Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Lenglui and Oberoi Jumbo
IWFS Delhi Agra Jaipur Day Four - Thursday 2nd March 2017

Depart Hotel Leela Gurgaon for Agra

8.45am (Meet for coach in hotel lobby at 8.30am) | Casual on the bus as we sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Lunch and Visit Taj Mahal

Seem to recall a bit of a grey morning for this one and rain. Did the usual cases down and into breakfast about forty minutes ahead of the off, which gives us time to scarf down some yoghurt and fruit and some chapati with dhall and coffee. This invariably stimulates the necessary allowing sufficient business before checking that the luggage had been stowed and clambering on the bus. Lenglui had secured seats halfway along and slept most of the way whilst I made my ultimately to disappear notes in an exercise book specially bought and brought for the task. 

The scenery was a pretty flat and dusty green vista punctuated by dusty and grimy roadside towns that were a mix of dilapidated and newly constructed…  garages, basically, from which small businesses seemed to operate. Lots of cows, both on the sides and in the middle of the main roads.  Lots of big trucks driving up and down both sides of the large roads (and sometimes against oncoming traffic). Thinking back, not many buses…  but loads of cars and bikes. And all honking. Of course. Not much lush greenery. Didn't see much in the way of irrigation either, though got told somewhere that there are two crop seasons, one for rice and one for vegetables. But it looks a hard existence. Grinding poverty and little in the way of escape.

Back Left from Oberoi Verandah
There was a stop on the way and a scurried run under the portable umbrella to the hut which housed two long shops and a small toilet. There did not seem to have been many of these on the road, so the assumption is that they are few and far between. We were given twenty minutes to do our business which meant time for a bit of a shop. Though the prices felt stiff - saris and other cloth products at quite large prices. Though ti did not seem to deter the serial shoppers who were happy to be in an environment where they could spend. Had not been much opportunity on this trip (outside of the Mall that was part of the Leela Gurgaeon complex) so the chance for an urge to splurge could not be passed up. But not for me - the things were a bit grotty and not well made. Even the fridge magnets were grim and megapriced. And seems they were not prepared to bargain. Sorry friend - happy to buy but not to overpay. 

Back Right from Oberoi Verandah
Back on the bus and ready for the last charge into Agra. Many on the bus seemed to sleep, though there was the occasional buzz of quiet conversation. Lenglui slept through the ride - I made occasional notes and stared out the window at the brightening skies and counted down the miles to Agra. 

I wasn't sure what I was expecting out of this visit. Never had a great desire to "do" the Taj Mahal, and didn't know enough about it to want to find out more. But here it was, coming up at sometime down the road. As we got into Agra surroundings, the signs indicating roads and distances to hotels seemed to grow in number. Equally, the road seemed to get narrower until it was effectively a one lane track along which bicycle rickshaws and twelve seater golf buggy style transports were waiting for custom. There were some coach park up places, but most of the traffic were these electric buggies. We found ourselves suddenly turning and gently trying to maneouvre through a hugely narrow gate which ultimately proved unsuccessful due to other buses being improperly parked. We got off and in blazing sunshine strolled up the pathway that led into the Oberoi Amarvilas, the location for our lunch and dinner both for today and for the morrow. 

View of the Taj from Oberoi Verandah
1.30pm Arrive for lunch 

The plan was to do lunch first, then get some buggies to transport us to Taj Mahal, then some buggies back to the Oberoi where the bus would pick us up to take us to check in to the Jaypee Palace Hotel where we would sleep for two nights. with any luck out luggage would be in in our rooms by the time we got there. 

The Oberoi was unashamed luxury. White and brown marble everywhere, and boasting an amazing view of the Taj Mahal at the back. Snapped a few photos on the balcony before heading to our buffet lunch which was downstairs in a large airy room with lots of four and six seater tables and heavy chairs. Again, the curries and sauces were excellent as were the breads that went with them. I remember some fizz and some white and making notes. 

Yvonne, Arun and Oberoi F&B Manager
Hello Chef! Namaste!!
Buffet Spread

East meets West - Penne with Tomato sauce, Biryani Rice with Cashews, salad and yoghurt. Yum.
More West meets East - Italian salami, Garlic Naan, Korma curry rice and Madras Chicken. Double yum.
3.00pm Lunch finishes and leave for sightseeing of Taj Mahal 
"After a gorgeous, well-earned lunch, we will head to the truly magnificent Taj Mahal, one the of the New 7 Wonders of the World and declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage".

