Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 10/2/93 6:30 AM

Feature: The Farmhouse, Bangalore


Imagine you are motoring through the south of France, wine country. It’s a balmy day, there’s a slight breeze ruffling your hair (you are travelling in an open-top convertible, of course), your camera is going click-click-click.

Before you know it, the morning has sped past and there is an ominous rumble in the region of your turn. Even as the word ‘lunch’ forms in your brain, you see a signpost. Intrigued, you follow it, turn into cherry-red gates and come upon a stone structure, greenly festooned with creepers, climbers, ferns, verily an exotic jungle.

You are shown to a long trestle-like table covered with a gaily-checkered tablecloth, by the side of the house, where you proceed to sit down and indulge. This is food that makes your senses come alive. You pick at appetizers like quichelets and baby spuds tossed in mayonnaise.

You spoon in lentil soup delicately spiced with herbs, no doubt from the herbery you notice at one side of the farmhouse; you dig into into a lasagna with spinach layering, break bread from the basket of fresh rolls near you.

There is a fish entrée to follow, then a chicken so lightly tossed in a cheese sauce that both fowl and seasoning can be savoured on the tongue, distinctly apart.

You take small helpings, all the better to relish it and as the courses are deliberately spaced, you are free to enjoy the whole affair, to look around, to chat, to linger over the wine.

The ‘jolly innkeeper’ strolls out of the main house to meet you; he is fiftysomething, a throwback to ye olde days, indeed, with sparkling eyes and hair in a squiggly pigtail. Before you exchange more then a few sentences with the man, you know you are in the presence of a master, a man who performs gastronomical magic.

The culinary feast winds down with a wedge of lemon cheesecake topped with a smidgeon of sour cream that absolutely melts on the tongue. The affair is over, you are on your way. As for the dent the meal has made in your pocket, well, you know a good meal is worth its weight in gold. And this was a great meal.

Replete, satiated, content, you drive away. End of dream? No, there is a sequel.

Instead of Bordeaux country, imagine you are on Bannerghatta Road, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Click! Now wake up: the signpost, the gates, the house, the owner, its all real. As real as the food you get to sink your molars into. If you get so lucky.

Because Saeed Sattar’s ‘Farmhouse’ is no run-of-the-road restaurant. In fact, it’s not a restaurant at all. It’s a place where he serves up unbelievably delicious food for his friends and at a pinch, the friends of those friends. No strangers, no siree. The smiling Gujarati whose cheerful demeanour masks an astute business sense  says, “I call the shots here. I get to choose my guests. I get to plan the menu for the day, cook and serve it.”

If this sounds imperious as hell, well, no one is complaining. In fact, non-complainers make up a veritable Who’s Who. And you wouldn’t want to argue with the likes of Girish Karnad, Shobha De, Charles Correa, M F Hussain, Chitra Subramaniam, Vijay Mallya, Nasiruddin Shah, a whole host of models, film stars, corporate giants, public sector bigwigs, literati and glitterati, would you now?

The set-up is unusual and so is the owner. Sattar has done a stint as an adman, an employee of Air India, a chef at the Rajneesh ashram in Pune. He comes across as suave, charming, a maverick whose steady line of witticisms belie the shrewdness of the man.

“It was in Italy where I spent five years, that my culinary talents flowered,” he says. Italy brought out into the open the Cordon Bleu colours of a man who, since his days in London, was always inclined towards pots and pans. Since then, he has developed cuisinart into something nonpareil.

Now, as his charming wife Ashrafa concedes, “He is the expert. Both my girls Sasha and Sonali, as well as I, can wield a capable skillet. But nothing as inspired as Saeed’s cooking.”

“Cooking is serious work, ” avers Sattar, “It requires considerable planning, designing and imagination.” He is scathing about the Indian obsession with chillies, calling it ‘camouflage cooking.’

Does that mean ‘Farmhouse’ fare is true to salt-pepper-white sauce blandness? The very thought could turn many an Indian face pale. “No, no,” expostulates Sattar, “I cheat… a little. Maybe I don’t do a line on chillies but I do season the food with a herb or two, something that will lend flavour without getting competitive with the base ingredients.”

It is obvious that the charge of being a gastronomical snob has been levelled at Sattar before and that the man revels in it. “Yes, of course I am a snob. To be a snob, you’ve got to be good at something. I’m good at what I do.”

“The best food is the least cooked,” he pronounces. “Simple fare served in white plateware (only white brings out the visual appeal of the food), a good wine, convivial company… aah,  that would be a perfect experience.”

Since social climbing has long been a national weakness, the Sattars are constantly plagued by people who would like to eat at the ‘Farmhouse’ just to upgrade their social cache. For all that they are given short shrift, the rush to crash the exclusive barriers go on unabated. The ‘Farmhouse’ is like the forbidden apple, says Sattar with a hint of complacency in his tone.

And, just as you wonder if it’s all a matter of hype, Sattar tosses a salad for you. It’s a simple salad- a handful of kidney beans, a few rashers of beetroot, steamed veggies and in the middle, a mound of prawns dressed up in mayo. You fork some into your mouth and you feel like Bertie Wooster at his Aunt Dahlia’s table, tucking into an Anatole creation.

You also realise why Saeed Sattar is a born genius and the ‘Farmhouse’ a place that one could virtually commit murder to visit.

This ran in the OCTOBER 1993 issue of Trends OPUS magazine.

Photos by Ajay A Ghatage.

BangaloreFoodfood tributeSaeed SattarThe Farmhouse

Sheila Kumar • October 2, 1993

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