The Drool Divide

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…between the Indian and American eating out experience is no longer as wide as it was

The dinner had come to an end. A large tiramisu, almost the size of a junior-sized shoe box, lay half eaten, resembling a structure damaged in an earthquake. The bulbous wine glasses were empty but for a last sip or two of a 2010 J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon. Floating on the purple red surface of the wine drops was a reflection of some lights in the room.

We were at the San Jose, California, branch of Maggiano’s, a chain of casual-dining Italian-American restaurants in the United States. The interiors are plush, but along expected lines. Red chequered table cloths, walls bearing pictures of New York and Italian-Americans making merry. The music tends to be Frank Sinatra, or something similar. This evening, Sinatra’s Something Stupid was one of the songs played.

Our waitress returned to our table with a cargo of food to take home. These were not leftovers. These were whole meals, courtesy the restaurant. They had an offer going on. Anyone who ordered certain items on the menu got one main course dish free. My sister and brother-in-law, our hosts, now had enough chow to last a few days.

I had never seen anything like this. In India, such magnanimity of restaurants is unheard of (understandably so for a developing country). Whatever the state of the American economy, you realised, its eatonomy was still booming.

But while the quality and generosity was impressive, the taste didn’t always blow us away as much as we’d imagined it would. And then we realised, with some satisfaction, that this was due to the significant strides the Indian food scene has made in the past decade or so, at least in terms of coffee and staples of popular international cuisine. (This piece does not cover fine-dining, sushi and steak. While these are important categories, most Indians stay away from them for taste or financial reasons.)

It is true that food in the developed world will almost always have better ingredients and consistency, but from the point of view of a regular guy, pasta from a reputed Italian eatery in India, like Mumbai’s Don Giovanni, would stack up pretty well with pasta in the US. Surely, cakes from the excellent Theobroma in Mumbai would compare with the best in the world (with the exception of Germany; beating Germans at baking is as hard as beating them in penalties). Not just Theobroma. My sister, who’s lived in the US for 17 years, says the best cake she’s ever had was a Super Ferrero Rocher made by Sweet Passions of Chembur, Mumbai.

Likewise with coffee. When you had Starbucks in the old days, oh, were you blown away: the aroma, the range, the beverage itself, it was all revelatory. I remember my first time at Starbucks (start the violins and imagine Morgan Freeman speaking). It was one glorious evening in 1998. It was a Starbucks café in Jersey City, on the edge of the Hudson River with Lower Manhattan and the Twin Towers right across on the other side. I had a caramel macchiato with a buddy from school who lived in a fabulous apartment nearby.

Even today, Starbucks remains an intoxicant, a quick leap to an almost aphrodisiacal state of being. The Starbucks experience is a coming together of hipness and caffeine. There are few greater urban pleasures than sipping a Starbucks coffee while exploring a vibrant city. But here’s the thing. Over the past 12 years, since the Baristas and Café Coffee Days came up, we’ve been getting pretty good coffee in India too. So while you do get a high from Starbucks, especially in the initial days of a trip abroad, your visits eventually reduce. Because the experience is not all that new or inaccessible as it used to be.

There was the odd occasion this time when we were even underwhelmed by the food. Lombardi’s pizza in New York, famous for its taste and historical importance (it’s America’s first pizzeria, in operation since 1905), was one such experience. One evening, exhausted after yet another hot day spent walking around Manhattan, we were contemplating a return home. But we decided to stretch ourselves a bit and check out SoHo. Flagging down a cab at Rockefeller Centre, where my wife soaked in enough of the space in which her favourite TV show (30 Rock) is set, we rolled towards Lombardi’s legendary 32 Spring Street location. The driver was an old gent from Bangladesh, and inevitably, we chatted about cricket. The cab ride was followed by a ten-minute stroll past chic stores and cafes and old neighbourhoods where kids played basketball on gravel courts. And there, to our right, at the bottom of a red brick building on a street corner, was Lombardi’s. Its burgundy awning flaunted the ringing endorsement of its pies by the influential Zagat guide. ‘Zagat Survey—Best on the Planet’, the sign said.

