Chef Mehra took us behind the scenes and into the tandoori room at his prized restaurant.
Most chefs are notoriously tight lipped when it comes to sharing their culinary secrets but Chef Nitin Mehra of Ottawa's East India Company couldn't spill the beans even if he wanted to. The exact recipe for his restaurant's famous garam masala is a secret guarded so tightly that there's only one person on earth who knows the exact formula - his mother. Technically, it's not even her recipe. She inherited it from Chef Mehra's great grandmother on the day she passed away.
If you get goosebumps just thinking of how close that recipe came to being forever lost, you're not alone. Talking with Chef Mehra gave me amazing insight into the careful crafts of the culinary world, the passion and discipline that are poured into every sauce, and the role that family, tradition, community, and care play into making good food taste great.
Having the opportunity to tour behind the scenes in an Indian kitchen with the chef as my guide was a fascinating experience. And it will come as no surprise that what we were most interested in watching was the naan bread preparation!
In my opinion, there's practically no finer food in the world than fresh, hot, bubbly, buttery naan bread. Naan is very trendy these days, serving as a the base for everything from pizza to breakfast wraps, but very little has changed in the preparation method over the centuries. A skilled chef shapes and stretches the dough and slaps the flat bread onto the interior of a clay tandoori oven where it bakes and blisters in the 400 degree heat. It's equal parts art and science and it was wonderful to see it the process first hand.
Chef Mehra is a classically trained Cordon Bleu chef, as well as a trained sommelier, and as such he is well versed in the many different cultures and traditions that have shaped Indian food over the years. From French techniques to Portuguese spices to English tea, he takes pride in incorporating these different styles into his menu.
One small feature of the East India Company's kitchen that I really loved is that they have two tandoori ovens, one to accommodate meats such as the marinated chicken pieces above, and the other for the naan bread and other vegetarian items. Accommodating guests and respecting their choices is something comes naturally for this family run business. And speaking of vegetarian food.....
Everything in the East India Company kitchens is freshly prepared - no surprises there, given the incredible TLC that's shown to their signature garam masala! I'm a firm believer that any type of restaurant and any type of cuisine can produce phenomenal meat-free dishes so long as the chef has the passion and the will to do so. And Chef Mehra and his team did not disappoint. They made a thick dal that was so hearty and delicious, and with so many layers of complex flavors, that Ryan (a committed meat-a-vore) kept dipping in for seconds.
While Ryan was sneaking extra spoonfuls of dal, I was quickly falling in love with a platter of roasted tandoori vegetables. At this risk of sounding a bit over the top, the heirloom carrots in this dish were one of the best things I've ever eaten. Seriously! I was so enamored with them that I kept making Ryan take extra servings just so I could steal the carrots from his plate (thus preserving my dignity, obviously).
We were so lucky to be a part of this lovely night where we were treated to one irresistible dish after another. Our experience was part of a special dinner set up by Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations, who offer luxurious, unforgettable group trips around the world (including India!) Their passion for India clearly matched Chef Mehra's for the culinary arts and it was a night of real travel inspiration.
It's clear that Ryan and I are a little bit obsessed with Indian cuisine but I know not everyone feels very fond towards spices and curries. Take heart! We also had an amazing, lightly seasoned platter of tandoori chicken that would appeal to the most finicky of palettes. An earthenware pop of high seasoned biryani, topped with a crust of saffron infused bread, was perfect for guests who love flavors beyond curry and chili. And my favourite meat dish of all, Chicken 65, tasted the way butter chicken should if it were ever to grow up. There was heat and a depth of flavors but the addition of cream kept the dish from being fiery or overwhelming. So delicious!
As our wonderful evening of new friends and flavors concluded with luscious mango ice cream and coconut pudding, we were so taken with everything we experienced that we vowed to return again soon. And we did! Three days later, we made our way back to indulge in East India Company's evening buffet. Buffets are a tricky gamble for us. We usually like to have certain dishes done a certain way (well, RYAN does! In his opinion, beef vindaloo is never hot enough). But given our wonderful experience with the group dinner, we were keen to give it a try.
The buffet was one of the largest and most colorful we've experienced. There was a wide range of salads and chutneys that was great for mixing and matching flavors. And many of our favourites, including butter chicken and vegetable korma, were present and in fine form. But there were a few detractions as well. The showcase dish, a large pot of bubbling chicken, had overheated and scorched on bottom. Unfortunately, the scorched taste permeated the entire cauldron when it was stirred. And there were a few moments when the service was less attentive than we'd like. Neither concern was critical but we were a bit disappointed after our incredible experience previously at the group dinner. My final verdict: Decent buffet, but this is one restaurant where you want to splurge with the fantastic a la carte.
If you can't make it to Ottawa to experience Chef Mehra's talents first hand at the East India Company and a tour to Indian isn't in your immediate future, you might want to follow some of my blogging colleagues. Erin at the World Wanderer, Andrea at the Wandering iPhone, and Mariellen at Breath, Dream, Go are sure to inspire you with their beautiful photos and heartfelt stories! They will have you packing your bags - or heading to the kitchen - in no time.
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Our first dinner was courtesy of Insight Vacations. All research, writing, and opinions are our own.