Do we finally have a modern Indian cuisine that everyone can appreciate?

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2015 17:56 IST

These days, upmarket Indian food is big in Dubai. The city has always had its share of Indian restaurants but rarely have people been willing to pay much for Indian cuisine.

But now, Vineet Bhatia packs them in at his restaurant at Grosvenor House; Atul Kochhar has made an impressive splash; the Armani Hotel has its own fancy Indian place. And, a few weeks ago, Rajesh Bharadwaj’s Michelin-starred Junoon arrived in the city, travelling all the way from New York. (This is the restaurant that made Vikas Khanna famous.)

I was in Dubai for a brief trip and the first evening I was there, my childhood friend Reta Mehta (daughter of RK Karanjia of Blitz, so our family connection goes back to the 1950s, when our fathers were friends) invited me to Tresind, a new Indian restaurant at the Radisson Royal Hotel.

It turned out Tresind is not actually run by the hotel but is owned by a couple called the Naths who rent the space from the Radisson. The Naths are on to a good thing: the restaurant was jam-packed and people were waiting for tables on the evening I went.

Desert storm: Tresind (right) at the Radisson Royal, Dubai, is owned by the Naths (left) who rent the space from the hotel. They’re on to a good thing: the restaurant was jam-packed when I went.

It turned out that the chef at Tresind was Himanshu Saini, who I’ve seen through various stages of his career. He started out as a junior chef in the opening team of Indian Accent and within a few years had become Manish Mehrotra’s favourite, as well as his understudy.

Then, Himanshu got his big break. Zorawar Kalra hired him for first Masala Library and then Farzi Café. The spectacular success of both restaurants brought Himanshu to public attention and now, when people in the profession talk about the next generation of star chefs, Himanshu’s name is nearly always at the top of the list. He is to modern Indian food what Vikramjeet Roy (of Chennai’s Pan Asian and Delhi’s Tian) is to modern Oriental food: a real prodigy.

Indian Food goes international: Tresind serves a mishti doi cheesecake (below) and the deconstructed pani puri (above).

My meal was a mixture of familiar Himanshu dishes (via Indian Accent, Masala Library and Farzi Café) and new things he had created over the last year. There was a deconstructed pani puri (a cousin of Gaggan Anand’s spherified papri chaat), an inside-out pav bhaji (from Farzi, I think) and the brilliant Daulat Ki Chaat that Manish perfected in the Indian Accent kitchen, creating a recipe that ensured that this seasonal street food dessert could be made at any time because of innovative use of technology (nitrogen, mainly).

But it was Himanshu’s new dishes that blew me away. He did a modernist chaat trolley (difficult to explain but you may find a video on YouTube) that has become the restaurant’s single greatest hit.

There was a plump scallop, with its iodine-sweetness set off by a chilli salan. Pav bhaji was transformed into a wonderful soup, khandvi became a sorbet, a dahi bhalla became an ice-cream and a mushroom galouti kabab was simply amazing.

We went back the next night and I tried to persuade Himanshu to pull out some Farzi favourites. Sadly, he refused to do the jalebi caviar made famous by Masala Library, but he did a wonderful variation on the now-famous Parle-G cheesecake from Farzi by adding a layer of tea jelly so that the dish effectively evoked the flavours of chai and the biscuits.

I asked Himanshu how he ended up in Dubai – the last time I’d seen him he was cooking at Cyber Hub. It turned out that he’d left India and gone to work at a reasonably well-known Indian restaurant in New York. He fled in a few weeks when he discovered that he was expected to keep food costs below 19 per cent (Zorawar lets chefs go up to 30 to 40 per cent with food cost) and use frozen ingredients.

Jobless, he called up Naveen Sharma, his old colleague from Indian Accent and Zorawar’s restaurants. It turned out that Naveen was in Dubai. Zorawar was due to open a Masala Library with the Naths (though Himanshu was never part of that venture) and Naveen had been sent there to manage the restaurant.

