A wine dinner that combines flawless food, a wine and food pairing made in heaven, and a lot of fun and humour is the perfect end of a long, sizzling day. The Joseph Drouhin wine dinner hosted on Wednesday by The Claridges, which is becoming a destination hotel after its turnaround following the change of ownership, had all these essential ingredients of a desirable evening.
The evening started at the hotel's classy watering hole famous for its vodka menu, Aqua, where I was pleasantly surprised to find Rahul 'Chuchun' Verma, a bon vivant and an authority on street food, sipping the wine along with his lovely wife, Bisakha De Sarkar, a top editor with Kolkata's The Telegraph newspaper. They understand their food and wine - though they don't wear their knowledge on their sleeve - and if they had good things to say about the wine, it meant the wine was definitely worth our time.
The wine, in fact, was yet another bit of evidence of the depth of the portfolio of Global Tax Free Traders, the importers, who've been associated with many a memorable dinner. One of these was for the visiting Goldwaters from New Zealand that had been organised by Prasenjit Singh's team on the Hyatt poolside. The meticulousness of planning evident at The Claridges dinner brought back memories of that evening.
At the Aqua ice-breaker, the hotel showcased appetizers that didn't conform to the norms - the cucumber and yoghurt dip with bread sticks, chicken rolls with prunes and grilled prawns served on skewers were perfect for the entry-level wines being served at perfect temperature. The whites testified to the versatility of gently oaked chardonnay - serve it at the right temperature and in the right stemware, and you have a great party wine. Only the wine-makers of Burgundy , guided by generations of experience, can produce such memorable chardonnay that doesn't assault you with oak.
As we sipped the wine and dug into the appetisers, we heard Arjun Sharma, the travel industry czar, talking about how he had replenished the wine cellar at Heritage Resort, Manesar, on the highway linking Delhi with Jaipur. Atul Lall, GM of The Claridges, provoked envious comments from the golfers when he recounted how he had walked away with complimentary Emirates air tickets for two, after winning a tournament for industry professionals at the Arab Travel Mart (ATM) in Dubai . He was also excited about the impending tie-up between The Claridges and the Mandarin Oriental for the Juhu property (the old Searock hotel) in Mumbai. The alliance, he said, would make a huge difference to the F&B offerings of The Claridges - the Oriental, according to him, is the world leader in cuisine concepts today.
If the dinner that followed was the benchmark, then it seems The Claridges already has a lot to show for itself. The dinner started with a salad of cider-cured Norwegian salmon served on a cigar-smoked apple tartar. And the wine was a Puligny Montrachet 2003. Both earned the wholehearted approval of the guests, even as Vikram Madhok, MD, Abercrombie & Kent India , who showed up wearing a striking Ungaro shirt, kept us in splits with his impish humour. His presence must be made mandatory at wine dinners! The visiting director from Joseph Drouhin, Gerald Uhlen ("please don't call me Gerry," he implored), talked to us about the wines without sounding boring for a minute.
Like a good Frenchman, Gerald (who like to describe himself as the dinosaur of Drouhin, having spent 28 years in the wine company) took digs at the Americans, but he had a great take-home message: Anybody who claims to be a wine expert doesn't know what he's talking about, because the more you know about wine, the more you know there's much more to be discovered. We made one significant discovery in the course of the dinner.
Everybody talks about how the soil changes from one place to another in Burgundy , but you get a sense of it when you consider the clear difference in the colour of a Puligny Montrachet and a Chassagne Montrachet. Both are chardonnays from villages that are bang next to each other, but the first is several shades paler than the other. You don't need a more visible evidence than this of the French notion of terroir . And the wine complemented beautifully the red onion tarte tatin served with clear tomato juice (another discovery of the evening) in a shot glass.
Vodka with clear tomato juice seems like a helluva great idea. We even conjured up a name for the drink. Virgin Queen, after the original Queen Elizabeth's famously white make-up. The best, of course, always comes at the end. The Corton Grand Cru 1998 (Gerald said it was still a little boy and needed some airing, an advice we followed) paired perfectly with the rosemary-infused rack of lamb served with foie gras -stuffed morels on a bed of potato Anne (gratinated slivers of potato that reminded me of a break we took at Vanya Vilas in Ranthambhore, where Chef Saumya Goswami introduced us to this exciting alternative to mashed potatoes). I couldn't stay for the dessert, but I was very happy to take back edible memories of a dinner that was organised like clockwork. For Dhananjay Kumar, who has just taken over as The Claridges F&B Manager, it was a fine start to an innings we shall be watching with great anticipation.