It was while they were showing me to my table at Madras’ The Flying Elephant, that the thought struck me: has anyone noticed how much restaurants seem to be changing in India? The Flying Elephant is probably a breakthrough for restaurants in India – more about that later – but the magnificence of its conception is just one more example of how Indian hoteliers and restaurateurs are throwing away all the stereotypes and opening restaurants that are much more dramatic than ever before.
The changes manifest themselves in several ways: décor, cuisine, ambience, ambition and size. There were, broadly, two stages in the development of restaurants in India. In the first stage, the best restaurants tended to be located outside of hotels. Each city had its own restaurant district: Bombay’s Churchgate Street, Delhi’s Connaught Place, Calcutta’s Park Street etc., and the bulk of the restaurants were either Chinese (sort of Cantonese, in that era) or multi-cuisine (lots of Punjabi-type food plus what passed for basic Continental) – the sort of cuisine epitomised by Gaylord, Sky Room and other such Sixties hotspots.
Then came the invasion of the five-star hotels. Unlike hotels in most other countries, Indian hotels became food hubs for non-hotel guests to the extent that some earned as much money from their restaurants as they did from the rooms. Hotel coffee shops killed off the lure of old stand-alone multi-cuisine places and each new hotel prided itself on the authenticity of its specialty restaurants: French, Italian, Thai, Spanish, Korean, American or whatever.
And that is how the balance remained till about five years ago: the top specialty restaurants were in the hotels while the stand-alones tended to be second-rate places, reminders of a bygone age.But all of that is now changing. For a start, the stand-alone sector is vibrant, thriving and ready to give the hotels a run for their money. The most talked-about restaurants in Bombay, these days, tend to be places outside the hotels: Yauatcha, The Table, Ellipsis, Umame, Café Zoe, Hakkasan, etc. In Delhi, the malls have opened up real-estate possibilities and stand-alone restaurateurs have rushed in with sophisticated products: Mamagoto, Amici, Izakaya, etc. Some of these restaurants beat the hotels at their own game: it is hard to eat South Indian food that is as good as the food at Zambar (in the Vasant Kunj Ambience mall) at any hotel in Delhi.
The second interesting change is that the multi-cuisine restaurant has now made a comeback. The Oberoi in Delhi launched the trend with 360° in the space previously occupied by the high-end, very French La Rochelle and has followed it up with the excellent 361° at the Gurgaon property. But now, everyone is doing it. Set’z is probably Delhi’s best and most successful stand-alone restaurant and much of its popularity is based on its seven kitchens, each of which serves a different cuisine. I’ve never eaten well at Spectra, the Gurgaon Leela’s version of a Set’z-type restaurant, but the idea is the same: high quality multi-cuisine. And it seems to be doing well so perhaps I’ve just been unlucky.
Even the stand-alone cafés are multi-cuisine. The excellent Café Diva menu in Delhi pairs Sindhi curry with pizzas. On The Waterfront (also in Delhi) is happy enough serving duck confit or Thai red curry, depending on what guests feel like eating. Umame in Bombay manages to put high-quality soup-filled dim sum on the same menu as sashimi. The advantage of multi-cuisine restaurants is that three people at the same table can order three different cuisines so nobody has to make any cuisine decisions while choosing the restaurant. Instead you choose the restaurant for itself.
The third interesting trend is that top-end restaurants are bigger, more glamorous and much more ambitious than ever before. The massive Hakkasan in Bombay channels the glitzy cool of the London original. Its sister restaurant Yauatcha in Bandra-Kurla in Bombay looks even better than the original model: the London Yauatcha. In Delhi, Megu’s Buddha Room, with its stunning décor, is easily the most glamorous Japanese restaurant in India.
Le Cirque takes over an entire floor of the Leela Palace with many elegant, clubby rooms that – remarkably enough – have turned the conventional wisdom on its head and proved that European food, even at top prices, can find an audience in India – if it’s done right.
But many of the greatest advances in restaurant conception are coming from outside Bombay and Delhi. When the ITC Gardenia opened Edo (in Bangalore) with its elegant stone-and-wood design by Japan’s Super Potato, it was a sign that India’s restaurant scene was now in tune with the rest of the world. Edo opened before David Bouley’s much-praised Brushstroke Kaiseki restaurant in New York and yet, anyone who goes to that hip NYC hangout will recognise the style: Super Potato brought those innovations to Bangalore before taking them to New York.
