Food Review: Neel takes over Tote on Turf, one kebab at a time

Pulling up in the driveway, you’d think you’ve arrived at the Tote on Turf. As you walk through, you may wonder where the open kitchen went, but still have no inkling of the big change. However, a faint aroma of a Mutton Shorba might escape through the white kitchen door and you might wonder.

It takes sitting down, and a rich blue menu to announce that Tote on Turf is now Neel, Hindi for Indigo, and quite an obvious name for the Indian venture by the deGustibus Group. You might remember their first restaurant — Indigo, which used to entice diners into lanes of Colaba for Risottos and Carpaccios at a time when these dishes were only found on the menus of five-star establishments. And it continues to do so even today.

Over a year ago, Tote on Turf opened as Indigo’s sister concern, dishing out western culinary delights under Indigo’s brand identity. A proud property, beyond the hype, the Tote failed to attract enough people to it and hence, we are told, the revamp.

The décor doesn’t let you in on the fact that you’ve walked into an Awadhi restaurant at all. But one is glad for that fact because the richly sunlit dining room, overlooking a rain-soaked patio, unpretentious Indian mosaic terrazzo tiles, and the wood breaking the monotony of the white, only make you feel at home.

The menu is not divided according to courses but a kebab lover will be spoilt for choice with over fifty kebabs on offer. It is remarkable that where vegetarian Indian options are often limited to paneer, aloo and mushrooms, the menu at Neel offers — in addition to the usual suspects — water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, okra and apples even. The soups, we are told are treasure trove of flavours and spices. So we start with Subz Santre Ka Shorba (Orange and root vegetable soup). Filled with the aroma of citrusy oranges and a hint of sweetness, the shorba is quite tantalizing as you decipher hundreds of spices that went into it. The Nalli Ka Awadhi Shorba is pale in comparison and the flavours are lost on us for the salt content is on the higher side.

We follow this up with my personal favourite on this menu, the Kakori Kebab which with its aromatic, melt-in-your-mouth texture is a winner. What comes next is the Jaitunee Khumb (Olive Mushrooms). The chef informs us that though olives are Mediterranean, they were a part of the Kashmiri cuisine but just forgotten. Each starter is served with a unique chutney or reduction of its own and that would explain the lack of the typical chutney tray on the table. The Basnoo and Singhade ke Kebab (bamboo shoot and water chestnuts) bring novelty to the palate, but the smoothly ground yet crunchy tikki leaves a strong aftertaste of bamboo shoots, which if you’re not a fan, can put you off a bit.

We are surrounded by a kitty party group and a couple of business associates on lunch. The conversations on each tables fall silent as they eat. Now, this can either be a good sign or a bad. But as we tuck into the main course, it’s obvious it’s the former.

The apple curry, which is sweet and delicately spiced, is heavenly and yet again, the vegetarian outdoes the meat. The Burhani Gosht which is an onion and garlic gravy, is supposed to bring out the flavor of the meat, but it doesn’t do much for our palate which has been set for high expectations following the sabzi.

The Gosht ki Dum Biryani has got to be the best thing on the menu following the Kakori Kebab and the Kesari Khumb. The purdah, the covering for dum, is a crusty pastry sprinkled with red chili powder. Turns out, it is the chef’s tradition to offer us the purdah as a bread – a first for us but definitely not the last. The biryani is light on oil, actually that’s true of almost all the food at Neel, and mild on spices but along with the Gosht makes a lethal combination. Of course for those who like it hot, there’s a salan on the side. Neel deserves a thumbs-up for serving individual chutneys and condiments with each dish which makes personalization to taste possible to some extent.

It’s hard to eat dessert after a full Indian meal, but it’s difficult to refuse the romantic sounding Parde Me Khubani – a dried apricot halwa baked, with a crusty pastry on top. We also indulged in the Rabdi Ice-cream which was, in addition to the Dal Q-Man, the only English sounding dish on offer on the menu and the moderately sweet, smooth creamy ice-cream with a hint of pistachio was a lovely partner to the very coy, yet rich Khubani in the Parda.

Neel’s cuisine comes from Chef Mukhtar Qureshi who has worked closely with Rahul Akerkar to create an authentic Awadhi dining experience. And it’s stuff like Kashmiri Seb Ki Sabzi or the Sofiyana Paneer that convince you that the cuisine here is unusual. The fact the Kesari Khumb does not look orange, only a mild yellow, but yet is filled with the aroma of genuine Kashmiri saffron goes to prove that there are no compromises on the ingredients. Neel is a great example of demonstrating its philosophy with its food. With lesser oil, traditional recipes that keep flavours intact, there sure is scope for improvement, but it could be safe to say that this is a kind of Indian restaurant Mumbai has been waiting for.

I recommend: Kakori Kebabs, Dum Biryani, Kesari Khumbh, Jaitooni Murgh and the lethal combination of the Parde Me Khubani with Rabdi Ice-cream.

Average cost of meal for two: Rs4000/-

Ideal for: A family lunch or a dinner for your expat friends who need to know Indian food is NOT about Baltis and Tikkas.

Neel, Mahalaxmi Racecourse, Worli. Contact: 022 6157 7777

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