Friday, April 24, 2009

Bovine Non Sequitur

The last thing I expected to eat in India was a steak. Yet, there I was, eating a steak. In India. This deserves an explanation.

Once in a while, despite the dire warnings of my doctor to reduce my cholesterol levels, I like to have a steak. Not just any steak. A good steak. I refuse to push a squeaky-wheeled cart through a fluorescent-lit supermarket aisle as the Muzak distracts me just enough to not critically think about what kind of crap I am buying. No mindlessly plucking a chunk of red-dyed factory critter shrink-wrapped on a dimpled pink styrofoam tray for me! No sirree, if I'm going to have a steak, I'm either going to hunt it myself, or it's going to be from a happy hormone-free grass-fed steer, one that has never seen the inside of a feed lot or a hypodermic filled with growth hormones. A cow whose last thought as it was happily munching grass on the free range was something along the lines of "Awww... that's sweet. They bought me a DeWalt nail gun for my birthday!".

When it comes to a steak house, my standards are high. I have worshipped at arguably the most sacred steak temple on the planet, Peter Luger's in Brooklyn. While attending an AES conference in New York in 1999, I had the pleasure of dining there with my late ex-father-in-law, the noted author Gerald Krefetz, and two of my engineering colleagues. We ordered the Porterhouse steak for four. After a couple of healthy martinis, a surly Russian waiter appeared at the table. He cleared some real estate, and placed an inverted ashtray on the table. The purpose of the ashtray soon became clear. The waiter reappeared with a platter of Flintstonian proportions. The largest steak I had ever seen was placed before our slack-jawed foursome with one end of the platter resting on the inverted ashtray. The steak oozed all of it's not inconsiderable dry-aged melting marbled fat into the reservoir at the low end of the plate. The waiter, who was grumpy even by Russian standards, methodically spooned this beefy elixir onto our potatoes and creamed spinach. In a thick Russian accent, he gruffly intoned "Ees not hailth food...". We were left to gorge on this awe-inspiring artery-clogging chunk of majesty, some of which I'm sure is still lurking in my colon somewhere...

Fast forward ten years. I've ben in India with my family for six months. My wife and I wanted to do something fun to celebrate our 9th anniversary. We were married on April 24th, 2000 in Dharamsala, India. And again on April 25th, 2000, but that is another story. After six months in Cochin, despite the amazing Keralan food here, I have to admit that we were getting some hankerings for something decidedly un-Keralan. In Vancouver, we are so used to having so many great restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines, that the restaurant scene in Cochin seems rather monochromatic by comparison. Fish Fry? No problem. Rice meals? Everywhere. Strangely bastardized versions of Chinese food? You can't swing a cat without hitting one of those places. For our anniversary, we needed to branch out. Big time.

My fabulous wife Laurel, whom is known to her loyal followers as "the Queen of Google", promptly went online and found reviews of what were purported to be "the best restaurants in Cochin". For those who have done this before, your experience has probably been like ours. The "best" restaurants are the ones that pay for the most advertising. It's a real challenge to sift through "objective" reviews, most of which are submitted by the owners or family members, and come to a decision about where to eat. One review caught our attention. It was a review of Cochin's only steak house, "The Attic". A glowing review. What made this even more remarkable was that the review was submitted by a vegetarian. We were hooked.

Dressed in our finery, we caught a rickshaw from our Ponoth Road home to the bustling downtown scene on Marine Drive. It was a Friday night, and there were lots of people everywhere. Everywhere it seems, but The Attic. The Attic, one level up from the street, was entirely devoid of customers at 7:30 on a Friday night. It was a frickin' mausoleum, albeit a pleasant enough one. After being shown to our table in what must be the most un-Indian dining room in all of India, we were amazed to see that there was not one single item of Indian origin on the menu. We both agreed that this was a bold move, as it demonstrated a commitment to it's aesthetic, which, while being courageous, may prove ultimately financially suicidal.

First up was our appetizer. In a nod to 60's kitsch, we both ordered the shrimp cocktail. 8 or 10 medium sized shrimp drowned in a mayonnaise and cocktail sauce , served in a margarita glass, along with two tomato wedges, and 2 quarters of a hard-boiled egg. All things considered, it wasn't bad, although eating it made me feel like Johnny LaRue in a loud Hawaiian shirt, trying to impress the broads at the Polynesian Room. Retro, but not authentic. What impressed us both was a perfect sprig of parsley, an herb that we have not seen at all for six months.

Next up was the bruschetta, which the decidely un-surly waiter pronounced "Brew-shetta". I successfully fought the urge to correct him. 4 chunks of baguette-like bread topped with some fresh tomato, dried herbs, and sliced canned black olives. The olives were the same uninspired kind that Domino's pizza buys by the trainload. DNA testing would no doubt prove that somewhere along the line there was a vague family resemblance to an olive, but it must be said that these were perhaps best left out of the dish. The bread, sliced in nearly 3 inch thick chunks, was baguette shaped, but unfortunately made from very finely ground local flour, and not at all allowed to ferment and develop the sumptuous crumb of a true baguette. A leaning tower of mediocrity. That only left the tomato, which thankfully, was a passable shade of red. Thank god for small mercies.

Despite this, we were truly enjoying ourselves. It was actually fun to have the place to ourselves, and as much as we love Indian food, to not be eating it. Next up came our mains. Laurel's was a truly retro "Prawn Thermidor". For a moment I hallucinated a vision of her in a beehive hairdo and a Jackie Kennedy clutch purse and pillbox hat, but the vision soon passed. Hers was not bad, but ultimately uninspired. She only ate half, and "parceled" the rest. Then came the object of my desire: the steak. It was advertised as a filet. I ordered it rare, and much to my surprise, that's how it came. Perched upon some nicely cooked spinach, then a few slices of sauteed beetroot, then some slices of roast potato, was my steak. Smothered in black pepper, it seemed rather diminutive in comparison to the Peter Luger's leviathan. It would seem that the passe trend of "piled food" had finally floated across the sea and washed up on the beach. The steak itself was a little difficult to pin down. Was it aged? Perhaps for a day or two. Mainly outside. Was it tender? Maybe a little too tender. It had a texture that would suggest that it had either been relentlessly pounded by a chef as part of his anger-management therapy , or recently kicked into submission by a losing jockey. What was advertised as being "jus", was actually that Langis instant gravy that leaves the telltale MSG burn on your tongue afterwards. I could go on...

However, it was a steak, dammit! An honest-to-gawd piece of roasted meat. In India, no less. This was nothing short of a miracle. We had a great time, and to be frank, we actually expected the food to be a lot worse than it was. It was actually... charming. Maybe it was just the dinner company. Laurel and I talked about all the changes brought by 9 years of marriage. Children. New houses. Businesses. Travel. We wondered what we would be doing in another 9 years.

One thing is certain. As I was following her sari-clad form around the fire in a dimly lit Shiva temple 9 years ago, the last thing that I expected was that we would be back in India with two beautiful children. Eating a steak.

1 comment:

Waterbaby said...

Very sweet, Robert Bailey. Thanks for my morning sentimental tearing-up.