Strangely enough, it is Madras, regarded by people in Bombay and Delhi as a sleepy unsophisticated backwater, that may be at the forefront of India’s high-end restaurant boom. Ottimo, the Italian restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola, differs dramatically in its conception from every other Italian restaurant in India in the sense that it is built around a large state-of-the-art open kitchen (it is called cucina rather than a trattoria) and the chefs are the stars of the show.
ITC had not opened the Madras Pan Asian when I last visited the Grand Chola but Vikramjit Roy, the hyper-talented Japanese chef who ITC stole from Delhi’s Wasabi, showed me around. The two-level restaurant is a quantum leap for the Pan Asian concept, with a stunning Japanese restaurant-within-a-restaurant, a Chinese cuisine area that has a style of its own, a sleek champagne lounge upstairs next to a chef’s studio kitchen and a visually dramatic staircase on which an Asian (but naturally!) singer will be stationed.
In hotel circles, it is well known that ITC is eager to break new ground and innovate, so the real surprise will not be the Grand Chola’s remarkable restaurants but the amazing The Flying Elephant at the new Park Hyatt, right opposite the Grand Chola. (“They have ITC One rooms but we have ITC View rooms”, a manager at the Park Hyatt joked.)The hotel is smallish (200 rooms), elegant and personalised but I suspect that it will soon be famous all over India because of the magnificence of The Flying Elephant. Conceived with great passion by former drama student Amit Mahtaney, whose family owns the hotel, the restaurant is pure theatre, spread across five levels with a warm, living roomy area (complete with books from Mahtaney’s own collection) that plays retro music and looks on to a New York-style bar which serves cocktails from America’s speakeasies in the Prohibition era. (With some nice service touches including martinis shaken at your table).
There’s a grill area where I had some moist and flavourful satay. Another area has a pizza oven and more seating. Other sections include a private dining area called The Bedroom on the top floor. All over the many different levels are little private corners so you can either enjoy the buzz or have a more intimate experience. The mix of Hyatt expertise and Mahtaney’s drama degree has obviously worked – the restaurant is Mezza9 (at Singapore’s Grand Hyatt) two generations on. It is the same general idea but with much more advanced and contemporary execution.
Mahtaney’s mother was brought up in Indonesia so that probably explains the Indonesian dishes on the menu (I had a first-rate rendang) but there’s outstanding European cuisine as well. (Multi-cuisine really is today’s Big Thing!) The pastry chef does adult sundaes along with such classic desserts as a Baked Alaska. (He is French so he calls it Bombe Alaska though, given that the executive chef Stig Drageide is Norwegian, they should have called it Omelette Norvégienne!
Like Setz or 360°, the great thing about The Flying Elephant is that you can come in for a slap-up haute cuisine meal and spend many thousands. Or you can just order a beer and a pizza and get away with paying much less. Either way, they promise, you’ll get exactly the same treatment.
Would something like The Flying Elephant have been possible even five years ago? I doubt it. Many factors have contributed to the changes: the emergence of the new middle class, which is willing to spend money on eating out, the availability of retail space at new malls, the boom in hotels, the entry of so many foreign chains and the investments made by virtual outsiders to the restaurant and hotel scene purely out of passion. For instance, Kishore Bajaj who owns the Indian Hakkasans and Yauatchas (the big opening of the year will be Yauatcha in Delhi’s Ambience Mall in a few months) made his money in tailoring and real estate, not hospitality. Vijay Mahtaney, father of Amit, and the chairman of the company that owns the Madras Park Hyatt, was the founder of ColorPlus and is one of India’s more successful garment exporters. One reason why so many sophisticated restaurants are opening is because rich Indians who have travelled the world now want to recreate that experience and quality in their own neighbourhoods.
India is changing very quickly. And the restaurant scene is moving even faster.
The magnificent Flying Elephant in Madras is probably a a breakthrough for restaurants in India It is hard to eat South Indian food that is as good as the food at Zambar (in the Vasant Kunj Ambience mall) at any hotel in Delhi.
From HT Brunch, February 24
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