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Rude food: cooking up a new list

I was looking at Where Chefs Eat, a new guide to what should be the world's best restaurants. It is based on recommendations from 400 chefs, most of whom are culinary superstars (though there are some duds on the list), writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Jan 26, 2013 19:23 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I was looking at Where Chefs Eat, a new guide to what should be the world's best restaurants. It is based on recommendations from 400 chefs, most of whom are culinary superstars (though there are some duds on the list). Each chef has picked his or her favourite restaurant, so the book lists more than 2,000 places all over the world.

I've always been mystified about what it is that chefs look for when they go to restaurants. Whenever I visit a new city or meet top chefs, I usually ask them to pick their favourite spots. But strangely enough, it is rare for me to gain much from these conversations.

Never has a chef recommended a seriously good restaurant that is not already well known. The obscure places they choose tend to be those that keep late hours (always a major criterion for chefs) or those that serve things like offal (which chefs are curiously enthusiastic about).

Indian chefs are the worst when it comes to recommending good restaurants. This is because a) usually they are so busy behind their stoves that they hardly ever go and check out other people's restaurants and b) many of them are so insecure that their first reaction is to rubbish every other restaurant. Chefs should be big-hearted but many top Indian chefs are surprisingly small-minded and unwilling to give credit to colleagues, let alone rivals.

Delhi’s triumvirate? The Delhi list includes three hotel restaurants – Bukhara (below), Wasabi (above) and Spice Route

Whenever influential restaurants have opened in India, the last people to get the message are other chefs. When the Hyatt Regency in Delhi opened The China Kitchen, I was certain (and said so in these pages) that it would change the way in which Indians looked at Chinese food.

But nearly every top chef I mentioned the place to either refused to go there or dismissed it out of hand. ("Arre, I have been doing this for years. Isme kya naya hai?" was the typical response). Perhaps as a consequence, not one of the three big Indian chains (Taj, Oberoi or ITC) has a Chinese restaurant of great consequence; certainly there is nothing in the league of The China Kitchen, which is still - by a long way - the best Chinese restaurant in India.

That trend continues. Indian chefs have scoffed at Yauatcha, surely the restaurant phenomenon of last year in Bombay; at Le Cirque (whose commercial success has rewritten the rules for European restaurants in India) and at Indian Accent (with the consequence that they completely missed the emergence of Manish Mehrotra as the superstar of modern Indian food).

Would Western chefs be any different, I wondered. Well, actually they go too far in the other direction. Most of the famous chefs quoted in the book spend a lot of time praising their rivals. Daniel Boulud, the New York superstar, lists the restaurants of all of the city's other culinary stars: Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin, Thomas Keller's Per Se, Michael White's Marea, Jean Georges' eponymous restaurant as well as Keith McNally's Balthazar and Pastis.

In turn, Eric Ripert lists Boulud's Daniel, Jean Georges, Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon's L'atelier ("simple but ultra-refined"), Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park and McNally's Balthazar. And so on.

The London chefs, in turn, are equally nice about each other and about a few restaurateurs. In place of Keith McNally - New York's favourite restaurateur, it is Jeremy King and Chris Corbin who get all the London accolades. Their place, The Wolseley, is listed as a favourite by 25 chefs, something of a record for this book where most restaurants get one or two endorsements.

In the middle of all this politeness and unanimity, where is the punter to look for the unusual places and the real finds? I decided not to make too much of the London and New York sections because both cities are the gastronomic capitals of the world and will

naturally have the largest selections.

I have to say, however, that Soho and Shoreditch seem to be the places where London chefs eat out the most. And I assume that the so-so and largely undeserving Chinatown restaurants listed in the book make the cut only because Chinatown stays open late,

allowing chefs to eat there after their own restaurants close.

It is a sign of the times that neither of Gordon Ramsay's London restaurants makes it to the book even though Clare Smyth who cooks at the great man's three-star operation on Royal Hospital Road is one of the chefs quoted. Obviously, the other chefs are letting their hatred of Ramsay all hang out now. It tells you something about how far Ramsay has fallen if, in a book that is full of chefs being polite about each other, nobody even bothers to name-check him.

