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Rude Food: Sushi on a spicy roll

brunch Updated: Jan 21, 2012 20:01 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Modern Japanese cuisine was more or less invented by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, and today you will find Nobu-style restaurants all over the world. In India, you already have Wasabi. Now Megu seeks to introduce its own brand of modern Japanese.

Do you think that Punjabi Chinese or Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine could spark an international trend? It’s a serious question and I ask it because of the global success of modern Japanese food.

NobuMost of us know that modern Japanese cuisine was more or less invented by the chef Nobu Matsuhisa who now owns restaurants all over the world. Some of us may also know that Nobu developed his cooking style when he was in Peru working in a Japanese restaurant there. Initially, before the term ‘modern Japanese’ came to be applied to his food, it was often described as Japanese-Peruvian.

What is less known is that Nobu had his Eureka moment in Peru because of the Chinese food he ate in that country. Because Peruvians like spicy food, local Chinese restaurants added chilli and other South American flavours to their cuisine.

Nobu ate Peruvian Chinese, recognised that it bore little resemblance to the Chinese food served in China and wondered if the same sort of variations could be introduced to Japanese food.

By the time he was through with South America (he cooked in Peru and Argentina) he had the germ of an idea in his mind. Why not take traditional Japanese dishes and spice them up? So he invented New Style Sashimi which is essentially raw fish which is cooked by the addition of citrus juices or warm oil and then spiced up with jalapeno peppers and the like.

So successful was this experiment that Matsuhisa, the restaurant he ran in a strip mall in Los Angeles, soon became one of that city’s most popular places. The director Roland Joffe who was then filming The Mission with Robert De Niro took his star to Matsuhisa.

De NiroDe Niro loved the food so much that he begged Nobu to open a restaurant in New York in partnership with him. Matsuhisa took four years to agree but when he did, De Niro went the extra mile in promoting Nobu (a much easier name for restaurant goers to pronounce than Matsuhisa) and turned Nobu Matsuhisa into the world’s most famous chef. (How many other chefs can you think of who are known only by their first names?)

Nobu has opened many branches (most in partnership with De Niro who probably makes more money from restaurants than he does from acting, these days) all over the world but what’s more important is that he has created a cuisine: modern Japanese.

If you’ve never been to a Nobu, then here’s what the food is like: it has Japanese roots but it uses ingredients that are not part of the Japanese tradition olive oil, cheese, cream, chilli, peppers etc to create flavours that are fuller than the customary starkness of real Japanese food.

Plus, there are concessions to popular taste. Most Japanese people eat nigiri sushi (the kind where they put a piece of raw fish on a pellet of cooked rice) but Nobu specialises in rolls (where cooked rice encases a variety of ingredients which are usually cooked and spiced), many of which are unheard of in Japan.

You will now find a Nobu-style restaurant in nearly every major city in the world. Even if it is not owned by Nobu it is probably run by a former collaborator or by an imitator. For instance, Masaharu Morimoto was the first executive chef of the New York Nobu. He has now gone on to open many successful restaurants of his own (including branches in Delhi and Bombay) where he serves a modern Japanese cuisine based on Nobu’s principles.

In London, the German chef Rainer Becker started Zuma which was a fresh take on modern Japanese but owed its success to Nobu’s pioneering work. There are now Zumas in many major cities (the Bangkok branch opened a few months ago) and most of the guests treat them as alternatives to Nobu.

Efforts to get Nobu to open in India have always failed. The Taj approached him before it spoke to Morimoto but could not strike a deal. The Leela signed him up for four restaurants but at the last moment, Nobu backed out claiming that after 26/11 he feared that India would be hit by a recession and arguing that he had suffered in Dubai because of a downturn in the economy.

No matter. There are other restaurateurs serving modern Japanese. The Taj went to Morimoto. And the Leela went to Megu, a chain of flashy, upmarket restaurants that have received mixed responses from food critics but appeal neverthesless, to an audience of global travellers. Apart from the two original New York Megus, there are now branches in Doha and Moscow.

