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Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Girls @ Grangers

I am meeting my friend Marjan for dinner. I haven’t seen her in long – too long really – and for all the usual silly reasons. We have tons to catch-up on – she’s launching her own hedge fund (something she’s always wanted to do), I’m promoting Indian art and food writing (something I’ve always wanted to do), she has a new boyfriend, a new address, I have a child…

We spend three hours catching up.

And then she drops it. Breezily, like “oh…did you know that the tomato is a fruit?” she says, “oh…did you know Marlene and Olga live in London now?”

What?? I say, almost spitting out my bread.

Because I don’t believe in fate frankly, but this stuff’s surreal – Marlene, Olga, Marjan and I can’t possibly all have landed up in the same city. It’s too freaky.

You see, the four of us worked together at ‘The Bank’ on 48th and Broadway, in the heart of mid-town New York, next to the Naked Cowboy and the half-price theatre ticket line. By together, I mean same division, same team, same building, same floor, in the same row of cubicles even, one behind the other and so close apart that I could read every word on Marlene’s computer screen (I didn’t, I didn’t. Just saying I could, if I wanted to)…

I wrote Research on Paper & Timber and they wrote Research on Metals & Mining and together we were Basic Materials and oh, what good times we had!
And then we went our separate ways and lost touch.

By happy accident, Marjan and I found ourselves in London within a year of each other (we both had whirlwind romances, fell for the charming ways of English men, and yes – we both, rather poetically, moved continents for love). And so we’ve been in touch, but I haven’t seen Marlene and Olga in ten years.

So this little matter of all four of us being in London? It may not be fate, but it’s a random coincidence. A colossal one.

Because we all go back twelve odd years. And I think when you go back double-digits - with anyone - that means something.

I can hardly get over it.

We have to have a reunion, Marjan says as we say goodbye that evening. Let’s do Book Club together, the four of us!

I enthusiastically second the idea and say I cannot wait and will she please send around an email to poll for book choices and dates.

That was three months ago.

And now, we have finally, finally, finally found a date that everyone can make. Which would make us all seem very important. But which, in fact, we’re not.  We decide to meet at Olga’s house in Notting Hill for a drink and then walk down to Granger and Co. for dinner

When I come down to pick up my bag and coat, Sid looks admiringly at me. “You like nice, Amster…” he says...  

And as he sees my eyebrows rise (involuntarily) at the note of high-surprise in his voice, he continues…

“…like always!”

Nice save.

“Where you off to?”
“Meeting the girls at Bill Granger’s place,” I say, “So excited!”
“Who’s Bill Granger?”
I roll my eyes (it’s all involuntary, I swear) – “You don’t know Bill Granger?”
“Do you know who Mohamed El-Erian is?”
“Yup, the Harvard Fund, PIMCO guy”

Sid’s trying to think of what to say. And I’m trying hard not to laugh.
"How do you know that?" he finally manages.
"I know everything" I say. "Laterzzz!"

Marlene’s already at Olga’s when I get there. It is SO LOVELY to see them both again. I know they are my friends, but they honestly haven’t aged a day and look amazing. Olga introduces me to her husband Marcello, a rather charming and wonderfully nonchalant Brazilian chap, and her uber-cute daughter Gabriella, who’s only a couple of months older than Ranbir, and tri-lingual. I moan about how my child’s regressed from a fairly robust English vocab. to calling every object (animate or inanimate) - mama.  Which would sadly make him, alingual.

Marjan arrives, late, (as usual) by which time we’re sitting outside on the terrace, down 4000 calories worth of buttered popcorn and two (three?) glasses of Prosecco – crisp, and cool and dancing with green apples – while we exchange life stories and play catch-up.

We get to the restaurant around 8 a clock and we are seated immediately by a pleasant enough, but rather confused looking server. This is quite an unexpected surprise (being seated promptly, I mean) because I’d heard horror stories of “the interminable queueueueueueue….”

I take an instant liking to the interiors. With high wood panelled ceilings and large windows, it is bright and light and cheerful – and from what I hear,  quite reflective of the man himself. There’s a bar on one side, the kitchen at the far end and a green glass vase with big green leaves, that sits on a ledge, reflects onto a mirror, and makes the place feel relaxed and rather (I just had a to find way fit this word in) – Antipodean.

We sit down and order a bottle of wine, post haste; we get the Sauvignon Blanc, and it is lovely and fruity – melon and whitecurrant in a glass.

Now, I’ve simply got to mention at this critical juncture, that Granger must have 20/20 vision because the font on his menu is tiny.  And I don’t entirely get why, because the food options are, if anything, on the limited side. He does however, have quite an a expansive drinks selection on the back and maybe the only way he could fit it all in was with a font size 2, but we are all holding up our respective menus to an inch in front of our faces and squinting at it like a bag of nails.

Anyhow, once we manage to read the gist of it, Marjan demands to know why she can’t have, from the “Dish of The Day” section – the "thursday grilled chicken with kohlrabi & fennel salad."

We all suggest obligingly that perhaps it is because today is a Tuesday.

Oh, she says in the manner of someone feeling very gutted.

The pleasant but (still) confused looking server comes on by to see if we’re ready to order. We’re not. Far from, in fact. Because we are in the midst of an animated debate on what kind of creature we think a “spatchcock” is.  Olga, who dines here frequently with husband Marcelo, laughs. They’ve had this discussion before, it seems. 

“The first time we came,” she says, “Marcelo, after much menu-squinting, declared: I tink it ees a fish. No, I am sure it ees a fish”

“It is?” I ask, surprised
“No, no, it’s a bird,” she says.

“Well, yes…” I say, “I thought so – it is, after all, a spatchCOCK!”

The guy on the table next to us, who is quite evidently on a date with his girlfriend/wife/romantic interest (they’re holding hands under the table, how cute) looks reproachfully at me.

“Did I say “cock” too loud?” I ask mortified. “I only meant “cock” like rooster, you know...

Marlene and Olga are in splits. Marjan just looks confused.

“I think I’ll have the fish," she says finally

“But, it's not a fish,” we say

“No, no – I don't want a spatchcock, bird or fish or whatever it is. I want fish. Regular, normal fish”

“Ahh” we say in understanding.

Suddenly I have a great deal of sympathy for poor old Jessica Simpson who thought tuna was a chicken that lived in the sea…
Olga picks the "crisp salmon salad with coconut caramel dressing"  - she’s guilty about the buttered popcorn. (Well, strictly speaking, I am too, but when’s guilt ever trumped gluttony?) Marlene and I go for the “whole fish with herb salad and sambal.”

Marlene specifically asks if the fish can be filleted.
“Well, no”, the server says with the utmost patience, “it’s a whole fish.”
“Yes, yes, I get that” she says, “but can you do it for me?”
Clearly, she’s somehow managed to further confuse our already confused server. Because he just smiles and stands there with a look that says, “Lady, what are you banging on about”
There’s a few moments of the proverbial awkward silence.
We are waiting with bated breath to see how this settles. All this, over a fish.
Finally, Marlene agrees on a compromise. She will eat it if the head and tail are cut off. Thankfully this is suitably communicated, the kitchen is given instructions, and everyone’s happy.

I ask for the whole fish too, but with nothing cut off. You see, I quite like seeing the fish on my plate, intact. Well, it can’t really be intact if its dead, I get that. But you know what I mean.

When it arrives (it’s sea bass and it's unamputated), the outside is crisp (but not as crisp as I’d like). The inside is beautiful – firm, delicate meat, cooked just right. It’s relatively easy to eat (as whole fish go), with a centre bone and a few more here and there. But that stuff doesn’t bother me. I’ve been known to spend hours in front of my fish, lobster, scampi and all other similarly tedious dishes, using my fingers shamelessly, and eating like an apeman’s wife. Methinks its my fish-eating Bengali genes.

Anyhow, my fish is accompanied by a “herb salad” – a bed of parsley, coriander, radish, red onion, capers, and lemon wedges. There’s no real taste to it, but perhaps the whole point of this dish is subtlety. So, it’s appropriately light, obscure and complimentary. Oh, but where is the sambal? Sambal - the rich and fragrant Javanese chilli sauce - was a rather crucial factor in my DMP when I picked the dish (I love the spicy, la) but, sadly, there is no sambal. And I search for it, I swear - I look and I look, and I leave no parsley unturned…

So, overall, it’s a good dish. Not spectacular, but good enough.

More interesting, is Marjan’s fish curry. Now, I’ve heard rather mixed things about Bill Granger’s fish curry – from “perfect” on one end of the spectrum to “unloved” on the other (ouch), but I think it’s very, very tasty.

It’s a bit reminiscent of Keralan fish curry – tangy, aromatic and fragrant with lime and coconut, it arrives topped with coriander and fried garlic. The fish is fresh and firm, the curry is the right texture and the right mix of sour and spice and all things nice. I love it.

Oh and I know this, by the way, because Marjan offers it around very generously. I am scared to take her up on it because one bite generally means I want it all, but I do and, sigh, I do (have a bite and want it all, respectively). You see, I’ve been told off rather sternly in the past for treating any food that happens to be on the table as communal property. So I’m making a very conscious effort to be good about this: Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s fish etc.

So instead, I reign in my gluttonous tendencies and focus quietly on my own food.

