Friday, March 23, 2012

Papa John's?... No Papa

Its tag line says 'Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.' To that I say, "Ha!"
I have visited and reviewed many restaurants in Hyderabad  but if there is one that scores zero on all counts, it is undoubtedly Papa John's Pizza.
When I returned home and searched the internet for the reviews, I saw that many had given it very poor ratings. Almost all the people who went to the outlet have gone there after they had a good experience eating at Papa John's at the US. If this is true, then why does India deserve such poor product and service? It will not be too long before the discerning Hyderabadis will kick Papa out of their city.

This was my experience today:
I dropped in at the Hi-Tech city outlet of Papa John's at around 3: 40 pm. Except for one table, there were none occupied. I sat myself down and waited and waited for someone to take the order. A couple of people were gossiping at the cash counter. When I saw that no one was interested in taking an order, I asked for the menu card. Decided on an order of a small pizza (Rs 165);  cheese sticks (Rs 89); an Island Green salad (Rs. 129); a soft drink ( Rs. 24). With VAT, the total was Rs. 466.
Even before the first course was served I had inadvertently spilt some of the contents of the soft drink served. The spill was ignored till one of the boys saw that the liquid was about to drip onto the floor. To save himself work later, he quickly swept the liquid into a tray. He then proceeded to put paper towels all around to absorb the stuff and left them there once he was assured that the liquid would not drip any more.I was left sitting amidst the pile of paper towels when the first course was served. I had to request him to clean the stuff before I could start eating.

The Cheese sticks: I had imagined would be something that would taste like the Veg Strips at KFC. KFC's veg strips are awesome, soft yet crunchy and served with an amazing dip. Here, at Papa's, the cheese sticks are served like a pizza, sliced into 6 pieces and surprise...also tasted like a Pizza with an extra layer of cheese. Dry and not soft or succulent. There is a dip mentioned in the menu but you aren't served with one. On request, I was told that you'd be served the dip only if you want it. The dip was a red color goo, which I was told is a Pizza dip. I ate half the cheese sticks and brought the rest home. Two hours after I brought the stuff home, rigor mortis had set in the cheese sticks and the red colored dip was stinking to the skies.

The Pizza base was ok if I were to compare it to Domino's bread but nowhere as good as that of Pizza Hut. I had to keenly look for toppings as they were few and far between.This was served with ketchup. I asked whether there was any other sauce available.  I was served another red colored stuff and this was supposed to be barbeque sauce! I swear I couldn't distinguish between the pizza dip, the barbeque sauce and the ketchup. All looked and tasted the same.

Island Green Salad: I had the salad box packed for my son who is very found of salads. I put it  in refrigerator as soon as I came home and maybe hence it didn't get spoilt. Later when we opened the box, we found that there was a dismally thin coat of salad dressing. Mostly cucumber slices and some hard and stale paneer pieces. Very little of the promised lettuce or pineapple. To top it all, neither was there an iota of salt nor any other condiments that go into a salad. Paid Rs.129 for the few cucumber pieces. Dumped it in dust-bin, so horrible was the preparation. At Pizza corner when we had a similar box of veg salad , it remained crunchy even two hours after we had got it packed and at nearly half this cost.

The bill when asked for was quickly scribbled on a piece of paper and the figure quoted. The printed bill was given only on my insistence.
All food is served in take-away cardboard boxes and not on plates. When I had tried to close the boxes with the left over food, I couldn't really get the box flaps close properly and asked the waiter to pack the boxes along with  the salad box that I had ordered. He simply picked up those boxes and shoved them into the waiting parcel. I had to request him to take out those boxes and close them before he put them back in the carry bag.
The waiting time is bout 15 minutes for the 'fast' food and that too at a time when there was no one else in the outlet and there were no other orders. This was one of those very rare times when I walked out without leaving a rupee as tip.
I wished I'd rather eaten at the Mac next door. I would have had a greater satisfaction at half the cost.
Papa John's... NEVER AGAIN.

Ps: Same at Chennai too.

