It's a mixed bag this week. There are some surprises - in both Delhi and Bombay: a major disappointment; an old favourite, which has upped its game again; and finally, a restaurant that I'm willing to name as my favourite in South Bombay. Ask me to eat there every day and I will not complain.
We'll start with Zerruco by Zilli because it is big, new and still to settle down. You may have read about it. It occupies a vast space in The Ashok (though, thank God, it is not run by the hotel but is only a tenant) and has been much hyped in the Delhi media.
I believe that a Lebanese restaurant used to occupy the same space - a large room and an open courtyard, both of which, together, should take around 120 covers. But I'm not the world's greatest fan of Middle Eastern food so I never went. But I did try Zerruco because it is supposedly the Delhi outpost of Aldo Zilli, a popular London chef who, while he is no Giorgio Locatelli, is well regarded in England.
But the Zilli connection may be a red herring. My guess is that the restaurant's owners acquired this space and wondered what to do with it. Somebody told them to hire a celebrity chef from England and Zilli was the best they could come up with. But there is nothing very London-like about Zerruco. It is a party place, meant for large groups, for noisy dinners under the stars and for loud, clubby evenings. It is hardly your average trattoria, or ristorante even, and the menu consists of lots of pasta, lots of pizza and a few main courses that probably have some connection to Zilli.
If you are going to open a pizzeria - which, in essence, is what they've done - then you don't need to pay royalties to a celebrity chef, especially when his name carries very little cachet in the Delhi market. They should have stuck with the pizzas and gone for something like tapas which is more in keeping with the spirit of the place. My guess is that Zerruco makes its money not from fine dining but from weekend clubbing.
That said, I liked the restaurant and would gladly go back again. The pizzas were very good, a mushroom ravioli was light and delicate and a tagliatelle with ragu probably had the sauce-pasta balance wrong (the tagliatelle was drowned) but was delicious nevertheless. I was rumbled in about 15 minutes (despite booking under another name) so I won't try and judge the quality of the service.
This is a big, ambitious restaurant and it deserves to do well. But they need to junk the celebrity-chef idea and just have fun with the place. I reckon they are paying Rs 50,000 a day in rent alone and they won't make their money back by pretending to be an Italian restaurant. And, while they are at it, they need to get the desserts right. The tiramisu, pushed by the manager, was disgusting and the 'baked cheesecake' should have come with a hammer and chisel.
Not far from Zerruco is Megu, the more glamorous rival to the Taj's Wasabi. Despite losing two of its top chefs (Vikramjit Roy and Achal Aggarwal), Wasabi has maintained its standards, so I feared for Megu, where chefs and managers have also kept departing. But I needn't have worried. I went back for lunch after ages and found that Saito San, the restaurant's Japanese chef has finally found his groove. He has a style of his own, quite unlike Nobu (the inspiration for Wasabi) and as the food kept coming - tuna with avocado, yellowtail tartare, kanzuri shrimp, salmon belly teriyaki - I marvelled at his skill. This is no longer a Wasabi clone. It is more authentically Japanese, and judged within that category, easily the best restaurant of its kind in Delhi.
It has always puzzled me that while the Leela Palace in Chanakyapuri is one of Delhi's great foodie hotels, the Gurgaon Leela has such patchy food quality. After an encouraging dinner at the Italian restaurant there, I began to believe that perhaps standards in Gurgaon had improved and risked having lunch at Spectra, the hotel's coffee shop.
On previous occasions, Spectra has always struck me as being a good idea - a multi-cuisine restaurant like Set'z - gone wrong. It looks like a food court at a Far Eastern mall and though there are many stations serving many different cuisines, nothing is particularly good and much of the food is terrible.
I went back thinking that perhaps Spectra had finally got its act together. But though the staff are very nice, the food still sucks. The sushi consisted of cold pellets of tightly-packed rice that would have embarrassed a fast-food outlet. The grills were over-cooked to leatheriness (this after I had asked for medium rare), an appam was burnt at the edges (if it hadn't been the Leela, which is a Malayali-owned chain, I would have wondered if perhaps the pan was wrong), the pizzas were not available (oven not working) and the chefs were clueless about the food they were serving: nobody at the grill counter seemed to know anything about the sausages on display.
I didn't try the Chinese food which was of the gobhi manchurian variety, but nothing looked promising. Plus, three Chinese children ran around the restaurant weeping loudly. Perhaps they had tried the food.
Given how high the Leela's reputation for food quality is, I am still mystified by their failure to get Spectra right. Basically, the Gurgaon Leela trades on the reputation of Kunal Kapoor, its excellent Indian chef, and makes no attempt to improve anything else.
And so to Bombay. I had given up on the Bombay Wasabi because the Delhi one has such good food but last week I wandered in on impulse. To my surprise, the menu had changed dramatically and there were many new dishes. I tried some of them: a pork kakuni with the meat a little firmer than usual, a panko lobster, clearly inspired by lobster thermidor, baby Kumamoto oysters with a delicious dressing, tuna that you cooked yourself on a hot stone and an interesting variation on beef sukiyaki.
Few of these dishes have anything to do with Masahiro Morimoto, whose restaurant this is supposed to be. They have been created in-house by the team at the Bombay Wasabi and have breathed new life into a restaurant that had begun to seem a little tired and jaded. But be careful: about the only thing that has not changed about Wasabi is how outrageously priced it is.
Which brings us to my favourite restaurant in South Bombay: Soam in Babulnath. In many ways, this Gujarati snacks-and-street food place is one generation removed from Swati in Tardeo. I still remember going to Swati as a child and waiting as they brought food to us in the car: batata puri, ragda pattice etc.
Swati is now an institution, which means that it is packed out with tourists and first-timers. The people who used to go there - and their children - have shifted instead to Soam which does the same sort of food but, at least in my view, now does it a lot better than Swati.
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Soam started out as the Mahabaleshwar Fountain Hotel's fast food operation in Bombay and still does all the old Bombay-Gujarati street food standards with aplomb: bhel, sev puri, dahi batata puri, ragda pattice etc. You won't find a better bhel at any restaurant in Bombay. But its current claim to fame is the skill with which it reproduces home-style Gujarati vegetarian snacks. I've rarely had better methi theplas (a Gujarati roti), better patra (rolled colocasia leaves), better pooran poli (this, like shrikhand, is one of those Gujarati dishes that Maharashtra borrowed from us) more delicate kadhi, or more authentic vaghareli (fried) khichdi at any restaurant.
I've been there several times now, eating my way through the menu, and was only finally rumbled last week when the owner recognised me. Each time, service has been polite, efficient and gracious. On one occasion when my table broke three glasses (don't ask), they resolutely refused to accept any payment, saying that customers were their guests. Given that Soam is absurdly cheap for its prime South Bombay location (the theplas with a potato sabzi cost `190 and nothing costs much more than `200), I was impressed by their graciousness.
People are always asking me to name my favourite Bombay restaurant and I always give an evasive reply. But it is time to come clean. My favourite North Bombay place is the Vile Parle Gajalee. And in South Bombay, Soam wins by a very long way.
From HT Brunch, March 30
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