As usual, clusters of people were waiting for a table. But the three of us got place before you could say ‘before you could say.’ Lombardi’s young staff, armed with notepads and wireless communication equipment, guided us to our seat. It is a small maze of a place, with multiple cramped seating areas. Pictures of Lombardi’s current owner, John Brescio, an Italian-American who could be a character from The Sopranos, are omnipresent. But it’s an unpretentious joint, and quick.

We ordered a classic Margherita. When it arrived, we noted with relief the moderation of cheese and tomato sauce. The focus, we thought, would be on the flavour. But that wasn’t the case. The pizza was just slightly less dreary than a Russian novel. Fine, the sauce had a nice homey, non-commercial note to it, but that’s about it. Once again, the feeling was that such fare from some places in India, like Celini at the Hyatt in Mumbai, was as good if not better.

Shake Shack, a popular burger place in Madison Square Park, was the other disappointment. We went there on a bright Sunday morning. A children’s festival was on. While my daughter enjoyed a magic show, I joined the long queue at Shake Shack. My turn came an hour later. I had the signature Shackburger, while my wife had the vegetarian Shroomburger, made with Portobello mushroom. Mine was just about okay. Hers was better. But certainly not worth queuing up an hour.

Luckily, redemption was brisk and frequent. Iowa City, a cosy university town blessed with permanent youth thanks to its student population, has several small quality eateries, like the falafel place Oasis. We went there one afternoon after spending our morning in the soothing wilderness of Lake Macbride. After trekking up and down gentle slopes, after skimming stones off the lake and chatting with owls (you make a clucking sound, they cluck back—clucking cool!), we reached Oasis in a famished state. The wholesome pita sandwiches, stuffed with a mélange of flavours and textures, were a delight. Sauces and condiments play a critical role in falafels, and some of the accompaniments—tabbouleh, tahini sauce and a mango curry sauce—were outstanding.

Another memorable meal was dim sum at the Grand Palace restaurant in South San Francisco. While the name of the restaurant may be ostentatious, the meal is without fuss. No snobbish ordering procedure, no ornate menu card. Trolleys of dim sum and vegetables stop by your table almost as soon as you arrive. It is all fresh, subtle and healthful. This is one meal where you can eat as much as you want without worrying too much about calories. And it’s fun to see waitresses serve the dim sum and then snip it into pieces with scissors. The only problem: it can be difficult figuring out what the waitresses are saying. The Chinese accent in San Francisco is heavy, as locals tell us.

And then, there were pancakes. Stacks and stacks of them. We had pancakes for breakfast, pancakes for dinner, pancakes at IHOP (International House of Pancakes), pancakes at Denny’s (which were better, but it could be because sitting in a Denny’s on the rough streets of LA made me feel like a character from a Tarantino film). Binged on ice cream too. At the Mr Softee trucks in New York, Cold Stone Creamery in California, Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs in multiple places. And a record three scoops (over two days) of Mocha Almond Fudge at Gibson Girl in Disneyland.

In sum, it was a mixed experience. There were some things that were great and will be hard to find here. But otherwise, it is clear that boundaries are melting. You never know what you will like where. Indian food in the UK gets a bad rap, but I like it. And I have no hesitation in saying that the best Italian I have had was not in New York or Chicago, but at a Marwari wedding in Mumbai. The food had come from Little Italy, a vegetarian Italian restaurant in Juhu. All I had was slices of Margherita pizza and penne in tomato sauce. But it was hot and fresh and loaded with flavour. I must have had four servings.

The truth is, taste is subjective. Your palate, not Zagat, is your best guide.

Note ~ This article has been modified from the print version. Since Oriental features is offensive to some, we have omitted the phrase from the online version of the article