While there are many aspirants to the “Bar and Restaurant” category, very few can pull it off with the style and panache of Dewar’s Bar, which sadly downed shutters in 2017. Located on the unfortunately named Cockburn (don’t ask) Road in Bamboo Bazar, Dewar’s or Diwars as it was popularly known was the go-to hangout for struggling artists, architects, admen, madmen and serious boozers. The décor was Cantonment meets Colonial: marble-topped tables, comfortable rattan armchairs, faded curtains and portraits of the Queen nestled cheek by jowl with the fiercely mustached proprietor.
It was the kind of place you went to on a hot summer’s day after a long, cold shower in an old pair of jeans and the rumpled, faded T-shirt that your wife had been threatening to get rid of for ages. Booze was ordered by the quarter and the kitchen was famous for serving “spare parts”. For the uninitiated, these are liver, kidneys, testicles, head and brain and this is neither the time nor the place to go into the reasons of why they have been christened thus.
Squeamish types left their attitude and designer wardrobes behind and stuck to a liquid diet, unless they could stoically manage cheese omelettes and toast while their dining companions were relishing the spare parts, followed by dosas with kheema and head curry.
Hearty homely food served with enthusiasm by waiters who had never seen a smartphone but were street smart enough to know the concept of nose to tail eating way before Chef’s Table on Netflix.
In the 60’s Dewar’s was run by a short, pugnacious Irishman, Dinky Carrera, a former Warrant Officer Gr.1 in the British Intelligence Corps. If your single-malt swigging uncle pompously informed Dinky that Dewar’s was pronounced “Doers” he would probably have responded with, “You look more of a talker than a doer, mate.”
Speaking of which, I was recently in a bar in a small town in Italy called Dog’s Alibi; the bar, not the town. Three bowls of water strategically placed at the entrance by the canny owner explain the unusual choice of name. You can imagine the dialogue: “Where are you going, Gianni?” “Nowhere darling, I justa take the dog for a walk.”
Three Camparis later, dog and master return suitably rehydrated and Gianni doesn’t have to spend the night in the doghouse. This alibi business is by no means restricted to Italy, all over the continent, tipplers are taking the dog round the corner and relying on Fido to get them home safely if they over imbibe.
Which brings me to the subject of bar food which for most people means spicy and greasy or both: like burgers and buffalo wings. Most Indians prefer to do their drinking at home because most bars are seriously over-priced.
Bar owners have responded by offering a bar package but then the next question was: I’m starving, let’s eat.
Again, the Italians step up to the plate with their innate sense of style: bruschetta, onion rings, crusty bread with pesto or marinara, sliders, Panini with a variety of cheeses, Parma ham, Ligurian anchovies, capers all bursting with the freshness and flavor of the Mediterranean. New York bars picked up on the trend and salsa’s their menus with some South of the Border style.
Viva Mexico as exemplified by a bar in Soho called You Dawg.
They serve a mean Chihuahua: a bacon-wrapped sausage in a crusty baguette, topped with salsa, sour cream and sliced avocado which tastes divine. Sea food devotees could opt for the Crab Quesadillas with pickled jalapenos while vegans could pig out (ok nibble) on the roasted Brussels sprouts with buttermilk sauce.
I sampled a brilliant take on masala peanuts in Yo Dawg: the nuts were soaked in a lime-chilli mix before being crisply fried with onion and kaffir lime leaves to a golden-brown perfection served in a newspaper cone. In a word: rocking.
They also had a magical fondue made with Leyden, a Dutch cumin flavoured cheese dip, served with pretzels and pickled veggies. I never knew bhindi could taste so good as did the courgettes, spring onion, sweet potato and zucchini.
They also did something called Natchitoches with buttermilk dip: dude, it was basically mutton samosas with raita but it tasted great. Charred medley of peppers served with a garlic-chilli infused olive oil was another great vegan option as was the Sicilian version of pakoras called panelle. Made with chickpea flour, these tasted fab with a pickled shallot salsa verde when you need a change from pudina chutney.
The ultimate test of whether a bar serves decent food is the quality of their onion rings. Are they soggy, over-fried or worse still: the kind that give you an Exxon Valdez style oil squirt when you bite into them? Or are they light, crispy, flavoursome and crunchy? Check them out to assess the quality of the food.
Here is a recipe of Onion Rings, made by Chef Ramos who is top dawg at Yo Dawg. Here is his secret recipe which is killer, yet so very simple.
- 3 cups flour (maida)
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 cups soda or sparkling water
- Oil for frying
- 4 large onions, sliced crosswise as per your thickness preference
- Himalayan pink salt, freshly ground pepper and a dash of chilli flakes
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Whisk in the water, then, while whisking, add the soda or sparkling water. The moment the batter is the consistency of very thick heavy cream, stop. If you like, add a teaspoon of minced garlic to the batter.
In a large, deep kadai, heat the oil. Drop in a small piece of onion to test the heat: if it turns light brown in 30 seconds, you’re good to go. Dip 8 to 10 of the onion rings in the batter to coat. Using chopsticks, lift out the onion rings, allowing the excess batter to drip back into the bowl, and add the rings to the hot oil. Fry, turning just once, until the rings are deep golden and crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with the magic mix or salt, chilli and pepper.