lobster and shrimp platter at Chen Rio

Our partially devoured lobster and shrimp platter at Chen Rio

After we were done eating, we queried our waiter about the provenance of the lobster. In answer, he pointed at a fishing boat that was just coming to shore. Off the boat and onto the plates! It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

The other awesome thing about Chen Rio is that, like Tio José, the beach it sits on is perfect for snorkeling or swimming. It’s protected by a ring of rocks that take the ferocity of the waves, leaving the enclosed space gentle and welcoming. To the left is a natural kiddie pool, a high bar of sand that creates a shallow pool, only two or three feet deep, where the tots can splash about in safety.

Costera Este Highway 3.5 miles, north Cozumel 77600.
The back garden at Kinta

The back garden at Kinta

4. Kinta: This is where you want to go for date night in Cozumel. Ask to be seated in the back garden. Artfully placed fronds shield you from your fellow diners; lights shine through stenciled out iguana sculptures clinging to the walls; and the red-and-black color scheme is just plain romantic. They have variations on the standard margarita—hibiscus or jasmine, anyone?—and an innovative, oft-changing menu. It seems to change so often, in fact, that I can’t find the appetizer that I devoured a mere week ago on their website! It was so good that I recommend asking for it by name if it’s not on the current rotation. It’s called the cherry bomb, and it’s four perfectly round balls of fried conch and other stuff that set off fireworks in my mouth. You look at the artful presentation, the mélange of flavors, the bringing together of the familiar and the surprising, and you know that there’s a real chef behind every dish. I won’t recommend other specific dishes, but if you want delicious food in a beautiful setting, you must pay a visit to Kinta.

Av. 5 between Calles 2 and 4, Cozumel, Quintana Roo, 77600. #987-869-0544

Psychedelic Tulips

20 May

LAST weekend I went for this great food festival tucked away on a traffic island near Madison Square Park and saw a bank of gorgeous tulips. Thanks to some weird combination of camera settings (that I had nothing to do with) I got this lovely photograph:

Sun-drenched tulips

Sun-drenched tulips

Perhaps it will cheer you up after my last depressing post. Now go sample the goodies at the food fest for yourself—it’s on till June 3.

Hungry at Midnight?

15 May

GO to the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue A, where there’s a kick-ass taco stand serving al pastor, chorizo, lengua, spicy pork, carne asada tacos and other deliciousness. It looks like it’s 24 x 7, and it’s Mexican street food’s gift to me. Check it out:

The Taco Morelos stand on 2nd Street and Avenue A

The Taco Morelos stand on 2nd Street and Avenue A

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