Ghosts of restaurants past

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 24, 2015 22:51 IST
What do the stars foretell? I have no idea what the Taj will open in place of The Zodiac Grill. But I hope it is a good restaurant. (Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

So, the Bombay Taj has finally announced that it is closing down The Zodiac Grill. The decision, though welcome, is at least seven years too late.

Over the last decade, as new hotels opened all over Bombay and the standalone sector exploded (The Table, next to the Taj, served much better food than the Grill, at less than half the cost), The Zodiac Grill began to seem like an embarrassment for the hotel. Its menu was stuck firmly in the last century, the food was never very good, and the prices were so high that they were absurd.

So now that the Grill is finally closing, what can one say except goodbye and good riddance!

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The Taj opened the Grill in the Nineties in response to demands from Western clients (liberalisation had driven more and more Western businessmen and financial services people to Bombay) for a dining room where they could have a steak and a glass of wine after a long day. (In those days, you could eat steaks in Bombay.) The original idea was to open a simple grill room like The Rotisserie at The Oberoi, Nariman Point.

As the planning for the project began, Ajit Kerkar, the Taj’s boss, who had been content to leave the food and beverage part of the business to his deputy, Camellia Panjabi, got personally involved and decided that he would create a restaurant that would become the only place in Bombay for a celebration.

So the simple grill room that had been originally envisaged turned into a French restaurant. Chefs were sent to Le Gavroche in London to train, and by the time Kerkar opened The Zodiac Grill, it was Bombay’s most-awaited opening.

Because Kerkar understood consumer sentiment, he did not want to launch the Grill as a very expensive restaurant. Instead, he hit upon a novel idea: there would be no prices on the menu and no bills. You paid what you thought the meal was worth.

It worked because for every cheapo like me, there was one businessman who overpaid, or some investment banker who calculated the amount in dollars and also overpaid. The fat cats made up for the rest of us and the restaurant met its targets. After several months they finally began pricing the dishes and many of us realised how much we had been underpaying.

All went well for the Grill till the late ’90s. Then, the new Taj management embarked on a disastrous refit of the restaurants and lobby in Delhi and Bombay. They hired Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a respected design company, to oversee the refit and my guess is that HBA played a practical joke on them.

Whether it was HBA’s fault or the inexperience of the management, I do not know. But, at a stroke, the Taj destroyed Machan and Captain’s Cabin (plus the lobby) in Delhi and killed off Bombay’s Shamiana by moving it to the old Zodiac location. A new over-the-top, mausoleum-like Zodiac opened in part of the old Shamiana space. I don’t think the Grill ever quite recovered from that shift.

But the basic problem was the food. As everyone in the business will tell you, the problem with the Bombay Taj is the food. I love the hotel – it is, in fact, my favourite hotel in the world – but even when I stay there I hop across to The President (also Taj-run, by the way) for my meals. With the exception of the Sea Lounge, there is not one Taj restaurant that I really like.

And The Zodiac Grill fell victim to this general decline in cuisine standards. Though it had wonderful servers (though by the end, the wine list, the sommelier, etc were all pretty rubbish) the food was so dated and so dismal, that I wondered how the Taj thought it could get away with running such an overpriced operation.

My relief at the demise of The Zodiac Grill is unusual.On the whole, when the Taj closes a restaurant, I feel genuinely sorry. I still miss the old Rendezvous; the wonderful Shamiana that used to be (not the hideous coffee shop that now bears it name); I miss Ménage a Trois (though that was a creature of its time) and in Delhi the whole city misses the original Machan.

Memory game: In Delhi, the whole city misses the original Machan. (Photo: Sanjeev Verma) (Hindustan Times)

I also miss the wonderful Casa Medici (the restaurant that introduced serious Italian food to India) and Longchamp, its successor. Longchamp was run by Richard Neat, who had just won two Michelin stars in London (the youngest Brit to ever achieve that feat). Though the food was to die for, it was too far ahead of its time. Still Neat’s legacy lives on in his chefs: Tapas Bhattacharya, now tragically under-used by the Taj, and Pradeep Sharma (who Gaggan Anand says was his guru) who left the Taj for The Lalit.

I guess all restaurants have a lifespan and one should not be needlessly sentimental about them. I miss Delhi’s Tea House Of The August Moon (far better than Blue Ginger which replaced it) but it only worked in an era when people were prepared to accept Peking Chicken because chefs had no access to good duck. And I liked The Oberoi’s La Rochelle, but who can deny that the hotel did the right thing by closing it and opening Threesixty Degrees in its place?

A switch for the better: Who can deny that The Oberoi did the right thing by opening Threesixty Degrees in place of La Rochelle?

Often, we get swayed by our own nostalgia. I still long for the places I went to as a child: for the Churchgate Bombelli’s, with its crumb-fried cutlet and its hot dog with a green chilly slit to fit over the sausage; for the magnificent Victory Stall near the Gateway of India where Parsi ladies from the Time & Talents Club oversaw home-style Parsi food; and for the Swati Snacks of my youth, when you sat in your car and they brought you ragda-pattice and sancha-nu-ice-cream, long before it became the tourist attraction it is today.

Were these places as wonderful as I remember them? Was the food at Gourdon & Co at the end of Churchgate Street ever as genuinely French as we thought it was, or did we just not know any better? Was the mutton curry with boiled eggs from the Wilson restaurant (behind Wilson College) truly wonderful or am I just romanticising the Bombay cuisine of that era?

And what of Calcutta? I do not know a single person from that city who does not weep when you remind him of the Chicken Tetrazzini from the old Sky Room. When the restaurant closed (it was still hugely successful but there were union problems) much of the city’s educated middle class declared a week of city-wide mourning.

And how do we regard Park Street? Oddly enough, many of the restaurants that made the street so famous in the Sixties and Seventies are still around. (In Delhi or Bombay they would have closed by now). But in the case of at least some of them (and I’m treading carefully here because Bongs can be touchy about criticism of Park Street), you feel that they have been preserved in formaldehyde.

So yes, our memories are coloured by nostalgia. Take the case of the Chinese restaurants I remember from the pre-Golden Dragon era (before Sichuan food arrived in India). Our family favourite was Fredrick’s in Colaba, which had booths and served a menu I now recognise as chop-suey-American (ie, not the sort of thing the owners ate at home but Cantonese as re-interpreted by American Chinese restaurants in the first half of the 20th century). I loved the sweet-corn soup, the egg fried rice, and so many other dishes.

But, would I love them today if the restaurant was still around? Probably not. You like different food when you are only ten years old. In any case, my memories of Fredrick’s are now clouded by Nelson Wang’s claim that this was the restaurant where he invented Chicken Manchurian (“Chairman Mao would have shot me if he had tasted it, for the crime of calling it a Chinese dish,” Nelson would later laugh). His aim was to compete with the teekha Chinese food of the Golden Dragon next door and Nelson (in those days) had no idea where Chengdu was, let alone what kind of food they ate in Sichuan!

So, I guess we need to let go of nostalgia sometimes and to let the future take over. I have no idea what the Taj will open in place of The Zodiac Grill. But I hope it is a good restaurant. It has been five years since the Taj has opened a restaurant I would want to eat at in any of its hotels.

And after a year of the new management, it is time for some visible improvements.

From HT Brunch, October 25

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