Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mallu Café in Philadelphia

10181 Verree Rd
This is as good as Indian food gets in the United States.  Mallu café is no café at all—you cannot buy coffee here, and the proprietor will direct you to the 4 Dunken Doughnuts nearby for coffee.  But the Malayali food that they have, food authentic to Kerala, the sultry communist state in India flush with gulf money, high education rates, procreative “half-cylinder” lungis and steamy movie heroines, is out of this world.  Our friends A&S recommended this place, this torrid, tumid space warp of a place in a coterie of shops between two roads that form a “Y”. It is about 16 miles from downtown Philly, in a far away suburb.  If you can make the trip you will not be disappointed.

Avial, beef curry, goat pepper fry—these are the three dishes that we had with rice and layered parathas.  The curries were dry, fried with spices and grated “kvwok’nuts”, this species referred to as a “coconut” elsewhere in India.  I could discern hints of Milagai Podi, the signature South Indian mixture of spices and lentils.  The food was rich without being oleaginous, and led to none of the characteristic feeling of heaviness after an Indian restaurant meal.  Whatever little oil that was used, was infused with the fragrance released by the coconuts and spices during frying, and bound the meats in a tight clasp of comraderie.  The food was hot, but as M noted, this came from the pepper, as in many traditional Indian foods, and not the use of chilli powder.  I do not recall eating with such abandonment of restraint, since the meal at Bukhara in Delhi in 2005.

The walls are painted a Kerala red, cutlery consists of plastic plates and spoons and the dishes come in plastic containers.  The proprietor flat out ignores you till you approach with trepidation to remind him that perhaps you could also have a meal while you are there.  At which point you realize that he is a friendly fellow who then pulls up a chair next to you and chats abouts his life.  This all gets irrelevant once you start eating. The cook is from Goa but the food is authentic Malayali (as swears my knowledgeable friend).  You look at the food, at the red painted walls, at the deep shadows cast on the walls, at the proprietor standing behind the counter plastered with a poster of a Mallu “dhamaka”, and you can almost feel that there is a bicycle repair shop under a coconut tree that has materialized outside, with a kid seeking a leak in a tube by dunking it in water, and a truck with OK Tata signs and no brake lights getting repairs done by the tea shop.  The pasty curries, with their concentrated heat, and their intense deep flavors will lull you into this world willingly till you see no more that you are in Philly.  This place was--to paraphrase a stuffed shirt art commentator that we heard later in the day on a visit to a van Gogh exhibit--“utterly delightful, what a joy”.  

Mallu Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pod Restaurant, Philadelphia, near the University of Pennsylvania
Pod is a gussied up American take on Asian food run by a well known Philadelphia restauranteur, Stephen Starr.  It has a 60’s retro-chic interior with a smattering of dim bluish and purple light cast over white furniture. It is a glissile place where, by the looks of it, there appears to be no friction: a bottle of beer could just slide forever down the long bar. To me the place feels like the womb of an enormous whale deep under the Arctic waters.  It is a cold ambiance.  Cozy is not the word that I would use for it, but some folks like it (including my son). 

We ordered kalbi-beef fried rice, lamb lo-mein, and pork belly buns. The food is done with an American sensibility, it all tastes very fresh. Snippets of sweet, sour, and spicy by-lines keep it interesting.  But—like the ambiance--it is frictionless with no rough edges or drama.  You can switch from a spoonful of rice to a spoonful of the lo-mein without discontinuity.  If you are having a business dinner, this is a good thing, and it is a perfect meal for conversation, should you succeed in reading the menu under the dim lights. The service is excellent.  The food is unique and has been prepared with care, but it is a uniqueness that appears engineered and lacking in spontaneity.

Pod on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 5, 2012

South Boston

I was in South Boston during a recent meeting.  It is an old, industrial looking place with brick buildings and faded signs for manufacturing that is now in the process of being “gentrified”.  Much safer than it was 10-20 years ago, I took a couple of walks through it on a dull rainy evening. 
Half of the buildings look empty, and there are faded signs of old graffiti that serve as a memory of its rough heritage. 

South Boston sits by itself as an appendage to the rest of Boston, uncrowded and relatively clean of high-rises.  This is the view from the entrance to Lucky’s Lounge, a hard to find, unmarked  bar and restaurant in the basement of an old building that plays host to a cast of regular characters.
You can get an idea of what a big city in the States might have looked and felt like in the early 20th. Century.  Brick red seems the color of South Boston.
Matter-of-fact industrial buildings presiding over an old and built up waterfront reminds me of so many other cities throughout the world, including Kolkata, and the businesses that must have plied a couple of centuries ago.  Ramdulal De, the ancestor of a close friend of mine (who now lives in Maryland),  was one of the first Bengali traders to have been involved in commerce with American traders in the early 19th. Century.  His ships came to Boston, and perhaps to the docks and wharfs around here.  He became immensely wealthy and there is a fairy tale story behind his rise from rags to riches.  Employed as a servant to a rich businessman in early 19th-late 18th. century Calcutta, he was carrying some of his employer’s money as a courier when he came upon a ship that was being auctioned off.  News was that it had taken in water on its way out of the port of Calcutta and its cargo of expensive silks had been destroyed.  The ship was being sold for a pittance and Ramdulal, on a hunch, bought the entire craft along with its goods with his employer’s money on the spot.  Within minutes fresh news arrived that the damage was not as bad and that its cargo was intact and unharmed.  Ramdulal, already by now the owner of the ship, sold it back immediately at a tidy profit.  Upon returning, he handed over the gains to his employer.  Impressed by his acumen and honesty, his employer awarded him the profits and Ramdulal struck out on his own.  He ended up one of the richest Bengali businessmen of his times.  He was particularly well liked by the Americans--a portrait of his resides in the archives at Washington D.C., and they named one of their ships that sailed out of Salem, after him.  Ramdulal’s profligate sons—Chatu Babu and Latu Babu—frittered the money away in frivolous pursuits that are legendary (upon seeing an expensive mirror displayed outside a shop with a sign stating that nobody could afford this mirror, Chatu Babu immediately purchased it, laid it flat on the road, and asked his driver to run his horse coach over).  So in a strange, weird way, I though about Ramdulal De on this walk through South Boston, wondering how these docks would have looked like a couple of centuries ago.