Let me say before writing this that I think Passage to India is arguably the finest Indian cooking in the area, and has been for quite some time.
That said, let me also dispel the myth that being “known” in a restaurant guarantees a better experience. There have been numerous times in the past when I’ve been to a restaurant with a “friend of the house,” or (perhaps more surprisingly) another chef, and had the restaurant’s chef come out and offer to cook a special meal off-menu.
What do you say in that situation? “Sure!”
This is precisely what happened last night at Passage to India – my dining companion recognized some of the staff (and apparently knew the chef), and he came out and offered to cook off-menu. “Anything goes?” he asked in Hindi. “Yes.”
When chefs cook in this scenario, they sometimes try to “out-cook themselves,” especially when trying to impress another chef. As odd as it sounds … more often than not, they fail – not because they can’t cook (they can!), but because they’re improvising and experimenting with things they haven’t done over and over again, and, as they say in Russia, “repetition is the mother of learning.”
Last night wasn’t so much the case of a talented chef (and make no mistake about it, Mahipal Negi is one of the finest Indian cooks ever to grace this area) trying to over-cook; rather, it’s that so many of the items at Passage to India lend themselves to long, slow heating, taking time to become fully integrated, and something “whipped up off-menu” seems almost destined to fail here.
Such was the case, for example, with an innocent-looking bowl of spinach. I took one bite, and immediately said, “this tastes like a spoonful of peanut butter.” (Sure enough, when Chef Negi came out, I asked him about the prep, and he mentioned there were nuts in the dish. “Peanut butter too?” I asked. “A little,” he said.) I have no doubt that, had he not been caught off-guard, he would have done a more subtle job with this interesting presentation.
Swinging for the fences and whiffing? I love it. I do it all the time, and wish more people did the same thing. And I love (and perhaps live) that scene in Tin Cup.