The days are getting longer, the nights warming; summer wardrobes are re-emerging; people are starting to congregate en mass in pubs and bars for lazy lunches, post work or late afternoon drinks on weekends and over-sunned human lobsters are popping up everywhere. It’s the start of summer and when Sydney weather holds up, it’s a gorgeous city to soak it up in. It’s on a clear Sydney night and the end of a busy work week that we find ourselves dining with friends at Zaaffran, with spectacular views over Darling Harbour and the twinkling night lights of the Sydney CBD. Incidentally Zaaffran, is actually the Indian (Hindi) word for saffron and evokes a smile from me – if you’ve read my recent post on the curiosities of saffron, you’ll understand why!
It was still relatively early when we arrived but the restaurant is already full, the casual atmosphere quietly buzzing, and the kitchen churning. The Co-pilot and I are dining with his co-workers and friends, FineDiner and Sonia. Normally I love picking through menus and choosing my own dishes but given FineDiner’s heritage, fine taste, foodie credentials and my overall lack of familiarity with Indian cuisine, we are happy to have her lead the charge through the menu and follow in her animated wake.
As it is the start of the weekend we start off with some wines to share to help lubricate the menu choices. But FineDiner doesn’t need any further encouragement and dissects the menu like a professional, rattling off one choice after another with ease. Director and part owner Rush Dossa appears to greet us, charm us and like a well-meaning parent, peruses each of our choices and after some lengthy discussion with FineDiner, decides on the final menu for the night. The Co-pilot, Sonia and I look on with bemused smiles whilst FineDiner and Rush chat on like old friends getting re-acquainted. As it turns out, like FineDiner, the other part owner and Chef behind the scenes, Vikrant Kapoor, is also originally from Bombay, which despite the city having a population of roughly 14 million, equates to a ‘connection’ acknowledged with an almost imperceptible nod. It is clear Rush is proud of his Chef’s credentials and boasts his impressive achievements, including having been one of 6 chefs to have cooked for Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their stay at Raffles, Singapore.
Once settled, the two ask the rest of us whether we’re happy with the selections – of course – I have no idea what’s been ordered and I feel somewhat lost like a tourist in a foreign land but at the same time, I feel like I’m in the hands of people who know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. This night was about relinquishing precious control and being comfortable about not really knowing what strange dish lurks behind the next corner.
The first of our starters is paneer tikka. The FineDiner proves herself as a tome of knowledge here on all things Indian as she is not only of Indian heritage, has grown up with and still eats Indian food, but she also cooks it and can provide interesting commentary with each of the dishes. The paneer we’re told is milk which is reduced until the constituent proteins remain, then it is split using lemon juice. I find it creamy, rich and flavoursome with just a kick of spiciness.
Delicate shells of delicious spicy fun were next on our menu. I hadn’t recognised their name when they were mentioned on the menu but was excited when I saw the gol guppa. I’d only seen these on travel programs through India where families gather with great baskets of these puffed shells, pop the shells using their thumbs creating a hole that was then filled with the chickpea and potato filling, sweet-sour-tangy tamarind, and coriander and black salt sauce. I was disappointed to find these shells came pre-popped but that was a small concern when I had crisp popping parcels to cram into my mouth.
The chicken mince skewers were very tasty, moist and subtly spiced with a hint of chilli spice and served with a beetroot, a yoghurt and a mint sauce.
The king prawns that come next are so juicy, popping in my mouth with loud, satisfying crunches. The prawns had a distinctive flavour of coriander and a peppery spiciness that was boosted with the fragrant masala and a pleasant hint of char. I could have happily vigorously vacuumed up a dozen more of these on my own – being limited to one was simply cruel.
The salmon dish that came next was a vivid contrast of bold colours and a joy to look at. I’m not usually a big fan of cooked fish as it is often served too dry but the oven roasted salmon was amazingly moist and tender, subtly spiced and topped with bright al dente morsels of diced prawn and crunchy slivers of onion.
