Thursday, 12 December 2013

East Indies, Cochin, India (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 18, Part 1)

Black Berry Resort had majorly stuffed up. I had spoken to a guy who I feared was being too blasé when I made arrangements for our early morning departure, and my concerns were proven to be justified. Having a midday reservation in Cochin on the way to the airport, it was important for us to leave at 6:30am as per my request so we would get to Cochin with ample time to make the 12pm. So when we arrived at reception to find that no arrangements were made I was rather furious with the guy I'd spoken to the day before. We ended up waiting for an hour and 15 minutes before our taxi arrived. Get this - first car that was sent to pick us up apparently broken down on the way (I know, right?) and the hotel staff simply didn't think this this additional delay was useful information to share with us.

Anyway, the taxi that eventually arrived was driven by Das, our driver from the day before. We felt a lot better seeing him as he'd been an excellent driver yesterday. We set off on our journey to East Indies, a restaurant that had such great reviews we were making this special diversion out of our way to try it. Das was very skilled at maneuvering between the auto-rickshaws, tea trucks and buses as we descended the mountain, and then proved invaluable as we came closer to Cochin. On previous trips to Cochin I'd taken the very busy and congested main road into the city, however knowing we were late Das took the initiative to take us to the ferry which for a 20 rupee fee each way took our car across the water to the Fort Cochin area in very little time at all. After asking a few locals about the location of the restaurant, we arrived at the East Indies with 10 minutes to spare. Das just earned himself a good tip when we got to the airport.

East Indies is the elegant in-house restaurant of Eighth Bastion, a hotel centrally located in the old Fort Cochin area. The menu is Pan Asian Dutch, inspired by the colonial era of the Dutch East India Company with the restaurant's chairs all bearing the company's VOC insignia.

Apparently assisted by an anthropologist, chef Saiju Thomas researched the menus and cuisines of the VOC spice route and trade posts, and in a similar manner to reimaginings of British food at Dinner with Heston, East Indies presents classic dishes of an era in a manner that is thoroughly modern casual fine dining (though of course less molecular/modernist in preparation). As a Eurasian product of the colonial era, and with Alissa's Dutch heritage we were both looking forward to seeing what East Indies has in store for us.

The menu is a la carte, and we decided to go with the same three course starter-main-dessert format we'd enjoyed at Otto e Mezzo Bombana and Indigo. Being a massive fan of squid, I went with the Stuffed Calamari as my starter. When the plate arrived my eyes were treated to the prettiest plating we've seen in India. Better than Indigo's to be honest. And the taste was incredible. The squid was perfectly cooked in a spicy red pepper oil marinade. The filling was what was most interesting as it tasted a lot like otak-otak, a dish popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I've never tried anything quite liked it. This was a very interesting and impressive starter.

Alissa went with the most Dutch of the starters – the Open Faced Cheese Tart made from cashew cheese, oven roasted tomato, spinach and with a basil vinaigrette. This was again an example of the best plating we've seen in India, with the vinaigrette framing the tart beautifully on the plate. The taste was excellent – we weren't sure whether the cashew cheese was pure vegan or included milk, but we agreed its tart, creamy flavour was delicious. As Alissa said later, 'cheese, tomato, pastry... what's not to like?' I read that this was based on a classic comfort food of the Dutch explorers, and one present day Dutch explorer was very satisfied. We were already ready to call this meal exceptional – so long as the remaining courses could maintain this high standard.

Although it was very much an Alissa dish, I chose the Herb Crusted Pork Chop with lime pudding, apple chutney, wasabi mash, roasted brussel sprouts and long beans. Needless to say, the plating was again of the high standard we'd come to expect. The last pork chop I ate was in a pub in Melbourne, which was a dry, overcooked and disappointing affair. This on the other hand was perfectly cooked, with the meat nice and juicy. The meat had obviously been brined as it was evenly salted and flavoursome all the way through. For some the meat might have been a little too much on the salty side, but I was quite happy with the salt level, especially since the nice sweet and tart flavour of the lime pudding and apple meant it was well balanced on the fork. The mash was very smooth with just a hint of wasabi for interest and I very much enjoyed the petite brussel sprouts. A hearty, very Dutch main elevated to a fine dining experience.

Alissa went with the Pan Grilled Chicken with lemongrass and moong bean ragout, poached carrot, skillet potato and turmeric foam. This was even better plating than my main, with the carrots and the moong bean ragout each lovingly plated as square and round 'towers' respectively. The chicken was again skillfully cooked, having also been brined for even seasoning. The moong beans had a lovely creaminess that worked well with the lemongrass, and the poached carrots were nice and sweet. Alissa nodded her head in approval – a very satisfied customer.

We had a short pause between our mains and dessert, and when they arrived we were again to be wowed by East Indies. My main - the Frozen Honey Parfait with roasted grapes, pineapple, granola, and white chocolate whiskey sauce – was exactly the kind of flavours I really enjoy. I love honey ice cream, and this was very good honey ice cream – creamy, with a lovely honey flavour, and when it comes to a delicious crunch there can be nothing better than a good granola. Mixing the honey ice cream with the roasted grapes, pineapple, granola and the chocolate whiskey sauce tasted like an amazing frozen breakfast. So good.

The Crème Brulee French Toast with banana and oven roasted salted white chocolate sauce was as much Alissa on a plate as my dessert was me. To begin the French Toast had a nice fluffy texture with a crispy outside, and the caramelized bananas were very tasty. The dish was however made all the better due to the caramelized quality of the salted white chocolate sauce. Alissa loves anything that is salty sweet, and then to have the white chocolate roasted? A revelation. As with my dessert, this could easily served as a remarkably delicious breakfast.

After we finished our meal, the chef Saiju Thomas came out to speak with us. He seemed genuinely surprised that we had found his restaurant and had made the reservation so far in advance. We expressed how we felt that the food we'd eaten for lunch was amongst the best we'd had on our trip – beating the 3 Michelin Starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana in our esteem, and that we'd come to Cochin just to eat at the restaurant. Alissa took a photo of Saiju and I, we paid the bill and we departed for our trip to the airport very satisfied and a bit blown away.

The Verdict: Exceptional
When we came up with our scale for judging how good a place should be rated, we said that Exceptional had to mean that the food was good enough that you would overcome any deterrents to eat there, in particular having to travel distances just for a meal. We made the gamble of travelling to Cochin just to eat at East Indies, and it did not let us down. We enjoyed this meal more than we enjoyed our dinner at Indigo and at a considerably cheaper price than the famous Mumbai restaurant. Perhaps it was because of the strong and cogent Dutch East India Complany theme of East Indies but it felt like a very unique menu that would be much harder to find anywhere else, while the fusion food of Indigo was similar to what I could find in Australia in equal or better quality. If you're in Kerala at any time, even if you're just coming through Cochin Airport just to go to the backwaters or to Munnar, please consider making a detour to East Indies in Eighth Bastion for a meal you won't regret.

As Alissa so eloquently put it; 'my only regret was that I couldn't order more.' Enough said.

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