We are hands down the loudest table in the restaurant. Poor date-guy from table next door gives us another look so we decide to sober it down a bit.

We discuss the book – it is Jeanette Winterson’s “Why be happy…” 

Our reactions are a mixed bag. Everybody agrees she’s something of a genius. Some like it more than others, but it’s certainly made us all think. I think the book is brilliant and evocative and that her prose is incredible. I hate the subject matter. I admire that she’s fearless and tenacious and that she’s a survivor. I just find her journey makes me deeply, deeply sad. And I don’t like anything that makes me deeply, deeply sad.

But that’s her life, Marjan says. It’s reality.

I agree, and I respect the reality of her life. It’s just that for me personally, books and movies have become a luxury since Ranbir was born. They – much like my own writing – have become a form of escapism. And when I escape, I like to escape to a happy place. Just personal choice.

We talk about Manchester in the 60’s – it sounds grim, dismal, hopeless. We wonder how much her personal struggle stems from a larger, contextual struggle. As the only officially British person in the group, I feel a bit defensive, but I don’t know how to defend. Winterson paints a bleak, bleak picture. Maybe this could happen anywhere in the world, we argue, if the circumstances were similar…

We don’t really come to any sort of definitive conclusion. Someone suggests dessert. I think about Jeanette Winterson subsisting on a jam sandwich all day and I feel guilty. And thankful for what I have.

We move on to happier things. Olga and I circulate pictures of our children. There is much ooing and aahing. I’m told Ranbir looks like me and that he is handsome. I put two and two together and the result, I admit, leaves me feeling quite pleased.

For dessert, we get the pistachio, vanilla and olive oil cake and the pavlova, to share. I’m really not a dessert person (I’d like to think I have more than enough sweet in me already), but I am a trooper, and I will try anything. The pavlova, which is basically a large meringue topped with berries and cream, is okay, but gives me a sugar rush I can’t handle. I drink more wine.

The PVOO cake on the other hand is probably the best dish we’ve had all night. It’s light and moist and not too sweet and the pistachio-vanilla combo works rather perfectly. It’s more like a tea-cake than dessert, but who cares, it tastes good.

We talk about new restaurants. I ask about Anna Mae’s and Pitt Cue Co. and more generally about the street food “movement” that seems to have taken London by storm. Why, we wonder, are we all lining up till we die, for American fare? We’re all former New Yorkers – it’s good stuff, we get it, but we aren’t sure why there’s so much hype.

Speaking of American fare, I tell them I’ve heard tons about Meat Liquor, but haven’t yet been - queuing with child for patty with bread is a rather difficult proposition for me to pull off successfully at the moment.

“I didn’t really rate Meat Liquor,” Marjan says, “but some of the people I went with really liked it… I don’t know, it didn’t feel like a 'proper' burger – it was this tiny piece of meat and lots of bread and ketchup. I like my burgers big and messy.”  She pauses. Then - “I like British Burgers” she concludes definitively. 

“British Burgers?” Now that little juxtaposition is as loud a ringing endorsement of British cooking as I’ve ever heard! 

We’re getting a bit boisterous again and it’s only when I stand up to go to the ladies room and the room seems all funny and hazy to me that I realise how drunk I am. Shame on you (I tell myself) - you’re a mother! 

“I need to stop drinking,” I announce loudly.

So we get some mint tea and talk some more. I don’t want the night to end, I’m having such a great time reconnecting with my friends. It’s amazing how much the four of us have in common. The parallel paths life’s taken us down. Much has changed in our personal lives since we last met, but we’re all in a better place I think – happier, calmer, more self-assured.  We stay till the lights come on. Which in the restaurant trade is a nice way of saying “do you think you could all please bugger off now..”

So, reluctantly we leave, and we make promises to see each other again soon. 
And I’m sure we will.

So this is for you Marjan and Marlene and Olga:
To the many laughs we’ve had together. And to many more.

Oh and please – I’d respectfully like to tell AA Gill of the Sunday Times that not every table with girls, at Granger (or anywhere else for that matter) is “doing Sex and The City Impressions.” Go ahead – stereotype us if it makes you happy. But “Sex and The City?” – how terribly old-fashioned. 


  1. Beautiful writing Amrita!

  2. I love reading this Ami! Not because I share your love of food or cooking.....(and I have to embarrassingly admit I haven't actually tested any of your recipes)....but because it's extremely thoughtful...imaginative....and holds your interest. You beautifully draw attention to some of life's greatest, but often overlooked and underrated, simplicities and pleasures.....thru the food narrative. It's fresh, vivid, and leaves me with smile!!

  3. Cheers Marjory :) How lovely you are!!! But I think you NEED to try my recipes now...thats the true test!