Julia and friend off to the Taj
After lunch we boarded the buggies and threaded our ways past people and more buggies and got off near an entrance. We had been previously advised not to carry bags since these would be securitised and getting them back after the tour would be troublesome. So I had just brought the camera and some water, having left everything else in a room at the hotel for later retrieval. We also were parcelled into groups by which we would be shuttled through the iron turnstiles and scrutinised for any bags that the eager security mean could pounce on. Through the gate, along a garden path, through an arch tower and there it was - Taj Mahal, sparkling smoky grey white in the sunshine. We've all seen pictures of it, but to see it in full glory with a full blue sky background this close in the heat with all the people - it's different. It sparkles. It shines. It breathes. It feels there is a life and a soul to the building and the gardens. And there is a peace about the place, notwithstanding the hundreds and hundreds of people milling around the gardens and pathways toward the main mausoleum. And joy of joys, no cows. Or dogs. 

En route to the Taj
We had been allocated a guide, and they do give out much useful information - but nothing ever gets retained by me. Some little bits filter through and stick, but it's always too hot and there's always another photo opp and…  snuzz. I do remember that the Taj is basically a gravesite for husband and wife who are still buried there thirty meters below the floor in the main building. Wikipedia notes: "The Taj Mahal (meaning Crown of the Palace) is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall.

Gateway to the Taj Mahal
Some more: "Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643 but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees (in 2015 values, approximately 52.8 billion rupees [U.S. $827 million]). The construction project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri."

Our Guide describing Taj history
And more: "The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage". It is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India's rich history. The Taj Mahal attracts 7–8 million visitors a year. In 2007, it was declared a winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World (2000–2007) initiative." [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal]

The Money Shot - Lenglui and the Taj Mahal
Someone along the way noted that US President Bill Clinton makes it easier; he is alleged to have said "The World is divided into those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not." And I and Lenglui and all of us on the IWFS Tour of Delhi and Agra now land ourselves in the former, with our Princess Diana seat official photo to prove it. And I feel happy to have been there, which I never expected. I thought, shoot, it's just a building. But it's not. It's much, much more. Unbelievably more. It captures a piece of you, which is irretrievably and unexplainably Taj Mahal. Total moment. Must do, once in a lifetime. 

Taj Mahal
We ambled around the paths, did the Mausoleum, went up and through one of the minarets, braved the toilet, and wound our way back to the buggies and the hotel to retrieve our bags. It was here that I found that somehow my notebook was missing. I went back to the lunch room to see if it was there - no. Asked at reception if it had been handed in - no. Shit. Three days of notes disappeared. Some menus as well, including the lunch. Bollocks. Ah well… it was gone, nothing more could be done. Oberoi staff ate my homework - sounds plausible? Not really...  still pissed at losing it…

Goodbye Taj Mahal
4.30pm Depart Taj Mahal for hotel
Check In to Jaypee Palace Hotel
5.00pm Arrive at Jaypee Palace Hotel for check in 

We got to the hotel and indeed the bags were in the room. Though the room did take a bit of finding. The Jaypee is a huge multileveled maze of corridors and lifts and often only one path to get to a destination. The room when we got it was a delight, with the back door window opening out on to a balcony with a delightful woodland area of grass, trees, squirrels and birds. Made for a lovely coffee opportunity in the slightly chill morning air. 

Our travels have taught us to pack our wearables and toiletries in one case and leave the others locked - it makes for swifter packing and unpacking and we can be showered, shaved, dressed and ready within the hour for an evening on the town. Which we needed to be for this one due to a bit of overstay at the Taj and delayed leaving of the Oberoi. I presume there was a reason why we all did not stay at the Oberoi; it certainly would have made sense given that all our meals would take place there. But none have been forthcoming. Perhaps it was as simple as there being no rooms available. Anyhow, we mazed our way back to reception to board the bus for the twenty minute shuttle to our dinner. 

Inside the Oberoi Ballroom
Dinner at Oberoi Amarvilas | Smart Casual
7.00pm Depart Jaypee Palace Hotel 
"Tonight’s dinner will be held at the most exclusive hotel in Agra and one of the top 100 Hotels and Resorts in the World as voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveller. We will be cooked a delicious Awadh and Banaras menu served with some special wines."