Sonia had specifically asked for naan and was originally denied as it was not deemed as particularly special, but I’m glad she persisted and won as the mushroom naan with truffle butter sounded and tasted absolutely divine. It wasn’t a showcase dish but I enjoyed it immensely – the naan was hot, rich, gooey and pungent with mushroom and truffle flavours. Despite the many dishes to sample, we all couldn’t help gobbling this up greedily every single time it appeared on the table – which I think is testament to its appeal given all the food on offer.
What appeared to be dumplings bobbing in a soup of curry gravy turned out to be the vegetable kofta – the last of our entree samplers. It was creamy and fragrant, with a few pine nut chunks thrown in for texture, but I found the texture much softer than expected – almost disconcertingly soft. It also had an unsuspecting slow burner chilli effect, causing me to reach for my water continuously after a few bites.
There was no cessation in the onslaught of food – the mains hightailed the entree and the first of the mains was one I was anticipating – the goat curry. I’m very fond of ordering goat curries as goat meat is often cut just the way I like it – diced in meaty chunks wrapped around bone and when well cooked, the meat is tender enough to fall away from the bone, but retains just the right amount of chewy integrity that lends well to gnawing. I could have happily eaten another serve of this on my own, and that way, I could be left to gnaw in peace.
From simple to extravagant – the next dish is no less than a lobster curry. Large chunks of sweet lobster flesh are flavoured with a mild, tomatoey curry popping with aromatic fennel and cardamom spices. It is delicious and the iddiappam perfect for mopping up the thick curry sauce – but call me old-fashioned, I like my lobster done in the usual Chinese style (the way my dad makes it at home) where I can taste the sea-fresh flavours of the lobster.
We were amazed the lamb shanks kept their whole form on their way to our table since they disintegrated like a delicate sandcastle with only gentle prodding. They were baby-soft with a very mild and creamy flavour. Like the rest of our party, I wished I had saved some additional stomach room and could savour this slowly.
In the crusted fish dish, barramundi fillets were crumbed and served with a creamy, spicy curry sauce strongly scented with cardamom and fennel seeds. Despite not having ever tasted this dish before, we all said the crumbed fish flavour was somehow familiar and eventually identified the flavour to be KFC! KFC flavoured fish – truly inexplicable.
As if that wasn’t enough food, to mop it all up we had a large plate of saffron rice – befitting too given the restaurant’s namesake.
The final dish of our smorgasboard of mains is another rice dish – but it’s not any old rish dish – it’s biryani rice, traditionally served during special occassions. This version is extravagantly sealed into a dish with a full allover pastry crust and resembles a pot pie more than a rice dish. The biryani rice is effectively lightly steamed within the pot and when the crust is peeled back releases its fragrant aroma in a wisp of steam. It has a subtle, mellow flavour and is refreshing with the accompanying raita. FineDiner informs us that this dish was in the past reserved for royalty, and that this is the traditional way to make and serve biryani rice, not the cheater’s pile of heaped rice that many restaurants serve. FineDiner’s own preferred way of making this dish is to encase the rice in dough and bake it in the oven.
The Co-pilot and I are very full, satiated and more than content to call it a night. But the FineDiner and Sonia find their dessert stomachs neglected and coax us into sharing some desserts with them. This isn’t at all surprising to us as the FineDiner’s appetite for dessert is truly staggering. Despite her thin, wiry frame she has downed an impressive array of desserts all around the world, doesn’t think twice about having mains in one establishment and travelling to the opposite end of the city to try dessert at another establishment and boasts having once won a eating contest to see who could eat the most gulab jamun or Indian milk dumplings. To win she had to out-eat the other Indian sweet tooths and down a ridiculous number of the dumplings (32 is her record). If you’ve tasted these milk dumplings (or any Indian sweets), you’ll appreciate the enormity of this feat – she served them to us for dessert once, and I could only manage 2 measily dumplings before concentrated sugar crystals started oozing out of my tear ducts and candying my brain.
