A month or so ago, I met up with Abhay Ahuja, the son of my late friend Pashi Ahuja. Abhay who has inherited his father’s passion for hospitality and his entrepreneurial skill is looking to revive Pashi’s iconic restaurant Chopsticks, on Bombay’s Churchgate Street. (The Delhi Chopsticks is now an entirely different operation.)
Like all sensible people, Abhay reckons that the days of straightforward Chinese restaurants (as Chopsticks used to be) are now coming to an end. His vision is to use the space to launch a funky pan-Asian restaurant, which, he accepts, will be challenging enough in today’s highly competitive environment.
The conversation brought back memories of the old Chopsticks and of the era in which it flourished. Pashi, one of India’s hoteliering pioneers (he was part of the team that opened the Oberoi’s InterContinental in Delhi in 1965), came back to the country in the mid-Seventies after a successful stint abroad.
Pashi worked out that there was room for an authentic Chinese restaurant that served the kind of food that the Golden Dragon at the Taj (which opened in 1973) had brought to India. But he knew also that his price points had to be lower.
He found a Chinese chef (from Calcutta’s community) and set about teaching him to cook Sichuan food (a mystery to Calcutta’s Chinese in that era), using such friends as the publisher and gourmet RV Pandit (who had also played a role in the creation of the Golden Dragon) to teach the chef the ropes. It is a measure of how different the world was then that the Taj, far from being threatened by Pashi’s proposed venture, actually invited his chef into the Golden Dragon kitchen and let him work there to learn how the expat chefs from Hong Kong would make real Sichuan food.
Almost from the time it opened (1977 or so, I reckon) Chopsticks was Bombay’s best non-five-star Chinese restaurant, serving the kind of real Sichuan food that Bombay’s other restaurants, run by Calcutta Chinese, did not understand. While Nelson Wang had invented Chicken Manchurian at Fredrick’s and his fellow restaurateurs had embraced this bastardised cuisine, Chopsticks remained the one place (apart from the Golden Dragon) where you could get the real thing.
These days, of course, all the rules have changed. The Hyatt’s two excellent Chinese showpieces (China Kitchen in Delhi and China House in Bombay) have kitchens staffed entirely by chefs from the Chinese mainland. The Maratha’s Pan Asian serves outstanding Chinese food made by my friend Chef Liang, a gold-medal winner from Beijing. And so on. Finding authentic Chinese food has never been easier. Even the standalones – Delhi’s Royal China, all the Yauatchas, etc – have kitchens run by expat chefs.
In the process, people have stopped getting very excited by Chinese food. Now, the emphasis is on food that is more than merely authentic. It must make you sit up, the chefs must display imagination and the restaurants must be superbly atmospheric to survive.
Funnily enough, Japanese food has followed a similar journey, in fast motion. When the Taj (as always, food pioneers) opened Wasabi in Bombay, it seemed daring and cutting edge. And the sushi counter at the Delhi Oberoi’s Threesixty Degrees took the city by storm only a decade ago.
But now, everybody does sushi. The Nobu knock-off menu that characterised Wasabi seems old hat, and now that every standalone can serve Black Cod in Miso, plain old Japanese food no longer seems that exciting. Nor is modern Japanese trendy: the Nobu dishes were created as far back as the early Nineties.
Instead, the excitement seems to have shifted to a new space: the pan-Asian menu, incorporating Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malay and Korean influences. ITC got it somewhat right when it launched its Pan Asian restaurants. But as time has gone on, people no longer want a menu that lists Thai, Japanese, etc separately. They want a menu that combines Asian flavours and creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I think the high street got there first. Places like Mamagoto (now a chain) set the trend and since then, new pan-Asian places have kept opening. I went to the Delhi outpost of Fatty Bao, Manu Chandra’s mini-chain, and realised that he had found the perfect spot in the middle of the market.
Most of it was not the sort of food I would want to eat because the flavours were loud, over-seasoned and fast-foody. A dish called Shaking Tenderloin, for instance, could have come straight from Aka Saka or Chungwah. And the eponymous baos were like fast food hamburgers, packed with sweet sauce.
