And so after another frenzied bout of travelling, here are some of my impressions of the places I’ve eaten at over the last fortnight. I’ll start with Gurgaon because I briefly mentioned chef Ramon Saito in my piece on chorizo last week.
Some months ago, I’d done a massive hatchet job (their phrase, not mine) on Spectra at the Gurgaon Leela. The general manager called me at once. I usually dread these calls because the general managers tend to be both defensive and whining at the same time. But Michel Koopman, the Leela’s guy, was straightforward.
Yes, he said, we have a problem. Give me a few weeks and I will fix it. So last week I went back for a massive lunch with Michel. Ramon did some great tapas and an amazing paella but Michel got all of the Leela’s chefs to show off their stuff. Overall, the food quality was remarkably high and the star of the show was of course, Kunal Kapoor, who must be the nicest TV chef in India. Kunal knows how to preserve the flavours of home cooking while creating great restaurant dishes.
I won’t claim that this meal is necessarily representative of the food the average punter will get at Spectra or any of the Leela’s other restaurants. But if they can keep up some of these standards, then the Leela’s gastronomic problems may well be over.
On the subject of tapas. I think I’ve found the most under-rated famous restaurant in Delhi. All of us know that Claridges now has a restaurant called Sevilla. We also know that it is vaguely Spanish and that the combination of an indoor and outdoor setting really works well. What we don’t know is how good the food is.
Perhaps this is because a new chef is behind the stove (an Indian, but he has worked in a variety of British restaurants) and when I had dinner there, not one dish was a disappointment: sautéed peppers, chorizo with prawns, ham croquettes, pizza bianca and lots more. Now all they need to do is import a variety of sherries to go with the tapas.
The Sevilla pizza was Italian in execution but the pizzas at NYC.PIE, the new restaurant in Defence Colony market, are all-American. The restaurant is the brainchild of Raj Rao, who opened Threesixty when he looked after food and beverage at the Oberoi in New Delhi. Raj is a legend in the business (full disclosure: both Rao brothers – including Uday who is with the Four Seasons – are old friends of mine) because of his imagination and his fierce commitment to quality.
They persuaded me to dine at The Lantern, their Chinese restaurant (left). The dim sum were first rate,
with some outstanding riffs on Yauatcha classics
His new place is intended more as a home-delivery operation rather than a full-fledged restaurant. But the pizzas are spectacular and if I put on ten kilos by next month, it will be because I keep ordering them at home. If you live in South Delhi, you must go or order in. Also on the home delivery circuit is a relatively new operation called Leaping Caravans. Though their delivery area is Gurgaon and they mainly focus on offices in that region, they will deliver at home too if your place is not too far from Gurgaon. I tried many of their dishes – all good home-style North Indian food with a few Calcutta touches – and was pleasantly surprised by both food quality and the packaging.
And so to Bangalore where, I was once again astonished by how well the new JW Marriott is run – that makes three great JWs in a row for me: Poona, Bombay and now Bangalore. I suspect Marriott may be the dark horse in the hotel race. We rarely talk about the chain but their India properties are really world class. Though they don’t necessarily advertise this, Ritz-Carlton hotels are also part of the Marriott family.
I’ve been meaning to stay at the first Ritz in India, which opened last year in Bangalore but loyalty to my comfortable bolt-hole at the Windsor kept me from straying. But seeing as I was staying at the Marriott and had abandoned the Windsor anyway. I decided to check out the Ritz. I have to say that I was totally blown away. This is easily Bangalore’s most sophisticated hotel, a full generation ahead of anything else in the city. It radiates an air of quiet but artistic (the hotel is filled with original works of modern art) exclusivity and the night I went there were so many foreigners in the lobby that I had the sense that I was in Hong Kong or Shanghai. (Is that a good thing? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for, I guess).
I went first to the rooftop bar, which is visually stunning (though there is not a great deal to admire in the Bangalore skyline) where I bumped into Manu Manikandan who I had last seen at the Chanakyapuri Leela. Manu is the beverage manager at the Ritz, one of a high-powered team there which includes Anupam Bannerjee (ex-Mandarin Oriental) as the chef and Nilesh Singh, very much the Oberoi group old boy as executive assistant manager (F&B). They persuaded me to dine at The Lantern, their Chinese restaurant, which is essentially a more upmarket version of the Yauatcha formula (I think I’ve offended both the Ritz and Yauatcha with that comment!) with a chef who has worked at Hakkasan, Yauatcha’s older sibling.
The difference is the décor – understated but elegant – and the level of service (led by Pooja Bailey, who I remember from Bombay’s Sea Lounge). The meal began indifferently, with slightly doughy dim sum but picked up with some outstanding riffs on Yauatcha classics (the baked chicken puff melted in my mouth) a Din Tai Fung-style soup dumpling (better than at most Din Tai Fung branches these days!) and a terrific lamb rolled (with makroot flavour) in cabbage.
The dim sum were first rate but the one stir-fry I tried (a Kung Pao chicken) suffered from the usual Hakkasan-Yauatcha problem of too much sweetness in the seasoning – a consequence, I suspect, of hiring overseas Chinese chefs from Malaysia. I have no idea how well the hotel is doing: Bangalore faces an over-supply of hotel rooms, the Oberoi is now back in the game, having got its act together and a new Shangri-La is due to open in a few months. But I do know this: the Ritz deserves to do very well.
And then to Bombay where I remain a creature of habit tending to rely on old familiar places. One of these places, Thai Pavilion at the Taj President, is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, celebrating yet another anniversary or the other. (Is it 20 years? Could be. The restaurant opened a few years before Ajit Kerkar left in 1997). It is still packed out night after night and what I love the most about Pavilion is that you might see Ratan Tata or Anil Ambani at a table sitting next to a middle-class family from Cuffe Parade – and they both get exactly the same kind of service.
The Taj is currently gripped by talk of change, one result of a change in management at the top. The consensus seems to be that the weakness of the food is a major failing and that the new management has realised this. I have no way of knowing whether this is idle gossip, but you cannot deny that in all three top food categories – Chinese, European and Indian – where the Taj was the pioneer, it now lags far behind. How nice then to eat at The President where Ananda Solomon still packs them in at Thai Pavilion and maintains the Taj’s reputation for excellence, an island of stability and continuity in an ever-changing food scene.
There is still one area where the Taj is ahead of other chains (including ITC’s Dakshin) and that is Indian food: the trio of Karavalli in Bangalore and Southern Spice and The Raintree in Madras are hard to beat. At the President, Solomon’s Konkan Café is my favourite of the Taj’s South Indian restaurants (I actually prefer it to Thai Pavilion, even!) and it is one of the few restaurants in Bombay where I have never had a bad meal. (I ate at Karavalli while I was in Bangalore. But that meal will have to wait for a longer piece I am planning on the restaurant for its silver anniversary this summer.) Meanwhile, I gather the Bombay scene has hotting up. Floyd Cardoz has finally opened the much-awaited Bombay Canteen in Parel. I haven’t been there. But Floyd Cardoz is a great chef. And I can’t wait to eat at the Canteen.
From HT Brunch, February 22
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