Mumbai's tryst with luxury never tasted so good. Neel at Tote on the Turf redefines fine dining and paves way for Nawabi Muslim cuisine in a country which has long forgotten the art so cherished, yet so evasive
By: Salman Z. Bukhari
Posted on: April 10, 2012
Mumbai’s tryst with luxury never tasted so good. ‘Neel’ at Tote on the Turf redefines fine dining and paves way for Nawabi Muslim cuisine in a country which has long forgotten the art so cherished, yet so evasive.
There is something about it which makes one go weak in the knees with sheer delight and enchantment. A complex evolution over generations, secrets passed on from travellers, royal chefs, grandmothers and maestros of the apron - Muslim cuisine does not believe in simplicity. It thrives on intricate flavours and in pleasantly assaulting all senses at the same time. Children from many a Muslim households may take their meals casually, often labeling it as staple ‘Ghar ka khaana’, but seldom do they realize what wonders are conjured up in their tiny kitchens when their mothers get on with it. The aromas wafting out of the kitchen can make even the strong-willed give in.
Many have tried to do it in the past, and that many failed to get it right. It usually breaks my frail heart to walk into fancy fine dining restaurants and discover that while their risottos and Tom Yum soups are bang on, the cuisine at the heart of Indian culture turns out so awfully wrong. So when Rahul Akerkar decided to revamp Tote on the Turf with a Nawabi culinary makeover celebrating Indian Muslim cuisine, my heart sank for many reasons. 1) Mr Akerkar was treading a fine line. His glorious Indigo and Indigo Deli restaurants are gold standards of dining in the country now. One wrong move and he surely must know how unforgiving fine dining enthusiasts can be and 2) Can someone actually get their Muslim menu right? I imagined my grandmother turn in her grave at the brutality which could be doled out in the name of the only food she knew.
Time to walk in
‘Neel’ at Tote On the Turf is tucked away in Mahalaxmi Racecourse which also houses the charming ‘Gallops’ and stylish ‘Olive’, making the location absolutely perfect to draw the right crowds. Despite the change of chefs and its very genre of cuisine, Mr Akerkar has retained the interiors of the short-lived Tote, which could be a rather modern setting for an Indian restaurant serving Nawabi Kebabs, but I suppose we should be content with slow beats of the tabla and the soft strums of sitar in the background, which is a constant reminder that we are not in a restaurant that was, but what it is now – Neel.
On arrival, we are immediately ushered to our table in the elegantly lit exterior dining area, covered with canopies and the loud cacophony of diners enjoying themselves in the sweltering Mumbai heat. “No thank you, can we get a more comfortable seat?” And before the words could be uttered, the thoughtful manager led us to the dining hall inside to a table of our choice. Sadly, the best part of the service ended here, once the wait staff took over. The time the menu took to reach our hands despite the glaring and the sulking and eventually arm waving didn’t evoke much amusement from fellow fine-diners nor a response from the attendants themselves. They are little nawabs themselves moving at a predetermined pace, not conducive if you are short on time, or plain famished. Perfect though for courting couples who wish to be left alone. We didn’t.
The culinary safar
On recommendation of the Maître d', we dive into Chef Mukhtar Qureshi’s intricately designed menu of Hyderabadi, Awadhi and Kashmiri fare. Our first stop are the soups, which we have been told are so intricately spiced, that there's a mélange of over a 100 spices in each one. Nalli ka Awadhi soup, as the name suggests, is a smoked marrow-based broth which is a delight to the eyes as it is to the senses. Experience with marrow preparations dictates that it can be very heavy and oily, filling you up almost instantly, and leaving room for almost nothing. Chef Qureshi succeeds in retaining the delicate flavours of the infamous marrow while pulling down the heaviness, miraculously making it a perfect opener. Chilgoze ka shorba, a pine nut soup, is yet another hidden treasure, which will transport you to places you never thought the unassuming dry fruit could!