But the place was jam-packed with Unclejis and Auntyjis, who loved the food. These were people who would have gone to a Sino-Ludhianvi style restaurant once upon a time but now raced to Fatty Bao because of its range of Asian flavours. My guess is that this chain will make more money for Chandra (who, when he is cooking, is one of India’s best chefs) than any of his food-conscious ventures.
At the top end of the market, the shift to Asian (rather than purely Japanese and Chinese) flavours is probably epitomised by the runaway success of Pan Asian in Chennai. This breaks with the tired old ITC formula to create an inventive menu that uses Asian ingredients. The same chef, Vikramjeet Roy, a Wasabi alumnus, has also opened Tian at the Maurya in Delhi, by common consent, the most cutting edge of ITC’s restaurants and probably one of Delhi’s most critically-acclaimed places.
I went to try the new menu the other day and was blown away by Roy’s genius (I’m sorry but there is no other word for it!) at creating new dishes that combine the flavours of Asia. My current favourite is his spherified soup dumpling. Just when I had got tired of spherification, Roy surprised me by managing the technically difficult task of keeping the soup hot within a molecularly designed sphere.
The real breakthrough, however, is not a hotel restaurant but, oddly enough, a restaurant at a mall. Zorawar Kalra, of Farzi Café and Masala Library fame, is clearly India’s most innovative restaurateur. But his latest Pa Pa Ya, may be his most stupendous achievement yet.
It is the kind of restaurant that only a foodie – rather than a professional chef – could put together because it races through so many Asian curries and dishes to create a breathtakingly imaginative menu that no chef, trained in a single cuisine, could have created.
The menu takes in nearly everything you could think of. The hamburgers/rolls/wraps include a take on the classic lobster roll, made with a sriracha and apple mayo. A crab bun is made with soft-shell crab and a vegetarian hamburger is made with a edamame-and-chickpea patty in a lotus stem flour (non-gluten) bun.
The ‘pizza’ is crispy corn tortillas layered with seared sliced tuna and jalapenos. The spare ribs are made from Kurobuta pork (the Japanese name for Berkshire), smoked, barbecued and served with wild berry squash. The classic Oysters Rockefeller gets an Asian touch with miso butter and yuzu.
There’s more: world-class sushi; a variation on Singapore chilli crab made with soft-shell crab; black truffle ice-cream (made using a Pacojet); a delicate ravioli of crab and scallop; a Japanese-style dumpling with chorizo and octopus; and the best pork-belly yakitori I’ve ever eaten in India.
Plus, there’s the décor. Pa Pa Ya is unlike your average mall restaurant because it looks sophisticated and trendy. The walls are covered with hexagons on which they project a series of patterns and images, and after 10.30pm, they put the music up so the ambience becomes younger and hipper.
It was while eating at Pa Pa Ya that I began to wonder about the future of the hotel restaurants that started the Asian trends. There’s no real reason to go to, say, the Golden Dragon or Taipan any longer unless you have some affection for the restaurant. You get the same sort of food nearly everywhere.
So it is with, say, Wasabi. All the great Nobu/Wasabi classics are not that hard to make if you know the recipes and have access to the ingredients. At Tian, Vikramjeet Roy tosses off the whitefish carpaccio and other Wasabi classics he learned during his time there with a casual disdain – his food has moved in a more complex direction.
At Pa Pa Ya, Sahil Singh, a Tian/Wasabi veteran, makes a Toro Tartare using exactly the same quality of fish as Wasabi at half the price.
So why will people keep going back to the iconic restaurants that introduced these cuisines if they can get the same food, made with the same ingredients, by the same chefs, at much lower prices? This has already been demonstrated in Delhi where Augusto Cabrera, who ran the sushi counter at Threesixty Degrees for years, now does sushi that is even better and is much cheaper at his own Town Hall in Khan Market.
My conclusions are that a) adventurous pan-Asian flavours are the trend of future, b) that guests reward innovation and flair and c) that the hotels have now got to realise that the rules of the game are changing.
From HT Brunch, October 4
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