Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mumbai Magic -- or Madness

Good morning from Mumbai, India's most vibrant city and a place I can never get tired of. It's chaotic, noisy, busy and dirty -- but the energy, sounds, colors and flavors are intoxicating.

I'm typing this out from the comfort of my 32nd floor room at the swanky new Four Seasons Hotel with what is probably the most fabulous view of Mumbai. The Arabian sea is right in front and to the left is central Mumbai with all its ambitious skyscrapers and also unbelievable disorder. One floor above me is AER, India's tallest bar, a fantastic place which literally gives me goosebumps and vertigo at the same time. Next to my room is the presidential suite, and this morning on the way to the spa, I was startled when I walked out my door to see about half a dozen security men seated in a row of chairs along the hallway -- it was just past 6 AM here and obviously they'd been there all night awake.

Later when a waiter brought in my room service breakfast, I asked him: "Who's the VIP in the presidential suite?"

He looked at me rather conspiratorially and whispered, "The most important man in Indian cricket."

Cricket is a very big deal here. But even then, I was hard pressed to imagine why a sportsman needed so many bodyguards outside his door in a very private hotel that is already incredibly difficult to get into. They check your car for bombs at the gate, and then your bags at the door; and your key opens to no other floor but your own. If this guy was thinking of terrorists, they'd have to be pretty fit to climb up 32 flights of stairs with their equipment.

The spa itself was pretty nice, although almost exactly what you see in other new properties of this ultra-luxury hotel chain. It had the steel underwater beds with jacuzzi bubbles, a crystal steam room, and shaved ice dropping onto a bowl from the ceiling in case you needed cooling off. More later on this, though, as I'm due for some ayurveda treatments at 5 PM.

Another surprise this morning was opening the Bombay Times and seeing a large photo of Urvashi Sharma inside, and her name mentioned in the same breathe as Shilpa Shetty and other Bollywood household names. Urvashi Sharma, you see, was a Travelife cover girl in 2008.

During my previous visit to Mumbai in April 2008, my husband and I had dinner at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (that's it in the photo above) with her foster father, Prahlad Kakkar, who is known as the Father of Indian Advertising and the brains behind all those Incredible India ads. The meal was purely social but afterwards, as the group made its way down the staircase, I spotted Prahlad several steps down and was suddenly inspired to shoot a cover for Travelife the next day.

"Prahlad, do you know any beautiful girls we can shoot for a cover?" I called after him.

He stopped on the staircase, and I can still remember the incredulous look on his face. It seemed to say: Do we need air to breathe? Does the sun rise the next day? Is the sea blue?

Prahlad lives and breathes Bollywood so of course he knows all the beautiful girls.

With a slight look of impatience, he asked me: "What kind do you want? Dark? Fair? Asian? Indian? European?"

I managed to mumble, "Eurasian would be good."

"See you tomorrow." He simply said, with a wave of his hand.

The very next day, he was back at my suite at the Taj Mahal Palace with a beautiful young girl who turned heads wherever she went. This was Urvashi. She'd not even been discovered yet and was waiting for a big break, although she told me with a smile that she was hoping to be in London that summer to film an Indian movie. But at that time, she was just a pretty young thing who Prahlad and his beautiful wife had taken under their wing as a sort of protege. With the help of the Taj hotel staff, and a few luxury boutiques in the hotel including Prada and Fendi, the shoot went excellently, and I still consider it one of our best covers to date.

That evening, all of us including Urvashi and Prahlad went to dinner at the Hyatt hotel -- then, it was the coolest place to hang out in Mumbai and it was full of models and very chic looking couples. It had been a very long and tiring day, but our stay in Mumbai ended on this happy and very late note. And then the next day we flew out of Mumbai back to Delhi to continue onwards around Northern India.

Fast forward to this week, back in Mumbai. Last night, our group of 14 very lively girls from Manila (actually 12 from Manila and 2 from Cebu) was at the home of a very charming interior designer who hosted dinner for all of us in her art-filled apartment in a posh section of Mumbai. We were all already gathered around enjoying an endless round of canapes and drinks -- a bartender came up every three minutes to ply us with all sorts of concoctions -- when her sister walked in. She introduced herself as a Bollywood producer and casting director.

Mumbai is almost like Manila. It's got 18 million people, but among a certain group of people, it's a very small world. Everyone knows everyone or is related to them somehow. And especially Bollywood.

Suddenly when I had a moment alone with her, I asked, "Do you know Prahlad Kakkar?" It was a very quick and hectic trip to Mumbai this time around, so I had not thought about contacting him. But somehow, when this lady mentioned her day job, I remembered Pralad and thought I'd ask after him.

"Do I know him? I know him very well!" She replied. Within a minute, she was on her mobile phone to Prahlad, chattering excitedly in Hindi. And then she handed her mobile to me and soon Pralad and I were catching up like old friends. He told me he was coming to Tokyo in November as a guest of the Japanese prime minister, and I promised to organize a party for him then.

