When Favorite Niece (of Mezze review fame) gushed about this “cool new restaurant” in J.P. Nagar that served “Thai, Chinese, and Burmese cuisine” I was skeptical. Very skeptical. For one thing, having lived most of my life in South Bangalore, I know that the J.P. Nagar-Jayanagar demographic is rather conservative when it comes to experimenting with new cuisines and paying for the fine dining experience. For another, I break out in hives whenever I hear of a restaurant serving Thai and Chinese on the same menu, because in my experience, it often implies the addition of coconut milk and lemon grass to over-seasoned desi-Chinese dishes.
Aroy is situated on the terrace of a Crossword bookstore. The outdoor dining area features outsize white lamps casting a gentle glow over a handful of umbrellaed patio tables and a small fountain. Very classy indeed. The glassed-in indoor area is well-lit, with red accents drawing attention to the dark wood and off-white decor.
Competent service, with room for improvement
We had a hard time locating the restaurant, so I was somewhat crabby on arrival. It didn’t help that after we were offered a choice between al fresco or indoor dining, and opted for the former, we were told that “no tables are free.” Note to hostesses and maîtres de at restaurants everywhere: never offer your customers a choice of seating – or any other kind of choice – unless you are certain you can deliver their preference. It is annoying when you offer them two or more options- only to inform them, once they have made their choice, that the option they have picked isn’t really an option after all. Sincerely, Me, a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of The Feast.
Other than that initial hiccup, service at Aroy was reasonably competent and very friendly; all the waiters were eager to help, but some seemed better-informed and more “with it” than others. As in so many Bangalore establishments these days, an incomprehensible accent made it hard to decipher what was being said (on the plus side, Hindi seems to work just fine). On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate the service a 7; there is definitely room for improvement in that area.
Beyond the usual suspects
The food, however, is another story altogether: it’s outstanding. With a couple of exceptions, every single dish we have tried has been impeccably prepared and artfully presented. To my mind, however, what makes Aroy special is the fact that it is bold enough to showcase atypical regional dishes rather than confining itself to a yawn-worthy lineup of the usual red-curry, green-curry suspects.
At our first visit, we ordered a portion of banana blossom cakes and a sampler platter of non-vegetarian appetizers, followed by two entrees and a stir-fry with steamed rice, and a dessert sampler platter.
Aroy’s banana blossom cakes, though gorgeously plated, were a letdown (I must hasten to add – the only letdown of the meal). I have tasted these in Bangkok, where they’re called Tod Mun Hua Plee (tod = fry, mun = fat, hua plee = banana flower). Done right, the nutty, asparagus flavor of the banana blossom, the sweetish crunch of flash-fried onion, and the appealing golden color of the crisp batter combine to form a multi-sensory delight. Unfortunately, Aroy’s rendition fell far short. The waiter had warned us that it would be oily (it’s deep fried), so that wasn’t an issue; the problem was that the hua plee cakes were soggy and limp, the onions mushy, and the flavor of the flowers non-existent. As I tried to ignore their unappetizing scorched color, I whispered a requiem for the memory of their Thai counterparts.
Having been disappointed by the hua plee, I didn’t expect much from the appetizer platter, which comprised three pieces each of pandan chicken, grilled fish in betel leaves, and threaded prawn. In fact, I was certain it would be mediocre at best. I have never been so happy to be proven wrong.
The threaded prawn was a textural pleasure. Crunchy strands of fried noodles spiraled their way around reasonably large batter-fried prawns, delivering an almost simultaneous hard crunch, crisp crunch, and moist succulence. I made short work of my one allotted prawn, and wished (in vain) for either of my companions to offer me their share. I finally gave up, and unwrapped my next hors d’oeuvre, pandan chicken (chicken grilled in screw pine – a.k.a. pandanus – leaves). The meat was juicy and flavorful, but the distinctive, sweet floral aroma of pandan leaves was completely absent. I can only surmise that either a) dried leaves were used instead of fresh (if fresh leaves were used, they weren’t correctly bruised or boiled to release their aroma); or b) the flavorings of the chicken completely overwhelmed the aroma of the leaves. Aroy would do well to figure out which.