But Zorawar and the Naths fell out. So, the Naths hired another chef from India and when that collaboration also collapsed, they were left with a restaurant and no chef. So, Himanshu’s sudden availability suited them as much as their job offer suited him. And this story appears to have a happy ending: the restaurant has brilliant food, is expertly managed by Naveen, and is a huge commercial success.

It was while eating at Tresind and hearing people talk about Vineet, Atul, Junoon and the rest, that I began to wonder about the evolution of Indian restaurant food. Perhaps there had been two significant shifts in the way in which Indian food was served at restaurants.

The first shift came because of the restaurants in London and New York which won Michelin stars and finally convinced sceptical Western critics that Indian food was right up there with the world’s great cuisines.

Even 15 years ago, no English person would have spent as much on an Indian meal as they now do every night at Vineet and Atul’s restaurants. And in New York, Rajesh gets all of the city’s top people – who never bothered with Indian food even a decade ago – at Junoon.

But there is, I think, a second shift taking place now. The first task was to get Indian food respected. The second wave is about making Indian food hip. A younger generation of chefs (and diners) now wants fun Indian food, not just the kind of stuff that wins Michelin stars.

If you go to Farzi Café in Delhi, the demographic is new and unprecedented; young people ordering modern Indian food at affordable prices because they think it is cool. Even Monkey Bar (I’ve only been to the one in Connaught Place in Delhi) takes chances with classic Indian favourites, reinventing them and tweaking them. Clearly, it works: the place is packed out with young people who love the coolness quotient.

I asked Zorawar Kalra whose Farzi Café is the most difficult restaurant reservation to get in Delhi (even more than Indian Accent) and whose Masala Library has a waiting list in Bombay, whether he agreed there had been a change. Not surprisingly, given that he is one of the prime movers of this shift, he agreed entirely. Yes, he said, Indian food was becoming cool – finally!

Funnily enough, at least two of the people behind the change had their road-to-Damascus moment thanks to Ferran Adria. Zorawar went to El Bulli in 2006 and was blown away. Gaggan went there a little later, worked in the kitchen and came back to Bangkok determined to start a new kind of Indian restaurant, drawing on Adria’s ideas and techniques.

At one level, this has involved molecular gastronomy. But it has also meant other things. Both Gaggan and Zorawar were struck by the sense of fun that El Bulli brought to the food. And both realised that suddenly the balance of power in world cuisine was moving away from France.

The French hate Adria and everything he represents (and he’s not too keen on them either). And the much-praised Noma is probably the first really famous restaurant in Europe where the techniques and basics of French cuisine count for very little.

The chefs at Indian restaurants in London and New York were influenced by the top restaurants in those cities, where the chefs usually had a French cuisine background. But the Asian chefs (Gaggan in Bangkok, Manish in Delhi and Manu Chandra in Bangalore) took their inspiration from everywhere.

Not just new york: Today’s Asian chefs (Gaggan Anand in Bangkok (left); Manu Chandra in Bangalore, (right)) take their inspiration from everywhere. So, a new kind of Indian cuisine has developed, one that is based on reinterpreting street food, rediscovering dishes from a bygone era (what Manish calls ‘nostalgia’), and one that ditches the formality of the older restaurants.

Zorawar started off by taking chefs from Indian Accent (guys like Himanshu) but he says that his group is now chef-agnostic. It is driven more by a philosophy – fun food for young people cooked with flair and innovation – and not by individual chefs and their styles. So while Masala Library once seemed a derivative of Gaggan and Manish, it now has its own vocabulary.

Tresind at the Rasisson Royal, Dubai.

Which takes us back to Dubai. The most striking thing about Tresind was that it was full of Indians. All of us know that when Indians go to Indian restaurants in London and New York they always complain about the food. But at Tresind, all the Indians I saw were enjoying themselves. It reminded me of Gaggan, which Indians also love.

So are we finally developing a modern Indian cuisine that both Indians and foreigners can appreciate?

Well, let’s see. But it sure as hell looks that way.

From HT Brunch, February 1

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