Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cafe Thulp, Bangalore


Let me end the year with a long-overdue post, about a place I've wanted to write about for quite some time. Bangalore's Cafe Thulp chain specialises in hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, pastas, mammoth breakfasts and the like. It is predominantly meat-oriented; it draws inspiration from a vast swathe of culinary traditions - Malayali, Goan, Italian, American, and South-East-Asian included; and its Koramangala branch remains one of my most favourite eateries in Bangalore. This might sound like an extravagant claim. Bangalore is home to numerous restaurants, which vary considerably in cuisines offered, prices, quality, and magnitudes of pretentiousness. And this place appears plenty pretentious at first glance. Its menucards and interiors are done up in a cheesy comic-strip style. The preparations are given strange names intended to convey informality and hip-ness simultaneously (try Sheikh Yerbooty, or what we'd normally call milkshakes). And the so many cuisines contributing to the menu raises apprehensions of bog-standard Indian-Chinese-Tandoori-Mughlai-Continental mishmashes you find in street corners all over India.

Two factors save the place from collapsing under the weight of its own over-the-top-ness. First, their food is excellent, (barring a few disasters now and then). And secondly, they understand cooking, including the nuances of each cuisine they have sourced their dishes from. So even if they deviate from 'authenticity' (whatever that be) and modify a preparation, they do so intelligently and not merely because, say, some ingredient is inconvenient to procure. This intelligence, and commitment to quality, is what makes their food truly eclectic and not simply uninformed.

I confess I am touchy about southeast-Asian cuisine. Nasi Goreng and Phở are not exactly haute cuisine. I wouldn't go about, like Wodehouse's Bingo Little, 'telling the head-waiter at Claridge's exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn't just right.' Yet I would want Nasi Goreng to taste like Nasi Goreng and not some ersatz watered-down substitute. If you replace kecap manis with local variants of soya sauce, and altogether omit oyster sauce or fish sauce, what you end up with is not Nasi Goreng but something indistinguishable from your roadside Indian-Chinese fried rice. I have no problems with Indian-Chinese food. Where I draw the line at is seeing it palmed off as authentic Malaysian/Indonesian cuisine, and its inevitable corollary, having to pay the premium prices such 'exotic', 'foreign' preparations command. Low-cost eateries tend to massacre the cuisine too, like the paneer-studded 'Singapore Cheese Noodles' I once encountered in Delhi, but at least they are not hypocritical about it.

Thulp does not serve Nasi Goreng, or Phở. Nor does it make pretentious claims to authenticity. But it sure does a mean ASEAN-inspired 'slow-braised pork belly with mushroom, bok choy and oyster sauce'. It is so good that as far as I am concerned, all the other things the place is supposed to be famous for - hamburgers, Sheikh Yerbooty, the lot - simply fade into insignificance. The menucard calls it 'signature', and it used to rank among their most expensive preparations. I say 'used to' because inexplicably, they have pulled it off their regular menu. It makes occasional guest appearances on their 'daily specials' chalkboard, which is not nearly the same thing. Back in the days it was a regular cast member, I ordered it on numerous occasions, and each time it much more than lived up to my expectations.

[Update: Regular reader and (so far the only) guest-blogger here on FoodScapes Anita Dixit points out in her first comment that they do slip up now and then on the satisfaction front. I had taken her there once when she was visiting Bangalore. Her (beef) steak was disappointing.  And worse, by the following morning she had developed a bad tummy upset, in all likelihood caused by the steak. As for me, that was the first time I had tried the pork belly. A thumping success all the way through, and my stomach behaved with admirable meekness the next day.]

The last time I had the pork belly was when some five of us went there for lunch. The group included sister-in-law Adithi, cousins Sayan and Swati, and Swati's husband Arnab. In celebration of their brotherhood-in-law, comedians Arnab and Sayan both landed up in Superman t-shirts.  Their appetites were sadly underwhelming, though. Arnab's in particular undid much justice to his apparel. He opted for about the smallest hamburger on the menucard. It was wider in circumference than the ones you get at fast-food outlets, and its patty, while not particularly thick, was certainly juicier and more flavourful. Not surprising, because fast-food chains in India ply only chicken burgers, while this was made of stuff pious Hindus tend to avoid. It came with a scoop of cole slaw that would barely cover a playing card, and a similarly austere helping of french fries. Beautifully cooked stuff, whatever little of it there was. Arnab had asked for a small burger, so the limited portions were entirely acceptable. It was his insistence he was full up that had me worried.

Sayan and Adithi ordered something called El Pollo Loco, in substance crumb-fried chicken strips. Adithi's not a big eater and doesn't touch pork or beef, so her choices were predictably constrained. On the other hand, Sayan I felt was being distinctly unadventurous. Still, there it was, and the chicken was good too. Really good. It was soft, juicy, neither rare nor overcooked. The crumbed coating was particularly delectable, crispy without having soaked up too much oil. It came with a big chunk of cheesy mashed potato, and a bowl of what they called 'creamed spinach'. Much more cream than spinach if you ask me, in fact I first thought it was a dip or sauce of some sort. But none the worse for that; it was exceedingly good. I know because I helped myself to a forkful of chicken slathered with it.

