One of the many reasons I do not write about new restaurants too often is that being unkind is part of my job description. A critic represents the public, not the restaurateur. So his focus must always be on telling people why they should eat at a particular restaurant (and perhaps what they should eat). If the restaurant does not work, he should tell people not to waste their money there and to go somewhere where they may have a better time or, at the very least, a better meal.
The problem is that nearly every restaurant is a labour of love for somebody who has spent months acquiring the site, hiring the decorator, ordering the furniture and the kitchen equipment, sourcing the staff and planning the menu. And when you walk into a restaurant that has simply not worked and write about why it is such a disaster, you are stepping on somebody’s dreams and telling him or her that the last few months have been a waste of time and good money.
This is never easy to do. And though most restaurateurs take it on the chin and try and see if there is a point to your criticism (the sad little half-wit who goes on a Facebook rampage in response to a bad review is an exception), they are deeply hurt by negative remarks.
So that’s the dilemma. You can’t lie: punters depend on you to tell them what the restaurant is really like. And yet, you don’t want to trample all over some restaurateur’s dreams and hopes.
Which is why I’m so pleased this week. Because, against the odds, all of the restaurants I have tried recently in Bombay and Delhi have been uniformly good and I can, in all honesty, recommend each and every one of them to you.
The restaurant I enjoyed most was Soda Bottle Openerwala in Cybercity in Gurgaon. You may know Cybercity. I go there sometimes for work and though many of the buildings are ugly and badly maintained, the area has a buzz and energy that comes from the thousands of bright and enthusiastic people who work there. Now, Cybercity has a food area called Cyber Hub where these young people can take a break at lunchtime.
At present, the area is a mess with bad signposting, inadequate parking and befuddled security guards (welcome to Haryana!) but perhaps, in the months ahead, DLF will get its act together. The restaurants tend to be chain outlets: Zambar, Costa Coffee, California Pizza Kitchen and the like. But the biggest queues the day I went were outside Soda Bottle Openerwala. A nice girl at the desk took my name, asked me to wander around the area and said she would call when a table fell vacant. This took 10 minutes and I was impressed by the smoothness with which they turned tables around.
If you are of a certain generation and grew up in Bombay then you probably know what an Irani restaurant is. These were tea shops owned by Iranis (a later wave of Zoroastrian immigrants than the Parsis) that served basic meals. Now, they are all disappearing because of the real estate boom (more profitable to run shops at those locations) and few of those that remain have bothered to move with the times.
To understand Soda Bottle Openerwala, you have to imagine that the grandson of one of the old Iranis went to college in America, came back and then revamped his family’s restaurant to give it an air of fun while retaining the basis of the menu. And that, because he loved hanging around in Bombay’s Muslim and Catholic areas, he added a few archetypal Bombay dishes.
That’s the concept and I loved it. Unusually for an operation run by A D Singh, perhaps India’s most admired and successful restaurateur, the food (by Anahita Dhondy) is even better than the concept. I ate like a pig. The papeta par eeda (fried eggs on a bed of a sautéed potatoes) was slightly more refined than you would find at a Parsi home. But it was so delicious that I could have eaten two more portions. The keema-pao (done in the style of Bombay’s Bohras) was outstanding, and the berry pulao was to die for. A Goan sausage pao was nice and the lagan nu custard was worthy of the best Parsi wedding caterers.
This restaurant is a real find. And I imagine that A D Singh will open in a dozen new locations in a couple of years.
The hottest restaurant in Bombay these days is the Masala Library in Bandra-Kurla Complex. One of Zorawar Kalra’s ventures (after he sold his share in Punjab Grill), it follows the time-honoured formula of paying homage to Zorawar’s dad, the great foodie Jiggs Kalra. But I thought the restaurant owed more to the innovations of Rohit Khattar of Old World Hospitality (where the chef has been stolen from) than to dear old Jiggs.
The idea is to do a vaguely Manish Mehrotra-Gaggan Anand take on re-imagining Indian food, which is not something you associate with Jiggs who, like all good Mayo boys, probably failed chemistry and does not know what a molecule is. I was invited by Vinod Nair and Toral Sanghavi who arrived nearly an hour before me and ordered the food.
When I did arrive, I thought the cuisine was derivative and mediocre. A chaat yoghurt sphere was a pale copy of a Gaggan Anand dish and it seemed as though Gaggan had faxed it over from Bangkok on a bad line: the sphere could not even retain its shape. The stuffed kulchas were clearly borrowed from Manish. As a good South Indian, Vinod Nair said that the Thalassery rasam was unknown in Thalassery while the thayir sadam on which the pepper prawns rested was too oniony and spicy. A galawat kebab was bad, a seekh was ordinary and a John Dory was destroyed by being served with half a dozen flavoured butters almost as though Zorawar and father wanted us to enjoy butter fish rather than butter chicken.
Then, a small miracle occurred. Suddenly the food stopped being derivative or bad. Five extraordinary dishes arrived at once: a brilliant keema matar with anda pav, an outstanding yellow dal, a Rajasthani bhindi Jaipuri with papad ki subzi, a sophisticated prawn Chettinad and an adventurous Kashmiri chilli duck.
All of us at the table were blown away and when the desserts arrived, we were speechless: a ghewar cheesecake, crunchy jalebi ‘caviar’ (conceptualised by Zorawar) and a chocolate extravaganza featuring liquid nitrogen and all the tricks of molecular gastronomy, clearly inspired by Grant Achatz of Alinea rather than Gaggan or Manish.
My conclusion is that the restaurant has a brilliant chef: Saurabh Udinia (from Indian Accent). When Saurabh does his own thing, the food sparkles. When he is being forced to copy Manish or Gaggan, he flounders. (In all fairness, Saurabh says his colleague Himanshu Saini deserves equal credit.) If I were Zorawar, I would just let Saurabh find his own voice in the kitchen. This is a chef we are going to hear much more of. Go to Masala Library only for the pleasure of eating Saurabh’s food.
And so to Amour Bistro in Delhi’s Malcha Marg. I was taken there by my foodie friends Sangeeta and Vikram Doraiswamy who have travelled the world in search of good food (Vikram is in the Foreign Service). They had been to Amour at least nine times before, knew every dish on the menu and chef Jitender Singh (yet another Old World Hospitality veteran) hugged them like old friends.
I thought the food was smashing: a three-cheese soufflé that Vikram appears to order every time he eats there, delicate prawns in a garlicky gravy, Chilean spare ribs that fell off the bone, firm rectangles of grilled halloumi cheese and an antipasti platter with intelligently sourced cold meat (the salami was from Bangalore) and mousses made on the premises. Mains were as delightful. Vikram had his lamb chops pink and I ate two confit duck legs. The others had a steak (buffalo, but nice) and a pulled-pork burger. Desserts (made in a central commissary) were so-so but at least the tiramisu tasted fresh.
The restaurant was packed out and except for one table of Japanese businessmen in dark suits who got steadily drunker and louder as the evening wore on, the crowd seemed to consist entirely of locals, good Punjabi burghers who had brought their families.
I was trying to think: would this happen in Bombay? Perhaps it would. The Table does high quality European food and packs them in. Café Zoe has a dedicated and loyal clientele. But both these places seem to get a more glamorous crowd. There isn’t anywhere in Bombay where solidly unglamorous locals go for a bit of duck confit or a cheese soufflé.
So maybe Delhi is changing faster than Bombay. And the changes are at both ends of the spectrum. Open an Irani restaurant or open a French bistro and, as long as the food is good, the punters will come.
From HT Brunch, February 16
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