iconimg Saturday, August 01, 2015

Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
Mumbai, April 11, 2009
Three new Delhi restaurants have decided to specialise in European food which (or so we are told) always fails in this city. But I came away impressed by all of them I don’t know about the recession but more restaurants seem to be opening in Delhi (and perhaps in other Indian cities) than ever before. They’re not all doing as well as they should but most restaurateurs think that there’s enough business for them to survive.

Over the last week, I’ve been to three recently opened restaurants in Delhi and I’m impressed by the quality of the food and the service. All three are trying to do something different and all three specialise in European food which, or so we are told, always fails in Delhi.

I can’t really review them because I was spotted at all three and I will not pretend that my experience parallels that of the average punter. But I have had enough bad meals in Delhi – even when I’ve been recognised – to believe that these three restaurants demonstrate that the food scene in the Capital is finally coming of age.

The oldest of the three is Manre. Here I have to declare an interest. It is run by Ramola Bachchan who I have known for something like two decades. Almost from the time it opened, Ramola has been asking me to come and eat there. I’ve refused, partly because I wanted to go relatively anonymously and partly because the BRT has made the journey from Defence Colony to Saket a nightmare.

Last week however I found myself in Saket for a book launch and decided to give Manre a shot for dinner.
At first, I appeared to have slipped in quite unobtrusively. A very nice girl led me to my table in the very fancy dining room and a waiter came with the menus. It was only after I had ordered that Ramola turned up saying that her staff had told her that I was in the restaurant. So, I can’t claim that this is an objective review.

On the other hand, Manre is a lot better than I had dared hope. The hype that surrounded its opening suggested that it was very fancy French food at very high prices. Actually, the food is quite accessible and the prices are a steal. I ate a so-called promotional menu which consisted of any four courses I wanted from the entire menu plus unlimited Grover La Reserve at Rs. 1500 per head. Given the high costs of the ingredients they used, I am not sure Manre can make much money at these prices.

I began with smoked duck cannelloni. This is not a dish I would normally order but the smoked duck made me curious. In fact, the dish was even better than I expected because the chef had tarted it up with Thai spices (red curry paste, galangal and makroot) which worked astonishingly well.

Then I had the entrecote (a fillet steak from Australia or New Zealand I would guess) which was cooked medium rare and served French style with sauté potatoes and string beans.

Dessert consisted of an excellent delice made from Valrhona  chocolate though I also tried a wonderful crème brulee and a perfectly acceptable sugar-free chocolate mousse.

My companion, a vegetarian, started with a plate of sautéed mushrooms and then moved on to an assortment of excellent Lebanese mezze. I was startled to discover that Manre does lots of Middle Eastern food, a wide range of pizzas and even, a small Indian menu.

Obviously, the hype has done the restaurant a disservice. It serves very good food at very reasonable prices for ingredients of this quality. The same meal would cost twice as much – at least – at a five star hotel.

Antonio Carluccio, the founder of London’s Carluccio chain of quality casual Italian eateries is an old friend of Priya Paul who runs the Park Hotels. When the Park decided to open a restaurant at DLF Place, the new mall in Vasant Kunj, Priya asked Antonio to do the menu.

The result is a triumph. Italia has just opened and does not have a liquor licence yet but it was already packed when I went for Sunday lunch. Mandar, the chef at Bangalore’s Park Hotel who runs a brilliant Italian restaurant there, was overseeing the kitchen, a logical move given that he has trained with Antonio in London.

I had a tasting menu and nearly everything was excellent: light agnoletti of lamb, perfectly fried John Dory, crispy pizzas, succulent lamb shank and more. The only miss was the chicken and mustard risotto where the consistency was all wrong.

Italia will continue to do well. And once it gets its liquor licence, dinner business will pick up. For my money, it is the best Italian restaurant in Delhi today.

I don’t know of any hotel that has taken as long to open as the Delhi Aman. After so many false starts, I was startled when it finally threw its doors open a couple of weeks ago.

The hotel is spectacular (more about that later) and differs from most Amans in that it is actively looking for local F&B business. There are two restaurants and I went to the casual part of the Spanish place.

Spanish food is one of my favourites. I can sit and eat tapas all evening, washing it down with sherry or rioja. The advantage with tapas is that because it consists of small plates, you can try many different things without getting full.
I sat at the bar and spoke to a very nice sommelier who served me a range of sherries explaining how each differed from the other. She also found an interesting Spanish Pinot Noir which was more New World than Burgundy. And of course, there was the Aman house Bordeaux, bottled for the chain by Cos d’Estournel.

The food was as good. My friends and I had fried potatoes with a spicy sauce, freshly cut Iberico ham, chunks of chorizo, mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, chicken croquettes and many many other dishes.

Overall, the experience was significantly different from any that I have ever had in India. But the Aman is still settling down. My friend Varun Tuli of the Yum Yum Tree who also went there says he hated it. The food was not great and the service had too much attitude. Nevertheless, I had a great meal and a great time.

Are these restaurants exceptions to a general trend? I don’t think so. The Aman place is hideously expensive (but nobody goes to an Aman hotel looking for a cafetaria given that rooms begin at $770 a night or so). Manre is good value. And Italia is extremely competitively priced. This suggests that restaurateurs are entering the market at different price levels. And Italia demonstrates that a moderately priced Italian restaurant does not have to serve the kind of crap that many Italian restaurants in Delhi have got away with for so many years.

My guess is that Italia will flourish. The Aman place will get high-end guests. Manre will continue to be packed on weekends – but needs to convey a more accurate picture of its pricing and range if it is to find the success it deserves.