What follows next can be confusing, but will leave you spoilt with choices - 50 kebabs - 30 of which are non-vegetarian! Vegeterians never had it so good. Neel throws out the boring paneer and brings in an array of gourmet ingredients. Rejoice, we say! With so much to choose from, we go for the first kebab on the list – known and popular Kakori Kebab, a minced lamb seekh cooked on charcoal grill. One bite and you know the chef is in control of his kitchen. The kebab is melt-in-the-mouth and packed with flavour. It’s easily the finest Kakori in town, we can guarantee you that.
Next we ordered a broiled yogurt soaked Pomfret tempered with black mustard and curry leaves called Neel ki Tadke wali Pomfret. It can be safely said that after years of spicy abuse by the Malwanis and the Konkan belt, the Pomfret has finally been delivered to the Promised Land. The dish could be termed bland or plain Blah! But what is to be appreciated beneath the layer of tempering is the preservation of a fish’s integrity. The delicate flavours almost rush out and tease you.
What comes next is clearly the Star of the evening. Nothing that came before or after mattered. Had we known the impact it would cause, we would have waited right till the end and perhaps ordered it after desserts. Adarak ke Panje, a sensual tandoor preparation of New Zealand lamb chops, takes its own sweet time for preparation, but believe you us, it is a wait you will never regret. Soft and succulent, the knife glides into the meat like it would in a room temperature butter and its ‘beautiful pink’ tenderness is a tell-tale sign of the wonders you are yet to experience. Avoid the gravy they handover with this dish, just dive into its divinity.
The wine list is rather exhaustive and impressive with a global selection handpicked to pair with your meal. If you don’t wish to order the entire bottle, go for per glass option. Although no proactive suggestions were forthcoming from the staff, a little inquiring and probing might just do the trick to help you with the right pairing.
Murgh Baradari Korma, which arrives next, is perhaps the beginning of a sad end of the pleasures Neel was promising to be. The boneless chicken leg in rich gravy is nothing to write home about. A very uninspiring dish which could have been left out – really!
Do you think, just like we do, that no Muslim meal is complete without a Biryani or Pulao? Then this review is for you. A perfect Gosht ki Dum Biryani, which is nothing less than an art form, comprises layers of marinated meat, potatoes and sliced tomatoes which form the base, followed by par boiled basmati long-grain rice and jalebi colour or zaffran (saffron juices) generously sprinkled on the top. This is then covered with a tight fitting lid and sealed with dough to prevent any steam from escaping. Over a long cooking time, slowly what happens inside is epic. Aromatic rice, followed by juicy and succulent masala covered meat, is surely the best Mughal gift this nation has received. Hoping for a similar spectacle was not too much to ask for. Neel, which built us up right from its starters, let us down with its insipid rendition of Dum Biryani.
We do appreciate a modern twist of fusing ingredients like Portobello mushrooms, Norwegian salmons, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots into traditional fare, and even the reduction of oils and de-cluttering of heavy spices, but Biryani? That’s one dish you shouldn’t experiment with much. To be fair, it was Dum (sealed and cooked), but was it right? Regretfully, it was a far cry from what could have been – low on flavours, seasonings and oil, the Biryani did not make it on our charts.
Having dessert after a loaded Nawabi fare is something which should not be attempted, but can a meal be truly complete or a review be just and fair without the last course? Desserts are, after all, an important food category with LuxuryFacts taking it very, very seriously. Neel’s dessert selection leaves a lot to be desired. With around barely 7-8 items listed, we chose Neel Rabdi Ice-cream and Kesar Rasmalai. In its sparseness, the desserts still strike the right chord.
While the name of the restaurant is quite uncreative being just the Hindi word for Indigo, the food is a leap of creativity using traditional recipes for a contemporary gourmand. Neel is just the restaurant you have been waiting for in a bustling cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. We say it’s about time. And Mr Akerkar, we hate to admit it, but the good old Tote will not be missed for your Neel which we mostly love.
Coordinates: Neel at Tote On The Turf, Mahalaxmi Race Course, Opposite Gate 5 & 6, Keshvrao Khadye Marg, Mahalaxmi, Mumbai
Phone: +91-22-6157 7777
Hours: Daily, 7.30pm to midnight