I was a little surprised to hear that the legendary London restaurant San Lorenzo is opening an outpost in Bombay. Surprised because San Lorenzo is such a London institution that it is hard to think of it opening anywhere else.
San Lorenzo was initially part of the trattoria boom that characterised the Swinging Sixties in London and the eponymous Lorenzo belonged to a generation of expatriate Italians (Mario, Franco, Alvaro etc.) who taught the English how to love spaghetti. Since its earliest days, San Lorenzo was a celebrity hang-out, famous for attracting the Joan Collins kind of star. But it really sprang to fame when Mara Berni (wife of the eponymous Lorenzo) took Princess Diana under her wing, serving as a confidante and (according to some biographies of the Princess), even providing a discreet place for the People’s Princess to engage in amorous liaisons with lots of the People.
San Lorenzo will open in a few months time at the Taj Lands End, in the space formerly occupied by the late, lamented Pure, and though there will always be those who would have preferred a more contemporary kind of Italian restaurant rather than a Sixties/Seventies London hang-out, I am of the view that San Lorenzo may work in Bandra. After all, Le Cirque, which, in many ways, is the San Lorenzo of New York (without the movie stars but with the addition of the King of Spain) has been a spectacular success at the Delhi Leela.
The opening of San Lorenzo and the triumph of Le Cirque tell us that the international restaurant brands have finally arrived in India. This is a global phenomenon. At the top end of the market, the world’s most famous chefs and restaurants (Alain Ducasse, Nobu, Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Zuma, Petite Maison, Cut etc.) have become ubiquitous, opening up in different cities all over the world. So far, at least, India was largely immune to this trend. But things now seem to be changing.
The first phase of the change came when hotels began asking foreign collaborators for expertise. When the Taj’s Raymond Bickson failed to persuade Nobu to open in India, he approached Masaharu Morimoto, the former executive chef of the New York Nobu instead. Morimoto provided the expertise for the two Wasabi restaurants the Taj runs so successfully in Bombay and Delhi.
They are all flocking here: San Lorenzo (left), about to open soon in Bombay, was initially part of the trattoria boom that characterised the Swinging Sixties in London; If Starbucks (above) can maintain its high standards, then its domestic rivals may be in big trouble
And now we’re into a phase where stand-alone entrepreneurs are tying up with foreign restaurants. I ate last week at the Bombay Hakkasan and the food was as good as it is in London though I suspect that the restaurant does not get the numbers it needs to replicate the buzz of the London operation because people regard it as too expensive. (Which is not entirely fair: its average check of `2,300 puts it below the Megus and Le Cirques and possibly even Wasabi. It is not cheap by any standards. But it’s not much more expensive than hotel restaurants).
Kishore Bajaj, who runs Hakkasan, also operates the parent company’s other brand, Yauatcha, in Bombay’s Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and the massive popularity of that restaurant means there will soon be Yauatchas in Bangalore (at 1 MG Road Mall) and in Delhi (at Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj). I am not sure exactly how many other upmarket brands will come to India in the near future but I know of at least one other London restaurant (Italian) that is considering opening here. And my friend Jai Mehta has brought London’s famous Pizza Metro Pizza to Bandra in Bombay.
At the middle level, however, the action is hotting up. I gather that the Ping Pong chain (very popular abroad, though frozen dim sum is not my scene) will open here. At least one Thai chain will open outlets by the end of the year. The last time I went to Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj, I was startled to see that not only was Chili’s (which does American hamburger-chilli-con-carne-type food at a basic level) jam-packed but there were also huge queues at both entrances.
I’ve been to Chili’s and I can see why it works but I’m not sure about all the other mid-level offerings. Also at Ambience is La Tagliatella, a brand owned, as far as I can tell, by a company based in Warsaw (yes, in Poland) which aims to serve pizza-pasta-type Italian food. The day I went, the service was excellent but the food was truly dire: a pizza with the consistency of a wet towel, a bolognese sauce that tasted only of industrial tomato puree, served with pasta that had had the consistency of mush, etc.
