The first Leela opened in the 1980s in Bombay. Today the chain has acquired an international flavour with its tie-ups with high-profile foreign restaurants
Partly it is Captain C P Krishnan Nair’s own fault. Years ago, when I interviewed him about his decision to move into the hotel business when he was over 60 and already a millionaire many times over from garment exports, he told me about his fears before the first Leela (in Bombay) opened in the 1980s. He was not sure how much of a success the hotel would be, he said, because he was a newcomer to the industry. But the only thing he was completely sure of was the food. And that, he said, was “because of Leela”.
Leela, after whom the chain is named, is Captain Nair’s wife and a legendary cook. In the early days of the chain, she personally trained many of the chefs and long before the cuisine of Kerala became trendy all over the world, the Leela hotels had the best Malayali food of any hotel or restaurant in India, outside of Kerala.
Even today, the Leela’s South Indian cuisine is unmatched. At the Bombay property, where I stayed last week, chef Purshottam, the group’s master South Indian chef (he is from Andhra but has learnt many of Mrs Nair’s recipes), turned out a superlative breakfast of appams and egg roast day after day. And then, one evening at Jamavar, the Leela’s Indian restaurant, he made a perfectly silky Alleppey fish curry and an outstanding masala crab with egg dosas. His flavours were so clean and unmuddled that they re-emphasised – in my mind – the point Captain Nair had made about the South Indian food of the Leela (both the lady and the hotel chain).
But my obsession with the Leela group’s Malayali food usually leads me to deny the chain the credit it deserves for its triumphs with other cuisines, and yes, I blame Captain Nair for telling me the story about how he built the entire chain on his faith in his wife’s culinary skills.
In fact, the Leela has been bold in its approach to other cuisines. I liked Stella, the Italian restaurant at the Bombay hotel, where the food was always good and sommeliers encouraged guests to try wine flights long before any wine culture had developed in India. The Great Wall was the first Chinese restaurant (that I know of, at least) in India to offer Peking duck cooked the right way with the duck skin coming as one course with pancakes, the meat transformed into a stir fry, and the bones used to make a soup with a deep and intense flavour.
In recent years, after Captain Nair’s younger son, Dinesh, one of India’s most passionate foodies, has joined the hotel business (he was in charge of the garment export company till the Nairs sold it), the Leela’s approach to food has undergone a qualitative change. Because Dinesh spent most of his career as an exporter travelling to the world’s great cities and eating at the world’s great restaurants, he has brought an international perspective to the Leela’s cuisine.
Some years ago, the Leela signed up with Nobu to open at least three restaurants at the chain’s properties only to see that deal go sour when Nobu backed out after 26/11. No matter. The Nairs signed up with another New York Japanese restaurant and Megu at the Delhi Leela continues to draw a glittering high-profile crowd that comes for excellent Japanese cuisine served in glamorous surroundings.
And then, there’s been the alliance with the Maccionis of New York. That family’s patriarch (its Captain Nair, if you like) is the legendary Sirio who, in the era when maitre’ds were more important than chefs, became a great New York institution and turned his Le Cirque restaurant into the dining favourite of the rich, famous and powerful. Along the way, Sirio also mentored some great chefs (Daniel Boulud is probably the most famous), oversaw the creation of some famous dishes (Pasta Primavera) and managed to offer a warm Italian welcome at what was essentially an old-style French restaurant where the mise en place required 17 sauces and the emphasis was on cuisine classique.
Le Cirque remains one of the great names of the American restaurant world, and is still a family-run business, but it is hardly a temple to gastronomy. Sirio still gets the rich but they tend to be the sort of people who still think Ronald Reagan is President (especially when they’ve had a couple of drinks) and whose children would never dream of eating at Le Cirque.
Le Cirque cooking standards have always been wobbly partly because the food is not necessarily the point for many of its regulars, or the out-of-towners and tourists who flock there attracted by the glamour. But after a savage review in The New York Times recently, the Maccionis finally sat up, took notice and fired the chef.
While all this has been going on, the Maccionis have tried to branch out. They run a cheaper restaurant serving more traditional Italian food in New York, serve touristy fare in Las Vegas and recently opened the dire Sirio at New York’s Pierre Hotel where I ate the single worst meal I have eaten in New York for ages, when I was in the city last year.
There’s something in the Dominican Republic, which is hardly the mecca of fine dining, but otherwise the Maccionis have missed the bus when it comes to taking the Le Cirque brand to the world’s great cities. Which, I guess, is why the Nairs and the Leela Group are so important to them.
The Nairs made a huge investment and took a massive risk in making Le Cirque the centrepiece of their sparkling Delhi property. Against the odds they pulled it off. With a Maccioni-chosen chef (Mickey Bhoite) in the kitchen and the best service of any Indian restaurant (in terms of elegance and efficiency), the Delhi Le Cirque attracted larger numbers (at higher rates) than any Western restaurant in India has ever done. It is still the place to be seen in Delhi and on any given night, you’ll notice at least two or three well-known faces there.
The success of Le Cirque in Delhi has prompted the Nairs to try and take the restaurant national. But Dinesh has had the foresight to recognise that the elegant formality of the Delhi Le Cirque cannot necessarily be replicated in other cities. Sensibly, he has also decided against allowing the Maccionis to bring the dismal Sirio or Circo, their other brands, into India.
Instead, Le Cirque and the Leela have joined hands to create an entirely new brand called Le Cirque Signature. This is a more contemporary New York-style restaurant that will keep some of the Le Cirque classics but will emphasise simplicity, the freshness of ingredients, and the passions of individual chefs. The Signatures will not be French but nor will they be Italian. Instead, they will combine the strengths of both cuisines in a sleek New York-like manner.
It is an ambitious project, but judging by the first Le Cirque Signature restaurant, it can work. I ate there twice last week on consecutive nights and my first thought was that I liked the focus on the chef. At the New York (and therefore, to some extent, Delhi) Le Cirque, the maitre’d’ was always the star. The Pasta Primavera was finished at the table. The bistecca Fiorentina came on a trolley and was carved at the table. Over here, there are few trolleys and the food comes directly from the kitchen.
On the first night, I did the Le Cirque standards: risotto with black truffle, a full bistecca and floating island for dessert. They were of the same standard as the Delhi operation. On my second night, I let Matteo Boglione, the young Italian-American who is the restaurant’s chef, do his own thing. A starter of lightly seared tuna was cutting-edge and his pork belly would have won raves in Tribeca (where, coincidentally, Matteo ran his own restaurant before briefly joining the New York Le Cirque as sous chef). The homemade gelato were fabulous and I particularly enjoyed the biscottini flavour.
Judging by the two nights I was there, the Bombay Signature is already doing well so the next test of the concept will come in Bangalore where the second Le Cirque Signature opens in the middle of the year. The lesson to be drawn from Bombay, I suspect, is that the Bangalore operation needs to be a little more American and a little less European. Both Bombay and Delhi Le Cirques already serve India’s best steaks (the bistecca – I don’t think you should serve variations on tournedos Rossini in the 21st century unless you are being witty or ironic). But a few more prime cuts would not go amiss. Nor would a classy gourmet burger. What the Signature needs sounds like heresy but it is true: less Sirio Maccioni and more Danny Meyer.
As for Captain Nair, whose dedication to his wife’s cuisine made him open hotels, he is still going strong at 93. We had a long, chatty Chinese lunch (at The Great Wall) where he demonstrated that he has lost none of the zest that has gone into the creation of the Leela. The next generation may have taken over, but the patriarch still flourishes.
From HT Brunch, February 9
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