Thursday, January 8, 2009

Good Customers

I am very full. In the late afternoon, after having had a late breakfast and no lunch, I was starving, so I went to my old standby, the Haifa restaurant, for a Middle Eastern thali. When I lived here in 2001-02, before I’d moved into my flat and set up my kitchen, I ate at Haifa just about every day. (Those were the old days, when Haifa was a mellow garden restaurant. Now, there’s a Haifa hotel and Haifa internet place and Haifa travel services, and the Haifa restaurant is a sterile hotel dining room rather than a place where you could recline at low tables in a garden. A bit sad.) I ate there so much in 2001-02, when Assi had many fewer restaurants than it does now, that, for awhile, I had to stop going there because I felt like I’d had one falafel ball too many and needed to take a little break.

Even though the Haifa menu is very long (including the memorable page titled “Snakes”), it doesn’t feel like it makes sense to eat much there besides Middle Eastern food, which is what they do best. (And the Middle Eastern thali is really a fabulous invention—you can choose three things from a list that includes falafel, hummous, baba ghanoush, labeneh (salty whipped cheese) and chips (fries)—and it comes with salad and a pita. Quite delicious and, at 80 rupees, a good deal.) Although I’d been there a couple of times on this trip already, this was my first Middle Eastern thali. And when I went up to pay, I was quite touched when the main guy gave me my bill and pointed to a discount of 13 rupees. “Good customer discount,” he told me. I am assuming this is a new thing, but I did kind of wonder whether, after 7 years of eating at Haifa, however sporadically, I had just that day, with that last Middle Eastern thali, crossed some kind of line and gained the status of a customer worthy of a discount.

I met Andy after that, and we went to a concert at a little temple on Tulsi ghat. We missed the vocalist who went first but arrived just in time for the 17 year old tabla player, who, especially for a teenager, was quite impressive. After it was over, we came to the sad conclusion that when were 17, we were not even nearly as good at anything at all as that tabla player was at playing his tabla.

We’d met Ramu at the concert, and he suggested that we go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I said I’d just eaten a Middle Eastern thali in the late afternoon, so I wouldn’t eat much. (Did I even believe this as I said it?) Indian Chinese is different from American Chinese and Chinese Chinese both. (I even read a newspaper article about this in the past few months.) I think the best thing Andy and I did was just let Ramu order since he’d been there before. We started with deep fried baby corn in a chili vegetable sauce. That is not a combination I imagined existed, but Ramu said it was the best starter there. I do not like baby corn (and Indians seem to have a strange fascination with it—I noticed a “baby corn pizza” on the menu at Vaatika, the pizza place on Assi ghat, and I wondered if anyone ever ordered it), but it turns out that if you deep fry it and put some spicy sauce on top of it, it’s pretty tasty. (My guess is that just about anything you deep fry and cover in chili sauce is going to be tasty, but the baby corn was no exception.)

Andy had wanted something with vegetables in it, so Ramu ordered some kind of sizzling noodles with vegetables. The noodles and vegetable parts were relatively straightforward, but my favorite thing about this dish was that it was served in a cabbage leaf bowl. (I wish I’d taken a photo.) I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything served in a cabbage leaf bowl before. Another strange thing was that on top of the noodles was a vegetable cutlet in some brown sauce, which the waiter ceremoniously removed (as if it had been the lid on the cabbage bowl), and Ramu cut up and gave us each a piece of. (Who would have thought that veg cutlets were the right thing to eat with vegetables and Chinese noodles?) Plus, along with the cutlets, there were some French fries/chips thrown in as well. (They may have been on top with the cutlet rather than mixed in with the noodles, but I’m not sure.) I realize I sound like I’m making fun of it, and I kind of am, but it was quite good. I’d eat it again—cutlets, chips, cabbage leaf bowl and all.

The finale was a sizzling brownie dessert. The people at the table behind us ordered one, and the chocolate smell wafted over to us. It was a couple of brownies with ice cream on top, on a hot plate, and then chocolate sauce poured over it, which caused much chocolate-scented steam. I’d never heard of a sizzling brownie before (esp. at a Chinese restaurant), but there it is. It was, like everything else, quite tasty. Here's a close up of the brownies, minus Ramu:

Andy and I walked out of there shaking our heads. The restaurant was packed while we were there and obviously doing good business. Clearly they must be on to something . Now, I kind of want to go back just to see what kind vegetable bowl the next dish I order might come in.

Oh, and when we got the bill, there was a good customer discount on it. I didn’t quiz Ramu about exactly how many pieces of deep fried baby corn he’s eaten in the 3 years that the restaurant has been around to warrant being a good customer, but I was tempted to.


Cara deBeer said...

I love your India reports. Thank you for posting them!

Anonymous said...

salty whipped cheese? sizzling brownie?! you are killing me, and I have not even had breakfast yet!

Derick said...

Is that the middle eastern restaurant we went to in Delhi in '94?

Sue Dickman said...

Hi Derick! Sadly, that place in Delhi, El Arab, is gone, replaced by a glitzy clubby kind of place. (I'm in Benares, anyway.)

And Susan, I notice it wasn't the deep fried baby corn that got you!