How Indians took to Asian food beyond Manchurian...
Years ago when Indian Chinese looked like it would take over the entire restaurant scene all over the country, I wondered if genuine Asian flavours would ever get a chance outside of deluxe hotels.
You did get real Asian/Chinese food at private homes; well, at least the homes of the rich. In Delhi, in the 1990s, authentic Thai and Indonesian food became the hallmark of fancy parties. In nearly every case, the food came from the same source, a catering operation own by two sister-in-laws, Meenu and Jaiywanti (Janti) Dugal.
I was convinced that this situation could not endure. Authentic Asian food would break through to a wider audience. The demographics were such that a new generation of Indians who wanted to go beyond Chicken Manchurian and Lung Fung soup was certain to emerge. But who would take the risk of breaking the chilli-soya orthodoxy of Sino-Ludhianvi food and reaching out to a new generation?
I discovered the answer, almost by accident, when I was invited to lunch at a new restaurant in Khan Market called Mamagoto.
I recall being surprised by the vibe. A polite and efficient guy led me to my table. The crowd was upmarket, but not necessarily rich. The sound of laughter filled the air. And the food was incredible; as authentic, in fact, as anything that the Dugal’s were serving at tony Delhi parties and better than the cuisine at many five-star hotels. And the prices were staggeringly reasonable.
What happened next did not surprise me. From that first Khan Market outpost, Mamagoto went on to become a chain, opening across India, serving roughly the same menu at nearly every upmarket mall.
The demographic change that I had expected had taken place. There was a new generation of younger, hipper Indians who wanted real Asian food without having to pay five-star hotel prices.
As much as I admired Mamagoto – and over the years I tried many branches – I never knew who ran it. Then, a couple of years ago, I ran into Janti Dugal. She still did some catering, she said. But it was all under the Mamagoto umbrella.
It turned out that Janti had a stake in Mamagoto and oversaw the food – which may have explained why it was so good. But who were her partners? A little later, I met the two guys who had founded Mamagoto. One of them, Kabir Suri, was the young man who had greeted me on my first visit to the original Khan Market branch. And the other was a young hotel school graduate from Lausanne called Rahul Khanna.
Both men had interesting backstories. Kabir’s uncle is the famous London restaurateur, Arjun Waney (Zuma, Koya, Le Petit Maison, Roka etc). And though Kabir started out as a banker in America, he really found his true passion when his uncle put him through his paces at such restaurants as the original Zuma in London.
Kabir came back to India representing the Waney interests and looking to see if they could open a branch of Zuma in Delhi. An early option – the rooftop at the Delhi Oberoi where Taipan was located – fizzled out and Arjun Waney agreed with Kabir that India was not the right market for Zuma. This left Kabir looking for something to do for himself.
Rahul Khanna belongs to another well-known Delhi family: the original owners of Claridges hotel. But, by the time he returned from hotel school, his family had sold Claridges, and Rahul looked for something to do on his own. That’s when he met up with his childhood friend Kabir and decided to launch a restaurant company.
Mamagoto grew out of their belief that a new generation wanted Asian/Chinese food at a price point between Akasaka and Taipan, but with the taste of authenticity. They hired Janti as a consultant because of her formidable expertise with East Asian cuisine and, with a little seed capital from Blue Sky Capital with its lead founder Arjun Waney and also Gautam Thapar, took the plunge.
Though Mamagoto was a hit from the day it opened, they had their share of crises. On one occasion, early in the life of the restaurant, they suspected that a chef was taking backhanders from suppliers. When they confronted him, he walked out taking nearly half the kitchen staff with him. They could not open for lunch that day but were determined to open for dinner. And they did, with Janti standing at the pass herself and sending out food that was even better than normal. Eventually, the chef’s departure turned out to be the best thing that happened. They gained confidence, hired new cooks who they trained, and their food costs went down because the kickbacks had been eliminated.
Kabir and Rahul say that they have always intended to replicate Mamagoto but wanted to do it on their own terms: so no pre-packaged commercial catering sauces and no franchises. Consequently, their quality has never dropped and each guest who comes to a Mamagoto feels like he is visiting a standalone restaurant. This mix of individuality and familiarity probably accounts for much of Mamagoto’s appeal.
Two years ago, sensing that the time was right for expansion, the partners brought in Goldman Sachs and Max Ventures as investors. Then they wondered what to do next. An opportunity presented itself almost unexpectedly. The original Dhaba restaurant at Claridges (in whose creation Rahul’s mother had been involved) had been turned by Claridges’s current owners into a fledgling chain of standalone restaurants. There were two Dhabas up and running (including a flagship property in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub). The Mamagoto partners saw the opportunity and bought the chain. Everyone made the obvious parallels about a homecoming, but Rahul says it was all strictly business; sentiment did not enter into the decision to acquire it.
And certainly, their approach to the restaurant has been all business. They have strengthened the position of Ravi Saxena, the chef who spun off the restaurant from the hotel and expanded all over India. Dhaba is priced lower than Mamagoto and is a more egalitarian brand, offering quality North Indian food in a fun-filled surrounding.
Nothing can stop well-funded restaurateurs with imagination from creating new concepts. Last week, I went to their latest venture in Bengaluru. It is called Sly Granny and is a collection of spaces. There is a lobby bar area as you enter and then, a smallish tapas restaurant. Upstairs there is a funkier space and a huge terrace, which are perfect for drinking and partying. Hidden away, behind a secret door, is a speakeasy entry which is restricted to regulars or to those who specifically ask for it.
As a venture, it is vastly sophisticated because it combines many different ambience in a single restaurant. I went for Saturday lunch and sat at the tapas restaurant where the food – mostly European in influence – was excellent. When I came back for dinner, the vibe had changed completely. It was still recognisably the same restaurant, but the crowd was less laidback and seemed keener on a big night out. And upstairs, the terrace area had become party central.
Kabir and Rahul plan to take the Sly Granny concept around India though I imagine that they will have to tweak it for each location because they won’t get the kind of real estate they have found in Bengaluru.
But there are many, many other plans underway. They will expand their existing brands anyway. But they want to do something in Dubai. And then, there’s the big one: a restaurant in London which will be like nothing they have done before.
Why go to the world’s most competitive restaurant market when there is so much scope for expansion in India? Why take the risk?
Well, I imagine, it is for the same reason they started the first Mamagoto.
Because they enjoy the challenge of doing something new.
From HT Brunch, August 20, 2017
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