The speciality restaurant will survive. But multi-cuisine is back with a bang

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:17 IST

It’s a sort of trick question. If you want to check out how old a foodie is, ask him if he remembers the great restaurant streets of Indian cities. What about Churchgate Street when it had Gaylord at one end and Talk Of The Town at the other? How about Calcutta’s Park Street in the heyday of Trincas? Or Delhi’s Connaught Place when such restaurants as Kwality and Embassy were the city’s top eating spots?

As you probably know, the great restaurant streets were dead by the mid or late 1970s. Partly, it was that the cities shifted away from their original centres and new hubs grew up. Partly, it was that the Seventies were the first great decade of hotel expansion in India and by the Eighties, the top restaurants in each city were in the luxury hotels. And partly, I guess, Indians just grew more sophisticated and tired of the old restaurants.

When you ask people now about these restaurants, they rarely talk about the food. And when they do, it is nearly always the Indian food that gets mentioned: the Embassy Dal Meat, the Kwality channa bhatura. And indeed it is true that these restaurants were often celebrated for their Indian cuisine. The Gaylord chain, for instance, moved beyond Delhi and Bombay and made Indian food famous during the Seventies in cities as far apart as London and Bangkok.

What we forget, however, is that usually, these were not speciality restaurants. Yes, the Indian food may have been good but the menus themselves included every kind of cuisine from north Indian to Italian to sort-of-French to faux-Chinese. Often, these restaurants were open all day and you could drop in for tea and a sandwich, a business lunch or even a full-fledged dinner with dancing to a live band.

In Calcutta, Park Street made Pam Crain famous. In Bombay, Usha Uthup (or Iyer, as she then was) made her reputation at Talk Of The Town before moving to greater success in Calcutta, which became her home. Even Gaylord, which did not invest vast sums in celebrity entertainment, always had a band with somebody like ‘Sweet Lorraine’ at the mike.

By the Nineties, the old restaurant streets had slipped into a state of permanent second-ratedness. The action had shifted elsewhere and everyone was opening speciality restaurants focusing on a single cuisine. So you had Chinese restaurants (lots of them), Thai places, pizzerias, coastal seafood joints and single-cuisine restaurants of every kind.

About the only island of multi-cuisine dining remained the hotel coffee shop, where you could get a hamburger or a biryani or a lamb chop if you wanted it. But as coffee shops were not ambitious ventures, they never attracted the best chefs (who went to the specially restaurants) and were directed primarily at hotel guests.

But over the last decade, something strange and significant has happened. The multi-cuisine restaurant has made a huge comeback.

I suspect that this is not a global trend but an Asian one. I can think of few multi-cuisine places in New York, London and Paris. And in fact, London critics come down heavily on a place that attempts to specialise in too many different cuisines.

The turning point: Mezza9 at the Grand Hyatt Singapore (above) re-popularised multi-cuisine restaurants by serving different cuisines from entirely separate kitchens.

As far as I can tell, the trend really caught on with the opening of Mezza9 at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. I first went there in early 2004, shortly after it had opened, and was blown away. It was a sleekly modernistic space designed by the Japanese firm Super Potato that served several different cuisines from entirely separate kitchens, most of which were open and visible to restaurant guests.

The old multi-cuisine restaurants (even the hotel coffee shops) did not bother with separate kitchens and chefs who specialised in an individual cuisine. Often, the guy who made your rogan josh also made your spaghetti or your mutton cutlet. They were like home kitchens, where a good cook could be entrusted with any dish. As long as he had the correct recipe, you believed that he would do a reasonable job.

But Mezza9 took the idea of a multi-cuisine hotel restaurant, expanded its scope (it was a massive space) and then packed it with the equivalent of the kitchens of five or six speciality restaurants.

It was an idea whose time had come.

I reckon Mezza9 was probably the most influential hotel restaurant of that decade. It turned Super Potato into the hottest Asian restaurant design company and it made restaurateurs think again about the shift from multi-cuisine to speciality.

At some level, the transition had already begun. The most influential Indian restaurant of that period was Threesixty Degrees at the Delhi Oberoi. Biki Oberoi closed down the very large French restaurant, La Rochelle, and the smaller coffee shop.

