It was our final evening in Tunisia. All twelve of us had met for the third time; we were fated to meet a few times more – food writers from all over the world, who would collect in a different country once a year at olive harvest time. All of us – from the US, Canada, China, India, Russia and Croatia – were taken by coach through the narrow streets of the traditional part of Tunis. All the houses were traditional, which was to say, the exteriors looked impersonal and slightly forbidding. It was only when we trooped in through the golden yellow felt door (appropriately, the restaurant was named Dar el Jeld) that we saw the explosion of colour inside. There was a courtyard, a musician playing a string instrument, a profusion of halls and small rooms around the courtyard and tables and chairs everywhere. In true Tunisian fashion, the interior walls of the 18th century building were covered in colourful tiles with geometrical patterns.
Our party of twelve plus our hosts from the Ministry of Agriculture and the International Olive Council squeezed into one of the smaller rooms. The exotic quotient of the antique carpets, the carved furniture and the aromas of jasmine mingling with the tantalizing smells of the food was one of the most memorable meals of my life. There was fish with a stew of tomatoes, capers and lemon, shoulder of lamb cooked with rosemary, couscous with beef and a profusion of tiny pastries which is Tunisia’s contribution to the art of baklava.
Some people travel to see the world. Others to shop till they drop or till their credit card runs out of balance. Still others navigate the globe to visit friends or family. I go where my palate takes me. It’s as simple as that. Dar el Jeld, which means door of gold, was a family run restaurant with a difference. The owners actually owned the charming house and were looking for a way to pay for its upkeep. Even if you go there and not eat, you will still have a marvellous time among the superb surroundings. Dar el Jeld, which actually has a yellow door in a country where blue is the standard colour for doors, has a team of ladies in the kitchen: all over North Africa, it is considered prestigious to have women in restaurant kitchens rather than men. I’d say they know a thing or two!
You don’t need grand surroundings or a heritage house to have a great restaurant. The one we visited in Seattle was of the most basic kind. The Crab Pot specialized in what they called seafood buffets. A group of us colleagues were taken to a quayside structure on wooden stilts and were showed to our table. It was a trestle table with wooden benches. Certainly the accent was not on the décor. The menu was shown to us, but only to display the prices and the quantities. There was only one ‘dish’ on offer: mixed seafood in their shells, lightly steamed.
We chose our portions conservatively – two buckets among the six of us. No-nonsense aprons were handed out, as were wooden mallets. The crabs, mussels, clams and shrimps were all in their shells. The contents of the bucket were spilled by the ‘waiter’ on the table, on a sheet. We kept helping ourselves from the messy pile, hammering the shells of three kinds of crabs – king, Alaskan and Dungeness and noisily slurping the meat inside. I have to say that the experience was cathartic, more so because there was not a single false note. The décor was kept basic. All the frills were in the quality and variety of the seafood. The novelty of service, the aprons and mallets, all were calculated to make you feel that you could put aside your table manners for an hour and dig in to an orgy of seafood proportions.
There’s one more thing. Dungeness crab makes its way into all Seattle’s restaurants but they are never seen in India. Salmon, however, is. What importers order is the produce of Norwegian salmon farming. What we were treated to was sockeye salmon from the cold waters of the North West Province of USA. There is simply no comparison between the two. Believe me.
One iconic landmark of Jaipur is the Amer Fort. The view from the main road – the route that most tourists take – makes the fort look honey-coloured and inviting. From the rear, however, Amer shows a very different side of itself. It looks bleached in the sun, and the sheer sandy slopes underline the fact that Jaipur is very much in the desert. The car takes you up a steep ramp and all around you are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the fort even as the monochromatic landscape never varies. Then, suddenly you are inside the fort, near a temple. A short climb and you are in one of the finest restaurants in India. Put together with a consummate eye for detail, all the mirror work, gilt carvings and bric a brac call to mind a royal palace. It is hard to believe that it is all brand new – only about five years old.
I was tagging along with a group of international travel writers and photographers and we were taken from one setting to another. A series of courtyards and chhatris, the smallest one of which seated two persons! No expense had been spared to restore this corner of Amer to its former glory. Even the name of the restaurant: AD 1135 paid homage to the date that the fort was built.
A fiddler played a ballad for us, hovering just out of sight, but the plaintive notes of his music managed to capture the essence of the desert night. Just as I was beginning to think that the crystal chandeliers that gleamed softly in the semi-darkness would be the finest aspect of the restaurant, dinner was served.
It has been three years since that day, yet the delicate flavour of a dal made with dried peas lingers on my palate. It is said to have been the favourite dish of Late Rajmata Gayatri Devi. Indeed, every katori on our thali had some significance in some palace or the other of Rajasthan’s royalty and had been curated by the management to embody not only the grandeur of palace life, but also its intimacy.
Just to make sure that I wasn’t seeing a mirage in the desert, I went back to the fort a year later. This time, I went alone and ordered a completely different set of dishes. And guess what. The magic lingered on. I suppose it’s what a truly great restaurant is supposed to be.