With Konkan Cafe, the Taj is reconnecting with its roots

Columnist Vir Sanghvi


When most of us think of hotel chains and Indian food, our thoughts always turn to ITC which has three iconic restaurants replicated in its properties – Dum Pukht, Dakshin and Bukhara (called Peshawri outside Delhi) – and is in the process of incubating two more: Kebabs & Kurries and Royal Vega (for vegetarian food). And it is hard to argue with ITC’s record in this field.

Till Ajit Haksar, the parent company’s legendary chairman, decided that he did not want to serve the usual Punjabi food at his hotels and declared that he would revive Lucknawi cuisine, hiring such chefs as Imtiaz Qureshi, Indian food at Delhi hotels tended to be an overpriced version of dishes served at Kwality. (The Oberoi Mughal Rooms, for instance, were Kwality-inspired in cuisine terms).

Konkan Cafe at Mumbai’s Taj President

But while the ITC tradition is justly famous, we sometimes tend to ignore the enormous contribution made by the Taj group to Indian food. The old Apollo Room at the Bombay Taj was the first restaurant in the city to break away from the Punjabi food formula. Haveli, at the Delhi Taj, was the creation of chef Arvind Saraswat who worked tirelessly to source new recipes and popularised such now -famous dishes as achari gosht. In Bombay, Satish Arora more or less reinvented the standard recipes for many Indian dishes to suit the requirements of hotel kitchens and was a genuine innovator with a passion for food. And now Hemant Oberoi has made the Taj the leading chain for modern Indian food with the success of Varq and Masala Art.

There is, however, another Taj contribution that has gone largely unnoticed, perhaps because this tradition had many parents. We may not realise it, but the Taj was the first chain to move away from north Indian food and develop the regional cuisines of India, and especially those of south India.
Hemant Oberoi has made the Taj the leading chain for modern Indian food with the success of Varq and Masala Art

Some of this was thanks to Ajit Kerkar, the man who created the Taj group as we know it today. Because Kerkar is a proud Goan (he would eat a Goa curry with pao each day at his desk at the Bombay Taj for lunch – it would always come from home and not from any of the hotel’s kitchens), he worked hard to create Goa as a tourist destination. (I would argue that had the Taj not opened Fort Aguada in 1973, Goa would never have taken off as a destination at all). And he aggressively promoted its cuisine. Some of the Taj’s best chefs worked at the Aguada/Holiday Village complex (Cyrus Todiwala, for instance) and it was thanks to Kerkar that Urbano Rego, perhaps the greatest chef in Goa, stayed with the Taj. (He is still there, by the way).

And some of it was thanks to Camellia Panjabi. Put in charge of creating the Gateway brand, Panjabi took over the old three-star East West hotel in Bangalore and transformed it. Her greatest achievement at that property was Karavalli, recently voted one of the world’s top 100 restaurants, which served coastal south Indian food.

In Madras, Panjabi launched the open-air Raintree restaurant at the venerable Connemara Hotel and popularised Chettinad food at a time when few people outside of Tamil Nadu knew what the cuisine was like. Also in Bangalore, Panjabi put prawn balchao, appams and stew on the menu of Southern Comfort at the Taj Residency (the first time a national chain had dared do this in a coffee shop) and forced other hoteliers to be as adventurous.  

Kerkar and Shankar Menon created Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel as the Taj’s answer to ITC’s Dakshin and though the concept was derivative, the food was exceptional, showcasing the cuisine of India’s southern states (Southern Spice has since been successfully revamped and I actually prefer it to the Madras Dakshin).

After the Kerkar-Panjabi regime faded, the Taj was run by a Malayali (R K Krishna Kumar) but this did not lead to new adventures in South Indian cuisine – with one exception.  Konkan Cafe at Bombay’s President replaced the old north Indian Gulzar, and tried to create a new kind of south Indian restaurant. In part, it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Malvani-Mangalorean places like Apoorva, Trishna and Gajalee which served fresh seafood in south Indian masalas. And partly it was an attempt by the Krishna Kumar regime to extend the Taj’s connection with south Indian food by opening a casual café.

Ananda Solomon
But, of course, eventually the restaurant fit into none of these paradigms. Like almost everything else he does, Ananda Solomon made it his own and it came to reflect Ananda’s personality, his background and his passions. More than any other restaurant in any Indian hotel chain it became a chef-driven place, powered by the chef’s skills and his interests.

Solomon is from a part of Mangalore that borders Kerala, so he understands the home cooking of those states well. Plus he worked in Goa (at the Aguada with Rego) and explored the cuisines of the Catholics and Saraswats of that region. Though he made his name with the Thai Pavilion, he was determined to do something more personal and unusual that captured his own origins and experiences.
Almost from the day it opened, Konkan Cafe was a huge success, one of the few Indian restaurants in any five-star hotel where you could not get a naan no matter how well-connected you were. Thai Pavilion remained The President’s most successful restaurant but Konkan Cafe became its soul.

Two weeks ago, Ananda reopened Konkan Cafe after having had it redesigned. He had shown me the room before, taking me through every tile and every table, discussing their provenance with a passion I had never seen him display before. But still, I wondered: what could he do with the food that would even better the existing Konkan Cafe?

I went for a very long lunch a few days ago and found the answer. Such was the quality of the meal that I was blown away. We started with surefire crowd-pleasers like prawns, crab and clams. They were more than good but except for the crab gravy (different and exceptional), it was pretty much the stuff I had come to expect at the old Konkan.

But then we moved to the cuisine of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra which I had never tried before: a chicken curry so mouth-watering that the taste is imprinted on my palate, delicious mutton and a variety of breads: hard puris (wadi), bhakris and rotis made from unusual grains like jowar. Because Ananda cares about these things, the chicken were free-range so they were small and full of flavour. His egg appams were strictly non-vegetarian because they were made with fertilised (“country”) eggs and the flour for the bread had been freshly milled.

Imtiaz Qureshi had once made me a safed biryani. The point of the biryani, he said, was not the meat but the rice. It looked white but each grain was bursting with flavour
For the final dish however, we relied on one of his mother’s recipes: fish biryani. Many years ago, Imtiaz Qureshi on one of his increasingly rare excursions to the kitchen had made me a safed biryani. The point of the biryani, Imtiaz said, was not the meat but the rice. It looked white (he had used only white spices) but each grain was bursting with flavour.

Ananda’s fish biryani was in the same league as Imtiaz’s safed biryani. The fish was fine but it was the rice that had the flavour – and no fishy smell. The secret, Ananda said, was in the fish stock he used. He threw away the first lot of stock (which had the fishy smell) and then boiled the bones again to get a much subtler flavour.

I don’t know what the regional origins of the biryani are. Ananda says, somewhat implausibly, that in his part of Mangalore, biryani is a Christian dish and not exclusively Muslim, but I am not sure he has researched the origins because this is one recipe he has not sought out but merely pulled out of his family’s kitchen.

Konkan Cafe is already packed out. The old Café had rather boring service but with Rishi Kumar at the President’s F&B helm, the current service style is energetic and innovative. The restaurant has its own wines, specially blended for  Konkan Cafe by Fratelli to suit the flavours on the menu, and if you go for a celebration, the staff have an interesting way of wishing you. (It involves a south Indian umbrella…)

The restaurant will be a hit. In culinary terms, it is Ananda Solomon’s crowning achievement. And in terms of history and heritage, it is nice to see the Taj reconnecting with its roots and preserving a legacy that dates back to 1969 when the old Apollo Room was launched. In my experience the Taj group is always at its best when it draws on its past.

From HT Brunch, December 31

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