Monday, March 19, 2012

An inexpensive fine-dining experience: New Santosh Dhaba

Whenever we, at home, decide to eat out, we try to ascertain whether we want just the food or the experience as well.
There are some joints in Hyderabad which may not have a great ambiance but are known for their tasty food. Like, at times, we get the Paradise Biryani parceled. Biryani packets, I am told, are kept stacked at the parcel counter and those stacks vanish rapidly. There is also a Raj Dhaba close-by which is right opposite to our old Satyam office and we employees used to frequent the place for our small parties. The office is no longer there but the Raj Dhaba still stands, though the owner laments the closure of the office as it was a source of steady profit to him. We continue to patronize the dhaba as the curries there are quite delectable and truly value for money at around 60-90 bucks per plate. Of course, the last time we got stuff from there, we noticed that they have hiked their fare as well.
The point I am trying to make is that there are times when you don't want to cook at home and get some decent stuff from outside. And there are times when you want to make the effort to dress up, keep your hunger pangs going, make an effort to drive all the way to Banjara Hills, linger over your food and enjoy the experience. Well, it is this experience that the foodie in me looks forward to once a month. But what's  happened is that the last two months, I was invited by my close family or friends to the restaurants that I already had been to and this didn't leave me the time to experiment with a new restaurant.
Therefore, I was more than eager to eat at a restaurant that offered a fine dining experience. Just as I was contemplating going out, I was asked to attend to something at Abids. Well, I hadn't really explored this part of the city for its food and therefore decided to throw in a lunch with the work that I needed to attend to.
As I neared my destination , I noticed that there was a Santosh dhaba close-by. My thoughts went to the 2 reviews of Santosh I had done earlier: Santosh Dhaba at Abids and Santosh Banjara at Banjara Hills and therefore, though I was in the mood of a fine dining experience, my mind danced at the prospect of eating at the Santosh dhaba again. I had just loved their food.
As I walked to the dhaba, I noticed to my trepidation that over Santosh Dhaba was the word 'New' written discreetly. Gosh! Isn't this the same one? As I entered, I also saw that even the environment was nothing to speak about. I sat down and went through the one-page menu and ordered for a Paneer 65 as a starter. I also found, to my relief, that this was a pure vegetarian restaurant as well. The menu has done away with frills like soup and desserts. It concentrates only on North Indian food. Even before I could decide on the main course, the starter was there in front of me. Must have taken about 5-6 minutes to arrive. It was delightful to find the paneer so fresh and soft. Though I love paneer, the rubbery taste in some of the restaurants makes me wary of trying it. While nibbling at the starter and browsing the menu, I found another amazing thing...that if you desire, you can also place an order for half plate of the main course at nearly half the price! For small eaters like me this is a blessing. Especially that day, as I had gone alone for my business and hadn't anyone to share the food with. I ordered for half plate of Punjabi kofta and one Masala kulcha. The plate came with two koftas, just about an inch across and with plenty of gravy. The masala kulcha was rolled out very thin and was stuffed with different vegetables. How can one stuff so much into the thin rotis, I wonder. The food was simply yummy and finger-lickingly good. The bill came to 242/- . Serving time is just about seven minutes. And even if you were to dab at the food with a tissue, you'd find no extra oil in the food.
Truly satiated with the taste, I went to the counter to compliment the owner on the great food that was being served here. On hearing this, the owner was flattered and offered a taste of his famous biryani. I politely declined as I was stuffed. He still insisted and I got to taste a couple of teaspoons. Even before I could put the biryani in my mouth, I could sense the delightful aroma emanating from the dish. The taste was in keeping with the rest of the meal that I had just eaten.
Somehow, we got into a chat and he showed me pictures of the fine dining restaurant  that they plan to open in a nearby place. I also came to know that it was the same owner who had run the Mango Spice at Banjara Hills and for which I had done a review. And NOW I understand what was missing from that restaurant.
To compare: Govinda  is an actor appreciated immensely for his comic timing and spontaneity. He has the rustic Virar-ka-chokra image which, try as he might, he can never shake off. Were he to try a classy Aamir Khan act, I am not sure he can pull it off. Aamir Khan, on the other hand is known for his immaculately detailed planning and not really given to spontaneity of acting.
What the New Santosh Dhaba had tried to do was something like making Aamir Khan and Govinda act in the same movie, not realizing that the clientele they cater to is different. And therefore a mishmash of menu items, the inability to add that magic pinch of class to their Italian menu.
Even when I had gone to do the Mango Spice review, I had realized that the North Indian food was much more delectable than the Italian food on offer. In the new restaurant they plan to open, they intend to have an Italian section as well. I hope they don't.
North Indian food is what they do best, and I am sure that I don't mind going all the way to Abids to taste the food again and again. If this very delectable food, combined with an oil-free preparation is not fine dining, then what is?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Cell Bore

