Great chefs and restaurateurs never rest; they just open great new places
Over the last two months, I have tried some interesting new (and not-so-new) places in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai. What has surprised me is how there is not a single dud among them.
Manish Mehrotra is India’s greatest chef. But so far, at least, all his expansion has been westward. There is a massively successful Indian Accent in New York and a well-reviewed branch in London.
So, I was pleased to find that Manish’s latest venture is more accessible to his original fans. Comorin is in One Horizon Centre, a gleaming new development in a part of Gurugram that thinks it is Singapore.
I first went a few months ago when it had just opened and though there were flashes of brilliance, it was too much like Manish-Mehrotra-does-Bombay-Canteen.
I went back a fortnight ago and discovered that Manish had rearranged the focus of the kitchen so that it reflected his own style. It is a large, very New Yorky space that looks as though many people have had a say in its conception. I am not a fan of the shared tables and high chairs, though clearly everyone else is, judging by how packed the restaurant always is.
But it is impossible not to be a fan of the food. The dishes are not fancy but they are delicious. There are seekh kebabs doused in a spicy butter, a dish inspired by a similar kebab in Chandni Chowk. For dessert, there is Cheeni Malai Toast, a dish most North Indians remember from their childhood. But just as Anton Mosimann took that nursery staple, Bread and Butter Pudding and turned it into a dish fit for a king, Manish has created the world’s best Cheeni Malai Toast.
Also, this is the only restaurant I know of that has a real buzz without loud music or dim lighting. You can hear yourself talk and you can see the food. For owner Rohit Khattar, this is yet another triumph.
Long before Manish opened Indian Accent, Rahul Akerkar was already a legend in Mumbai. My neighbourhood restaurant was his Under The Over and I have many happy memories of delicious meals, all cooked with that classic Rahul mixture of simplicity (he lets the ingredients speak for themselves) and high skill.
Rahul went on to open Indigo, one of the most important establishments in Indian restaurant history and eventually, the original Indigo became the capital of an empire of sorts (Indigo Deli, Neel, etc.).
Some years ago, Rahul sold his shares in Indigo (by then, the name had been appropriated by an airline anyway) and then was banned from opening anything new because of a non-compete agreement. So, every foodie in Mumbai waited for that non-compete to run out so Rahul could open a new restaurant.
Qualia, in Parel, is that new restaurant. It is probably India’s coolest serious restaurant with a look and feel that are unique. It is dominated by an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, which is notable, because a) many chefs are so young b) around a third seem to be women and c) the great man is at the pass himself, looking at every plate as it goes out.
Like Comorin, Qualia is packed out night after night. I don’t know how Manish manages to serve 400 people on a Saturday night (with small plates, it is even trickier because there is more work to be done) and I don’t know how Rahul, in some ways the ultimate perfectionist, copes with the crowds.
The food at Qualia plays to Rahul’s strengths: modern European (or new American – I am never sure where one ends and the other begins!) with an international taste profile, combined with a reliance on local ingredients. Rahul has never been like the average five-star hotel chef; he has always gone out and found his own ingredients. And now, with a menu that focuses on fermented foods, he is doing things that very few Indian chefs will understand.
As brilliant as the restaurant is, the senior staff are of equal calibre. The managers run the room with smooth and friendly efficiency and the servers are so warm, you actually want to make friends with them.
Manu Chandra, Bengaluru’s greatest chef, is so gifted that I always wait to see what he will do next. Manu is classically trained: his European food at the Bengaluru Olive is the best of any of the many Olives. But his time in New York has given him a feel for smoking, curing and playing around with produce. At Bengaluru’s Toast and Tonic, the meats are aged and the sausages are made in-house. The restaurant even makes its own tonic water.
When Manu does Indian, the food can be fabulous because he uses his imagination rather than old recipes. I still remember the Berry Pulao at Monkey Bar. It was delicious but different from the Britannia version, which most foodies would regard as the classic pulao. It turned out that Manu had never been to Britannia, had no interest in copying somebody else’s dish and had invented this version entirely on the basis of what he thought it should taste like.
As much as I admired Manu, I always knew a day would come when his food would fail to live up to the high standards I associated with him. It happened with the Delhi Fatty Bao, where not only was the service slapdash, but the flavours tasted wrong and ham-fisted to me. Fine, I said to myself, I have found Manu Chandra’s weak spot: he can’t do Oriental.
I went last month to Cantan, Manu’s new Chinese restaurant in Bengaluru. Spread over two floors, it offers the most authentic Chinese food you are likely to find in that city. I ate half the menu. There were tuna spring rolls, delicate lobster dim sum, a spicy chilli gravy with strips of pork belly, a Chinese (Taiwanese) take on the Japanese gyoza, tender lamb on the bone and Dongpo Pork. I have since been to China and Manu’s food compares favourably with anything I ate there.
So, is there anything that Manu Chandra cannot do?
I don’t know if you know who Augusto Cabrera is? He is the least known, most influential chef in India. At the turn of the century, when the Delhi Oberoi opened the trend-setting Threesixty Restaurant, one of its attractions was the sushi counter. Till then, the only sushi in India had been restricted to speciality Japanese restaurants like Sakura. But the Oberoi wanted to bring sushi into the mainstream.
It worked wonderfully well, largely because Threesixty chose (wisely) not to go with a traditional Japanese sushi chef but went with Augusto, a Filipino with a gift for understanding fish. One reason why Threesixty was such a hit was because Augusto knew how to make sushi accessible and to create new-wave sushi rolls that did not seem intimidating to first-timers.
Eventually, Threesixty settled down to a routine. If you wanted sashimi or nigiri, Augusto would do that for you. But if you wanted fun sushi, he would do that too. In no time, Augusto’s sushi became such a craze that I used to tease him that he would be remembered as the man who taught Punjabis how to eat sushi.
Till that point, I had never believed that sushi would catch on in India. But Augusto had the strategy worked out; his rolls did not intimidate anyone because no raw fish was visible and because (if you wanted) they could be spicy.
Within a year, other restaurants started serving Augusto-style sushi and as Navneet Kalra, Augusto’s current partner says, “sushi is now the new
Navneet and Augusto run Town Hall in Delhi’s Khan Market (along with partners Randeep and Navneet Bajaj). It is so phenomenally successful that you often see Rahul Gandhi waiting patiently for a table. Navneet Kalra is a natural entrepreneur and the Bajajs are superb restaurateurs (having run Amour in Delhi for years), so their brand of expertise provides Augusto with a perfect new restaurant to exhibit his skills in his post Oberoi avatar.
I went last week to the Mumbai Town Hall, a glittering, rocking place next to Qualia, and there were people waiting for tables. Augusto was there. The food was amazing; Wasabi quality at one third the price. And the godfather of sushi in India has another hit on his hands.
And finally, a brief word about Varun Tuli, who I’ve known for years since he opened the first Yum Yum Tree in Delhi’s Friends Colony. Yum Yum Tree has since shut, but Varun has become a mini-mogul, opening several branches of a more informal spin-off called Yum Yum Cha.
I wandered in unannounced to the Select Citywalk branch last month (sadly, I was rumbled a little later) and ordered randomly from the menu. To my surprise, the food was outstanding and far better than anything any ‘oriental’’ chain has managed. Having eaten his food, I now have less patience with the rubbish Chinese/Japanese that you get in malls. This is a new
Three cities and five restaurants. Who says you can’t eat well in India?