The first of the desserts to arrive sounds just right for FineDiner then – palm treacle brulee. Just the thought of eating sugary sweet thick treacle was enough to crystallise my veins but we all had a taste, the FineDiner leading the charge with gusto. The aromatic spiced brulee is creamy, rich and enjoyed by all – but a little too strong in cardamom flavours for my personal liking. We’re finding that there was a flavour theme throughout the evening. It appears cardamom is the Chef’s favourite spice!
Next is the dessert I would’ve chosen – ice cream! The idea of a light refreshing spoonful of ice cream was soothing music to ease my taut belly. Our ice cream choice includes half a gulab jamun – the previously mentioned milk dumpling flavoured with cardamom and saffron, accompanied by a scoop of very robust and boldly floral rose flavoured ice cream and yet more, green cardamom – both we’re told are made onsite. We taste the ice creams but given the FineDiner’s affection for the milk dumplings we’re more than happy to hand it over to her to devour and she is more than happy to oblige.
The final dessert and last dish of the night was the incredibly rich and dense, bibinca, or Goan layered cake. This labour intensive dessert takes 3 – 4 hours to create and results in an interesting soft, doughy yet slightly grainy texture. The aromatic spices are celebrated once again, with just a hint of alcohol from the brandy glaze to keep things interesting but the entire creation tastes like it has been steeped in sugar syrup to soak till saturated. Just as I uttered that it was a little too sweet for my poor sugar assaulted tastebuds, FineDiner remarked that it seemed to be lacking in sweetness. From this exchange I gathered that the sweetness might be at the right level for people with a normal tolerance of sugar.
The FineDiner’s appetite for sugar is incomprehensible to a savoury fiend like me and why she isn’t diabetic (or enormous) might just make it into my ongoing book entitled “Mysteries of the Universe“.
At the end of the night we felt truly satiated, having explored a great number of delicious Indian dishes – most of these were foreign to me and most were intense explosions of complex combinations of aromatic spices, flavours and textures. For me, the novice in Indian food appreciation, the standout dishes were the gol guppa – little tactile parcels of pleasure; the kadhai jheenga – delightfully crunchy, popping spiced prawns; the goat curry with delicious morsels of goat drenched in thick spicy, curry and the mushroom naan which was so intensely mushroomy and generously smothered in truffle flavours. I wouldn’t hesitate to order these four things again.
Appropriately, the dishes were accompanied by rousing tales from the FineDiner’s travels and adventures in India. Her tales of returning to India with business clients is almost legendary: driving them miles and miles into the countryside at night to an enormous but seemingly abandoned castle only to surprise and delight them with fireworks, feasts and fanfare provided by rose petal throwing courtiers, flaming torch wielding guards, camels and elephants – yes, even elephants in the courtyard. Her fantastical tales helped ensure my eyes were as big as my stomach on this night.
So enamoured and drunk with the wonders of India and Indian food, we immediately started to plot and plan an Indian holiday led by FineDiner – her stories of appealing home cooked food and the routines of her family; her favourite restaurants or street stalls to get this dish or that; the intense crush of humanity at a Diwali festival – all experiences I’d love to partake in. And if the Co-pilot hadn’t unwittingly revealed his ulterior side plan to watch endless hours of cricket amongst throngs of cricket mad Indians in searing heat and humidity, we might still have an Indian holiday planned.
I’ll settle for a delicious meal and exciting tales of Indian adventures sans excruciating torturous cricket thank you very much.
The Gourmet Forager and guests dined as a guest of Zaaffran. For her take on the night, please check out FineDiner’s review of the meal here.
Level 2, 345 Harbourside Shopping Centre, Darling Harbour, NSW, 2000.
Tel: +612 9211 8900; fax: +612 9211 8995; email: zaaf...@bigpond.com
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