Swati started out with a coke float. A strange way to begin a meal, but she enjoyed it. Her entrée was one of the few true, full-blown disasters I have encountered at Thulp. It was called The Clucky [sic] Luciano, or 'breaded escalope of chicken parmigiana with marinara sauce and mozzarella - served with garlic mashed potato and salad.' She got all that, and also a bit of pasta tossed in the same marinara sauce. This sauce was the problem. I have encountered very few Indian cooks who can handle tomatoes. Even the best and wisest lose their sense of restraint confronted with them. And the serving was a very painful reminder of this. It was sour through and through, blotting out all the garlic and the delicate herbs that must have gone into the dish. The pasta proved inedible beyond a few forkfuls, and Swati was reduced to scraping sauce off the chicken with a spoon.

The menu, usually so voluble about its preparations' provenance, is uncharacteristically silent about the cooking styles that inspired the braised pork belly.  It is generally associated with various cuisines of south-east Asia, and arguably more popular in that part of the world than anywhere else. The oyster sauce reinforces this suggestion, as does the Bok Choy, a variety of Chinese cabbage. China boasts a profusion of green leafy vegetables, which includes apart from Bok Choy also Kai Lan, Choy Sum, and Sui Choy. Spoilt for Choyce? Certainly, and all the more so because they are all delectable. Incidentally, this site here claims Choi Sum or Chye Sim are nothing but mustard greens. Eh? So many years I spent exploring Singapore food, and all this while they fed me Sarson da Saag?

The pork belly came a goodish bit later than the other main courses. It did say slow-braised, so I cannot complain, really. It was an elaborate affair. So elaborate that it needed two separate plates to hold everything together. A conventional plate housed the accoutrements - a helping of fried rice, a bowl of light soya sauce with shredded chilli, and some salad largely made up of carrot, white radish and cilantro. The pork itself came in a sort of soup plate lined with three or four Bok Choy leaves. That was the only role Bok Choy played in the entire affair, I don't know why the menucard gave it star billing. The mushroom and oyster sauce had a more central function. They combined with the meat juices and the braising liquid to form a thin but intensely flavoured gravy, which alone was worth the price of the dish. But all this paled before the pork. Superb it was, no other word for it. The meat was chewy in a good way, firm and with a strong flavour of its own. More delectable were the fatty bits. Now these days I find I cannot eat too much fat: one small chunk and I start feeling queasy. But this fat was light on palate and stomach alike. It did not taste very oily or greasy, neither did it clog my appetite. I was confident I could polish off another helping without much discomfort, something I cannot trust myself to do after say, three slices of bacon.

Dessert was a surprisingly drab affair. Thulp sources cupcakes from neighbours who like to bake on the side, gifted amateurs mostly, or at least those who think they are. Arnab and I decided to split one; the others were too full to join us. That day the suppliers' confidence exceeded their capabilities. The cake was dry, chewy and a little over-sweet. Apart from this hiccup, and the bigger one involving the Clucky Luciano, the meal was very, very enjoyable. Maybe a time will come when I tire of their food, or when their cooking deteriorates beyond tolerance levels. Maybe, but I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

9 comments:

Unknown said...

Excellent post, as usual, but you remember what the steak had done to my stomach..... good memories of Thulp I do NOT have!!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Clearly this is Ani. You're right, I should have mentioned that incident. I'll add a line or two about it.

madhulikaliddle.com said...

That pork sounds - well, rather like how you'd described the pork at Rosang Cafe (yes, we should probably not spell it out in a public space like this!) Luscious. Wish I'd known of this place when I visited Bangalore in 2013. As it was, the best places we ate in back then were restaurants which served local cuisine.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Madhu,may you live a thousand years (and retain the health and the looks of a thirty-year-old all through)! I've just started a post on Rosang and was thinking of you right now, beat that for a coincidence.

I'm sure the place will be around the next time you visit Bangalore. Do try and check it out.

Abhik Majumdar said...

And Ani, just added a bit about your experience.

Swati Sengupta said...

When was it, 2012? 2011? I couldn't remember the year at all. Apparently all these foods are keeping your memory sharp dada! And lack of them are ruining mine. We should have more foodventures. :P

madhulikaliddle.com said...

Oh, you're too kind. Thank you. :-D

Abhik Majumdar said...

@Swati:

Actually it was not entirely from memory, now that I come to think of it. I remember what we ate that day and how each item was, but the names and descriptions of dishes were sourced from a copy of the menu I found on the net.

And yes, we certainly need to get ourselves plenty of foodventures :)

Abhik Majumdar said...

@Madhu:

No no, nott tatt tall.