Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dinner and a Movie

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Beranes

By Steve Herte

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012 – 2011 in U.K.)   

Adapted from a novel “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach, seven English retirees leave the life they’ve known in London to stay at a hotel for seniors (technically “the elderly and beautiful”) in Jaipur, India, lured there by a well-written brochure. The hotel itself is a deteriorating monument to classic Indian Moghul-style architecture with few windows, fewer doors, no working phones and dripping faucets, a room full of pigeons, and the usual six-legged creatures. 

After their ordeal of getting there, by plane, bus and chuk-chuk (a three-wheeled motorized vehicle where the two passengers sit facing the rear) the audience is treated to their various attempts at adapting to their new lifestyle. 

Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) is a widow who, after a 40-year marriag, had to sell her flat to pay off her husband’s debts. Even after this, she has to get a job in Jaipur to supplement her income and pay the rent. 

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a member of Parliament, who dreads his retirement party and dashes of to India to look up his gay lover of 40 years ago.

Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) have a marriage that is only being held together by his devotion to her. We find them in London flat hunting and being treated as old invalids by the condescending real estate agent.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is a xenophobic in need of a hip replacement who chooses India rather than wait three months in England for the operation.

Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is a single senior looking for love. He’s first discovered at a dating service in England speaking to a woman about half his age who states, “I wrote 30s to 40s in my application!” “So did I,” he replies.

Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) is socialite senior who denies her age and is looking for some wealthy upper-class gentleman to settle down with in comfort.

Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) is the extremely young, enthusiastic manager of the hotel who is desperately in love with Sunaina (Tena Desae) but has to face up to his mother (Lillete Dubey) before he can have her. He has the definitive line of the movie, “In India we have a saying: Everything works out in the end. If things haven’t worked out, it is not yet the end.”

It’s a delightful film with well-written clever dialogue, excellent photography and a wonderful cast. Madge to Evelyn: “I haven’t spoken to you much, have I?” “Much to my loss, I see,” Evelyn to Madge. 

The maddening colors, the lively marketplace and intense street life, the over-crowded public transport and the antiquity of India form a patchwork quilt background for these fine actors and they perform beautifully in it.  

There is laughter, conflict, drama, and pathos and I only wish it had opened earlier in America. 

Benares West
240 West 56th Street (Broadway/8th Avenue), New York 

Two months after being Baluchi’s West, this Westside Indian food-fest attracted me with the look as well as the impressively large selection on the menu. The décor is simple, gray walls (one open brick face) chairs and banquettes with butterscotch leather backs and chocolate brown seats, and floors looking like random cobblestones. The only touch of Indian ornamentation is the chandelier set in a dark wood carved circle surrounding a mirror, and having 10 globes of candy-colored, flower-shaped stained-glass in the center of the ceiling.

The menus were even more impressive in person revealing choices unexpected in an Indian restaurant, especially one named after the holy city of Varanasi (Benares is the Islamic name). I started with one of their own cocktails, the Benares Martini - gin, Lillet, grapefruit and orange peels soaked in housemade bitters - which turned out to be the perfect light starter.

The wait-staff definitely aims to please because the amuse-bouche – a potato puff in tamarind sauce - arrived at my table twice. I didn’t complain, it was lovely both times. 

Trying to get the distinct flavor of this innovative eatery, I spent some real time on the appetizer (both hot and cold), soup (four of them), entrée, bread, and side-dish menus and, by the time my martini was finished, had a selection.

I started with Crab Milagu – lump crab seasoned in buttermilk with herbs and spices (cumin and cardamom were most evident), served on a tomato and plum chutney – a flavorful, not too spicy dish with a generous amount of crab meat and two wedges of toasted Indian bread to assist in eating it.

Since the wines were all very affordable I ordered the 2010 Mondeuse by Franck Peillot, Montagnieu vineyards, Bugey, France – a medium-bodied red table wine that paired with all my dishes without over-powering any of them. That was good because next was the Kashmiri Soup – a puree of roasted turnip, beetroot, and pigeon peas flavored with fennel, cumin, ginger and garlic – not spicy at all, the mildest of my courses.

After 120 Indian restaurants, I’m no longer prepared to be blown away as I was by the main course. I figured that with a seafood appetizer, a vegetarian soup, a meat main dish would be routine. However, the Tharavu Curry – duck meat simmered in a brown onion, ginger, garlic and coconut sauce with chilis and spices – had me asking, “This is duck?” There was none of the fatty, ducky taste and each piece melted in the mouth like the finest lamb shank. The manager was proud that I asked the same question the Village Voice reviewer asked. It was the only spicy dish I had and still it wasn’t fiery. The Cucumber Raita – a yoghurt dip – toned it down even further and the Onion Kulcha (a bread) and the Peas Pullao (basmati rice dish) made it a feast.

Dessert was a must by now.  I had them pack up the remaining rice (way too much) and the raita and ordered the Mango Kulfi (Indian ice cream – only creamier than what we’re used to) and a Masala Tea (a spiced – mostly cardamom and cinnamon – tea) and was happier than a Raja. 

Benares is a good place to go if you have never tried Indian food or have tried it and hated it, because the selection is so wide and the staff so willing to please it would be impossible for you not to have a wonderful dining experience.

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