If I asked you to name the most famous north Indian restaurant in the world, my guess is that you would pick the obvious contender: Bukhara. And, by and large, most people would agree with you.
At the unit level, the support was overwhelming. On the day when not one person came for lunch, PK Mohan Kumar, the opening general manager of the Gateway, sent the staff a bouquet. You are doing something right, he said. Don’t ever compromise.
In these days of revenue-management systems, that approach sounds bizarre. But in that era, the Taj genuinely saw itself as the custodian of Indian cuisine. In some quirky way it believed it was on a mission to preserve dishes and recipes that would otherwise be lost through the generations.
Slowly but steadily, Karavalli began to pick up. Pinto left and Sriram took over the kitchen himself (with Thimmaiah staying on as his deputy). Sriram is not just one of the Taj’s most accomplished chefs, he is also its most articulate and cerebral.
And so as he talked the restaurant up, guests started flowing in. By the end of the Nineties, it had become the greatest destination restaurant in south India, eclipsing even Madras’s Rain Tree.
Inspired by Karavalli’s success, the Taj launched Southern Spice in Madras (though this was less Camellia Panjabi and more Ajit Kerkar and Shankar Menon working with chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan, one of the Taj’s few remaining genius chefs).
When RK Krishna Kumar took over the company he sent Sriram to London to open Quilon, which followed the Karavalli template with sexier ingredients (guinea fowl, diver scallops, oysters, etc) and won a Michelin star. (If there was a Michelin guide to India, Karavalli would easily get two or even three stars, I reckon.)
As Karavalli turns 25, I marvel at its success. Naren Thimmaiah is still there, still running the kitchen with the same passionate intensity. He is one chef who loves his craft and has no desire to become a corporate chef.
Like the best French and Chinese chefs, he is devoted to this kitchen (and to his kitchen brigade which sees very little turnover). He gets virtually every celebrity who visits Bangalore (just as Bukhara gets everyone of consequence who comes to Delhi), but he remains the simple, unaffected guy I remember from two decades ago.
He really doesn’t give a damn about the celebrities or the praise. All he cares about is the food. (It may help, I guess, that he comes from a coffee plantation-owning Coorgi family and has private means).
And Thimmaiah always seems to me to embody the values that once made the Taj Group India’s greatest hotel chain. He ensures that waiters do not upsell to family groups. (None of that “You must try the crab, we have just received it today” nonsense, where the waiters won’t mention how much the crab costs.) He makes a certain number of portions of the curries. If they run out, then he refuses to serve any more. If they don’t, he gives them away. Nothing is kept overnight.
If you are in Bangalore, do go to Karavalli. You’ll have a great meal. But you’ll also understand why so many people of my generation used to regard the Taj Group as the gold standard of Indian hoteliering. Karavalli is still the jewel in its crown.
From HT Brunch, July 5
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