That got me thinking about how small the world has become, and how international its citizens now are -- that we can move from one country to another almost seamlessly and adapt to cultures, traditions and societies without difficulty, This really is the way for the future, and the raison d'etre of Travelife Magazine.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Travelife Magazine Special Offer: 20% off Souffle Dishes at Peninsula's Old Manila

Tonight we joined good friends for a wonderful souffle dinner at the Old Manila fine dining restaurant of the Manila Peninsula Hotel. My three-course souffle dinner consisted of a black truffle and scallop souffle as an appetizer, followed by a Black Angus beef with a cepes mushroom and Tempranillo wine souffle and finally a chocolate and praline souffle for dessert. My starter souffle was absolutely sublime. Very fresh and barely seared scallops were paired with a light-as-air souffle that really tasted of truffles. The strong truffle taste really went well with the frothy texture. Then, for my main course, a tender and juicy beef fillet was paired with another (perfectly puffy) souffle, but this time the wine souffle exactly accompanied the steak rather than dominated it. Meanwhile, my dessert chocolate souffle came with an espresso-flavored ice cream that I planned to eat after the souffle. However, J, who was seated next to me, suggested I dump the ice cream into my souffle, mash everything together, and spoon the guilty pleasure out. I did exactly this, and the result was a lovely mouthful of flavors and textures.

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We enjoyed our meal so much that we thought we'd like to somehow share it with as many Travelife Magazine readers and Travelife Facebook friends as possible. So we struck a deal with the Manila Peninsula: diners at Old Manila who mention "TRAVELIFE MAGAZINE" get a very generous 20% off on all souffle specials while the souffle promotion is ongoing. We hope you take advantage of this great offer from the Peninsula and Old Manila. The souffle promotion will only run until February 18! (Personally, we think this would be a great place for a Valentine's dinner or lunch, by the way.)

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"How can souffle be dinner?" I initially thought, as I made my way to the Pen, after the New Zealand Gala Evening in the other side of town (which was a delightful evening of Maori songs and dances, by the way, and excellent Kiwi food and wine). Until tonight, I'd been more accustomed to having a sweet souffle as an after-dinner treat, rather than the main course. But if friends wanted to have souffle all night, I was happy to go along.

Upon sitting down and opening the menu, I was happily surprised by a full array of souffle dishes for appetizers, main courses and -- of course -- dessert. I'm listing down some of the most delectable entries here -- which are certainly worth trying, especially with Travelife's 20% discount. Not a few people were enjoying Peninsula's souffle dinners that night as well. As I hurried to my group, I saw other friends in another table; and when I went over to say hello, I espied an assortment of empty souffle dishes on their table. It looked like they had been sampling and enjoying Old Manila's souffle dishes too.


For those interested, I'm including here a sampling of Old Manila's souffle appetizers, main courses and desserts. The promotion runs for a limited time only, so do take advantage of this hefty discount if you want to try some wonderful souffles -- or if you've always wanted to try out Old Manila, for that matter!

Souffle Menu
Old Manila at The Peninsula

Souffle Appetizers

Black truffle and scallop souffle
Black truffle souffle stuffed with scallops
and served with crisp celeriac and Belgium endive remoulade
and truffle vinaigrette

Oscietra caviar souffle
Served with chilled champagne marinated prawns
and fresh peach salsa

Spiced red wine and blueberry souffle
With pan seared foie gras, arugula, toasted brioche
and rosemary essence

Souffle Main Courses

Black Angus beef
with a cepe mushroom and Tempranillo wine souffle

US beef fillet mignon wrapped in smoked bacon
and topped with crisp potato rosti and bone marrow jus

Roasted rack of lamb
with a Parmesan, pecan and muscatel souffle

Slow-roasted rack of lamb crusted with herbs
on a bed of grilled eggplant, crispy puff pastry, Madeira reduction

Baked Atlantic salmon with a saffron and chive souffle
Gently baked Atlantic salmon fillet with roast vine tomato,
fried beetroot and green bean beignets, sauce beurre blanc

Souffle Desserts

Chocolate and praline souffle
with espresso ice cream

Crepes souffle
Wafer thin crepes filled with vanilla and Cointreau meringue

Grand Marnier souffle
with orange sorbet


A a light, fluffy, baked dish made with egg yolks and beaten egg whites combined with various other ingredients. The word souffle is the past participle of the French verb souffler which means "to puff up" and there is much difficulty in achieving a perfect "rise" in a finished souffle. It can be sweet or "savory" and is famed for its cheese and Grand Marnier varieties.

In this tradition, Old Manila Chef Gavin Sellars has created an array of tantalising offerings, all in the style of the souffle!

PS: Everything was so good that we're going back for more after our Orient-Express train voyage this weekend. And we know exactly what we're trying next: the oscietra caviar souffle to start, followed by the salmon fillet with a chive souffle; and then a crepe souffle to end!