I checked out the Bangkok section. You would expect to find Nahm because David Thompson is not only such a superstar but because, as an Australian who also runs a restaurant in London, he is well-known to other chefs. But I was surprised by the absence of the excellent Bo.Lan even though its chefs Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava are quoted in the book.

Of the 11 Bangkok restaurants listed, five are located at hotels, (two are even at the same hotel!) which is fine except that you can hardly call them finds or discoveries. Predictably enough, Sirocco makes the grade but I would have also included Mezzaluna where the food is much better. The few discoveries are all down to Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava and at least one of the places they recommend is a restaurant I know well and can vouch for.

But would a stranger to Bangkok learn very much from this guide? I'm not so sure. He may be better off with the views of the hotel concierge. (I also checked out the Singapore section, which is much better).

Which brings us to the Indian section. Obviously people will disagree about individual selections. I would not include Bombay's Bade Miyan, a tourist trap which serves mediocre kababs. There are much better places on Mohammad Ali Road. And if you pick Peshawri at The Maratha, then why not Dum Pukht at the same hotel which is even better?

But these are minor reservations. I thought that, on the whole, the Bombay list was fair and comprehensive: Thai Pavilion, Konkan Café, Highway Gomantak, Royal China (Bandra), Indigo, Indigo Deli, Woodside Inn (for breakfast), Olympia, Noor Mohammadi, Aaswad, Shree Thaker Bhojanalaya, Neel, Jimmy Boy, Sardar Pav Bhaji, Dakshinayan, Gajalee, Celini (which would not be on my list, however) and Britannia.

It is a relief not to find a list full of the usual clichés - Trishna, Swati, etc - and if I ran the Taj, Leela or Oberoi groups, I would worry that not one of my luxury restaurants made the grade. Neither of the Taj luxury hotels cuts it and the group's honour is saved only by Ananda Solomon's two restaurants at the President. But then, the shy and reticent Solomon is the only top Indian chef who other chefs love.

The rest of India is poorly represented. The Delhi list has three hotel restaurants - Bukhara (fair), Wasabi (well, okay) and Spice Route (for God's sake!) - and Gunpowder which, in today's Delhi's restaurant scene, is very much last year's thing. And of course, there's no mention of Delhi's real first-rate chefs: Ritu Dalmia, Julia Carmen Desa, Ghulam Qureshi, Manish Mehrotra, etc.

Perhaps the problem was that the three chefs who did most of the Indian list - Rahul Akerkar, Vicky Ratnani and Irfan Pabaney - are all Bombay-based. Or may be Indian chefs are just living up to their reputations. Vicky's own Aurus does not make the list and in his selections he seems - bizarrely enough - to prefer the bland hotel-style Italian of Celini to the excellent modern European food of Indigo, Rahul Akerkar's flagship restaurant. And none of them rate Alex Sanchez's The Table, which surely must count as a chef's favourite.

But at least it makes a change from New York and London where they all praise each other: here Vicky and Rahul have left each other's restaurants out. (That said, I think their selections are fair and interesting. And, for the record, Indigo does get in but only because a Sri Lankan chef picked it).

Would I do a different list? Well yes, of course. But then I'm not a chef, so my views don't count when it comes to a list of this kind. But I would have picked more big-time Indian chefs. And I think an injustice has been done to India's most famous chef, Hemant Oberoi, whose Varq belongs on any list of India's great restaurants.

And I would have included many excellent restaurants that you find in India's other cities. It really makes no sense to include Bombay's Neel and not include Delhi's Dum Pukht which is the best representation of this kind of cuisine. And what about Lucknow, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madras and even Calcutta?

No complaints however. No list is ever complete. And all lists of this kind are, almost by definition, subjective.

I would have included many excellent restaurants that you find in India's other cities.

From HT Brunch, January 27

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