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A tale of two restaurants

india Updated: Nov 14, 2009 19:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi

What turns a restaurant into a phenomenon? It’s tempting to answer that everything depends on the food but I can think of scores of successful restaurants in India where I wouldn’t eat dinner even if you paid me to. I guess that it is a complex combination of factors and there is no single successful formula; if there was, then all restaurants would work and nobody would ever lose money.

I thought of the phenomenon of successful restaurants when I heard that the Thai Pavilion in Bombay had just completed 17 years. Almost from the time it opened, the Pavilion has been packed and there is no doubt that it serves the best Thai food in India.

The success of the Pavilion is almost entirely down to one man, my friend Ananda Solomon, the chef whose favourite child the restaurant is. I’ve written about Ananda before so some of this may sound familiar but I’m continually astonished by his passion.

Ananda started out as a Continental chef at the old Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay before moving to the Taj in Goa where he worked with Chef Urbano Rego and learnt about Goan food. When he was appointed executive chef of the President Hotel, the idea was that he would oversee all kitchen operations and not focus too much on cooking. Except that, with Ananda, it is always about the cooking.

At that stage, the President had an existing Thai restaurant which had been opened by converting the bar into a larger eating space. That restaurant, called The Thai Room, was on its last legs and Ananda and the then general manager Ajoy Mishra set about reinventing it.

At that stage, Ananda knew very little about Thai food and the logical thing would have been to hire a couple of Thai chefs. But such is Ananda’s passion that he flew to Bangkok, worked in the kitchens of the Shangri La for several weeks and learnt the cuisine.

Then he decided that this was not enough. So he stayed on in Bangkok, lived with a Thai family and learnt to speak the language. He quickly discovered that the best Thai food was not in the five star hotels but on the streets. Ananda then decided to work at a street stall in Sukhumvit and mastered that kind of Thai cuisine within a month or so.

When he came back and opened the first version of the Thai Pavilion he mixed formal restaurant dishes with street food and discovered that he had a massive success on his hands. For several years after, the Pavilion continued to be one of Bombay’s most successful restaurants and though Ananda went on to open other places (an excellent Konkani restaurant, a revamp of the old Trattoria and a misconceived Mexican place), the Pavilion remained his first love.

A few years ago, as more Thai places opened and the restaurant explosion took hold of India, the Taj group decided that the Pavilion was due for a revamp. The ubiquitous Japanese design group Super Potato (they are the people who put lots of coloured glass bottles in everything they design) was asked to redo the room and Ananda had to find a new concept to update the menu.

Working on the assumption that his old menu had now been copied by all his competitors and recognising that Thai food in Thailand had now advanced greatly, he planned an imaginative revamp that combined his old favourites with Thai takes on luxury ingredients (foie gras, scallops etc).

It’s not that unusual for chefs to use luxury ingredients these days but what I like about Ananda is that he was determined to keep prices low. By charging the same price for all starters, he was able to sell foie gras at what must be the cheapest rates in Bombay and though the restaurant is now as fancy as anything else in the city, it is also the best value.

What makes the Thai Pavilion work? Ananda reckons that it is a mixture of food plus ambience. By ambience he means that it is not an intimidating restaurant where you go to show off. It’s a place that upper middle class families can still afford to go when they’re not on expense accounts and where the service is friendly rather than aloof. You’ll see lots of families out for a convivial meal but you’ll also find the likes of Hema Malini and Ratan Tata. It’s a mix that works.

I don’t know if Zest will last 17 years – though of course I hope it does – but at the moment this huge roof top restaurant at the DLF Emporio Mall in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj is the restaurant phenomenon of the year.

It is easily Delhi’s most successful restaurant with a daily sale of Rs ten lakh or so, ahead even of the mighty Bukhara which does around Rs eight lakh a day. While Zest is bigger than Bukhara, it is also around 45 per cent cheaper which makes its success almost unprecedented in the history of India’s restaurants.

I went to Zest a month or so before it formally opened because I knew Prasanjit Singh (who runs it) from his days at the Hyatt Regency where he had overseen the spectacular opening of the China Kitchen. Prasanjit had been head hunted by DLF to open a restaurant on top of Emporio and I wondered what he would do.

My first reaction when I went to Zest before its opening was “has Prasanjit bitten off more than he can chew?”
The restaurant is huge. It seats about 200 in the main dining room, around 75 in the bar and another 80 on the terrace which opens during the cooler months.

Then there are the logistics. Designed by Super Potato (look for the bottles!) it has seven distinct open kitchens (similar to Singapore’s Mezza 9 which is also designed by the Potato superheroes) serving seven cuisines (including Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, South Indian, French, Japanese etc). It also has the largest number of expatriate chefs of any Indian operation, hotel or restaurant: 27!

Trying to make a success of a restaurant of this nature is akin to taking a huge ocean liner and expecting it to fly in the air as fast as the Concorde!
But despite the enormity of the challenge, I was cautiously optimistic because I have seen Prasanjit in action before and know what he’s capable of. Unlike many hoteliers, there is no bullshit about him, only an air of quiet competence. He is not over-optimistic about his enterprises, factors in the possibility of failure and listens closely to suggestions from guests and colleagues. He is also a good leader who recruits well and knows how to whip his staff into shape.

In retrospect, I should have been even more optimistic. From the day it opened, Zest has been a super success and there are queues of people waiting to get in each meal time. Some of this could be attributable to the novelty factor but many guests come back again and again which suggests that this is no flash in the pan.

I asked Prasanjit why he thinks Zest works. When he is not being modest (“I’m as surprised as you” etc) he says that the multiplicity of cuisines has helped. “When I was at the Hyatt I noticed that people at TK’s wanted pizza from La Piazza and people at China Kitchen wanted Indian food. We like combining our cuisines and at Zest you can easily do that, starting with a Japanese appetizer and moving on to a pizza or a biryani.”

But there are other reasons too. Early on Prasanjit decided not to sell Zest as a gourmet destination but as a lifestyle spot where you came for the buzz and the ambience. The good food was meant to be a bonus. That strategy seems to have worked.

And then there’s the pricing. In terms of quality of food and service (his staff is stolen from ITC, the Taj etc) Zest is more than five star. In terms of price however, it is much more reasonable. It is not only nearly half the price of Bukhara. I would reckon that it is at least 20 per cent cheaper than 360 which would be its nearest competitor in terms of ambience and concept.

Are there any lessons from the successes of these two restaurants? I believe there are some. A great restaurant must be the brainchild of an individual who follows his dream with passion and intelligence as Ananda and Prasanjit have both done. It must have good food even if that is not its unique selling proposition. And pricing is important. People don’t like being ripped off. Offer them value for money and they will come back again and again. The Thai Pavilion led to the launch of many similar restaurants. Most failed. No doubt Zest’s super success will lead to many imitators.

But without the passion, the value for money and the food quality, no imitator will succeed. And the originals will flourish.