Worth a detourJul 5th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Food, Lifestyle
One doesn’t expect haute cuisine on a driving holiday in the hills. But we came across two gems hidden in the hills of Kumaon. So maybe it’s time for a local Michelin Guide. The first was the Fishermen’s Lodge in Bhimtal. Considerin g that Bhimtal itself is at best a sweet little lake with a noisy temple, and the Lodge has no garden or any naturally beautiful feature of its own, it was a place that deserves three stars, and its food at least two. According to the Michelin rating, “one star indicates a very good restaurant in its category, a good place to stop on your journey. Two stars denote excellent cuisine, worth a detour, with specialties and wines of first-class quality.”
And “three stars reward exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey, where diners eat extremely well, often superbly.” My reaction to the Lodge is not just on the basis of the board they provide, but on the entire experience. It has what can only be called an integrated personality; from the décor to the gleam and fragrance, from the service to the food. We had several meals there, all of which were thoughtfully planned and elegantly served. But some stand out. One because it was local: bhatt ki dal, madua roti and cucumber and mooli raita mixed with really keen mustard and tempered with bhangira, cannabis seeds. There was white gobhi-alu that was particularly welcome because it was tempered with only ginger and you could taste the freshness of the vegetables. Kumaoni chicken curry, which was inoffensive but not memorable for any great flavour. But I don’t know Kumaoni food at all, so maybe that was how it always is. The roti, slathered with butter, was thick, dark and brittle, cooked till crisp and speckled with dark spots.
Breakfast every morning was perfect. On the deck overlooking the lake, it satisfied both the need for the familiar — most people are probably less adventurous for the first meal of the day — and for a little self-indulgence. There were juice, fruit, cereal with eggs to follow. I asked for one egg, sunny side up. I got two, perfectly fried, yolks runny but intact, on crusty freshly baked bread. And got an unexpected bite: two red chillies had been fried and sandwiched between the eggs and toast! There were of course the usual cutlets, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, but also my absolute holiday favourite, bacon and sausages, fried just right. With date pancakes and freshly brewed coffee to finish.
It’s getting on to lunchtime by the time one is quite done with this kind of breakfast and on a normal day a normal person refuses lunch. As I did. But I was persuaded to just look into the dining hall. Where my heart leapt up as I beheld a rainbow in the room! A wide, shallow bowl of salad lay there, with leaves in half a dozen shades of green, tiny red cherry tomatoes, whole black olives and white cubes of feta gleaming through the green, with the occasional caper to add a bite. A simple French dressing on the side. There were many chafing dishes which I ignored, and concentrated on the salad and the little tubs of tuna and egg salad pâté, with just-arrived bread: walnut-raisin and jalapeño-cheese.
After our stay there, my trust in the management was so high that we decided to eat at a new place they recommended, the Garden Valley Resort at Nighlat. Just over half an hour from Bhimtal, en route to Ranikhet, this place is nestled in the crook of the mountains, green with acres of garden and original trees, with a stream running through the bottom. It was easy to find, but getting a reservation was another story. I had to make several phone calls, explain who had recommended Garden Valley, and then meet the owner-chef once before he confirmed that we could indeed dine there the next day. The property has a few cottages, with one reserved for non-resident diners. It was a glass room with a wooden deck, overflowing with potted ferns, fuchsia, roses, hydrangea, and crocus.
The table was already laid when we arrived, with wild grasses and white flowers in a jug, and a red flower in each plate. Friends had warned us to stay away from the soup, salad and starters, to leave enough room for the main courses. I’m glad we didn’t, because the vegetables are home-grown. So the hot pumpkin soup, gold with green flecks, was delicious. So was the salad. And then the focaccia with a dipping sauce of melted cheese. The hot, tender, broccoli quiche. A pizza. Thin, flaky phyllo filled with thin slices of grilled tomatoes and zucchini. Grilled sole with Hollandaise sauce. Stuffed chicken breasts. And the dessert. Warm, moist, carrot and date cake, with unsweetened whipped cream.
The next day we asked for soup and salad, and got a salad to remember: sweet New Zealand spinach tossed with tuna and onions, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. The dining room, next to the kitchen, smelled of new bread, warm and yeasty. And, sure enough, a loaf, spiked with green peppercorns, arrived, and we finished it.
The details have blurred a bit, but one cannot forget how good it all was. These people must love their work very much — despite the difficulty of access to ingredients and trained staff, exceptional food is being served.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham’s ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).