I wondered what the Delhi Megu would be like. I thought the Leela had a problem in deciding how to pitch the cuisine. If you get Nobu then you trump Morimoto’s Wasabi by saying that you’re offering people the original. But how do you introduce people in Delhi and Bombay (a new Megu will open in the space where the Great Wall restaurant now stands at the Bombay Leela) to modern Japanese when they are already familiar with Morimoto’s take on Nobu’s food? Do you not run the risk of seeming me-too?

In the event, I think the Leela has solved the problem brilliantly. There is, first of all, a differentiator when it comes to the food. Though Morimoto’s own restaurant in New York has many innovative dishes that he has created himself, his Indian restaurants rely on menus stolen from Nobu. (When I had dinner with Nobu in Dubai some years ago he told me that Morimoto confessed to him ‘Ninety per cent of my Indian menu, Nobu-san, is completely your food.’ When I asked Morimoto about this, he was ambivalent.)

It’s difficult to do modern Japanese by using only traditional Japanese ingredients but Megu tries to avoid Nobu’s over-use of European flavours. Instead, it relies on the complexity of Japanese cuisine (the quality of the miso, the lightness of the fresh wasabi etc) to give the food an oomph.

So, you will get Nobu-style dishes (New Style Sashimi, rock shrimp tempura etc) but they will usually have a twist. For instance, their fried shrimp does not rely on a sauce (as Nobu’s does) but introduces a depth of flavour to the shrimp itself.

Another example: Nobu’s most famous dish is black cod in miso. Though this has now become a menu staple and the most ordered dish at nearly every modern Japanese restaurant, Megu does a variation with silver cod and without the crispiness at the base of the Nobu version.

Some of it works. Some of it is less successful I’ll take Nobu’s black cod over the Megu dish any day. But the food is certainly distinctive. Plus there are other dishes that do not have their origin in Nobu’s work.

The real difference between Megu and the Nobu-Wasabi kind of restaurant however, is in the experience. Nobu’s restaurants are large, cheerful places. The two Indian Wasabis are small, clubby enclaves where everybody knows everybody. Megu, on the other hand, is very much a special occasion restaurant (like, say, The Orient Express or the old Zodiac Grill in Bombay) where every guest feels pampered and the staff strive to provide a sense of occasion.

You go to Wasabi for the food. But at the Delhi Megu, even if you don’t like the food (which, by the way, was excellent the night I went) there is still a sense of partaking of a dining experience in a spectacular-looking restaurant. In that sense, Megu is not unlike the Leela’s great success story, Le Cirque, which manages to appeal to diners who can’t tell their Florentine steak from Eggs Florentine.

It helps, I think, that the service at Megu is outstanding and well informed. The delays in the opening have allowed the staff to become familiar with the cuisine and its complexities. Plus there are innumerable serving rituals – steak flambéed at the table, carpaccio seared at 1,000 degrees Centigrade by smokeless charcoal on your plate, fresh wasabi grated into your sake etc – that make the experience seem more special and luxurious.

So my guess is that the restaurant will do well. It’s not aiming for the Wasabi clientele (though prices are on par and you can eat more cheaply at Megu than you can at Le Cirque plus the wine pricing is not as ridiculous as the Leela’s reputation suggests) and will hit special occasion places much more than it will affect the Wasabi-Sakura kind of place.

With Hakkasan looking for a location in Delhi after its success in Bombay, Megu could well be the pioneer of a new trend of glamorous Asian places.

But that brings us back to where we started. If Sino-Peruvian cuisine could inspire Nobu to tinker with centuries of Japanese culinary tradition and to invent a globally famous cuisine, then why has Sino-Ludhianvi been able to inspire nobody except for your local thelawallah?

It’s a good question. And I don’t have an answer.

From HT Brunch, January 22

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