Meanwhile, The Spouse had been going into raptures about the fish in betel leaves. Feeling smug because I’d saved it for last, I bit into my first morsel.
An alert waiter, having noticed The Spouse and his cousin discard the betel leaves, advised me to eat the fish with the leaf. I was glad for the pointer; the sharp, grassy, somewhat astringent flavor of the leaves added a completely new dimension to the pungency, tang, and saltiness of the fish. Fan-frickin-tastic. (At a subsequent meal, a small amount of extra chilli on the fish made it less well-balanced – but delicious nevertheless).
Burma, Thailand, and Hong Kong
Our main course arrived promptly. The Spouse had ordered Lamb and Bitter Gourd with Black Bean Sauce – a rather unusual combination of ingredients, and one I wasn’t very keen to try. The cousin and I decided to split a Jungle Curry and a Broccoli, Water Chestnuts and Shiitake stir fry. We also ordered two portions of steamed rice between the three of us.
At the outset, I would like to place on record the fact that I detest bitter gourd (and ridge gourd, and bottle gourd, and…) Given my distaste, when The Spouse described his lamb dish as “kick ass” and enthusiastically dumped a spoonful on my plate, I was reluctant to try it. In the interests of my fellow food lovers, however, I went ahead and bit the bullet (in this case, of course, the “bullet” consisted of a slice of lamb and a sliver of gourd). It was outstanding. The full-bodied, salty whole black beans and lamb sang on the palate in perfect harmony – and the bitter gourd added a barely-there acerbic note that underscored the perfection of their duet. Who knew?
Jungle Curry is a specialty of Thailand’s Isan region. Traditionally, it is prepared using frogs, snakes, or insects found in – no prizes for guessing – the jungles of Northeast Thailand. Aroy wisely refrains from offering these options, confining itself to a choice of chicken, prawn, or lamb (we opted for prawn). Jungle curry, known in Thailand as Krung Kaeng Pha (krung = paste of fresh ingredients, kaeng = stew, pha = wild or jungle), is prepared sans coconut milk, and offers only the mildest hint of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves. Aroy’s clay pot version was impeccable, richly fragrant with the aroma of fresh basil leaves, and enlivened by tiny, sharp bursts of heat from its whole green peppercorns.
I also enjoyed the stir fry – Broccoli, Water Chestnuts and Shiitake Mushrooms in black pepper sauce. The brocolli wasn’t cooked to death, the shiitake mushrooms were rich and smoky, and the water chestnuts added a nice crunchy contrast to the other ingredients.
On a subsequent visit, we avoided the banana blossom cakes in favor of the Thai Fish Cakes. These, I am happy to report,were perfect in terms of taste and texture.
We also sampled Inle Lake Lamb Curry, a Burmese meatball curry. If you decide to order this, be aware that it is almost indistinguishable from a desi kofta curry, not because all Aroy’s chefs are Indian (they are not), but because Burmese cuisine borrows so heavily from the influences of all of its neighbors, including India. Mr. Small loves the Stir-fried Ginger Fish for the buttery texture of its fish and the subtle scent of ginger that suffuses the dish. As far as salads go, I’ve only tried the Nam Tok Lamb Salad, another Isan specialty. It’s good, but not great; the flavors weren’t as bright as they could have been, and in my opinion, the recipe would be better suited to beef.
Desserts… they’re different!
This is an area where Aroy deserves every accolade it can get.
The Spouse, Mr. Small and I are now officially addicted to Aroy’s Trio Sampler dessert platter. It consists of a portion each of Tom Tim Grub, Pumpkin Custard, and (my favorite) Black Rice and Date Pudding with Lychee Icecream.
If you’re not that adventurous, you could order something mundane – like Aroy’s perfectly decent chocolate mousse or blueberry cheescake. I’d strongly urge you to push your boundaries, though – Aroy’s desserts are worth it.
I’m not going to go into ecstasies over Aroy’s desserts. In fact, I’m just going to say two things:
- I discovered new flavors and textures – no mean feat, since I have been into Southeast Asian food for over 20 years; and
- You’ve got to try these desserts for yourself.
Who knows, I may see you there – because I am definitely going back. Again.
74, 15th Main,
3rd Phase JP Nagar,
Phone: 080 4093 9311