Kent loves Indian food. When I asked him where he would like to celebrate his birthday this year, without hesitation, he said: ‘How about the Indian restaurant around the corner!’ Having been there for dinner, we knew how packed this restaurant could be; therefore, being a little Covid wary still, we decided to go for a lunch celebration. Before I booked the restaurant, we selected some friends of Kent’s to join us. Gilbert and Brett, are two longtime friends who are both well-known photographers. As well as Charles, our science and art-loving American friend, who now calls Sydney home. Counting Kent and myself, there were five of us for this occasion.
This ‘Indian restaurant around the corner’ is Malabar Indian Restaurant in Darlinghurst. Due to a bad cold Kent and I had on his actual birthday week, we needed to postpone our lunch booking to a week later. Luckily, it turned out to be a beautiful winter day, cold but sunny – just a perfect day for curry if you ask me. I turned up five minutes early to check our table. However, the table I asked for was not yet set up. Fortunately, I still had time to arrange it before everyone else turned up.
Charles was the first guest to show up. ‘Thank you for helping to take my mind away from all the troubles in the world.’ With war, disease, and climate change all happening as we spoke, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
‘You are very welcome Charles. That’s why we cherish moments like this.’ I said. Friendship first and the worries of the world a distant second, if only for a short time.
Brett and Kent soon appeared. Brett has brought a bottle of French red wine… from Bordeaux! Merci, Brett. Last but not least, Gilbert too arrived. As Gilbert preferred not to have his photos shared on social media, we shall respect that. Brett and Charles have often met each other at art openings and were not strangers. However, Charles and Gilbert were meeting for the first time. Our waiter opened the wine for us, and the celebrations were begun. Whoever didn’t drink wine that day had a ginger beer instead.
‘Happy birthday Kent!’ We made a toast to wish Kent a happy and healthy year ahead.
Our starters were different vegetarian dishes to share. Cauliflower & Potato Bonda, Spinach Chaat, a plate of Vegetarian Sampler, and some Pappadums of course. With three cyclists at the table, the Tour de France became an early topic. Gilbert, always a great storyteller, began sharing with us his experiences photographing the cyclists of the Tour de France one very hot, 1980s French summer…
‘…I was following a bunch of cyclists up the hill on a cliff-edge road trying to get past them so I could get some shots,’ Gilbert said. ‘…but the road was too narrow! The next minute I knew, a policeman on his motorcycle rode up next to me and asked: ‘”You want to pass the peloton?”, I said “Yes.” So he turned his police siren on and led me past the cyclists…’ ‘We had only about ten inches wide to pass through. The police had his elbow touching the riders, but he took me past them anyway. How crazy was that!’
Brett, Kent, and even I are quite used to Gilbert and his stories from his years of being a professional photographer. Having said that, I don’t think I had heard this one before. Fellow cycling fraternity member Charles seemed rather entertained too. By now everyone had ordered the main course of their choice. But before our main dishes reached the table, Kent was eager to show everybody his latest project which he pulled from his bag – mini booklets of his 360-degree photographs rendered onto paper for the purpose of marketing his new skill.
‘I want to see everyone’s reaction when you receive one of these!’ Kent handed out a folded version of his booklet as a test.
Perhaps it was the words ‘360-degree photography’, (which on the computer allows you to look up, down, and all around in one continuous, seamless image) that had everyone trying to fold out the booklet instead of just turning the pages. Pulling at the barely-glued folded and printed sides to see if there was something behind them. Kent joked he would print ‘nothing to see here’ across the blank area of the next print run, but realised what was really needed, was more glue to stick the folded pages together, so they could not be unfolded. In other words, making it unmistakably into a proper booklet.
‘Thank you, gentlemen. Your reaction has helped me understand what I need to do to improve my latest marketing tool. Who knew people were so inquisitive, they would rather try to take the thing apart rather than just look at the pictures!’ Kent said as he retrieved the ‘test’ booklets from his focus group. Well, it was something he did not know before lunch, so Kent was a happy camper indeed.
From the growing aroma of curry, we knew our dishes were nearby. Charles and Kent both went for a chicken curry. Charles, the house special – Kuttanadan Chicken Masala. The birthday boy went for Railway Chicken. Gilbert chose Lamb Shank Roganjosh and Brett picked the Bangalore Dosai. I was torn between the Goan Fish Curry and Prawn Balchao, it was the house’s signature fish which is the dish that sealed the deal for me.
My main course fish was tender and flavoursome. I especially enjoyed its background of sour taste. I had so much of it that I ended up did not have room in my belly to try other curries… Well, almost no room, as I did have a mouthful or two of Kent’s Railway Chicken. I was once told that this rustic chick dish won its name by being served in the compartment from the railway pantry… not sure if it’s true or not! I liked Railway Chicken’s creaminess and sweetness, but I was very happy with my fish that I would not swap it with anything else!
For a moment, quiet descended on the table, as it does when concentrating on enjoying food this good. Then, Gilbert broke the silence by sharing with us another, this time a food-related story.
‘Once, my mother made Stuffed Zucchini at home. She stuffed them with rice, green beans, and mince. First, she pan-fried them, then she put them in a pot and slow-cooked them in a sauce…’ Like most Italians, Gilbert is passionate about food. ‘I love stuffed zucchini. And there was nobody at home, so I grabbed them from the pot, eating them until my hand reached the bottom of the pot… Empty!’ ‘I panicked! I tried to leave home before my mother came back, but it was too late.’ ‘Then what happened?’ I asked. ‘She said to me “How were they? I see you like them!'”
Gilbert’s story made us laugh, and I’m sure we all had done something pretty similar. Talking about the love for food, I looked around and saw we had all emptied our plates too. Well, except for 10 pieces of Naan bread I ordered (yes ten) – two were gone and eight remained. Everyone seemed to enjoy their Basmati Rice so much! A lesson learned here – ask for less naan to start with, and see what happens. You can always ask for more. I swapped my seat with Kent so I could have a chat with Brett. Brett was finding out about the latest art activities and openings from Charles. Oh how much we missed our social gathering together on those opening nights! It’s been a quieter world since COVID-19, and it has made us more home-oriented I guess.
Since everyone was quite full, we all decided to skip dessert. But I recommended the house’s Mango Lassi. While Kent claims he doesn’t like mango, he had a big sip of mine and decided that next time he would be having one too. Yes, it’s good. Rich, and very creamy!
Our three-hour celebration came to the end as we noticed we were the last of Malabar’s lunch guests remaining. We said goodbye to one another out front under Sydney winter’s warm sun. It was so lovely catching up with friends we don’t see so often nowadays. A pleasant time like this makes me wonder why couldn’t it happen more often! Kent seemed very pleased with how it all turned out, so I guess I’ll be hired again, to organise his upcoming milestone birthday… until next year.