This column was inspired by three quite separate and distinct happenings. The first was the HT Crystal Awards. As you may know, the awards are divided into two categories. The first and important one is the Popular Section where awards are voted for by readers of HT City. The second is my own awards which are less representative and more subjective.
Generally, my awards try and keep some sort of balance between the hotel sector and the stand-alone sector while the popular awards are more tilted towards the stand-alone sector. This year however, there was an unusually high proportion of popular awards for the hotel sector. Two hotels (the Maurya and the Trident-Oberoi complex in Gurgaon) bagged a huge number of Crystals, higher than ever before.
Even in my awards, the stand-alones were not the obvious ones: L’Opera in Khan Market, Set’z (Zest) at Emporio, Royal China in Nehru Place, Café Diva in Greater Kailash, and Lite Bite Foods (who own Punjab Grill, Zambar, Asia 7 and several other brands) are all new operations and aspire to high standards of class and sophistication.
The second event that inspired this column was a really dire experience at a stand-alone restaurant in my neighbourhood. I have often passed the Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Extension but have never ventured inside. A few weeks ago, inspired by the fact that the original Moti Mahal invented tandoori chicken, I wandered into the South Extension branch and decided to try the kebabs.
The meal did not begin well. I got there at about 1.15 pm or so and found a large, dingily-lit restaurant that was mostly empty. As I passed one of the few tables that was occupied, I heard the captain urging guests to order Chicken Manchurian.
Once we were seated, a young waiter approached us menacingly, stood very close to the table and asked threateningly: "Mineral or Normal? Thanda ya normal?" It takes a special kind of skill to intimidate your guests while only asking them what kind of water they want, but this guy managed it effortlessly.
Then, an older man who reminded me of restaurant managers in Connaught Place restaurants in the Sixties came over to take the order.
I ordered half a tandoori chicken (which should be the house speciality given that Moti Mahal invented the dish), barrah kebab, garlic chicken tikka and two Cokes. The old boy refused to write any of this down. "Yaad rahega," he said dismissively.
Ten minutes later he was back. "Barrah kebab nahin hai," he said flatly. "Taiyyar nahin hai." He handed me a menu. I ordered a seekh kebab instead. He looked satisfied and ambled off.
When the food came it was served on sizzling hot plates, a style of preparation which means that you have to wait for the sizzle to subside before you can eat, by which time of course the food has started cooling rapidly (not necessarily a good idea when it comes to kebabs).
The tandoori chicken was tough; all the juices had been sucked out of it. The chicken tikka was okay till it cooled down (which was quite soon) at which stage it became rubbery. The seekhs were terrible, managing to be both fatty and tough, a feat that is difficult to pull off in a kebab made from keema.
None of this was cheap given the depressing nature of the ambience (the third floor of a building in South Extension) and the surly, inept nature of the service. Our bill for three kebabs, two Cokes and water was around Rs 1,300.
The third event that sparked off this column was a meeting with the three chefs who front Masterchef India. The star of this series is the charismatic New York-based Amritsar boy, Vikas Khanna, who I suspect we will be hearing more about. But I also enjoyed talking to his colleagues Kunal Kapoor and Ajay Chopra who were also part of the first, more Bollywood-inspired, season with Akshay Kumar.
Both Ajay and Kunal are professionally trained chefs from the hotel sector (their resumes include Taj, Leela, Westin, etc.) who have never before interacted in the kitchen with so many amateur chefs. I asked them what they thought the impact of the first season of Masterchef was. Ajay told me about all the housewives he had met who now cooked food differently and served it in a way they had never done before. He said he asked one woman where she had learnt to cook like this. "From TV," she said.
You can say what you like about the current generation of cooking shows, from mass-market Hindi (Masterchef India) to more niche English (the Australian Masterchef on Star World, Ritu Dalmia’s Italian Khana on NDTV Good Times, Top Chef on AXN, etc.) but there is no doubt that they have made middle-class Indians look differently at food and restaurants.
Which takes me back to where I started. My guess is that a revolution is on its way in the stand-alone sector. For years and years, Indian restaurants were associated with a certain kind of Punjabi hotelier. Moti Mahal (the original) was an exception because it made no attempt to seem sophisticated but the market was dominated by the Kwality-Volga-Gaylord kind of operation (which the Moti Mahal Deluxes aspire to) where restaurateurs tried to serve a multi-cuisine menu consisting of so-called Continental food and a Punjabi-restaurant cuisine of the sort that no Punjabi would eat at home. These were the restaurants that dominated Churchgate Street or Connaught Place and all the local and suburban markets.
All of us have eaten in such restaurants at some stage. Unlike the original Moti Mahal, they did not base their menus on tandoori cuisine but included lots of gravy dishes, made with massive quantities of oil and twice the quantity of masala we would use at home. (For dessert you had a Gelusil or a Digene.) There was lots of cream and butter used in the finishing and garnishes of sliced hard-boiled eggs were routine.
The Continental stuff was dodgy: goat hamburgers in which the patty was similar to a shammi kebab and the buns were often lightly pan-fried; breaded chicken or keema cutlets sometimes with a bone stuck into the meat; sandwiches with lots of bread and little filling along with very bad French fries.
Over time, these restaurants dropped the so-called Continental sections and added Chinese menus. These always included Chicken Manchurian and Sweet Corn Soup; ‘Chinese’ food of the sort that was as unknown in China as the ‘Continental’ food was in Europe. Some of these restaurants paid their waiters a pittance, leaving then to eke out a living from tips and the chefs never underwent any kind of training. Nor were recipes standardised.
When the five-star restaurants arrived, the multi-cuisine/Punjabi sector suffered a jolt. But it survived on grounds of price. No matter what you thought of the food, it was still a lot cheaper than dinner at a hotel.
But now I suspect that those days are ending. Several factors have made the difference. One: in urban markets, rents are high so these stand-alones either have to move to undesirable locations (higher floors of buildings) or charge high prices. Two: guests are becoming more demanding and more sophisticated. They watch food shows on TV and are exposed to so many external influences that they expect much more than these places can offer.
Three: There is more money in the market today. There are more hotels. Put together, these factors mean that young professionals would rather eat a good meal, prepared hygienically and served in pleasant surroundings than pay for the old-style stand-alones.
Four: the restaurant sector is changing. Such places as Set’z, Royal China, Cafe Diva and L’Opera offer better than five-star experiences at prices that are far lower than five-star. How can the old stand-alones ever compete with these new places given that their food, service and ambience can be below-par?
And five: the opening of malls, airport terminals and new real-estate options has meant that such companies as Lite Bite (or Yum or Blue Foods) can now open world-class, stand-alone restaurants with uniform standards at new locations.
It is, I think, only a matter of time before the old Punjabi-dominated stand-alone sector folds. The only restaurants that will survive will be those that offer good food. Moti Mahal Deluxe is a franchised operation and standards vary from outlet to outlet. As dismal as I found the South Extension branch, the version in Greater Kailash is good and continues to thrive. Similarly, of the old Connaught Place restaurants, every chef I spoke to (including ITC’s Manjit Gill) still had respect for Embassy. In Bombay, Copper Chimney has successfully re-invented itself.
So yes, there will be exceptions. But speaking generally, it is time to kiss this sector goodbye. The consolation is that its place will be taken by new stand-alones that are more in tune with the spirit and ethos of the new India.
From HT Brunch, November 6
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