It had about the same relationship to real Italian food as a Bangladeshi curry house in a small town in Scotland has to real Indian food. Why would anyone want to go to a restaurant with table service to eat pizzas that are this bad when you can just go to the food court at Ambience and get a pizza at the Amici counter which is a million times better?
But I don’t want to be too judgmental. Perhaps I went on an off day. Or maybe this is how Polish people like their Italian food. And who knows, maybe Delhi’s Punjabis will also like this kind of thing. (Not on the night I went though: Zambar, Chili’s and nearly everywhere else was doing much better.) On the other hand, the foreign entrants in the fast food/counter service sector seem to be flourishing. I went to the Bombay Starbucks (the one behind the Taj) and found a first-rate operation with good value pricing, a great ambience and efficient counter service. If Starbucks can maintain this standard then its domestic rivals may be in big trouble.
Desi still rules: Reasonably priced south Indian fast food chains like Sagar which serve dosas (left) etc will always outperform a Western chain because they use fresh ingredients
I haven’t been to Nando’s in India either (not my scene) but the opening of the Delhi outlet elicited near hysteria so my guess is that as far as fast food is concerned, it is only a matter of time before the foreign brands come to dominate the market. Even the mid-level sector will follow the experience of Chili’s rather than La Tagliatella, I suspect.
Where does that leave Indian restaurants? Will our own home-grown restaurants be edged out by foreign brands? Personally, I don’t think so – at least not in the sector that depends on chefs and cooks rather than industrial packs of pasta sauce and cooking-by-manual. And that holds good across the market. A reasonably priced operation like Delhi’s south Indian fast-food chain, Sagar, will always outperform a Western chain because it relies on fresh ingredients and skillful cooks, not on microwaves and pre-packaged frozen dishes.
At the top end of the market, as long as we empower young chefs and give them the freedom to create their own menus, restaurants run by Indian chefs will always have the edge over branches of foreign restaurants. The best Oriental meal I’ve had in a long time was at the Pan Asian in Madras (at the Grand Chola), where an array of brilliant young chefs turned out the most amazing Japanese, Chinese and Korean dishes. All the chefs were Indian. And yet the dishes were entirely authentic.
Or perhaps the answer lies in more collaborations. When Sergi Arola, the Michelin two-star chef from Spain was here to open his Bombay operation at the JW Marriott some months ago, I had written about the excellence of his food. But, I wondered, given that Arola was sending a single young chef (Manuel Olveira) who spoke very little English and that the restaurant would really be run by Marriott chefs, could his high standards possibly be maintained?
I went back to Arola a fortnight ago and found that Manuel had learned a little more English and that he worked in perfect harmony with the Indian chefs. Perhaps it is because Himanshu Taneja, the JW chef, is so committed to excellence, but the restaurant’s kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. And the food was to die for: fried Arabian Sea langoustines, roast suckling pig, pork carpaccio, prawns in garlic and olive oil, Arola’s signature version of patatas bravas, rice with Spanish cheese, an amaretto foam that had the texture of air and a wonderfully rich Crema Catalana.
It was, without any exaggeration, the best European meal I have eaten in Bombay – since the last time I went to Arola, that is. I liked it so much that I went back the next night and ordered all the dishes in the menu that I had missed the first time around. Not one dish was a dud. And the best part of Arola is that you don’t have to sit down to a proper meal. You can drink and eat wonderful tapas all evening.
So perhaps that is the future: lots of successful foreign brands with rigid SOPs at the middle and lower ends of the market, but much more variety at the top: clones of London and New York restaurants coexisting with innovative Indian-born restaurants and successful collaborations between Indian and foreign talent like Arola. Plus, restaurants at all price levels run by real chefs and cooks who make authentic food with fresh ingredients and genuine passion will flourish. Every way you look at it, the future tastes delicious.
From HT Brunch, March 31
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