Navneet Kalra, the entrepreneur (Dayal Opticals and many other enterprises) who is one of the partners in Town Hall in Khan Market, was telling me the saga of his super-successful restaurant.
Kalra had the location in the inner part of Khan Market, spread over two floors, but was not sure what to do with it. Then, after various restaurant chains offered him vast sums in rent for the space, he decided to run it himself. He enlisted other partners, among them, the owners of Amour Bistro, and Augusto Cabrera, who had been the sushi chef at Threesixty at the Delhi Oberoi for a decade.
Augusto is the man who introduced a whole generation of Dilliwallas to sushi when Threesixty first opened, so
Kalra was sure that the quality of the sushi-sashimi would be excellent. But would that be enough for the restaurant to succeed?
The partners were not sure, so they opted for a multi-cuisine menu (Chinese, Italian and God alone knows what else) to cover their bets.
They needn’t have worried. Right from the day Town Hall first opened, it has been jam-packed. And while some people do order the other stuff, the restaurant’s selling point has been sushi. So great is the demand that not only will you find some of Delhi’s most high-profile folks eating there, many people send their drivers for takeout sushi.
Kalra still can’t believe it. “Sushi has become the new butter chicken for Delhiites,” he says. “You have to serve it. And everybody wants more and more. I would never have imagined it.”
He is right, of course. The hottest food in Delhi these days is sushi. Gone is the era when you had to pay eye-wateringly high prices at Wasabi and Megu to eat sushi. It’s the standalones that are thriving because they offer sushi at relatively affordable rates.
Augusto’s food is, I reckon, roughly in the same league as Wasabi and yet it is one-third the price. What’s more, he uses the same suppliers so you get the same quality of fish – from hamachi to unagi to chutoro – at rates that are lower.
Nor is Augusto the only person to serve high-quality sushi at affordable rates. At the Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj, chef Saito, who used to be at Megu, now serves sushi at a counter outside the PVR Director’s Cut cinema (the sushi bar is one of PVR owner Ajay Bijli’s ventures) at prices that wouldn’t buy you much more than a bowl of edamame at Megu.
All of us who have been writing about the Indian food scene for over a decade are gobsmacked by sushi’s triumphant progress through the metropolitan restaurant scene. Whenever F&B professionals would gather in the old days to discuss the possibility of opening Japanese restaurants in India, the consensus would be uniformly negative.
Japanese food is too bland, they would say. The flavours are too delicate for Indian palates. Besides, Indians are revolted by the thought of eating raw fish. How could you even imagine that they would eat sushi?
Some enterprising hoteliers reckoned that while trad-Jap would not work in India, Nobu-style modern Japanese might succeed. The Taj negotiated with Nobu but the negotiations went nowhere because Nobu wanted a large restaurant and the Taj would only risk a small (under 50 covers) restaurant. Eventually, the Taj found Masaharu Morimoto who was the first executive chef of the New York Nobu and opened Wasabi (in Bombay, first, and then Delhi later), which based its menu on Nobu’s greatest hits. The Nairs of the Leela Group managed to land Nobu, who agreed to open in their hotels. Then, he backed out without warning and the Leela went with Megu instead.
But the Wasabi-Megu kind of place was meant for high-rollers or people on expense accounts. What we are seeing now, however, is the democratisation of sushi. The standalones do not necessarily appeal to high rollers. They offer the sushi experience to nearly everyone who wants it.
This raises two questions. One: why is sushi so expensive at some places and so reasonably priced at many standalones?
It is a hard question to answer because much of the same thing is true of Tokyo or even New York. You can go to somewhere like Masa in New York and spend $750 per head for a sushi-sashimi meal. Or you can eat sushi for under $10 at a cheap sushi bar.
One answer has to do with quality. The top places in Tokyo or New York will use better quality fish. But what really makes the difference is the quality of the chef. The great Japanese sushi masters have now become cult heroes thanks to films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
You and I may wonder what it is that makes them so special. After all a piece of toro sashimi is a piece of tuna belly no matter who cuts it. But in Japanese cuisine, the way the chef selects the fish and cuts it is crucial. Aspirants spend decades trying to get it right.
A difference that you and I can easily tell, however, is the quality of the rice. For the Japanese, sashimi is about raw fish; sushi is about the rice. A Japanese person will judge the sushi on the quality of the rice pellet.
For sushi to be any good, the rice must never be cold, as if it has just come out of the fridge. Nor should it be tightly packed together. It should be room temperature, and the pellet should have a loose feel about it – the trick is in getting the rice to hold together without compressing it too much.
The cheaper sushi places, wherever in the world they may be, pay little attention to the rice. They know that non-Japanese guests don’t really care about the quality of the rice pellet, so they hire cheap line cooks to make the sushi. And even in Japan, the cheaper places have been known to use machines to make the rice pellets.
So that’s one key reason why sushi can vary so much in price. The fish matters too. The likes of Saito and Augusto will not compromise on the quality of the fish. But the chefs at many standalones do use much cheaper fish.
As for the “Why do Indians love sushi?”, question, I have no real answer, just tentative guesses.
First of all, it is important to remember that what the Japanese regard as sushi and what the rest of the world calls sushi are two different things. The Japanese do have maki rolls (those round rice things wrapped in sea weed with the fish on the inside) but serious sushi is always nigiri – a pellet of rice with a chunk of raw fish on top of it.
The Americans turned the maki roll into the dish it is today, blowing up its size (the California roll), adding new ingredients (avocado to mimic the fatty taste of toro, for instance) and popularising the idea that sushi isn’t really about raw fish – you can put what you like inside the roll from vaguely Japanese ingredients (prawn tempura) to dishes that have nothing to do with Japanese cuisine (spicy chicken!).
The sushi that most Indians like is not the nigiri with its raw fish but the roll. And that can be masaledar, crunchy and even vegetarian. It is not sushi in the sense that the Japanese know it. But it is close enough to Japanese food in shape and idea to pass off as the real thing.
So why did we get it so wrong when we said Indians would never take to Japanese food? Well, perhaps we didn’t get it wrong after all.
What Indians love is not particularly Japanese at all. It is a rice roll, yes, but that is all that is Japanese about it. The flavours and ingredients have nothing to do with Japan.
Because the Indian F&B industry did not have the imagination to realise that the boom would be in sushi rolls, nobody worked out that a) this kind of sushi did not necessarily involve raw fish, b) that it could be produced cheaply with inexpensive ingredients and c) there would be no need for trained sushi masters who could make the nigiri rice pellet. Any child can make a maki roll; it requires virtually no skill.
So sushi is the favourite food of a new metropolitan generation. But it’s not necessarily sushi as the Japanese know it. As Kalra says, it is this generation’s butter chicken.
From HT Brunch, June 5, 2016
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