He turned the coffee shop space into an Italian restaurant (Travertino) but decided that the vast space that had once been the hotel’s grand buffet restaurant and was now La Rochelle, should become a multi-cuisine restaurant with a difference. It kept some of the old coffee-shop staples but it looked sharper, more upmarket and more focused on turning out good food. Most significantly, it had an open sushi kitchen at a time when Indians were not used to sushi.

Almost from the day it opened, Threesixty Degrees was a grand success and influenced the way in which all hotels looked at their all-day-dining operations or coffee shops. A decade later, the Oberois tried to top it with the even more visually stunning Threesixtyone Degrees at the Oberoi, Gurgaon.

Game changer: The Delhi Oberoi’s Threesixtyone Degrees (above) was meant to be an improvement on Threesixty Degrees, which had a great influence on all-day dining across India.

But by then, others had been seduced by the same idea. Set’z (originally called Zest) on top of Delhi’s Emporio shopping mall was clearly inspired by Mezza9 to the extent of using a Super Potato design. Spectra at the Leela Gurgaon made the satellite kitchens the centrepiece of the restaurant and rather than go to Super Potato, the Leela’s owners went to Spin, a breakaway faction of Super Potato.

Multi-cuisine makeover: The Leela Gurgaon has revamped Spectra (above); it’s now packed with diners and the buffet has unusual dishes.

The consequence of all this is that the multi-cuisine restaurant, which we once believed had been finished off when the action shifted away from Park Street and Churchgate Street is now back. At many of the most successful restaurants in India’s metros, it is now possible for people to order four entirely different cuisines from the same menu. One person can have pad Thai, another can have a biryani, the third can have sushi and the fourth can have rack of lamb. All of the food will be cooked to the standards of a specialty restaurant.

The great advantage with this format is that cuisines that are not always popular enough to sustain a single restaurant can flourish in this multi-cuisine environment. For instance, whenever I go to Set’z, I ignore the multi-cuisine element and order what must be the best Thai food in Delhi. (Sometimes, I cheat a little though, and order the falafel as a starter!)

Multiple exits: San Qi (above) lost its original Chinese and Japanese chefs and the standards dropped, but it’s back in form now.

The best Thai food I’ve eaten in Bombay (north of Colaba and therefore north of Ananda Solomon) has been at San Qi at the Four Seasons, where the Thai chef cooked an astonishing northern Thai meal for me a week ago. On the other hand, I avoid Thai specialty restaurants in both cities because most of them are not very good.

But the saga of San Qi demonstrates the perils of the multi-cuisine format. It is designed by (who else?) Super Potato and has a sleek modern look about it. When it opened, the food was sensational (as I wrote on these pages) with easily the best Chinese cuisine in Bombay and excellent Japanese. But when the original chefs moved on, standards dropped. You can’t really run four speciality kitchens in one spot unless you have first-rate chefs. But now, San Qi is back in form, serving terrific food, has a new Japanese chef (and is luring back its original Indian chef) and is full of Bombay’s power-lunchers.

So it is with Spectra. The design is such that unless you manage the restaurant well, it looks like a food court. And sadly that is what happened. But the new team at the Leela Gurgaon has turned the restaurant around so successfully that not only is it packed, but even the buffet has outstanding and unusual dishes. Once again, the format sustains cuisines that are too niche to get their own speciality restaurant – where else would you see an entirely authentic seafood paella at a buffet?

And some places have taken the Mezza9 formula even further. At Delhi’s JW Marriott, the multi-cuisine operation, K3, actually has three separate rooms for its three separate kitchens. (But you can order from the whole menu regardless of where you sit). I had dinner there the other night and was staggered by the exceptional quality of the Chinese barbecue – the sort of dish that you never find on menus of full-fledged Chinese restaurants.

So, is this the future? I have a feeling that it might be. Many of the smaller standalones that are now opening in Bandra, Hauz Khas, or Gurgaon are moving away from specialty cuisines. The emphasis is on an eclectic menu that takes in all kinds of cuisines and on a lengthy drinks menu.

My guess is that the speciality restaurant will survive. But multi-cuisine is back with a bang.

From HT Brunch, September 6
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