The last week I had traveled to a town nearby in an AC chair car. I was happy to have been allotted a window seat. It allowed me a tryst with nature throughout the journey or at least till dark fell. What I hadn't recokned was that I had to make two people at my side get up every time I needed to move out. Well, that had me trapped as I didn't want to inconvenience them too often.
In one of the stations, I started hearing loud songs from a mobile phone. I was engrossed in reading my book and was irritated by this unwanted intrusion. And as this was an air-conditioned coach, most of the sounds and smells remained entrapped. I looked around but couldn't find any source close by. It was only after an hour of enduring this nonsense that I got an opportunity to get up from my seat. As I walked along the corridor, I found that the source of the songs from a mobile was not from an irresponsible youngster but a woman well into her forties. I couldn't really contain myself and told her off. I mean, you want to listen to music, why compel the entire compartment to also listen to the ill-chosen selection. She had the grace to switch it off.

This incident reminded me of an article I wrote nine years back when the mobile phone hadn't intruded as much into our lives as it does today. Even then, I had found it irksome to be rudely interrupted in my work by those ring tones. And in a closed environment, they ring out louder. Had attempted a humorous jab with the article below which was circulated in our in-house magazine:

The Cell Bore

Was thinking of this for quite some time now, decided to be proactive, and write this —
You are seriously at work when there goes —Riiiiiiiing!!!!! Startled, you try to locate the source….and find the cell happily ringing, nay singing...If it is a Zeenat remix ‘chura liya’ somewhere; it is Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘kal ho na ho’ elsewhere. The favorite in our office, though, is ‘sare jahaan se acha’. (at this point, patriotic fervor surges through the nerves and sinews impelling one to stand to attention and salute in the direction of the ringing, singing cell). It may be ‘suprabhaatham’ (the Lord’s wake up call) at 3 am at Tirupathi, but it is ‘ kousalya suprajarama…’ throughout the day for some of us (our wake up call?). While walking through the office, it is like a symphony merrily ringing (singing) away. I mean it is ok, after all, if we had the picnics like we used to have last year, but now, we mean business, friends (this is to be understood as being said with a reprimanding finger).
Please, oh, please understand that a mobile phone has a sensitive microphone capable of picking up a soft voice. Some people, perhaps subconsciously worried that the party on the other end is severely hearing impaired, double and triple their volume. If he wasn't one before (I mean severely impaired) they make sure he is one by now.
The gaze that the loud, obnoxious ring tones, and an obnoxiously louder voice attract is NOT the admiring wonderment variety — masquerading thus is a barely concealed, disdainful smirk. If you don’t believe this, watch the reactions of people near the cell phone bore when the voice or the ringer is too loud.
Shouldn't the goal be to communicate effectively without any body else noticing?
The unconscious, unconcerned, unmindful, unperceptive, and unaware cell phone bore seems oblivious to the discomfort that results with the intrusion into others’ personal space as he raves, rants, gushes, jabbers, blabbers, prattles, and splutters into the phone as if no one else around him matters!
Dear cell bores, spare others this agony by keeping at least ten –twenty feet away from the nearest person. They need their personal space and want you to respect this need.

PS: This article does not contain any fictitious characters, is based on real life incidents, and written with intent of malice towards one and all!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ken Follett: A Place Called Freedom

I was away from Hyderabad over the weekend and took advantage of the six hours of train journey on each side by completing Follett's book, 'A Place called Freedom'. As I browsed through the prologue, I discovered, to my dismay, that I had read the book before. But thankfully, I remembered nothing beyond the prologue. I must have read this book, written in 1995, long back.
The spell-binding narration did not allow me to put the book down. The nearly 600-page novel was completed in those 12 hours of journey. The story weaves through the 1700s rendering a flavor of those times though not giving us an expansive view of the history. History has always fascinated me and to be able to live that era through this book was a delectable treat.
It is the story of a coal miner, Mack,who yearns for freedom from bondage to the mine owners. His audacity in refusing to be bound generation after generation to the mine-owners and his dream to be a free man forms the crux of the story.
In this quest, we are taken from Scotland to London where the protagonist, Mack, finds himself in a different kind of bondage. Free entrepreneurship is frowned upon and the workers are forced to be a part of the conniving nexus between greedy middlemen and the owners. This evil liaison cheats the workers of their honest wages. When Mack forms his own group of workers, he is labeled a 'communist' and, as was the norm those days, he is deported to the US, a land which was considered an isolated and unknown territory.
Mack's indomitable spirit in going through all these travails to achieve his dream of being a free man is a wondrous journey that unfolds through the pages of  'A Place called Freedom.' The easy flow of narration is fantastic.
How Follet manages to keep those creative juices flowing in book after book is surely awe-inspiring.