When Vineet Bhatia left India to go abroad in 2006, he swore he would never return. (“I felt my talents were being stifled,” he says). But he did just that — once in 2001 to open a boutique hotel in Delhi, then in 2009 to plan the opening of Ziya (formerly known as Kandahar) at The Oberoi and again in 2010 to open Azok at Oakwood Premier.
However, he had to wind up the Delhi operation. “The owners were in Canada and there was no accountability when it came to the running of the restaurant,” says the two-time Michelin star recipient. But that was then and now Azok at Oakwood Premier is well... coming up roses. “We chose the Oakwood Premiere because the location was so great. It’s relaxed, it’s private — you could be in Italy for all you know,” says Bhatia, who is based in London with his family but often globe trots to supervise all his restaurants in Libya, London, and Geneva.
So why did this Bombay boy take as long as he did to open his restaurant here? “I hate the red tape and the bureaucracy that is involved in these processes but I realize things are slowly changing. More importantly, food habits are also changing,” says Bhatia, the culinary architect of Azok. This entails him designing food menus and crafting food that is “unique”. “If someone asks for tandoori chicken, there is no point in giving him the same thing that he can get in a local restaurant. So instead of red masala, I add a twist to it and make it in green masala,” says Bhatia, whose experience abroad made him realize the importance of showcasing food differently and the concept of healthy eating.
These concepts have been translated into his new menu at Azok. “This way the food is not oily, you don’t feel bloated after a meal. So while you get a classically Indian food, the presentation and artistry is different and the flavours more subtle,” he points out. That explains the chicken tikka with sun dried tomatoes, roasted coriander and jeera stems; lamb with corn and vegetarian ‘upma’ with a stir-fry of mushrooms and blueberry ‘basundi’. Inspiration for these dishes comes to Bhatia at any time, but mostly at “2 and 3 in the morning.” This is followed by a period of trial and error. “I keep trying the recipes out and ask my team to try the dishes too. A recipe can sometimes take up to a couple of months to finalise.”
But don’t make the mistake of describing Bhatia’s food as ‘fusion’, he will baulk. “It’s very much Indian food. I just present it differently,” averse Bhatia, whose favourite food is ‘peeli dal’, thin ‘phulkas’ and ‘aachari dahi’ that his wife makes for him. But ask him about his favourite meal and he looks nostalgic. “It was one I had in Saint Moritz in Switzerland in an old Italian villa. It was really simple — my family and I had margarita pizza and shared a bottle of red wine. The moon was full and the setting so beautiful — I think it all added to the experience.”