It was here that we heard that the friend I spoke about in the pre-flight section found that he had overstayed his visa and as a result the hotel could not check him in. The story was he had been driven back to Delhi to stay at the organiser's house with a view to seek to sort the visa in the morning and coming back to the Jaypee on the morrow. Must have been darn scary, but given the obfuscation evident in the Online Visa application process, hardly surprising. Hugely inconvenient, though, having to drive all the way back to Delhi and then back to Agra. Probably sleepless as well, worrying about whether all would be well. Felt really sorry for the guy. 

Disembarking at the grand entrance, we were piped in past the candle lit pond with the roaring of trumpets that sounded like a herd of elephants looking to gatecrash the party. I have half a memory of a bindi being thumbed on my forehead, but that might have been a different meal. Fizz got plonked in our sweaty hands which we sipped hungrily in the warm evening air until we got speeched and directed to our tables. This direction would take us past our treat for the evening - some near authentic Agra street food; the real deal as to what you could get on the streets, but I guess without the street. Well, and maybe - not entirely sure that street hawkers wear white chef hats. But the food was indeed darn tasty. And though the absence of street might take some of the shine off the experience, so be it. 

Oberoi Desserts
On getting to our allotted seating of six to a table, we sat to take in the Grand Hall, decked out with ornate paintings and table seatings. There was also an assortment of the usual breads and curries inside. Someone called things to order and advised which bowls we should not miss and we were off. 

Inside the Oberoi Ballroom
One year down the road, can't remember much about the dinner nor the ride back to the hotel. The photos don't jog too many memories. Think there was a cultural dance somewhere, and half a memory of toddling back and forth to get the street food and refills of fizz. 

Debris. Very pleasant was the process of creating this...
I do remember the organiser and hotel manager naming the unmissable dishes which first movers naturally made a beeline for. Fears of missing out were swiftly abated as refills made their ways to the large silver bowls. I got a haruumph against my sly attempt to queue jump one of the unmissables. Fair enough. Have to say the food was very good - less fierce in fire than what we are used to here in Kuala Lumpur, but full of vim and vigour in spice terms. The mixes had great distinct tastes and the occasional mixes that resulted on the plate were (by me) eagerly sopped up with the relentless supply of garlic naan bread. The wines were good enough, though the reds were not really matches to the food - full and bold with young tannins tend to supercharge the fire in curry sauces. Though I seem to recall the St Francis Zinfandel as being somewhat softer and easier on the palate than the leaner Kendall Jackson Pinot and the austere Marchesi Barolo. 

The Oberoi Amarvilas Agra India
Street Food chef cooking, er, street food...
Main Course

Meat and Seafood Selection

Mahli Kaliya
Lucknow style fish curry in a tamarind and cashewnut curry with mustard oil

Dum ke jhinge
Prawns cooked in a yoghurt and saffron gravy, smoked in sealed pots

Achari murgh korma
Chicken cooked in a pickle spice curry

Awadhi gosht biryani
Lamb and basmati ricecooked in sealed pots

Vegetarian Selection

Lauki mussallam
Whole bottle gourd cooked with almond milk and brown onions

Paratdaar paneer pasande
Triple layerd cottage cheese in a peppered tomato and fenugreek curry

Rattan manjusha
Spinach and mushroom koftas in a rich aromatic yoghurt and tomato gravy

Benarsi dum aloo
Baby potatoes simmered with yoghurt and chilli

Lehsooni motiya palak
Corn kernels braised with roast garlic and spinach

Dhuli urad ki daal "Dum Pokth"
White lentils simmered with brown onions, cardamom and yoghurt

Subz zafrani biryani

Selection of Tea/Coffee

The Wines
G. H. Mumm, Cordon, NV
Reims, Champagne

Chateau St Michelle 2013
Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, USA

Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc, Les Baronnes 2015
Sauvignon Blanc, Loire Valley, France

Kendall Jackson 2014
Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, USA

Zinfandel, St Francis, 2012
Sonoma County, USA

Marchesi di Barolo, DOCG 2009
Piedmont, Italy

10.30pm Return to Jaypee Palace Hotel

Don't remember much of this. Seem to remember getting lost in the maze that was the Jaypee Hotel - take a wrong turn and a wrong lift and you are screwed. Eventually got there and crashed for a pretty solid six hours. 



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