By Jean and Peter Richards
Indian was never on our list of favorite cuisines until we met the talented young chef at Cinnamon in Jaipur. Niranjan Nayak transformed our impression of his country’s food.
Nayak applies his considerable talents at Cinnamon, a 34-seat restaurant tucked away on the mezzanine of the sprawling and beautiful 18th century Jai Mahal Palace hotel.
From the moment a selection of pickles was set before us to be scooped with crisp roasted pappadam we knew this Indian experience would be different. Garlic clove pickle burst with flavor, papaya with well-tempered sweetness and mint perfectly balanced coriander in a classic green chutney.
Fried pappadam accompanied a mango dipping sauce for beet, cucumber and carrot sticks sliced thickly so that each could hold its own for flavor against the fruit.
The richness of a chicken broth was offset with just the right measure of spice.
We never did order entrées that evening because two appetizers were more than enough –
Royal Hara Bahara, four dense, pan fried patties of spinach and green peas with roasted gram flour, yogurt and almonds (650 INR) and Sikandari Raan, an ancient roasted lamb dish served with a creamy and garlicky sauce (1100 INR), was as complex in ingredient as in flavor. Together, they constituted a feast.
We were savoring slices of a frozen dessert called kulfi and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream when Chef Nayak appeared at our table. He is 24, from the East Coast state of Orissa, has been cooking for nine years, has a radiant smile, a gentle voice and he beams when appreciated. It was almost hard to believe that a man so young could cook with such finesse.
That night’s bill, including a glass of a fresh and pleasant local sauvignon blanc, Sula, was 4061 INR or about $65.
We promptly made a reservation for the next evening.
Chef had carefully considered the options he proposed: marinated and grilled tiger prawn (1350 INR) followed by spiced and grilled chunks of sole (1100 INR). Each was beautifully prepared and light on the palate.
For the entrées, Chef divided plates with a spicy traditional melt-in-the-mouth lamb Laal Maas (750 INR) and a lighter and contrasting Dhaniya Murgh (750 INR), a nugget of chicken in a creamy coriander-onion sauce enlivened with cashew, ginger and garlic paste. Both were superb.
Subtle saffron milk dumplings rounded out this fine meal for which the bill with wine and water was 7000 INR or $112 for a meal worthy of a top table in any current culinary capital.
Cinnamon presents itself as “inspired by the two spheres of cooking — Punjab and the Moghul India, connected by what is called the cinnamon-saffron link” and claims to re-define Indian food using “only the freshest ingredients and authentic herbs and spices to provide a modern twist to traditional Indian cuisine.”
After decades of eating around the world, the words “modern twist” would be enough to cause us to flee most restaurants. We still don’t know enough about Indian food to know how Chef Nayak may have modernized traditional dishes. We will not be surprised to hear wonderful things of him in years to come. It will be a pleasure to say, “Ah, but we knew him when he was young and transformed our appreciation of Indian food.”
Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards