Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Spice Island – Restaurant Review

Posted in Hotels & Restaurants, Pune by Amit Paranjape on October 10, 2008

 

Looks like my search for a great Thai place in Pune is finally over! This past week, I got a chance to visit Hotel Le Meridien’s ‘Spice Island’ restaurant. It specializes in Chinese and Thai cuisine.

 

As you enter the restaurant, you notice an exquisite setting and ambiance. I cannot think of many restaurants in Pune with this level of table spacing and sitting comfort & privacy. The decor is nice and simple. It was natural to compare the Spice Island with ‘Whispering Bamboo’ (A similar restaurant in Hotel Taj Blue Diamond). Spice Island clearly beats its chief rival as far as all these initial preference criteria are concerned.

 

The wine list is pretty decent and so is the bar selection. The main menu provides a good selection of the standard as well as the hard to find Chinese and Thai dishes. For appetizers, we tried the Chicken Satays and Fried Vegetable Wontons. The Satays were excellent; the best I have had in Pune. The Wontons were average.

 

As we discussed the main course and browsed further through the menu, an interesting fact appealed to us. Many of the popular dishes are available in ‘Half Order’ sizes. The half order portions are also pretty decent. They are priced at about 60% of the regular dishes. This is very convenient when you are dining in a small group and still want to sample multiple different choices.

 

For dinner, we ordered the Green Curry Vegetables and Kung Pao Chicken. The Green Curry was perfect. The right consistency, the right spice level…just perfect. Ditto as far as the Kung Pao Chicken was concerned. I would highly recommend both these dishes. Both these preparations reminded me of the great Thai and Chinese food I was used to, in good US restaurants.

 

The service was discrete and attentive. Oh…and did I mention the great live music?! When we were having our dinner, a couple of American Software Executives were really enjoying the band’s performance and kept providing a series of good song requests – popular songs, primarily in the soft rock and country music genres.

 

A dinner for two at the Spice Island would run into Rs. 1000 – Rs. 1500, without drinks. It is a little pricey, but in my opinion totally worth it. We had a great experience. The only place I would compare this with would be the aforementioned Whispering Bamboo, which is comparable on food, but scores lower on sitting ambiance and price. I would highly recommend Spice Island for anyone wanting to try out excellent Thai and Chinese cuisine in Pune.

 

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US Financial Crisis – The Role of the Consumer (PART 2)

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on October 8, 2008

 

US Financial Crisis – The Role of the American Consumer  PART 2

 

Thanks for all the feedback on the first article (US Financial Crisis – Who Is To Be Blamed) in this series. This issue has definitely touched a nerve with many more people than I had anticipated! The response rate has been terrific. In this second part, I am going to summarize some of the points of view that I received from readers and then continue further discussions on the role of the American consumer. Once again to clarify, I am not saying the American consumer is the only cause of the current financial crisis; I am simply highlighting their role in it, which I think is often understated.

 

 

The across the board feedback that I have received represents two distinct streams of thoughts. The first one is centered on how the system was the primary culprit in this whole mess. The system refers to the Banks, Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, Government Regulators, etc. The second stream takes a more fundamental stand around the level of debt (or ‘leveraging ratio’). It argues that fundamentally, debt is not a bad thing. Companies routinely take large amounts of debt. The primary issue is deciding what levels are the right levels. What is the equilibrium point?

 

I agree with both these streams of thoughts. I have literally seen hundreds of articles and dozens of commentators on CNBC, CNN blaming the ‘system’ and talking about that ‘poor main street consumer’. That really led me to further elaborate on the role of this ‘poor’ consumer. It is amazing to note how the US media becomes totally populist (and in a sense the global media as well, that always looks at the US media for ‘best practices’) and quickly sides with the ‘main street consumer’ when things go wrong. I guess this is not a whole lot different from the electoral politics. What ever happened to true and objective journalism? I would never know.

 

I agree the consumer didn’t really play a primary role in the complicated CDOs and other exotic interbank instruments that were traded between financial institutions. These bets proved horribly wrong, in cases of some institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch. A lot has been written about this and I will not elaborate further. These bets did play a huge role in the current mess. However, the end consumer was still an important catalyst creating a bottom level source for these hierarchical instruments. (I am using the term ‘hierarchical’ to highlight the fact that some of these instruments can be better explained as 2nd order/3rd order/4th order aggregated debt instruments). At the end of the day, many of these instruments in a sense were aggregations of end consumer debt.

 

Many blame the ‘system’ for grossly easing up credit. How was the ‘poor’ consumer going to figure this out? Majority of these ‘poor consumers’ are what I am terming as ‘21st century Illiterates’. I will explain this concept in detail at a later point in this article.

 

When it comes to the right debt ‘equilibrium’ there are many different schools of thoughts and theories. I am not an economist, and hence I wouldn’t add a new one to this list! Some argue that the strong growth of the US economy in the 1980s and 1990s hinged on high debt driven consumer spending. Maybe that was partially true. But clearly, it was operating on a thin edge, with minimum margin for error. When it was a little overdone, coupled with rising government deficits (as happened in the current decade) this quickly tipped the economy cart over the equilibrium knife-edge. And when it comes to this whole debate around deficit led spending driving economic growth, I am a little confused. Isn’t China the fastest growing country in the world today? They have achieved double digit growth for many years running. And they have one of the highest savings rate in the world?

 

Here are some interesting statistics that I recently came across. In the 1960s and 1970s, American savings rate was in the 10-20% range. In the roaring 1980s, it was 4%. Sometime in the 1990s, it turned negative and has since then stayed negative. In 1980s it was lot more difficult to get a car loan than it is today. Today, an average consumer has 9 credit cards and $17,000 of debt. Enough has been discussed on the housing debt numbers. There was this great commercial that use to appear on American TV a few years back. If only I could get a copy of that on YouTube, it would make my points so much better! The commercial was for a debt consolidation agency and it showed a middle-aged man talking about his great mansion, his great car, his great pool, how his family enjoys a great life-style, and on and on. At the end, he asks a simple question in a really funny way, ‘How do I do all this?’ And then he answers, ‘By talking on debt!’, and continues…. ‘I am in debt up to my eye-balls…I can barely pay my finance charges! Somebody, please help me!’

 

Many Americans do blame to government for budget deficits (at least a big percentage of the voters seem to…). But no one seems to be blaming the consumer deficits? The consumer today lives in an ‘instant gratification’ society where if he likes a 60 inch LCD TV in Best Buy, he wants it right away. Even if doesn’t have the money, he can always get the ‘No interest for 12 months, followed by easy $50/month installments’ deal. How very attractive! Is such consumption, really helping the US economy grow? I am not sure. It is definitely helping the Asian economies to grow for sure! Many such examples can be given, but I will add just one more.

 

Consider this; a single engineer in her early 40s is working in a large manufacturing company in the Dallas/Forth Worth Metroplex. She has a mid-level position, earning her around 70-80K per year, a decent salary but nothing great. She wants to live the ‘American dream’. This definition of the dream itself changes from state to state, especially when it comes to housing. In Texas, in this woman’s case, it translates to a living in a 4,000 sq ft ‘house’. Well, to ‘afford’ (‘afford’ being a relative term by itself…) such a house on a 30+ year mortgage (yes, 40 yr mortgages were recently introduced, to add to the zero down mortgages already present…), she had to pick a suburb that was 40 miles from her workplace. But that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? The great American freeway system which incidentally has eliminated the need for any public transportation should get her to the workplace in comfort and in quick time! She still needs a car though…but not any car. She has to ride in style. She will not settle for anything other than a big 8 cylinder GMC Suburban (A SUV that has a rated seating capacity of 8-10, but could easily accommodate twice as many passengers, if not more in the developing world. It has a 6.5 liter V8 Gasoline engine). Of course, this SUV doesn’t come cheap either; but then there are always those zero down loans to the rescue. And I am not even going to discuss the gas mileage and the price of gas here…I think you get the idea. The recent surge in oil prices have maybe finally forced the American consumer out of these gas guzzling behemoths, but I doubt if it has altered the fundamental consumption drive highlighted in this example.

 

All the debt that this woman is taking on, what economies are they really driving? The American car companies are already in deep trouble. Chances are she might have bought a Japanese SUV. And the gas guzzling nature of this beast of a vehicle helps power other ‘not so stable economies in the world’.

 

And I haven’t even talked about ‘retirement savings’. It is an irony – discussing retirement savings and negative savings rate together!

 

What is the view of an average consumer living in Springfield (no, I am not referring to Homer Simpson…and that is not the stereotypical image of an average American consumer that I have in my mind) with regards to his debt? Does he realistically believe that he can pay it off in a decent amount of time, and then save enough money for retirement? And how much money does he really need for retirement? Most Americans I have come across frankly don’t think too much about retirement planning. Even fewer have an idea of a target for retirement savings and their estimated expenses in future. It’s one thing for a 20 something or a 30 something to carry a substantial debt and be carefree about retirement planning. But it is amazing to note the number of people in their late 40s and 50s who still carry substantial amount of debt. These people in my view have absolutely no idea of what their ideal debt leverage ratio should have been in the first place. They have already tipped the equilibrium. They are simply taking a shot in the dark as far as retirement is concerned. Do they think that social security alone would be sufficient? And with the rate the government deficits are growing, some experts predict that even social security, ‘that sacred cow’ may be sacred no more.

 

The reason I am bringing the retirement savings topic is to further highlight the lack of foresight and long-term planning of the consumer. This again highlights the ‘illiterate’ nature of the global 21st century consumer.

 

What is causing the consumer to make these series of bad decisions/mistakes? I can think of two primary reasons. First one is the desire for ‘instant gratification’. It symbolizes the ‘Live for today, who cares about tomorrow attitude’, or the strong belief ‘Tomorrow will be better, my earnings will continue to grow no matter what happens’. I am not a psychologist and can’t claim any expertise in understanding this human nature/human values. The second reason I think is a phenomenon I will call ‘21st century global Illiteracy’. I think this is very important.

 

In the 20th century, illiteracy was something that was thought to be primarily confined to the developing world. Literacy was very simplistically defined as the ability to read and write. By this definition, nearly 100% of the developed world and an ever growing percentage of the developing world would be termed ‘literate’. In the developing world, it is often repeated over and over that the one of the primary root causes of all the social, political and economic problems is lack of literacy. However, now that we are turning ‘literate’, are we really resolving these issues? I would like to argue that merely reading and writing doesn’t constitute true literacy. To be literate, one needs to really understand one’s world that we live in. Today, there are ever increasing tools of knowledge and information. Yet most people don’t know the most basic information. This lack of knowledge is what I would like to term as the ‘21st century global Illiteracy’. In the next part of this series (Part-3), I will explore this concept further.

 

[Continue onto the 3rd part in this series: 'The Clueless Global Leadership']

 
 

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Restaurant Review – Vaishali (written in 1994)

Posted in Hotels & Restaurants, Pune by Amit Paranjape on October 7, 2008

The first ever internet homepage for Pune was setup in 1994. I had written a brief review of my favorite restaurant, Hotel Vaishali on FC Road back then. I am reproducing that review here on my blog.

It’s interesting to note how the price of one of the most popular dishes at Vaishali – ‘Idli-Wada Sambar’, has changed over the period. In the 93-94 time frame, it was around Rs. 5. Today, it is nearer to Rs. 20. Over the past 13 years I was living in the US. During each of my yearly India trips, a visit to Vaishali was a must! I used to routinely compare the price of this Idli-Wada Sambar dish against by Rs. 5 benchmark. In a way, it was my extreme rough inflation indicator -:)

 

VAISHALI

I am sure that any person who has ever visited Pune must have atleast heard of Vaishali, if not visited it. Whenever you pass by the FC Road, an enchanting aroma of Sambar will literally draw you towards this place!

What started of as Madras Cafe back in the 1950s has today become one of the most popular restaurants in Pune. Infact Vaishali got its present name in the late 1960s. More than two generations of college students have made this place their ‘adda’ or meeting place. Infact during the day time, Vaishali resembles a college canteen.

Vaishali predominantly serves South Indian snacks with some exceptions such as the extremely popular SPDP (shev potato dahi puri) and the Veg. burger. One could start of with an order of idli-vada sambar (my favourite) and wait for the Masala dosa or Tomato Uttappa.(remember to order this along with the first order to reduce idle time!). The third dish could either be a SPDP or any of the remaining snack dishes in the menu! Yes, in Vaishali, you should make it a point to try atleast 3 dishes! No snack in Vaishali is complete without a hot cup of filter coffee though you may also like to try cold coffee or a lassi. Apart from this you also have a choice of standard beverages and ice-creams.

So, whenever you are planning to visit Pune, do make it a point to visit Vaishali. However, be prepared to wait for atleast 15-20 minutes before finding a place to sit (especially in the evenings). I am sure that your patience shall be rewarded!

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Update on February 5, 2011

Recently, came across a very good interview with Jagannath Shetty, owner of Vaishali in  Punekar. Here is the link:

50 ways in which Pune has changed over the past 15 years

Posted in Pune by Amit Paranjape on October 5, 2008

 

This article discusses my observations about how significantly Pune has changed over the past 10-15 years…and yet some things still remain the same.

 

Having lived outside Pune for nearly 13 years from 1994-2007, these changes really standout from my perspective. Maybe people who have been around Pune all through this period won’t think too much about them. It’s typical human nature, that if you live through something, it doesn’t appeal as much as if you were transported back to that place after a big gap of time.

 

Pune teenagers might find this list revealing; especially in light of all the things they take for granted today! Some readers might notice a bias towards Prabhat Road/Bhandarkar Road/Deccan Gymkhana areas. This bias, while unintentional is understandable given that this is where I have lived all my years in Pune prior to 1994 and at present.

 

Here is my list of 50 ways in which Pune has changed in the past 15 years…..(I have many other points in my queue as well, and I am sure readers would suggest a few(?!) more. ). Watch this blog for follow-up articles on the same subject.

 

 

  1. Aundh, Baner, Wakad, Bavdhan, Warje were villages on the outskirts of Pune.
  2. No one had heard of a village named ‘Hinjewadi’.
  3. Senapati Bapat Road, Jangli Maharaj Road, FC Road didn’t have road dividers.
  4. 14 years back, Pune and Balewadi were getting ready to host the National Games – the roads and the public infrastructure were being nicely spruced up, not unlike what’s being done right now! Sad to say, we had to wait for another 14 years for such an exercise. One wishes that such games happen every year!
  5. Pune airport had less than 5 daily flights.
  6. Pune had only one Five Star Hotel – Blue Diamond (It was not ‘Taj’ Blue Diamond those days)
  7. There were no international fast food chain restaurants.
  8. The best Punjabi and Continental restaurant in town was Hotel Amir’s ‘Peshwa Inn’ near Pune station (This hotel has since been closed down).
  9. Prabhat Road and the greater Deccan Gymkhana area still had many old, nice stone bungalows, many of them built by former ICS and IAS officers. The present day apartment dwellers in this area need to thank all those bungalow owners for the excellent tree cover still enjoyed here.
  10. No one had heard the term ‘International School’. Loyola and St. Vincent were amongst ‘the’ schools to go to.
  11. There were only 4/5 engineering colleges (compared with the 20+ today).
  12. Dorabjees, Chitale Bandhu, Vaishali were as popular, as today.
  13. Vaishali Idli Sambar was priced around Rs. 5 and a good snack there for 4 people would run into Rs 60-80.
  14. Amongst the very few places one could order Pizza were, Supreme opposite Sambhaji Park and Darshan on Prabhat Road.
  15. The best shopping area was MG Road – there were no malls in Pune.
  16. There were no multiplexes – Alka and Rahul were the popular places for watching Hollywood movies.
  17. A nice water fountain circle stood outside the University main gate. A long line of Chinese and Indian fast-food handcarts occupied the beginning part of Baner Road. This was a popular hangout place.
  18. Most people in Pune had no idea what the term ‘IT’ meant. Few of those who knew would have thought of it to be ‘Income Tax’.
  19. There were no traffic jams (in fact hardly any traffic) on Prabhat Road, Bhandarkar Road and Law College Road.
  20. The only place where traffic jams occurred regularly was Paud Phata – and yes, there was no fly-over.
  21. There were no banks on residential Bhandarkar Road and Apte Road.
  22. Tallest residential buildings in Pune were 3 storeys high.
  23. Deccan Gymkhana and Koregaon Park were the most expensive places to live in (same as today!).
  24. The only IT Company on Senapati Bapat Road was Persistent Systems.
  25. Even back then, Pune was known as a ‘city of bridges’ – notwithstanding the fact that nearly half a dozen new ones have since been added.
  26. When people referred to that big manufacturing company (biggest in Pune even then…) that manufactured trucks, they would have referred to a ‘Telco’.
  27. Fiats were common on the streets; the ‘hip’ cars were 118 NE and Maruti 1000. Kinetic Honda was the most coveted 2 wheeler.
  28. COEP was still known back then as COEP (not withstanding its brief stint a few years back as ‘Pune Institute of Engineering Technology’).
  29. On Paud road, beyond Vanaz Engineering (and the now obsolete Garbage dump) the city ended. Going to Garden Court/Ambrosia felt like you were going to some place well ‘outside’ Pune. And there were none of the dozens of Garden Court clones in the Chandni Chowk area.
  30. The old Pune – Mumbai highway was often choked up with back-to-back traffic…The Expressway, a distant dream.
  31. Even on weekends, it was very easy to find parking on top of the Sinhagad fort.
  32. Bicycles were very common on city roads.
  33. No one knew what ‘Internet’ meant and email was known to very few. General email access was available in less than half a dozen government organizations such as CDAC.
  34. Cell phones and pagers were things that one heard about from friends and relatives in the US/Europe. People really doubted if they would see such things in India in the near future.
  35. Rs. 4000 per month was a very good salary for a graduating engineer from a top college; Rs 7K was considered exceptional and absolutely top of the line.
  36. Back then, a walk through the old Pune ‘Peths’ revealed quite a few remaining ‘Wadas’, once the primary residence structure in Pune. Today, hardly any of them are left, and the ones remaining are in extremely decrepit state.
  37. Durga Puja, Dandiya Ras celebrations were foreign to Pune. Big Dahi Handi celebrations were something that one saw in Mumbai.
  38. Even back then, Pune was the national leader as far as beautiful collegiate crowd from the fairer sex was concerned. Back then, the teenage boys (and many, if not all men) had a great time enjoying this beauty on strategic places such as FC Road, as the crowd zoomed past on their 2 wheelers. Unfortunately today, with the invention of the ‘wraparound scarf’ it feels like Pune has significantly regressed in this area! Keep aside the security debate for a moment – in the wider interest of the male population, an immediate ban should be passed on this headgear!
  39. Pachwari (5 meter) Saris were commonly seen among middle aged and older women.
  40. Ganpati Celebrations and Immersion Processions were as loud and colorful as today, if a little smaller in scale.
  41. One of the best ways to travel from Pune to Mumbai was via Deccan Queen First Class – and enjoying some great snacks in the dining car. That dining car experience is now sadly gone for ever.
  42. ‘Hindi’ was not commonly heard in restaurants, shops and other public places in Pune. Back then, I used to contend that many non Maharashtrians living in Pune spoke better Marathi than Maharashtrians living in Mumbai!
  43. Few foreign visitors were seen on Pune streets; bulk of them comprised of the Osho commune visitors, in their characteristic garb.
  44. The sobriquet ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’ was commonly used to describe Pune back then…even though the paradise was already showing signs of turning towards the dark side. One hardly hears this name today.
  45. There was at least ‘some’ traffic discipline in Pune. Signals were regularly obeyed. Policemen commanded some respect, and were not beaten up.
  46. Pune television viewers had access to around 5 channels, and they were rejoicing at finally having a choice for the ‘Doordarshan’ channel.
  47. A long standing solution to Pune traffic was being planned back then as well. A popular solution, ironically same as the one being proposed today, was a road along the river banks/over the river!
  48. Back then ‘PMPL’ was referred to as ‘PMT’. Unlike the many modern busses you see today, there were quite a few old ones dating back to 60s and 70s – and those PMT busses had a god given right to breakdown at any busy road/intersection and create a traffic mess. 
  49. Punekars were not very well familiar with terms such as ‘Cholesterol’, ‘Thyroid’, etc. Blood tests were something that was done only if you were really really sick or if you were traveling abroad.
  50. Same as today, Ruby Hall (though much smaller than today) was the best hospital in town.
  51. There were hardly any modern ‘gyms’ in town…’Talwalkar’s’ was a pretty popular one amongst the few out there.
  52. There was only one local English daily – Maharashtra Herald. Now taken over by the Sakal group, it has since been re-incarnated as ‘Sakal Times’.  
  53. ‘Pune Times’ had been recently launched with much fanfare by Times of India to capture Pune audience. Back then Pune Times had real news items, instead of fancy, racy pictures and page-3 items.
  54. Hanuman Tekdi, Vetal Tekdi were extremely popular destination for morning walks.

 

  Note – Please do checkout the second part of this article: 50 Ways In Which Pune Has Changed In Past 15 Years (PART 2)

 

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US Financial Crisis – Who Is To Be Blamed?

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on October 4, 2008

Some thoughts on the current US Financial Crisis – Who is to be blamed?   PART-1
 
Americans have been quick to blame the ‘Greedy Wall Street Executives’ for the current crisis. Given that the elections are just around the corner, the congress members are quick to take-on a populist stand and side with the people. ‘Wall Street’ is an easy target! [These congressmen conveniently forget that the same Wall Street is often times their biggest contributer...!]. However are they the primary cause of this mess?
 
I contend that the average American consumer is the biggest culprit. Now, I doubt if any elected official would ever show the fortitude to make such a call! The reasoning is simple – The American consumer has been living beyond his/her means for a long time. Credit has become a way of life. Its not just the struggling lower middle class with incomes under $50K who are stuck in deep debt. Debt has also become a way of life in the suburbia as well.
 
Consider this – a highly paid executive couple with combined earnings of over 300K should be financially very secure, right? Wrong, in many cases! Here’s the problem. This family could live a very comfortable life, buying a nice house in a suburb for say 300K and a couple of nice cars. But in reality, they end up going for a 700K (or maybe even a 1M) mansion..buy expensive luxury cars..modify their lifestyle to resemble that of the ‘super rich’ in most other parts of the world. How do they achieve this? By taking on debt!
 
The above is just a representative example. Having lived for 13 years in the US, I have always wondered how so many people can routinely live beyond their means. Some people consider debt and deficits as good things. They spur consumption and drive growth. I am not an economist and won’t get into the economic debate here. But the first principles of common sense warn us that something is terribly wrong regarding perennial deficits and debts!
 
Why blame Wall Street? Isn’t it the consumer who wanted to buy a huge mansion instead of a decent house? Isn’t it the person who wanted to shop like crazy like there is no tomorrow? Or the person who didn’t have money for his children’s college, but still took on debt to build a fancy swimming pool in his house? Or the recently graduated college student who got her first job at a hitech company, and went and bought a 35K Audi?
 
I think its about time that America realizes that the root of the current financial crisis is the average American consumer who thrives on debt! Wall Street was merely an accessory! I am not saying that the greedy Manhattan executives don’t carry any blame..they do.  But they were like any good business – supplying the ‘products’ that the consumer ultimately wanted.

[Continue onto Part-2: 'US Financial Crisis: Role Of The American Consumer']

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